In the film Avengers there is a scene where the villan [sic], Loki, faces the Hulk and does not come out well in the encounter. In irritation he puffs up his chest and shouts, “Enough! I am a God!” Hulk picks up Loki by his feet and smashes him all over the place like a rag doll and leaves him lying helpless in a pile of rubble and sniffs, “Puny God!” Vivek Chibber does a Hulk on the Subaltern School (SS).
From Joseph’s review of “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital” on amazon.com
* * * *
Plus, postcolonial theory now has at least two generations of academics who have staked their entire careers on it; they have half a dozen journals dedicated to it; there’s an army of graduate students pursuing research agendas that come out of it. Their material interests are tied up directly with the theory’s success.
You can criticize it all you want, but until we get the kind of movements that buoyed Marxism in the early years after World War I, or in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you won’t see a change.
From Vivek Chibber interview in Jacobin magazine
* * * *
Adolfo Gilly is the author of the most famous book on the Mexican revolution from a Marxist perspective. Formerly a member of the Trotskyist PRT, he is now a well-known member of the PRD.
From the author’s page of International Viewpoint, a semiofficial journal of the Fourth International.
* * * *
I became familiar with Subaltern Studies and the work of Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee in the late 1980s. I only really read Edward Thompson in the 1990s. His Making of the English Working Class and Customs in Common lay a lot of emphasis on the category of experience, which in my view is extremely important to Marxist thought.
Adolfo Gilly in the New Left Review, July-August 2010
When it was Partha Chatterjee’s turn to speak in the debate with Vivek Chibber, I fully expected him to start off with something like “Where Marx went wrong…” After all, if you had read Chibber’s interview in Jacobin, you would have been led to believe that you were dealing with an organized intellectual tendency as hostile to Marxism as Lyotard, Foucault, or Baudrillard. This is not to speak of Edward Said, one of the founding fathers of postcolonialism whose attack on Marx’s India articles must have rankled Marxist purists like Chibber even as they might have paid grudging respect to his literary scholarship as well as the stones hurled at Israeli border guards.
Instead Chatterjee outdid Chibber with a Marxist purism calculated to make Chibber look like an utter piker by comparison, including a jibe that his critic appeared committed to Rawlsian contract theory, a charge to which Chibber plead guilty.
This gets to the heart of the problem with the debate. It was conducted on such an abstract level that it was almost like listening to two men arguing about ethics. If it had instead take up one of the Chatterjee articles grounded in Indian history that Chibber took exception to, it would have been more concrete. I suppose that I could read the 35 page “The Colonial State and Peasant Resistance in Bengal 1920-1947” and Chibber’s critique of the article to make sense of their differences, but life is too short and other projects more compelling.
Even more contrary to expectations is Subaltern Studies founder Ranajit Guha’s statement as to his major influences. Given the supposedly postmodernist drift of this intellectual current, it might come as a surprise to discover that he was “inspired by Charu Mazumdar”, the foremost intellectual and political leader of the Naxalite movement.
In order to get a fix on the combatants in this monumental Loki versus Hulk type struggle, I decided to look into the question of the “subaltern”. My only exposure to the term was Gayatri Spivak’s headache-inducing essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, a title appropriated ironically in the Jacobin interview with Chibber: “How does the Subaltern Speak?”. I had never given it much thought but I always assumed that Spivak coined the term subaltern.
As it turns out, we can blame Gramsci, who used it as a kind of synonym for working class in the Prison Notebooks in order to trick the guards who might have been primed to beat him up if he used a forbidden word. Subaltern, it should be pointed out, simply meant a junior officer in the military. Gramsci wrote: “The subaltern classes by definition, are not unified and cannot unite until they are able to become a ‘State’: their history, therefore, is intertwined with that of civil society, and thereby with the history of States and groups of States.”
Ranajit Guha adopted the term subaltern to apply to his version of “history from below”, an attempt to do for India what E.P. Thompson did for Britain—a connection made by Adolfo Gilly above. Now I can’t deny that Gayatri Spivak’s work is suffused with Derrida’s poststructuralism but until persuaded otherwise it would appear to me that the original impetus for Subaltern Studies was to tell the story of India’s 99 percent.
Whether or not the theoretical baggage that went along with Subaltern Studies passed Chibber’s smell test is another story altogether. Guha insists that the Indian subaltern classes were never part of the cross-class coalition that typified European bourgeois revolutions and as such the rulers never enjoyed the same kind of hegemony that made a nation like Britain or France relatively stable. If, of course, you make Chibber’s “political Marxism” some kind of litmus test based on the bourgeois revolution never having taken place, many others with orthodox Marxist pedigrees—like Neil Davidson—might not pass the smell test either. Will the Hulk feel the need to pick Davidson up and smash him all over the place like a rag doll as well?
Speaking of smashing people, I want to take this opportunity to apologize to Dr. Chibber for stating that he would regret it if he ever spoke over me at another conference. I was in a blind rage when I wrote those words, but never intended to use violence against him or any other person for that matter who I have a run-in with. There was no excuse for me to use those words and am deeply sorry for any anxiety it might have provoked in him, not that he had any worries about a 68-year-old man with failing eyesight posing any danger to begin with.
Getting back to Gramsci, it might of course prompt some readers who have read their Perry Anderson to say “Aha, there’s proof of your breach with Marxism” since the academic left’s turn to Gramsci was proof that you had broken with ortho-Marxism and strayed into the netherworld of cultural studies.
Speaking of which, I got a chuckle out of Uday Chandra’s observation on Facebook that “Chibber has, unfortunately, been projected by Brenner, Anderson, etc, as the Chosen One to slay the dragon of postcolonial studies.” Does anybody in their right mind think that Perry Anderson is in any position nowadays to define who is qualified to assume the mantle that he and Brenner have worn? In 2000 Perry Anderson signaled the new direction New Left Review would take under his stewardship in an infamous article that told his readers where the real action was taking place:
By contrast, commanding the field of direct political constructions of the time, the right has provided one fluent vision of where the world is going, or has stopped, after another–Fukuyama, Brzezinski, Huntington, Yergin, Luttwak, Friedman. These are writers that unite a single powerful thesis with a fluent popular style, designed not for an academic readership but a broad international public. This confident genre, of which America has so far a virtual monopoly, finds no equivalent on the left.
This prompted Boris Kagarlitsky to write an article in the British SWP’s International Socialism journal titled “The Suicide of New Left Review” that stated:
Perry Anderson, a sophisticated British gentleman, sits in his cosy office at 6 Meard Street and limply discusses the collapse of the left project. He has enough intellectual honesty not to repudiate his radical past or the ideals of his youth, but he is impassive enough not to lament their collapse. Despite Anderson’s readiness to bury the left project of the 1960s, and along with it the first series NLR, his foreword contains not a paragraph or even a sentence devoted to political self criticism. Everything was fine–both when Perry, together with other young radicals, tried to revolutionise social thinking and political life in Britain, and now, when he no longer proposes to overturn anything whatever. And what, in reality, has happened? What particular suffering has beset these people? Have Western intellectuals really lost anything, apart from their principles? No one has been thrown in prison or put in front of a firing squad. Their homes have not been blown up, nor their cities bombed.
Furthermore, as long as Vivek Chibber is determined to identify scratches that might lead to gangrene in the academic left, he might also consider what Robert Brenner had to say about the John Kerry candidacy in 2004:
Our call for a vote for the Democratic Party — while continuing to put the main political emphasis on building the social movements and simultaneously exposing the Democrats as politically reactionary and anathema to the social movements — is an application of an aspect of the united front method, sometimes called “critical support.”
If “political Marxism” is supposed to be some kind of condom to protect you against all sorts of germs—from Subaltern Studies to Paul Sweezy type analysis of the origins of capitalism—we can only conclude that Robert Brenner sprung a leak.
Finally, I have a few words to say about Marxism and academia. While I am not a professor, even though I get to act like one on the Internet after the fashion of Irwin Corey, I have a pretty good handle on what goes on there after having been a Columbia University employee for 21 years. During that time, I was privy to the goings on in both the sociology and Mideast Studies departments from friends who taught there. Additionally, my wife is a tenure-track professor at a N.Y. four-year college and I get a pretty good idea of what is going on her department in much the same way she used to get an earful each night about what I used to see in Columbia University’s IT department.
Seven years ago Chibber was obviously getting ready to start writing or had already begun work on his book, based on the article “On The Decline Of Class Analysis In South Asian Studies” that appeared in Critical Asian Studies. It is mostly an attack on what he refers to as PSPC, shorthand for Poststructuralism/Postcolonialism, and more specifically the dreaded Subaltern Studies.
His analysis is reminiscent of what Perry Anderson wrote in “Considerations on Western Marxism” and “In The Tracks of Historical Materialism”. If Anderson was keen on demonstrating that cultural studies, vaporous philosophizing, and postmodernist cant were tied to the decline of the organized left, Chibber reminds us that the problem still exists:
By the end of the decade [of the seventies], however, while the movements around nonclass identities had scored impressive gains, there was no comparable advance for the working class. Indeed, the balance of class power shifted powerfully to the right, and by the onset of the Reagan era, a full-scale assault on labor and the Left was underway. As a class movement, the New Left had met with a crushing defeat.
In some respects, this mirrored the defeats of the working class movement worldwide in the 1930s, which was followed by rightward shift in political culture. But the setbacks of the New Left during the 1970s were in many respects deeper. For the upsurges of the first quarter of the twentieth century had left in their wake a panoply of socialist parties and class organizations, which provided the milieu in which radical intellectuals survived for much of the century.
What’s more, the students entering the university system following the great retreat were not made of the right stuff, as Chibber complains:
By the middle of the 1980s, the New Left had mostly been domesticated into academic culture. Class analysis was practiced only within a small slice of it, and this was an increasingly marginal component of the academic mainstream. If a pressure for the deepening of class analysis was to come, it would have had to be from below — the students. But here too, there was no reason to expect any such development. For students, a college education is a means of social mobility. Even though their origin may be in the working class, their aspirations are of a more elite nature. For those students who make it into college, the mere fact of social advancement serves to confirm central elements of the dominant ideology, which insists on the fluidity of social hierarchies, and the absence of structural constraints. The mere fact of more working class students entering higher education — as they did after the 1950s — would not generate a mass base for socialist ideas.
I get a chuckle out of this: “Even though their origin may be in the working class, their aspirations are of a more elite nature.” Doesn’t Chibber have a clue that students, both working class and middle class as the case with his NYU students, are not aspiring to become elites but rather to merely get a decent paying job? From the 1980s onward, the job prospects for liberal arts graduates have been dismal. That is why so many smart young people are opting for an MBA, a law, or a computer science degree. Without them, you might as well go live with mom and dad and apply for a job at Starbucks. And even now they are no guarantee. For someone so committed to a class analysis, he seems woefully unaware of the Victorian-era realities of the job market.
I understand that many young people in graduate school today with left politics have—as Chibber put it—elite aspirations. Imagine becoming the next Robert Brenner making $220,000 per year and speaking before adoring audiences at some academic conference in London or Paris. Having your Marxist cake and eating it too.
But getting there is a brutal competitive process that is not for the fainthearted. You have to have the killer instinct that ensures that you will get tenure and not some other schmuck. All in all, academia—particularly at elite schools like Columbia University and NYU—replicates the class hierarchies of 19th century Germany where many of the structures such as the oral examination were introduced (I am not talking about gum disease.) It is calculated to turn you into an asshole unless you were one to begin with.
Try to find a decent paying job that leaves you with lots of spare time and energy, an admittedly daunting task today and then blog your heart out, the contemporary equivalent of Tom Paine’s “Common Sense”. You will reach far more people than you ever will through a JSTOR type journal that is locked up behind a paywall and generally read only by other professors and graduate students, if they bother at all.
Finally, a reminder of what Max Horkheimer said about being a revolutionary:
A revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.
Who would have it any other way?