In historical terms, nationalism is not in itself progressive or reactionary, secular or communal, democratic or authoritarian, or anything else that can be expressed in simple categories of better or worse. It all depends upon its specific character, its program and leadership, and above all else, its concrete historical context. Nationalism in India before 1947 was indeed progressive, but under a different, more advanced class leadership it could have been radical, even revolutionary, because it aimed at resolving the basic structural contradictions concentrated in imperialism, whose resolution alone could clear the path for the Indian people's continuing struggle for a better future.
But nationalism need not have been so in the post-1947 period, for the settlement of 1947 had its own harsh logic. It is customary in conventional scholarship to take a liberal, linear view of the historical process in India around and after 1947. In this view, the Indian "nation-in-the-making" is seen as winning political freedom in 1947 and then moving on to win economic freedom--a movement which forty-five years hence is still on. The real historical process, however, has been dialectical. In the very manner in which the contradictions with imperialism were resolved, the transfer of power involved no basic economic or social-structural change, but put new, now Indian ruling classes in control of state power. This made the Indian people's struggle for economic freedom primarily a struggle against these new ruling classes. This is where, increasingly, the basic structural contradictions of Indian society have now come to be located. The new rulers have used the state to facilitate a historically specific form of capitalist development in the country, even as they continue to maintain many of the old exploitative and oppressive structures of Indian society.
These systemic contradictions are of decisive importance for all revolutionary strategy; though I must hasten to add that within the same systemic context, it is always possible for the ruling classes to make good or bad choices and to pursue better or worse economic, political, cultural, and other policies, and that this is a matter of great tactical significance for any revolutionary politics.
Social reality is invariably much too complex to be easily or fully understood or grasped by social theory. Marx's social theory recognized this. His achievement was to provide what still remains, with all its problems and inadequacies, the best point of entry into understanding the systemic character of social formations by suggesting that society be viewed as a totality, a historically specific, contradiction-laden structure with interdependent parts, within which one part--the economic structure--decisively conditions every other part or aspect of society: its politics, morality, culture, indeed the dynamics of its whole life.
The Indian social formation is possibly the most complex in the world, with its continental dimensions and extraordinary diversities of economic and social life, its long, relatively continuous history, its colonial legacies, and all sorts of other material, cultural, and ideological survivals from the past. For understanding the systemic character of this much-too-complex social formation, two passages from Marx, their different contexts notwithstanding, may still be helpful for their suggestiveness. He wrote: In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is the general illumination which bathes all the other colors and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it.
Elsewhere he spoke of countries which suffer not only from the development of capitalist production but also from the incompleteness of that development. …