Review: Nationalism by Rabindranath Tagore

20079405One of the best things a person can do to expand their horizons and challenge their assumptions, entrenched ways of thinking, the „grooves“, as Tagore calls them, of their mind, is to read (or listen to, if they can) thinkers of a different part of the world – people who grew up in a different culture and inherited a different outlook to the world, people, the laws of society, the meaning of life. It’s amazing how much of what we take for granted is just a cultural convention that has, once you do some earnest digging, a far flimsier foundation than we thought. One such idea which crystallised for mw in the course of reading this little book of three lectures is the idea of selfishness, greed, and competition being just human nature, and therefore inevitable; which in turn forms the basically universal western worldview that a society based on these is inevitable. Yes, these are a part of human nature. But so are compassion, cooperation, the instinct to help fellow humans. So the question for me really is, which of these does our system encourage and reward? And if this is the true cause-and-effect direction (the system perpetuates itself by reinforcing the qualities and resultant behaviours necessary for its perpetuation, rather than people creates a system that reflects our dominant inherent qualities), then the question we must ask ourselves is, is this sick world we live in really inevitable? Is this who we really are? Can we not do better?

The lectures offer another flipped perspective that is very well worth considering. I read this on the heels of reading The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, and even though this is by an Indian writer and philosopher in the 1910s and that was by an African American writer and activist in the 1960s, I found the same foundation to their anti-imperialist/anti-racist ideology: why do we assume the West/white people are the norm we should all be striving to be „equal“ to? Why should we (especially those of us who are not Western or white, or either, and have been fed an idea of our identity based on contempt and pity all our lives) believe that? How has the West/white people demonstrated a superiority that is worth aspiring to? And neither author is shy in declaring they haven’t. It’s all a matter of priorities. Do we embrace constant economic growth and personal wealth as humanity’s highest principles, in which case the model of the West is the most progressive one? Or do we define progress by another objective, something Tagore, in his characteristic poetic style, calls „the higher nature of man“ (and I understand as the spirit of cooperation, spiritual growth, fostering our imaginative and creative opportunities, and taking care of each other)?

It’s worth mentioning, too, that I found two remarkably similar sentiments in Baldwin and Tagore, different as they are in terms of their origin, era, outlook, temperament, interests, etc.:

The degradation which we cast upon others in our pride of self-interest degrades our own humanity


Whoever debases others is debasing himself.


I admire Tagore for refusing to accept foreign definitions and evaluations of his own country. He refuses to accept the scales and measures of an aggressor who has done nothing but lay waste to his homeland (he even mentions a favourite point of imperialism apologists, the railways: „The optimism of [the West’s] logic goes on basing the calculations of its good fortune upon the indefinite prolongation of its railway lines toward eternity.“) because he has no reason to believe they are correct or justified by any standard he holds true and worthy, and because they run counter to the values of his land, to the bases of its identity. And when you think about it, why do we blindly accept that Western definitions, standards and ideas of good and bad, progress and backwardness, worthiness and unworthiness are objective? They’re not. It’s just Eurocentrism that makes us believe they are.

That said, while Tagore mentions in passing some issues India is grappling with, he is, I think, rather generous and mild on its social sins, including the caste system, which he denounces but allows for its historical usefulness. He is severe on a Hindu tradition that requires a widow fast a day every week, but doesn’t mention any other ways Indian traditions harm various types of people. Possibly because that’s beside the point of his lectures, but still, while criticising the Western idea of progress and organisation of society, and its insistence on imposing it on all other peoples (while insulting their native organisations), it does create a sort of a binary situation and in this context the reader may be left with the impression that India has no issues with human dignity comparable to those of the West, which isn’t really the case.

He is very Indian in his approach to British rule, demonstrating again how different non-Western cultures can be from Western ones – far from demanding the British leave India alone, he accepts the Raj as a natural part of India’s history and destiny: „we neither have the right nor the power to exclude this people from the building of the destiny of India.“

I think it can be said what Tagore is arguing against is ultimately capitalism, even though he calls it „the national machinery of commerce and politics“, „the organized self-interest of a whole people“, etc. He expresses a decidedly negative attitude to competition, draws an opposition personal/professional* and directly references the „war […] between capital and labour“. He warns of the troubles of globalisation to come, he describes an organisation of society that allows apathy, and from it, evil, to be normalised, to go unnoticed and unpunished – a view akin to Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil. He insightfully points out that degradation and contempt hurled repeatedly and with authority at a class of people or a nation are the roots of its future rabid nationalism, developed in defiance, in compensation for this unbearable image foisted upon it by more powerful agents:

In India, I know, a large section of our educated community, grown tired of feeling the humiliation of this charge against us, is trying with all its resources of self-deception to turn it into a matter of boasting. But boasting is only a masked shame

The lectures, poetic and profoundly insightful as I found them, are imbued with optimism which history failed to justify. Tagore seemed to believe that „America is destined to justify western civilization to the East“, that in the Great War „the death-throes of the Nation have commenced“. Sadly, his happy prediction of humanity taking charge over technocracy were not realised, as we can see by looking at the world today.

I’ll finish this overly long review with a phrase from the book which I find describes nationalism very astutely:

organizing the instincts of self-aggrandizement of whole peoples into perfection and calling it good.



*This one I’ve had the opportunity to witness myself in India, by the way, more than once. The most memorable case was when my friend was not only not taken off the train after boarding with no ticket and no money, but given a snack and sympathy, because the guard saw himself as a person helping out another person in need, and not as an employee enforcing the rules of his employer against a bad customer; moreover, he believed her – he was obviously not accustomed to being suspicious of people – all things that deserve serious consideration in my opinion, from the vantage point of how used we are to mistrust each other and assume the worst of each other, to the point of assuming this is immutable human nature.


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