Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 7, 2014

Gayatri Spivak on Vivek Chibber

Filed under: Academia,india — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

I have plans to get around to Vivek Chibber’s “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital” at some point as well as Ranajit Guha’s “Dominance without Hegemony”, one of Chibber’s chief targets. In the meantime, I try to keep up with the scholarly commentary on Chibber’s book, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s blistering attack that appears in the April 2014 “Cambridge Review of International Affairs” that I read this morning. (Drop me a line if you want to read a copy.)

I doubt that I will ever read anything beyond Guha’s book in order to get a handle on subaltern studies. A big problem for non-specialists like myself is that the price of admission into these academic wars is almost prohibitive. Spivak’s review is shot through with references to figures in the postcolonial field that will certainly be unknown to the average reader. My interest in the debate, however, is probably somewhat narrower than others. In a nutshell, I am interested in exploring what the one negative review of Chibber’s book on amazon.com referred to:

I was excited about this book because I am very interested in postcolonial theory but was disappointed when I learned this book was not really about postcolonial theory at all but Subaltern Studies (which Chibber himself admits is not the same thing)…That’s useful for some purposes but does not fully address the deeper (or larger) issues postcolonial theory raises. Read this book if you’re interested in how capitalism developed in India. Beyond that, not sure if you’ll get much out of it.

That for me is the more interesting question—how capitalism developed in India. When I get around to dealing with Chibber, I plan to refer extensively to Jairus Banaji and Irfan Habib, Indian and Pakistani Marxists who have sharp differences with Robert Brenner, Chibber’s chief influence.

I am not sure how many of you are familiar with Gayatri Spivak but a word or two might be in order. She is a long-time faculty member at Columbia University, a Derrida specialist, and accused (somewhat unfairly) of writing in a dense academic style that is hard to understand, most particularly her “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (http://www.mcgill.ca/files/crclaw-discourse/Can_the_subaltern_speak.pdf) that appeared in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg’s 1988 Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Despite the impression you might have that Spivak is a hardened subalternist, her article is a critique of the school, albeit within its general parameters.

The first part of my proposition — that the phased development of the subaltern is complicated by the imperialist project — is confronted by a collective of intellectuals who may be called the ‘Subaltern Studies’ group. They must ask, Can the subaltern speak? Here we are within Foucault’s own discipline of history and with people who acknowledge his influence.

She then proceeds to find fault with Foucault, including his failure to acknowledge the “epistemic violence of imperialism”.

Her review, however, represents a kind of reflexive defense of subaltern studies and Ranajit Guha in particular, toward whom she feels particularly protective.

Guha, a seasoned communist who paid the price of his political convictions over a brilliantly maverick career as a historian, created a revolution within the discipline. For Chibber to prove him ‘wrong’–especially as an Orientalist misreader of Europe who believes that the ‘non-West’ has a different psychology¾is somewhat like proving W.E.B. Du Bois ‘wrong’ when he calls the exodus of the newly emancipated slaves a ‘general strike’, like the repeated attempts by folks like Bernard Lewis to prove Edward Said ‘wrong’, even, and I do not want to be mischievous, a well-meaning smart sophomore’s attempt to show that in the Poetics Aristotle is ‘illogical’.

In assessing the contribution made by Spivak to the debate, I find her emphasis on Gramsci most useful. Keep in mind that Spivak did not coin the word “subaltern”. In fact, it was Gramsci who was responsible for introducing it into the Marxist lexicon as a way of describing those existing outside the dominant classes examined by Karl Marx in works such as Capital. Some scholars regard Gramsci’s use of the term as a ruse designed to fool the fascists into thinking that he was writing about the proletariat. I for one am convinced that Marcus Green got this question right in an article titled “Rethinking the subaltern and the question of censorship in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks”:

Through an examination of Gramsci’s use of the term ‘subaltern’ in the Prison Notebooks, I will demonstrate that he did not develop the phrase ‘subaltern social groups’ because of prison censorship, but in fact developed the concept of ‘subaltern social groups’ to identify and analyse the politics and activity of marginalized social groups in Italian history. In analyses of specific historical contexts, Gramsci refers to slaves, peasants, religious groups, women, different races, the popolani (common people) and popolo (people) of the medieval communes, the proletariat, and the bourgeoisie prior to the Risorgimento as subaltern groups.

Despite the massive footprint of Gramsci in Guha’s work and others operating within the subaltern studies school, Chibber tells his readers that this does not interest him:

Moreover, this book largely avoids the task of tracing the theoretical lineage of the Subalternists’ arguments. As a result, even though the influence of Gramsci and Althusser is evident to those familiar with the relevant literature, I do not analyze the nature of this connection. Nor do I assess how their ideas have been reconfigured at the hands of Subalternist theorists. Again, this is partly because of the need to keep the book to a manageable size (and it is already longer than I had either wished or intended), but primarily because of my desire that the reader not be distracted by whether Subalternists have correctly interpreted a given theorist. What matters is not whether they are true to this or that theoretical tradition but whether they have produced sound arguments, and it Is that final product—their arguments as they stand—that we need to assess.

Spivak’s reaction to this is worth quoting at length:

Indeed, because Chibber is eager to prove that nothing that the subalternists acknowledged was more than ‘trend’-y, he dismisses Gramsci’s influence as a trend (6). When on page 27 he discloses, ‘I do not analyze the nature of [the Subalternists’] connection [to Gramsci] . . . primarily because of my desire that the reader not be distracted by whether Subalternists have correctly interpreted a given theorist’, this reader is obliged to conclude—and not only because of this ‘correct’-fetishist gurumahashay’s [schoolmaster] demonstrated inability to be auto-critical—that he is not ‘familiar with the relevant literature’.

For then he would have known that Gramsci’s main contribution was not ‘popular history and matters of consciousness’ (6). (Gramsci’s concern anyway is not consciousness-raising but epistemology, education.) Gramsci’s main contribution was to notice that, precisely because Italy, with its tail tucked into Africa, is not France, Britain, Russia or the US, the Risorgimento did not sufficiently assimilate ‘class’ differences created outside of capital logic (basically the incentive to establish the same system of exchange everywhere). This is why the Subalternists chose the word ‘subaltern’. The existence of the subaltern is also evident in the Pan-Africanist WEB Du Bois’s writings, in such essays as ‘The Negro mind reaches out’, although, being a distant yea-sayer to Stalin (of whose purge techniques he was unaware, as opposed to the lynching techniques of the Southern bourgeoisie), Gramsci’s ‘enemy’, he did not know the word ‘subaltern’ (Du Bois 1968, 385 – 414). So, not not capitalist, but separated from full capital logic.

I thought the reference to Du Bois was quite telling. Excerpts from The Negro mind reaches out can be read at http://www.yale.edu/glc/archive/1114.htm. I found this passage most useful:

The attitude of the white laborer toward colored folk is largely a matter of long continued propaganda and gossip. The white laborers can read and write, but beyond this their education and experience are limited and they live in a world of color prejudice…Color hate easily assumes the form of a religion and the laborer becomes the blind executive of the decrees of the masters of the white world; he votes armies and navies for “punitive” expeditions; he sends his sons as soldiers and sailors; he composes the Negro-hating mob, demands Japanese exclusion and lynches untried prisoners. What hope is there that such a mass of dimly thinking and misled men will ever demand universal democracy for all men?

What Du Bois is describing is the “subaltern” status of Blacks in the Jim Crow south. Largely outside the industrial working class and existing in the netherworld between slavery and free labor, Blacks were basically debt peons who according to the stringent categories established by “political Marxism” were caught in some kind of “precapitalist” limbo. If capitalism is defined by market rather than political coercion, then one must conclude that the Deep South until fairly recently existed outside of capitalist property relations except for the coal mines, steel mills, garment factories that were reserved for white labor only.

The problem with “political Marxism” is that it generalizes the experience of 19th century British society and shoehorns all of the rest of the world into that model even if it does not fit. Ranajit Guha’s efforts were directed toward developing a historiography that corresponded to Indian realities after years of finding Eric Hobsbawm et al inadequate.

The problem is not just Eurocentrism, to refer to my old friend Jim Blaut’s writings, but more specifically Anglocentrism. Let me conclude with Spivak’s reference to what she calls Little Britain Marxism, and Chibber’s place within it:

In a 306-page book full of a repeated and generalized account of the British and French revolutions, and repeated cliches about how capitalism works, and repeated boyish moments of ‘I have disproved arguments 1, 2, 3, therefore Guha (or Chakrabarty, or yet Chatterjee) is wrong, and therefore subaltern studies is a plague and a seduction, and must be eradicated, although it will be hard because careers will be ruined, etc.’, there could have been some room for these references to describe the range, roots and ramifications of postcolonial studies, so that the book’s focused choice could have taken its place in Verso’s protective gestures towards the preservation of ‘Little Britain Marxism’, shared to some degree by the journal Race and Class. Aijaz Ahmad’s In theory (1992) was such an attempt. Postcolonial theory is the blunter instrument, and its attempt to disregard the range of postcolonial studies in order to situate subaltern studies—confined to three texts—as its representative can mislead students more effectively.

He misses out on Guha because Guha has been placed within an academic battle between what I keep calling Little Britain Marxism and located postcolonial historiographies, here confused with the metropolitan second-generation version, particularly in the US.

Quite plain-spoken, no?

9 Comments »

  1. While the circuitousness of the debate is beyond me, I agree with Spivak’s conclusion. Your references to DuBois point towards a problem that one commonly encounters among the UK left, an inability to engage with the entanglement of race and class in the socioeconomic development of countries like the US, India and, indeed, much of the world reached by capitalism after its emergence in the UK. I have periodically had the frustrating experience of dealing with such leftists at the North Star and Lenin’s Tomb, primarily over the issue as to the extent to which the white working class has a fundamentally different experience than working classes of color in the US.

    For example, to assert that the white working class received tangible benefits from segregation, even as it remained a class exploited by capital, is beyond the pale. As far as they are concerned, a black textile worker in North Carolina, subject to discrimination in the workplace and the community, is on the same footing as a white auto worker with unionized benefits. Of course, it should be possible to acknowledge such variegated experiences while organizing around a class based political vision, but they are disinclined to do so. Perhaps, being in the UK, they have been fearful of alienating a larger white working class base, whereas, in the US, it is impossible to avoid confronting these issues given the much larger population of color.

    This UK approach is also consistent with a regrettable trend within post-war Marxism, the tendency to characterize peasants, students, women, undocumented immigrants, gays, lesbians and transgendered people, among others, as people with an imperfect consciousness who therefore constitute potential threats to the emergence of working class power. Such reductionism obscures the fact that they are usually workers, too, requiring them to subordinate, if not erase, their social identity in order to participate in radical left politics (curiously, straight white workers are not required to do so, as they are considered the proletarian norm). Not surprisingly, people have declined the offer.

    It can even reach the horror of the leftists supporting their violent political suppression as in Italy during the 1970s. The PCI either actively supported the police suppression of anti-authoritarian movements, or stood silent as they were harassed, arrested and jailed upon the pretext of dealing with the Red Brigades. To his dying day, Hobsbawm supported the PCI and mentioned it as one of his models for Marxist political activity. The PCI, a party that immolated itself by aligning itself in a de facto, coalition with the Christian Democrats through the Historic Compromise.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 7, 2014 @ 10:11 pm

  2. Gramsci’s stepped outside Marxist sociology in order to justify Stalinist popular frontism against the theory of permanent revolution. This was his sole and only theoretical concern.

    Comment by David Ellis — April 8, 2014 @ 10:39 am

  3. Aside from the point that Chibber’s claims about post-colonial studies are based on too few authors (which is legitimate, but has been repeatedly raised by others), Spivak’s piece struck me as a lot of Derridean gibberish interspersed with gratuitous displays of erudition. Her stylistic commitment to razzle-dazzle and opacity over logical coherence is unhelpful from the standpoint of advancing knowledge, let alone social justice.

    Comment by Josiah — June 22, 2014 @ 1:00 am

  4. Wondeful essay! Can you send me a copy of Spivak’s review at jomscuartero@gmail.com? Thanks!

    Comment by Jomar Cuartero — September 2, 2014 @ 9:35 am

  5. Great read! esp. since I’m almost done with Chibber’s book; would it be possible to email me Spivak’s review at jsgandhi2390@gmail.com? Thank you!!

    Comment by . (@NarabdaDaxa) — September 6, 2014 @ 4:21 am

  6. Could you please send me a copy of this review please?

    Comment by Fahad — November 16, 2014 @ 10:09 pm

  7. Interesting! could you please send me a copy of the review at fahad.dse@gmail.com?

    Comment by fahaddse — November 16, 2014 @ 10:11 pm

  8. Thank you for the blog post. I am starting to read Chibber’s book. Please be so kind to send me a copy of Spivak’s review to seuwandhi@gmail.com. Thank you

    Comment by Seuwandhi — December 17, 2014 @ 2:32 pm

  9. I want to understand what Spivak means by ‘Little Britain Marxism’ a bit more specifically. Can you think of material that can help? If so, can you send it to me at rorosarkar@gmail.com.

    Comment by bacchicchorus — June 26, 2017 @ 7:36 pm


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