Demolition Job

An attempt to unseat the Subalternists and restore the rule of Marx

Written by Rosinka Chaudhuri | Published:April 6, 2013 1:12 am

Book: Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital

Author: Vivek Chibber

Publisher: Navayana

Price: Rs 450

Pages: 306

Vivek Chibber does not like the Subaltern Studies historians,and his mission in this book is to tear down the early theories of,in his order of importance,Ranajit Guha,Dipesh Chakrabarty and Partha Chatterjee. What these historians have influentially said seems to him to be simply wrong-headed and methodologically dubious; his favourite descriptions of them here are as “cultural essentialists” and “Orientalists” (the latter without reference to Edward Said,who is mentioned only once on page eight). Culture,in fact,is a bad word for him in general,and one of his main objections to the Subalternists is the primacy they choose to give to cultural locations.

Chibber chooses select early books — Ranajit Guha’s Dominance Without Hegemony,Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Rethinking Working-Class History and Partha Chatterjee’s Bengal 1920-1947: The Land Question — and systematically presents their chief premises,followed by a confident demolition job. (Later works will make an appearance,but only in part,when Chibber thinks something needs correction or if it confirms the thrust of his argument.) The Subalternist historians are not gods; gaps and blind spots exist in their work,and readers who have found parts of their argument flawed might well agree with sections of this book,although the didactic,hectoring tone makes this more difficult than it should be. Behind all this looms the Marxist dislike of postcolonial studies generally,which,as Chibber has it in the first page of Chapter One itself,would have been all right if it had been “limited to” those unimportant “literary and cultural studies” departments where it originated. But for it to “migrate” from there to “other disciplines”,displacing the role Marxism played “a century ago” “to generate a theory adequate to the needs of a radical political agenda”,especially in the “scholarship on the Global South”,is simply,for Chibber,unacceptable.

What strikes you first about the book are the astonishingly impressive endorsements that appear on its covers — it has managed to make Slavoj Zizek,Achin Vanaik,Robert Brenner,Amiya Bagchi and Noam Chomsky all speak in one voice of praise. “Scrupulous… a very significant contribution”,says Chomsky on the front cover,and nobody will disagree. Chibber is so scrupulous,in fact,that he summarises and re-presents entire sections from the Subalternists in minute detail before he contradicts them,making you return to the original texts to see whether what he says they say is indeed what they say. One of the things this book will do then,paradoxically,is make us re-read the Subalternists; there’s no such thing,as we know,as “bad publicity”.

The book undoubtedly belongs to the grand tradition of diatribes against postcolonial studies composed by Marxist critics,from Aijaz Ahmed to Benita Parry to Arif Dirlik. Diatribes can be useful,and often express dissatisfaction succinctly and cogently,as this book does; that it is no match for In Theory as far as its writing style goes is no doubt besides the point. What this book wants to do is resurrect an old Marxist Humanism,vigorously defending the universal applicability of Enlightenment ideas against the specificities demanded by the Subalternists in relation to the postcolony. Sometimes this works,as when he shows that Indian subaltern agency existed,but was not taken cognisance of by the Subalternists,or,most convincingly of all,when he demonstrates,through an impressive reading of the relevant material,that eighteenth and nineteenth-century European capitalists behaved no differently from the Indian ‘Tatas and Birlas’ when it came to protecting their oligarchies. The trouble lies in crucial misreadings; in his insistence,for example,that Guha meant such capitalists when he referred to the “indigenous bourgeoisie”,when quite evidently Guha uses the term in its larger sense of the propertied classes more generally. Sometimes,the misrepresentation seems to stem presumably from his long location in the American academy,as when he writes that the Birlas endow “massive Hindu temples” in order to “rely on workers’ habits of obeisance” so that “Capitalism,in these instances,will not only fail to dissolve the traditional culture of the subaltern classes,but will give it added strength and substance”. Anybody here will know,however,that “the traditional culture of the subaltern classes”,which is anyway a rapidly evolving and shifting thing,has not much to do with Birla temples; that the clientele of these temples come from the aspiring middle classes,with the poor queuing up on festive days just to be able,for a moment,to visit their marbled premises.

If the irony of the Subalternists is that they are blind to the agency of the working classes (although Chibber would do well here to attend to Spivak’s definition of the subaltern as ‘not’ the working class — is it coincidental that she is left out of this male quarrel?),then the irony of this work is that the critique it provides of the Subalternists tends,more often than not,to get reduced to a debate on how to read,and not to read,the sacred texts of Marx.

Rosinka Chaudhuri is a fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences,Kolkata

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