Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 9, 2013

Uday Chandra on Vivek Chibber

Filed under: india,postcolonialism — louisproyect @ 7:01 am

(I don’t know who Chandra is, but he is a FB friend of John Game, a scholar of Indian history and politics.)

Uday Chandra: My view is that left critics of poco [postcolonial] theory do not need their own AV. Chibber has, unfortunately, been projected by Brenner, Anderson, etc, as the Chosen One to slay the dragon of postcolonial studies. It is even more unfortunate that “enlightenment values” and “human rights” are being bandied about in this way. And even more so that Chibber has acted in a way that has pissed many off even as Partha and others make clever and evasive arguments that avoid the very real problems with SS [Subaltern Studies].

But coming to the substance of the book, I would like to draw everyone’s attention to pp. 24-25. Here, Chibber highlights the “explanatory failure” and then the “critical failure” of SS [Subaltern Studies]. Chibber argues that SS “systematically misrepresents the relationship between capitalism and modernity” by 1) “obscuring the former” and 2) “denying it altogether.” But, to the best of my knowledge, the grand task of explaining the relationship between capitalism and modernity is not SS’s aim at all. That is Chibber’s problem, not theirs or even mine. SS’s aim, as the recollections of Guha and Chakrabarty rightly point out, was to bring the Thompsonian sensibilities of “history from below” into conversation with a radical critique of postcolonial Indian state formation under the Congress-led bourgeoisie. There was a historiographic context and a political context, not the imaginary aims that Chibber imputes to it.

Several scholars more capable than Chibber have pointed out that Guha, Chatterjee, etc, misread Gramsci in multiple ways in order to make their arguments about subalternity. It is also true that the “moral economy” framework in peasant studies appealed to these scholars as a nice critique of the then-dominant modernization theory. And, unlike their Cambridge and Indian counterparts, SS historians largely ignored the turn away from moral economy in peasant studies. A parallel reading of the evolution of SS and peasant studies over the 1980s and 1990s will be instructive in this regard. But Chibber isn’t interested in anything so empirical. He is after Theory, grand, universal, totalizing and macho (so yes, the gendering is important too). And on p. 10, Chibber explicitly makes the case for his more masculinist Marxism: “[Their] Marxism, therefore, is of a particular kind, and would scarcely be recognized as such by many contemporary Marxists.” And so, the battle of the swinging dicks began: whose dick, er Marxism, is bigger and better? By making it into a high-stakes ideological encounter, Chibber set the ball rolling for his eventual humiliation at the hands of the cunning Chatterjee.

On the question of Capital’s progress in the colonial versus the European world, I think Chibber and all of us would be better served reading some of Dave Washbrook’s seminal papers from the 1980s. He engaged extensively with Wallerstein’s world systems theory, peasant studies scholarship, early modern historiography, and SS to come up with certain excellent points about colonial political economy in South Asia and beyond. The thesis that the colonial state, represented by a bunch of white men and their Indian collaborators, “traditionalized” and sedentarized Indian society in the domains of kinship, land, labor, and capital remains as important as ever. Parallel to the work of Mahmood Mamdani, Fred Cooper, Sally Falk Moore, the Comaroffs and others, we now understand that capitalism in the colonial world was married to cultural forms and social relations of production (customary laws over land and religion, for example) that are structurally different from their analogues in North America or Western Europe. These are not “cultural” differences, but differences in the way modes of production and social relations of production interact with each other. The colonial world can still be profitably compared to Eastern Europe and Russia, of course, but the contrast with the North Atlantic world remains intact.

When capital is tied to the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) by colonial law or when certain social relations known as “tribal” are deemed to prevail in land matters, the colonial state was knowingly ruling through exceptions to the universal liberal narrative it knew from Whig history-writing in England/Europe. SS merely repeats this, as do Washbrook & Co. Now, as you say Nate, HUF property laws may well facilitate the workings of capital in some respects by channeling it along pre-existing kinship networks. But the stagnation of the Indian economy in the later nineteenth century is a very real phenomenon, and the decline of indigenous capital that thrived until mid-century is analyzed far better in Cambridge histories than in SS. The failure of the Whig project of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal is another real failure for the early colonial project of creating an improving landlord class. Indeed, this is the historiographic consensus on law, state, and agrarian society in colonial India. Capital IS interrupted in more ways than one imagines, and if you see what’s happening today with chiefs in Ghana or South Africa, you’ll see how forms of political authority shored up by the colonial state and reinvented traditions are placing clear limits to the social logic of the market economy. This is not to say that social relations established under the colonial regime cannot facilitate capitalism under certain contexts. For example, the biggest beneficiaries of the Bengal famine of 1943 were, ironically, Marwari merchants, including the likes of GD Birla who financed the Gandhian Congress then during the Quit India movement. As Partha noted at the end, it is not only (as in his earlier work) a matter of showing that subalterns resisted capital in the margins of the capitalist world economy, but also that contemporary Indian and Chinese capitalisms, for example, continue to be shaped by cultural-economic forms that are different from European trajectories. I see the Comaroffs making much the same claims with respect to zombies and millennial capitalism in southern Africa. Chibber doesn’t read people like the Comaroffs or Washbrook, but if he did, he’d realize how bad his strawmanning tactics are.

In sun, these are complex matters that cannot be approached in the crude sledgehammer style that Chibber uses throughout the book. I am with Jean Comaroff, who, in a recent interview, speaks of the dialectic between the cultural and the material as the most salient theme in her own work. The Comaroffs have never shied away from bold claims, and they’ve never bought into the post-Writing Culture turn in US anthro. Capitalism is central to their narratives and theorizing, but never at the expense of a deep understanding of what colonialism, Christianity, neoliberalism, etc meant to ordinary Africans in existential terms. Alas, neither SS nor Chibber are capable of doing the same in the South Asian context. This is why we need different post-subalternist narratives, Marxist or not, that will avoid the mindless warfare we are witnessing now between two left factions in the Western academy. I am not saying we shouldn’t fight the SS orthodoxy that reigns today – frankly, Partha himself is all too keen to move beyond SS, especially its (and his) earlier claims. But we must do it in ways that understand clearly what SS tried to do and failed. Whether that resuscitates Marxism or not globally is a different question that I’ll let the fighting vanguards decide.

1 Comment »

  1. Where are the references that Marwaris like GD Birla made a fortune out of the Bengal Famine of 1943, when officially a Muslim merchant Isphahani, a good friend of Surawardy and the Muslim Administration of Bengal during the Famine, was the main agent to procure food grains for the British Army and other useful for the colonial administrations?

    Comment by D.Bose — September 16, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

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