It is a paradox of third world nationalism that the nation itself was more or less forged by colonial partition and then later become a force of emancipation for the colonized. In this sense, the nation must be understood as both a product of colonialism and a form of resistance to it. Nationalism, then, in this context, is the cultural practice of constructing a political (and moral) community that is self-determining, limited by territorial borders, and bound together by a shared language, a common history, and a culture (Anderson, 6). The problem with this for most third world peoples was that, within any given colonized territory, there were a wide variety of ethnic groups which each had their own distinct language, history, and culture (Howe, 110). What then, under these conditions, is the basis of nationhood?
The colonial encounter is undoubtedly the main force that served to forge a national identity among different ethnic groups. When Western Europe first spread its parasitic tentacles into the third world, disrupting the mode of life of even the most isolated tribes, at that moment, it began to impose a common experience of oppression and exploitation on every ethnicity in that geographic region (Prashad, 12). From this common experience, a nascent national history was born. The history of the colonized nation, then, began with the colonial encounter.
The West also forced the first national language on various colonized peoples, generally the language of the colonizer. To this day, most national languages in Latin America and Africa are those of their former colonial masters. Thus, French is the national language of Senegal and Niger, Spanish is the national language of Mexico and Argentina, and English is the national language of Ghana and Nigeria. That is not to say that native languages have been eradicated and replaced altogether with the colonizers language, but with few exceptions, these native tongues are not recognized or promoted by the national government. It is the colonizers language that is taught in the schools and spoken in government circles.
Even the culture of the West penetrated every colonized territory, tearing apart the native cultural matrix and relegating it to secondary status. Traditional beliefs, rituals, customs, values and norms were deemed to be “barbaric,” and when threatening of the colonial order, were violently suppressed (Fanon, 236). In turn, the “civilized” beliefs, rituals, customs, values, and norms of the colonizer were imposed on the colonized. A comprador class of natives was indoctrinated in the ways of the white man in order to help facilitate the oppression of their own people. These “civilized savages” became the intellectual and cultural agents of colonialism, imposing on the colonized the very culture of its oppressors (Rodney, 254-261; Fanon, 223). Thus emerged the first traces of a national culture, albeit an alien culture imposed on the colonized. It is in the struggle for national liberation that this alien culture undergoes a qualitative transformation, culminating in a synthesis of the remnants of traditional cultures, the progressive aspects of western culture, and the revolutionary culture created through this emancipatory struggle.
In all this we can see that colonialism itself created the material basis for nationhood among the colonized. It is imperative to understand that the idea of the nation for colonized peoples was given impetus by colonialism, through the imposition of its presence, language, and culture. The idea of the nation, then, was born in opposition to colonialism as its dialectical opposite (Sayles, 364-365). Nationalism, in this context, must be understood as an emancipatory practice aimed at establishing the inalienable sovereignty of the colonized peoples, bound together by their common experience of colonization and their collective demand for self-determination.
The nationalist project is simultaneously a struggle to end colonial rule and to create a new nation where none previously existed. Under colonialism there was no nation to speak of, but a diverse array of ethnic and cultural groups united only in their common subjugation. Thus insofar as there was unity, it was a forced unity imposed by the very nature of colonialism. Forced unity can never be the basis of nationhood because nationhood implies self-determination. A unity that is imposed is the essence of empire (Howe, 15). The historic task of nationalism was to create a conscious and sovereign unity out of this contradictory milieu.
In order to achieve this, nationalism was compelled to construct its own independent political, economic, social and cultural institutions, which would become the vehicle of establishing national unity. In short, the aim of nationalism is to create a state that can make manifest, on a practical level, the nation. Alas, without a state, a people can never have self-determination because lacking their own independent political, economic, social and cultural institutions, they will necessarily be subject to those of another, i.e. be colonized. As one national liberation leader put it, “The very term ‘sovereignty’ has now come to mean that the whole people would now exercise collective responsibility over all of the nation’s affairs – that the new ‘state apparatus’ would truly be of, by, and for the people, and not exist separate from them, nor standing above them” (Sayles, 370). That is not to say that a people who have no state can never be a nation, but that until they have one, the nation will remain a mere idea.
The national liberation struggle was conceived to be a process of destruction and construction at the same time, destruction of the colonial order and construction of the new nation. On the part of the colonized, this was to be not only a political and military struggle, but also a cultural struggle. National culture was not to be something that was created after liberation, but something that came into being through the liberation process itself (Fanon, 244). In their struggle against colonialism, the colonized developed new beliefs, rituals, customs, values, and norms that were the product of the struggle for national liberation. Instead of simply looking to the past and seeking to resurrect the old ways, or worse yet, blindly embracing the culture of the colonizers, the colonized would create a revolutionary culture rooted in the very conditions of the struggle for liberation. Through this struggle, a national consciousness emerges and develops, leading to the blossoming of a national culture that is revolutionary because it is opposed to colonialism.
The primary task of national consciousness and national culture was to create new human beings capable of collectively mastering their own fate. Thus, the nation that was to be built could not be an imitation of European nations, which embodied only “a succession of negations of man, and an avalanche of murders” (Fanon, “Conclusion”). To overcome the limitations of the nationalist project and achieve the promises of liberation, the colonized peoples must endeavor to create an entirely different society based on socialism. In this aim, nationalism confronted its greatest limitation, for the nationalist project was generally led by the native bourgeoisie, which through the course of struggle “reveal(ed) itself incapable of simply bringing national unity into being, or of building up the nation on a stable and productive basis” (Fanon, “On the Pitfalls…”). The native bourgeoisie was deliberately fostered by the colonialists to help administrate the colonial order and had a material stake in sustaining the economic structure of colonialism, that is, moribund capitalism. And capitalism was the main driving force of colonialism. Unless the colonized people rejected capitalism then liberation, and thus the idea of the nation, could never be realized.
Upon political independence, most formerly colonized nations did not overcome this limitation, and the nationalist project drowned in the wave of neo-colonialism that swept the third world following political decolonization. Neo-colonialism exists when the state is formally “independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty…(but)… in reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside” (Nkrumah, 1965). Until third world nations overthrow their native bourgeoisie’s and delink from the imperialist world system, the promise of nationalism will remain but an idea and the peoples of the third world will not achieve the self-determination that they demand.
- Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities, Verso (2006).
- Fanon, Frantz, “National Culture,” Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press (1961).
- Fanon, Frantz, “Conclusion,” retrieved online at http://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/fanon/conclusion.html.
- Fanon, Frantz, “On the Pitfalls of Nationalist Consciousness,” retrieved online at http://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/fanon/pitfalls-national.html.
- Howe, Stephen. Empire: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (2002).
- Sayles, James Yaki. Meditations on Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth: New Afrikan Revolutionary Writings, Spear and Shield Publications (2010).
- Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Howard University Press (1981).