On Vivek Chibber’s Critique of Postcolonial and Subaltern Studies


Debating Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital

Only two months ago, Verso brought out the much-anticipated (by me, if no one else) book by NYU Marxian sociologist Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital. Appropriately enough, the debate has commenced with Chibber’s interventions at the Historical Materialism Conferences in Delhi and New York – at the latter of which he debated Partha Chatterjee, a leader of the Subaltern Studies school which is his main target.

Chibber, previously known for his erudite intervention on the Nehruvian developmental model of the postcolonial Indian state[1], had earlier announced his intention of dismantling the dominance of postcolonial theory in his essay “The Decline of Class Analysis in South Asian Studies.”

This aim was nothing if not calculated to be highly provocative toward people working in South Asian studies, the study of the postcolonial world (Asia, Oceania, Africa, Latin America) in general, and the numerous social science and humanities disciplines which have felt the impact of the work of people like Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak.

It should be seen as doubly fortunate therefore that Chibber’s book has drawn interest from across the spectrum of the academic left, and specifically Marxists working both inside and outside academia. His book offers us an opportunity to broaden and internationalize our theory at the same time it gives us a chance to deepen our oft-maligned analysis of the varying development of the “East” vis-a-vis the “West,” a preoccupation of Marxist thought that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci and others have shared.

There are also, however, some dangers that should not be ignored. The arguments so far show far more abstraction than is appropriate. This was on display at HM, where Chatterjee’s response to Chibber’s charge of Orientalism was that Chibber wasn’t really a Marxist. I think these are the terms the debate is being drawn into, far and away from the concrete realities of South Asia in which postcolonial theory first arose.[2]

I will attempt to draw out some of the most relevant terms of debate in the following way. First, I will describe the socopolitical context of Subaltern Studies and its associated scholars as it emerged in the late 1970s. Secondly, I will describe the debate over the term “dominance without hegemony,” crucial to the Subalternist project, and put forth an alternative view from those of both Subaltern Studies and Chibber. Before concluding with some remarks about a proper Marxist foundation for the debate, I will try to describe what is most significant about the argument of particularism versus universalism.

The Historical Context

I feel the need to restate that it is easy to misunderstand Subaltern Studies if one does not have the background on the historical context they operate in. This is what is missing in much of the debate so far. A debate on abstracted values independent of context turns far too easily into another boring event of Marxists tilting at postmodernist (or postcolonial) windmills.

The journal Subaltern Studies began as a project by several left-wing Indian historians in the late 1970s. At this point, as Chibber underscores, its members (Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gyanendra Pandey, Gautam Bhadra and others) all considered themselves Marxists, influenced in particular by readings of Antonio Gramsci that had become popular in European academics.

The Subalternists’ project cannot be understood, as some have suggested, as merely a desire to transplant European “history from below” (particularly that of E.P. Thompson) into India. They were responding to specifically Indian events and Indian history. We can’t understand their project without therefore knowing a bit about postcolonial India.

In particular, the events that perplexed the Subalternists began in the late 1960s. After a two-decade period of relatively peaceful state-led development, things began to unravel. Poverty became a problem demanding the attention of the highest levels of government, and rural unrest exploded at a village called Naxalbari in West Bengal in in 1967, followed by a brief and violent period of Maoist (“Naxalite”) insurgency.

In 1974, Communist-led railway workers launched a national strike which paralyzed the country but went down to bitter defeat. Finally, PM Indira Gandhi (daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister) used constitutional measures to impose her rule on every Indian state, inaugurating a bloody personal dictatorship, in 1975. The period is called “the Emergency,” and forms the background of Rohinton Mistry’s well-known novel A Fine Balance.

Though a mass movement overthrew Gandhi’s dictatorship in 1977, she returned to power democratically just two years later. She was assassinated in 1985 after using brutal measures to suppress the Sikh nationalist Khalistan movement in the Punjab.

Concomitantly, Hindu communalism, sidelined since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Hindu fanatic Nathuram Godse, returned to prominence as a fascistic mass movement. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) broke the Indian National Congress’ single-party rule in [3]

This history suggested several things to the founders of Subaltern Studies:

First, they agreed that the Indian bourgeoisie, which was the force behind the independence movement and the post-independence Congress Party rule, was in a fundamentally different position than the Western bourgeoisie. Unlike their predecessors in Europe, they had not achieved hegemony over Indian society. This was made clear enough by the outbursts of resentment from below, including the peasant wars, worker insurgency, etc that characterized the crisis of Congress Party rule.

This posed larger questions about an Indian modernity as distinct from an English or Western modernity. Unlike in Europe, it seemed that the Indian bourgeoisie was forced to rule with sheer force rather than consent. Ranajit Guha, the editor of the early issues of Subaltern Studies, called this “dominance without hegemony.” Forces below the ruling class still chafed at its grip. Crucially, India’s independence, unlike the bourgeois revolutions in Europe, had failed to banish religion as a force of societal reaction – as shown by the rise of the BJP.

In its first decade at least, Subaltern Studies produced some startlingly original and prescient Marxist analysis of Indian colonial history. I would in particular direct readers to Pandey’s article “Rallying Round the Cow: Sectarian Strife in the Bhjopuri Region, 1888-1917” which remains an excellent and thoroughly documented class analysis of the origins of Hindu and Muslim communalism. Another article, Bhadra’s “Four Rebels of 1857” on the Mutiny wears its Marxist colors so proudly that the author chooses an epigraph from The Holy Family.[4]

Eventually, most of the Subalternists did by and large move away from Marxism and toward cultural interpretations of history which Chibber is correct to criticize. Their final conclusion was that the lower classes of India, peasant and worker alike, did not share in the “bourgeois consciousness” of their Western cousins. They were not dominated by an Enlightenment worldview, and resisted their ruling class in violent outbursts even as the traditional ties of religion and caste held sway. Chibber emphasizes this and makes it the main target of his criticisms.

I will take it up substantially later. For now I am more interested in the development of the school, especially their trajectories after determining the problem of “dominance without hegemony” on the subcontinent. I think without an understanding of this debate we fail entirely to understand the development of Subaltern Studies as a project, not to mention any of its quite substantial influence outside South Asian studies.

Dominance without Hegemony: A Third View

For Guha, the key to understanding the postcolonial Indian nation was that the Indian bourgeoisie had not achieved “hegemony.” What did he mean by this? 

Most basically: Guha relied on a certain view, very orthodox Marxist at the time, of the bourgeois revolutions in Europe. The revolutions in Holland, England and France had brought the bourgeoisie to power at the head of broad democratic coalitions including workers and peasants. To secure their leadership, the bourgeoisie had enacted land reforms and guaranteed democratic liberties to the subaltern classes. Their support in hand, they proceeded to conquer political power and destroyed the feudal order, founding the democratic republic with the consent of the governed subaltern classes.

In India, Guha saw a contrast to this “classic” model of the bourgeois revolution. The Indian bourgeoisie, he noted, should have replicated this pattern during their own revolution, the independence movement of 1921-1947. Instead, they compromised with the feudal landlord (zamindar) class, earning the distrust of the Indian peasantry. Thereafter they ruled without popular support – from the uprising of Naxalbari, to the rail strike and Emergency, the events with which Subaltern Studies was directly concerned.

The argument requires some detailed unpacking. As it revolves around a certain understanding of the idea of bourgeois revolution, I don’t think it is inappropriate to outline some of the more recent debates on this concept within Marxist theory.

First, we must understand the concept of hegemony in its original and distorted contexts (the latter being Guha’s understanding.) “Hegemony” during the seventies was widely equated in Marxist discourse with “consent of the governed,” and understood to originate in the thought of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Gramsci, it was thought, had differentiated two strategies for the working class conquest of political power in the following way. In the “East,” such as  Russia, the state was undeveloped and relied on coercion as opposed to consent. In such a situation, the proletariat could conquer power through an all-out assault (war of manoeuvre). Whereas in the developed West, where the ruling class ruled through consent, the proletariat was required to slog through the trenches of civil society that surrounded state power and thus acquire “hegemony” before the conquest of power.[5]

I’ll return to hegemony in a bit. I think it should be clear first that in his understanding, Guha was a fairly orthodox. In the Indian case, the idea that the bourgeois revolution was not complete related to the conceptions of the Stalinist CPI and later CPI(M) of the independence movement. The idea that the political landscape of India failed to match that of the developed West equated to the Stalinist notion of the bourgeois revolution being somehow “unfinished.”

In particular, incomplete land reform, the persistence of caste and “feudal” relations in the countryside meant the revolution was still to be completed. The fact that labor in the cities was not completely free and political parties were sometimes subject to restrictions on their liberty, as during the Emergency, meant that the democratic revolution, rather than the socialist one, was on the agenda.

The idea of a bourgeois revolution being “incomplete” based on some Platonic ideal (usually the Great French Revolution of 1789) can be said to have played a role in the Marxist thought of many countries outside India. Where East German historians sought to explain National Socialism as a partial product of the “unfinished” bourgeois revolution of the 1870s, English leftists in the 1960s sought to connect the decline of British world hegemony vis-a-vis America with the supposed failure of the English bourgeoisie to displace the aristocracy. Even most of the American left understood Jim Crow as a failure of the US bourgeois revolution, from which it was concluded that the bourgeois revolution was “incomplete.”[6]

The debate has advanced far enough these days as to make such conceptions seem a bit silly. As I see it, there are two main camps that one falls into on the question. 

Chibber aligns with the “political Marxist” school of Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood, accusing Guha of having a “liberal” or “Whig” theory of the bourgeois revolution, in which it is (falsely) claimed that the bourgeoisie granted political liberty and land reform to the subalterns. In fact, he argues, the English Civil War and French Revolution (neither of them, it is claimed, are “bourgeois revolutions” in the traditional sense) established “bourgeois oligarchies.” Political liberty is due to the constant struggles of the subaltern classes themselves. Therefore, in contrast to Guha who faults the Indian working class for not having a “bourgeois consciousness,” Chibber says that in the developed West, the working class played a key role in the development of the “bourgeois,” or liberal, political sphere.[7]

Chibber’s approach has the merits of drawing our attention to the role of the subaltern classes themselves in fighting for the achievement of democracy. This enables him to draw the, in my view, substantially correct conclusion that “what Guha sees as pathological,” i.e., the Indian bourgeoisie’s failure to confront the landed classes and resort to coercive methods of rule, “should instead be seen as normal in the construction of bourgeois political orders.”[8]

Chibber is able to develop this into an argument that takes on the idea key to the later Subalternist project that capital has “failed to universalize” in the global South, and the idea that Marxist categories such as abstract labor do not capture the diversity of capitalist and non-capitalist labor processes in India.

His arguments find support from the most sophisticated Marxist analyses of India and the rest of the world. In particular, we might turn to the work of Jairus Banaji, whose essay “Capitalist Domination and the Small Peasantry: The Deccan Districts in the late 19th Century” relies on Marx’s distinction between labor’s “real” subsumption to capital, and its “formal” subsumption in which capital has annexed the means of production as well as the formerly independent producer, but has not yet moved to “really revolutionize” the labor process.[9] This type of analysis perceives the capitalist essence of the productive relations, in the spirit of Marx, rather than expecting Indian society to match the highly abstracted picture provided in volume one of Capital.

The upshot, in so many words, is that capitalism does not need to do anything that the Subalternists were expecting it to do in India. As I pointed out, this is a confusion that comes directly out of Indian Stalinism. Capital can be perfectly happy with old forms of production and social relations. As Chibber points out, old divisions of laborers along the lines of religion, caste and language might be incredibly helpful to capital’s need to divide and control the working class.

I do not, however, share the Brenner/Wood conception of capitalism that Chibber deploys. I would in particular argue that the “consequentialist” view of bourgeois revolution, which Neil Davidson has been doing so much to develop, would explain the problems of India’s bourgeois revolution much better than the Brenner thesis. I have tried to develop this at length elsewhere.

Davidson’s view that the anticolonial and independence movements that follow the Second World War can best be thought of as bourgeois revolutions is particularly relevant. Deploying the analysis used in Alex Callinicos’ seminal article “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,”[10] he argues correctly that what unites the earlier revolutions in England and France with 20th-century independence movements is their “consequence” of creating an independent center for capitalist accumulation, whether this is carried out from above or below.

Davidson’s book is also key for bringing back into the debate the Gramscian notion of a “passive revolution,” itself connected to Gramsci’s development of the earlier Marxist concept of hegemony, which the Subalternists relied on a distorted version of.[11]

In my view Gramsci’s real views on hegemony are very helpful for conceptualizing India’s state-building project. Gramsci in fact argued that both consent and coercion were necessary in creating the hegemony of any ruling class: coercion used toward the antagonistic classes, and consent solicited from the allied classes. In his words:

the ‘normal’ exercise of hegemony on the now classical regime of the parliamentary régime is characterized by a combination of force and consent, which counterbalance each other, without force predominating exclusively over consent; rather, it appears to be based on the consent of the majority, expressed through the so-called organs of public opinion. 

Consent and coercion, therefore, form a dialectical unity in the operation of the state. As Peter Thomas writes, “in parliamentary regimes, coercion is the ultimate guarantee for consent, which in turn legitimates what could be described as a type of ‘coercion by consent.”[12]

To understand the economic and political development of the India after independence, we need to properly conceptualize how the independence movement produced a democratic state while ensuring state-capitalist development at the same time. In my view, Chibber’s reliance on the agency of subaltern classes alone in ensuring democratic liberty under capitalism in both Europe and India is not particularly convincing. Leaving aside the nonsensical conception of England and France’s revolutions as alternatively “non-bourgeois” or “non-capitalist,” he does not sufficiently address why India failed to develop into a “bourgeois oligarchy” like them.

This relates to something in his text which worries me. Though Chibber does not explicitly state it, I feel as though by drawing parallels so sharply between Indian history and the history of Western nations, he comes very close to endorsing a unilinear model of societal development, which is antithetical to the Marxist tradition.[13]

Gramsci’s original Marxist conception of the passive revolution as part of the broader revision of the concept of bourgeois revolution gives us the best tools to understand this process. We can use it to understand how Indian capital has incorporated middle-class elites as well as significant parts of the subaltern classes into a democratic developmentalist regime, without ever sacrificing its ability to use coercive methods, as in the Emergency, and today in Kashmir, the Northeast and in Operation Green Hunt. 

The Views and Influence of Subaltern Studies Today

What in particular of the culturalist assumptions of Subaltern studies? In the debate, Chatterjee attempted to deny he was a culturalist, but “outed” himself at the end of the debate by referring to the epidemic of farmer suicides in India as a phenomenon of specifically Indian culture.

It can sometimes be hard to understand, particularly to those outside of the academy, the unique power of the cultural turn, that is to say the idea that non-Western subaltern classes act politically based on primordial notions of communal over individual needs, in particular those of locale, caste and religion. Chibber subjects this concept to a fair and searching critique focusing on Chatterjee’s essays on peasant resistance in colonial Bengal and Chakrabarty’s Rethinking Working-Class History, a seminal Subalternist work disputing the Marxist notion of class consciousness among early-20th century millworkers in Calcutta.

Chatterjee, for instance, argues that we need a specifically “Indian” conception of peasant resistance over concepts inherited from the West. What is needed, he says, is “an Indian history of peasant struggles” that recognizes Indian peasants’ “consciousness [which] has its own paradigmatic form… in fact the very other” of Western “bourgeois consciousness.” When peasants engage in collective political action, therefore, they do so as a primordial community, in which solidarity is guaranteed through conceptions of “the necessary duty of groups bound together through kinship.”[14]

Remarkably, Chatterjee extends this thesis as far as the claim that Indian peasants are incapable of transcending these primordial solidarities even when it harms their struggles. As he describes the divergence of interests between poor peasants and kulaks (jotedars), he advances the idea that “the peasant-communal ideology” was inadequate in providing a “perceptual guide for the identification of friends and enemies.” Peasants, he writes, would only be capable of identifying exploiters internal to their communities if they had an “alternative ideological system,” namely that of “bourgeois consciousness.”

As I said, it’s hard to grasp the prevalence of this notion. It is likely the one thing (in America, at least) that undergraduates will take away from a class on postcolonial literature or theory. It seems elementary to many in academics that we cannot simply assume the subalterns of Asia, Oceania, Latin America and Africa have the “same interests” as Westerners. Community, religion, language, ethnicity/race and caste are everywhere said to dominate over the Western interests of the individual or socioeconomic class.

This follows from the logic of the “dominance without hegemony” thesis. The bourgeoisie in India has failed to achieve hegemony therefore Indian subalterns remain tied to traditional worldviews that are untouched by “bourgeois consciousness.”

It is an interesting argument, and one well worth our time to explore. As Chibber indicates, primordial worldviews influenced by religion, caste and other communities are not antithetical to capitalist development. But instead of drawing on the large amount of work done by Marxists on this point, he chooses to lay out a  mechanical apparatus of “interests” (class-based and personal) as distinct from “culture” (which he dismisses as a significant factor). This led into some perplexing detours on the subject of individual as opposed to collective interests, which led into further detours on the subject of universalism vs. particularism. I fail to see these as significant referents for any real debate.

I’m not sure I’m competent to debate this to a satisfying conclusion, but I think some basic orientations can be provided by the dialectical method. I think, personally, that our method can evade entirely the dilemmas of individual vs. collective interests, as well as universalism vs. particularism. Dialectics signifies that abstraction across the global political economy means nothing and falls apart without descending now and then into the concrete realities of one or another place- say, South Asia. And this is a region in which many traditional assumptions of Marxism have, to put it mildly, been thrown out of whack.[15]

What about the claim of Orientalism? In one of his sharpest formulations, Chibber writes

Chatterjee seems unaware that he is reviving a well-established Orientalist notion of the East as a culture in which actors are essentially other-oriented, lacking any notion of individuality, unmoved by their material interests. The West is the site of the bounded individual, while the East is the repository of Community. Chatterjee explicitly warns against assimilating an analysis of Indian peasants into a general theory of peasant action – Indians require their own theory, he asserts, because they do not think like other agents, especially those in the West. They need a theory of their own, sensitive to their particular psychology. All this has a drearily familiar ring to it, even if dressed in radical language, for it harks back directly to nineteenth-century colonial ideology, not to mention contemporary reifications of the unchanging East.[16]

This is an interesting statement, and I sympathize with what he is saying even if I don’t agree with it entirely. In particular, Chibber seems to elide a significant distinction between Orientalism, an ideology constructed as a justification for imperialism, and Subaltern studies, a project with decidedly radical origins and which saw itself as trying to advance a Marxist critique from below. 

Subaltern Studies certainly would not have attracted the attention it has if all it were doing was rehashing Orientalism. Its turn away from Marxism has been taken by many in the field as a license to revive racist and imperialist tropes. But in my view this has more to do with the in some ways neocolonial power dynamics in global academics.

In a world in which power structures inherently favor the global North as opposed to the South, it is likely that this dominance will be reflected either starkly, as in the discipline of economics, or softly, as in other humanities disciplines where postcolonial theory has taken off the most. Though Chibber correctly points out many Orientalists in the Northern academy took the chance provided by the cultural turn to transform themselves into “postcolonialists,” this should enable us to draw a critique of academics in Europe and America rather than India.[17]

Certainly, the Subalternists deserve blame for not distancing themselves from this process. But we fundamentally need to see their critique as “from below,” which is not the same thing as Orientalist “from above” work, even if some of their assumptions overlap. 

Chibber is certainly correct to criticize what has become a commonsense view: that the subalterns of the global South respond to communal ties of religion, caste (where applicable) and other primordial notions. We might say a couple things about this.

First, that not all those associated with Subaltern Studies believe this and it’s a strawman to paint them as if they do.

Second, that on the face of it, it’s blindingly obvious that traditional ties continue to have some hold over the minds of Southern subalterns. It’s a worthy path of investigation to question why this is so.

Third, the idea that motivation to political action by traditional ties is inconsistent with motivation by the more “modern” ties of class, nation and so on is baseless. Aside from Chatterjee and Chakrabarty at their most radical, none of the Subalternists has claimed that it is. Marxism tells us that modern struggles  (to use the most obvious example, struggles by the working class over pay, conditions, and even power) can be mediated through older notions of community involving religion, language, race, etc. There is a wealth of Marxist scholarship on this. Chibber does not seem to acknowledge it, referring only to how communal divisions can hurt class struggle by dividing workers, although it would seem to be a logical corollary.

Fourth (and I’ll expand on this in the next section), it is dangerous to counterpose precapitalist consciousness to capitalist consciousness for the reason that, quite simply, capitalist notions like the individual or the nation are just as irrational as the ones that preceded them. Marx and Engels’ entire critique of the Enlightenment from The Communist Manifesto onwards pivoted on the idea that the bourgeoisie had constructed a society as unjust, riven by conflict, and yes, as irrational as what came before.

In sum, then, we should be able to see a way out of the argument over whether the workers and peasants of the global South have “bourgeois consciousness” or not to an investigation of whether subalterns anywhere (or anyone anywhere) has “bourgeois consciousness” as it is typically understood. The persistence of racism in both the US and Europe would seem to make this case for us. On their own, the categories of individual and class community are insufficient for saying anything substantive about the mentality of the working classes anywhere, not just in the South.

What Kind of Enlightenment? And What Kind of Marxism?

I want to conclude with some brief notes on what I believe are the weaknesses of Chibber’s approach to Subaltern Studies and postcolonial theory. While his book has opened the salvo against culturalist approaches to the global South, we can hope that it will be the first of many which will broaden and deepen the lines of critique he has laid out.

Chibber’s Marxism as he shows it in the book can be interesting because it is a curious mélange of many different academic currents, from the “political Marxism” of Brenner and Wood, to the type of analytical Marxism endorsed by Erik Olin Wright. I don’t have much time for either conception, which in my view distorts Marxism and tends to gut its dialectical core in favor of being somehow more “rigorous.” But that is a debate for another time.

What concerns me more about Chibber’s approach than his analytical tendencies are certain approaches he seems to import tout court whenever it suits his analysis. In particular, Chibber adheres (“proudly,” in his words) to Rawlsian social-contract theory.[18] He also praises the modernization theorist Amartya Sen as an “eloquent and consistent defender of some core values”and comes in my view dangerously close to endorsing Guha’s deployment of rational-choice theory in his Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in India.[19]

In the book, Chibber is often at pains to say that he is not offering any specific Marxist alternative view of some subjects (or Enlightenment view, for that matter), that his criticisms are meant to show that these “rational categories of European thought” can be used to explain the politics and economics of the Global South, and that therefore they maintain their value. Presumably Chibber therefore deploys these concepts to make the most solid case possible that the Enlightenment tradition, as well as specifically the Marxist tradition, remains valuable as against the anti-rationalism of much of postcolonial theory. But is this a really worthwhile project?

Chibber is a bit coy about his own affiliations within Marxism.[20] But no matter. My concern is more that not all Enlightenment thought can or should be used in analysis. This is especially true of rational-choice theory, an apparatus which was imported fully-formed from Hayekian neoliberal economics into political science and sociology.

Leaving that aside, there is the problem of “rationality” in the debate. Chibber seems to regard the worst effect of postcolonial theory as that it has abjured the responsibility to be “rational.” 

Much of what we could say about this has already been covered in endless anti-postmodernist tracts. I don’t regard anti-rationality as a serious problem. It may be popular in some sectors of the academy, but, not to put to fine a point on it, reason works, and you can’t go many places without it. I just want to point out one thing – that Marxism does not have an unproblematic relationship with Enlightenment rationality, as Chibber comes close to suggesting at times.

It has often been ignored that Marx may have been the first to present a “subalternist” critique of enlightenment thought. His metaphor of commodity fetishism is a case in point. By connecting the bourgeois’ greed for gold with the African worship of “fetish” objects, he attacked the very bourgeois rationality he is so often employed in defending. What was more rational, Marx was asking, to worship something you can see and touch, or to worship the exchange value in gold, which is hidden and inaccessible to the senses? This does not just equate two forms of fetishism – Marx deliberately and provocatively argued that fetish worship was more rational than commodity worship, without for a moment romanticizing African society.[21]

To Chibber, an analytical Marxist, the argument of commodity fetishism may not hold much weight. But it remains part of the Romantic, even anti-Enlightenment, component of Marxism that has very often been ignored. 

As one perceptive critic has pointed out,[22] Marxism seeks to, in Hegelian terms, “sublate” the categories of Enlightenment thought: to identify their liberatory core and push them to their most radical conclusions, which means overcoming Enlightenment thought in the process. The proletarian worldview of Marxism is in fact the Enlightenment’s “very Other.”[23]

Whether eliding this distinction makes Chibber “not sufficiently Marxist” doesn’t really concern me. But I have to sympathize with claims that he is uncritically deploying the categories of Enlightenment thought which most deserve a thorough critique instead of rehabilitation.

After all, the promise of liberty made by the rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment was negated by the reality of capitalism, which meant exploitation and oppression of the world’s vast majority (most prominently the people of the Global South, who we are concerned with here) for the individual liberty and freedom to accumulate of a few. Critique of these conditions does not involve a revival of notions of individual freedom and choice, but an enlargement of the category into the concrete freedom and needs of all society.

Conclusion: Assessing the Debate Thus Far

If the debate between Marxists and subalternists/postcolonialists (as well as those who consider themselves to be both) is to go far, it has to provide the most concrete foundations possible for discussion.

This has not been the case thus far. The debate between Chibber and Chatterjee showed this, where each became for a moment the exponent of the abstract values of “universalism” and “particularism,” independent of the South Asian context in which they were arguing. Neither of them did themselves any favors in this exchange, which came off rather as a dialogue between the mutually deaf.

In particular: many from Chibber’s camp misunderstand the context of these debates. It isn’t Chibber’s fault; he tries as best he can to give the historical context of Subaltern Studies. But two chapters isn’t nearly enough. It also isn’t his supporters’ fault that they misunderstand the context of debates in South Asian history, it is rather a reflection of the miserable ultra-specialization academia enforces on us all. But we need to place the argument on a concrete footing if it is to go anywhere.

Observation largely confirms Chibber’s view that many of the assumptions inherent in postcolonial studies may be seen as a revival of Orientalism. But the cultural essentialism of Subaltern Studies even at its most extreme does not equate to Orientalism. Chibber and his followers can be faulted for failing to draw the distinction between the intentions of Subaltern Studies and its influence. Of course, Chatterjee and others involved in the project are themselves rapidly trying to distance themselves from it, particularly their own radical origins.

Chibber’s critique, therefore, comes dangerously close to letting Subaltern Studies off the hook when it is most in need of critique. Debates about individual or communal interests, or between provincialism and universalism have just this effect. In my view these are mainly false dichotomies.

Overall, I think this debate will be most beneficial if we can relate it back to the concrete realities in which Subaltern Studies arose, and even contrast it significantly with research about the United States, Europe, and other areas. First, however, we need to have a little humility towards South Asia studies. In that spirit, I hope what I have written can be appreciated as tentative rather than final in any sense.


1. Locked in Place: State-Building and Late Industrialization in India (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006).

2. The debate off Facebook has produced the following interesting pieces: Chibber’s interview with Jonah Birch in Jacobin, Chris Taylor’s review for his blog “Of CLR James,” and Paul Heideman’s response to Taylor on Verso’s blog.

3. Chibber provides a balanced historiography in Chapters 2 and 3 of his book.

4. Gyan Pandey, “Rallying Round the Cow: Sectarian Strife in the Bhojpuri Region, c. 1888-1917” in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies II, 60-129 and Gautum Bhadra, “Four Rebels of 1857,” in Guha and Spivak (eds.), Selected Subaltern Studies: Essays from Five Volumes and a Glossary (London/New York: Oxford UP), 129-178. Chibber could not possibly be unaware of this quite substantial body of innovative Marxist historical work that characterized the early issues of the journal. His critique, unfortunately, only focuses on Guha’s editorial statements from the first several issues, after which he turns to Chatterjee and Chakrabarty’s work (published outside the journal) from the 1990s, after both had found academic appointments in the United States. This is unfortunate as it skips over practically the entire course of the school’s development.

5. Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), 160.

6. See Donny Gluckstein, The Nazis, Capitalism, and the Working Class (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), and E.P. Thompson, “The Peculiarities of the English.”

7. See Chapter 3, “Dominance without Hegemony: The Argument Assessed.” Though Chibber presents the Brenner thesis as the only legitimate Marxist conception of the capitalist transition, it most emphatically is not. Readers would do well to consult Neil Davidson’s How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), chapter 18, “Capitalist Social Property Relations” on “political Marxism” and how it differs from the classical Marxist tradition.

8. Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 90.

9. Jairus Banaji, Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), 277-332.

10. Alex Callinicos, “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,” in International Socialism 2.43 (Summer 1989), 113-171. http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/callinicos/1989/xx/bourrev.html

11. Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? particularly Chapters 14, “Classical Marxism (3),” 19, “Consequentialism,” and 22, “Patterns of Consummation.”

12. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, 160-63.I don’t invoke Gramsci here to accuse the Subalternists of being insufficiently Marxist, but because I feel that Gramsci’s real notions cleansed of distortion are very helpful in conceptualizing the history of the independence movement and postcolonial Indian state.

13. Chibber’s discussion of the post-feudal “bourgeois oligarchies” in Western nations begs the question whether the Emergency might have been just India following the same path as the developed West. We need the sharpest break with any such idea. This is one place where Chatterjee’s critique is on point: “Europe and America, the only true subjects of history, have thought out on our behalf not only the script of colonial enlightenment and exploitation, but also that of our anticolonial resistance and postcolonial misery.” The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993), 5.

14. Chatterjee, “The Nation and its Peasants,” in ibid, 158-172.

15. I hope I’m not taken as saying that Chibber’s work is worthless because he rejects the dialectic. I rather want to point out some ways in which the classical Hegelian-Marxist view of society as a differentiated but mediated totality can be helpful in giving us the tools to avoid some of the less worthwhile arguments.

16. Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 161.

17. Chibber, “The Decline of Class Analysis in South Asian Studies,” 376-78.

18. Chibber, Chatterjee and Weinstein, “Marxism and the Legacy of Subaltern Studies.”

19. Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 205 and 163 fn. Sen is guilty of the same essentialism about Indian culture that Chibber has set about trying to correct. See The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (New York: Picador, 2006), which attempts to draw connections between the historical tolerance and liberality of the Mauraya and Mughal Empires to the maintence of India as a modern liberal democracy, as against the BJP’s religious fundamentalism.

20. Though he said in the debate with Chatterjee that he “didn’t care” if his conceptions of capitalism differed from Marx’s or those of the Marxist mainstream, he writes in the book that “[Subalternists’] Marxism is of a particular kind, and would scarcely be recognized by most contemporary Marxists” (Postcolonial Theory, 10). He can’t have it both ways.

21. David McNally draws this out at length in Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 126-132.

22. Chris Taylor, “Not Even Marxist” (ref. above, note 2.)

23. At the current conjuncture it seems to me that we would do well to emphasize the anti-Enlightenment trend in Marxism. As we have seen, unproblematic paeans to Enlightenment thought can lead to some strange conclusions. The Platypus Affiliated Society, for instance, is in the process of tearing itself apart over the (thoroughly unsurprising) revelation that its leaders believe that racism in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “has a rational core.”

Works Cited

Banaji, Jairus (2010). Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation. Chicago: Haymarket.

Bhadra, Gautum (1988), “Four Rebels of 1857,” in R. Guha and G. Spivak (eds.), Selected Subaltern Studies: Essays from Five Volumes and a Glossary. London/New York: Oxford UP, 129-178.

Callinicos, Alex (1989), “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,” in International Socialism 2.43, 113-171. http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/callinicos/1989/xx/bourrev.html

Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000). Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal 1890-1940. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Chatterjee, Partha (1993). The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Chibber, Vivek (2006), “On the Decline of Class Analysis in South Asian Studies” in Critical Asian Studies 38.4, 357-387. http://as.nyu.edu/docs/IO/225/decline.class.analysis.pdf

Chibber, Vivek (2013a). Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. London/New York: Verso.

Chibber, Vivek, Partha Chatterjee, and Barbara Weinstein (2013b), “Debate: Marxism and the Legacy of Subaltern Studies. Historical Materialism Conference, New York. http://wearemany.org/v/2013/04/debate-marxism-legacy-of-subaltern-studies

Davidson, Neil (2012). How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Chicago: Haymarket.

McNally, David (2012). Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket.

Pandey, Gyanendra (1983), “Rallying Round the Cow: Sectarian Strife in the Bhojpuri Region, c. 1888-1917” in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies II, 60-129.

Sen, Amartya (2006). The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity. New York: Picador.

Thomas, Peter (2010). The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism. Chicago: Haymarket.



Filed under Culture, History, Politics

4 responses to “On Vivek Chibber’s Critique of Postcolonial and Subaltern Studies

  1. Jo

    its written by…? cant find the authorial signature..

  2. Pingback: Paletleme Amirliği – Mayıs 2013 | Emrah Göker'in İstifhanesi

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