Partha Chatterjee
Stanford Humanities Center



From: Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Deliberative Discourse? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986 [fifth printing, 2004 - first published in 1986 on behalf of the United Nations university, Tokyo, by Zed Books, London].

This book is about a political revolution, but one whose course cannot be described by selecting from history two points of origin and culmination and joining them by a straight line.  The critical viewpoint reveals that it is a revolution which at the same time, and in fundamental ways, is not a revolution.  It is in the shifts, slides, discontinuities, the unintended moves, what is suppressed as much as what is asserted, that one can get a sense of this complex movement, not as so many accidental or disturbing factors but as constitutive of the very historical rationality of its process.  And it is by examining the jagged edges that we can find clues to an understanding of the political relevance today of the ideological history of nationalism.

I wanted to call this book Crooked Line.  But friends more knowledgeable than I in the ways of the publishing world have persuaded me that that would not be the best way to reach my potential readers.

(p. vii)

Book cover: Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World

But…that is precisely why we do not, and probably never will, have a Kalabari anthropology of the white man.  And that is why even a Kalabari anthropology of the Kalabari will adopt the same representational form, if not the same substantive conclusions, as the white man’s anthropology of the Kalabari.  For there is a relation of power involved in the very conception of the autonomy of cultures.  That is, in fact, why the problem of nationalist thought is only a particular manifestation of this much more general problem.  If nationalism expresses itself in a frenzy of irrational passion, it does so because it seeks to represent itself in the image of the Enlightenment and fails to do so.  For Enlightenment itself, to assert its sovereignty as the universal ideal, needs its Other; if it could ever actualize itself in the real world as the truly universal, it would in fact destroy itself.  No matter how much the liberal-rationalist may wonder, the Cunning of Reason has not met its match in nationalism.  On the contrary, it has seduced, apprehended and imprisoned it: that is what this book is all about.

(p. 17)

But this was achieved in the very name of Reason.  Nowhere in the world has nationalism qua nationalism challenged the legitimacy of the marriage between Reason and capital.  Nationalist thought, as we have tried to show above, does not possess the ideological means to make this challenge.  The conflict between metropolitan capital and the people-nation it resolves by absorbing the political life of the nation into the body of the state.  Conservatory of the passive revolution, the nation state now proceeds to find for ‘the nation’ a place in the global order of capital, while striving to keep the contradictions between capital and the people in perpetual suspension.  All politics is now sought to be subsumed under the overwhelming requirements of state-representing-the-nation.  The state now acts as the rational allocator and arbitrator for the nation.  Any movement which questions this presumed identity between the people-nation and state-representing-the-nation is denied the status of legitimate politics.  Protected by the cultural-ideological sway of this identity between the nation and the state, capital continues its passive revolution by assiduously exploring the possibilities of marginal development, using the state as the principle mobilizer, planner, guarantor and legitimator of productive investment.

(p. 168-169)

From: Partha Chatterjee, The Politics of the Governed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

…[I]t is morally illegitimate to uphold the universalist ideals of nationalism without simultaneously demanding that the politics spawned by governmentality be recognized as an equally legitimate part of the real time-space of the modern political life of the nation. Without it, governmental technologies will continue to proliferate and serve, much as they did in the colonial era, as manipulable instruments of class rule in a global capitalist order. By seeking to find real ethical spaces for their operation in heterogeneous time, the incipient resistances to that order may succeed in inventing new terms of political justice.

“The Nation in Heterogeneous Time,” p. 25

Book cover: The Politics of the Governed
In short, the classical idea of popular sovereignty , expressed in the legal-political facts of equal citizenship, produced the homogenous construct of the nation, whereas the activities of governmentality required multiple, cross-cutting and shifting classifications of the population as the targets of multiple policies, producing an necessarily heterogeneous construct of the social. Here, then, we have the antimony between the lofty political imaginary of popular sovereignty and the mundane administrative reality of governmentality: it is the antimony between the homogeneous national and the heterogeneous social.

“Population and Political Society,” p. 36

These (community) claims are irreducibly political. They could only be made on a political terrain, where the rules may be bent or stretched, and not on the terrain of established law or administrative procedure. The success of these claims depends entirely on the ability of particular population groups to mobilize support to influence the implementation of governmental policy in their favor. But this success is necessarily temporary and contextual. The strategic balance of political forces could change and rule may no longer be bent as before. As I have pointed out, governmentality always operates on a heterogeneous social field, on multiple population groups, and with multiple strategies. Here there is no equal and uniform exercise of the rights of citizenship.

“The Politics of the Governed,” p. 60

I am not persuaded that either the American leadership or the American people are aware of the enormous moral responsibility contemporary history has put on them. In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center, President Bush could only think of the “Wanted” poster he had seen in Western movies. While the whole world is looking for an American policy that is flexible, sensitive, attuned to the enormous changes that have taken place in the world in the last decade or so, what we will probably get is more of the familiar American arrogance, bludgeoning, and insensitivity. Perhaps, sadly, the first war of the twenty-first century will end up no differently than the many wars of the twentieth.

“Battle Hymn” (from text of a talk given at Columbia University Sept. 21, 2001), p. 111

“The American quest for unchallenged hegemony may be consistent with the current distribution of military and economic power in the world. But it is wholly contrary to the democratic spirit of the age. The principles represented by the United Nations belong to democratic institutions everywhere: they are meant to put a check on absolute power. If the UN is to have any meaning, it must be to limit the absolutism of the United States. That battle has not yet been lost. It will be resumed when the costs are tallied of the war and its aftermath.”

“Afterword,” p. 152


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