Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 12, 2013

Final thoughts on Vivek Chibber

Filed under: Academia,india — louisproyect @ 5:40 pm

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?


  1. Okay, this is excellent, Louis, but can somebody please tell me, at the risk of being thought of as some sort of Neanderthal, what the hell is ‘political Marxism’?

    Comment by Peter James Rose — May 12, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

  2. I looked at that link. I consider myself well versed in the English language and I sort of understand the definition of “political Marxism.” But my eyes glaze over reading that shit.

    “Lived praxis?” Go fuck yourself. Speak English.

    Comment by Pandora — May 12, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

  3. Well, Max Horkheimer had it another way, for one, as he hunkered down at the University at Frankfurt.

    Really, Lou, now that you’re beginning to get over your snit with Chibber, read his book: you’ll find that you are comrades, and that you and Partha Chaterjee definitely are not.

    Political marxism: thus Guy Bois christened Robert Brenner. It’s a respectable position with a good deal of solid work to its name. It tends to argue for the origin of capitalism in the British countryside–not necessarily, but in historical fact. And it also tends to argue that class struggle and social transformation proceed by political self-organization and action, not by autonomously “rising” and “falling” classes, not by technological innovation, and not by the “contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production”–a real conundrum, given that the the relations of production are already a contradiction.

    Comment by Jim Holstun — May 12, 2013 @ 9:18 pm

  4. I believe Horkheimer was a professor himself 😉
    As a former student of Gayatri Spivak, I say hear, hear to much of what Chibber says in the Jacobin interview (I haven’t read the book) , specially his understanding of social and political conditions that facilitated the rise of the postcolonial theory in US universities. At the same time, I find his central argument against PC confused and misdirected. The point is not whether or not peasants and workers in the West struggled and contributed to the formation of the liberal, or hegemonic order in the west. Obviously, they have been doing so for the last 500 years. The point is that this hegemonic order does indeed exist in the West and that both Western capitalists and their “subalterns” should get credit for this. Can we say the same about India, Egypt, Bangladesh, China, and so on? In other words, Chibber’s critique of PC, no matter just or not, seems to devalue the conceptual and, above all practical, distinction between ‘hegemony’ and ‘domination’. Is this distinction important today as it was in 1917? This is the question.

    Comment by Vladimir Bilenkin — May 12, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

  5. Jim, I’ll read Chibber when you read Henry Heller’s book on the origins of capitalism. Is that a deal?

    Comment by louisproyect — May 12, 2013 @ 9:31 pm

  6. Vladimir, weren’t you on the original Marxism list? What ever happened to you?

    Comment by louisproyect — May 12, 2013 @ 9:46 pm

  7. Lou, since your taste and advice are usually pretty good, I’ll have a look at and may even read Heller. But the difference is that I haven’t blogged extensively about Henry Heller with a suggestion that I know what I’m talking about. We all–non-academics and academics alike–like to imply we’ve read things that we haven’t. But when you start putting these little misdirections into a blog, they take on a life of their own. Oh, and you really should apologize to Paul Blackledge as publicly as you hurled shit toward him. He’s a good comrade and a good scholar and deserves better than that.

    I think I’ll return to my glamorous life as a professor now–you know, grading papers and reminding students that the comma goes inside the quotation mark, not outside, and trying to help my graduate students get jobs and fighting with administrators about their efforts to gut public education. You know, sexy and pretentious stuff like that. All us academic marxists are just in the catbird seat, I’m telling you.

    Comment by Jim Holstun — May 12, 2013 @ 10:17 pm

  8. Jim, with all due respect, I made a comment on a FB page about the HM panel on bourgeois revolutions that was utterly civil and to the point. Heideman, who I don’t know from the man in the moon and who is probably 40 years my junior, tells people not to pay attention to what I am saying because I threatened to punch Chibber in the mouth and because I am a creature of “ressentiment”–essentially repeating what that asshole Sebastian Budgen had said on FB. I appreciate the fact that you are so self-effacing and everything but we are dealing with a problem of elitism.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 12, 2013 @ 10:30 pm

  9. In graduate school in economics, students learn that to make their mark, they must come up with an innovative way to apply neoclassical economics. Or better yet, to latch onto a new field, such as behavioral or experimental economics, and do the same there. The true stars find ways to tweak the theory itself. In some of the newer fields, relatively speaking, such as women’s studies, black studies, etc. no doubt at the start there is a kind of radical impetus. But under the strictures that prevail in academe, these soon give way to new journals, building up one’s CV, getting promoted, and the whole pathetic academic game. After awhile, someone writes that the whole new field is a charade, worthless in its insights, and so forth. This gets in another journal, and the writer gains some acclaim if he or she has a modicum of intelligence, is at a “good school,” and has influential friends in universities. More conferences, journal articles, and on and on, ad nauseam. In general, it is much ado about nothing. Or worse. Because the whole business is intimately tied up with self-promotion, with endless ego gratification, with “look at me, me, me, me, me.” Fortunately, we all die and turn to dust, forgotten nearly as soon as the casket is closed or the urn of ashes buried or thrown into the sea or onto the wind. The world will change when we have a revolt of the nameless, when those who have names discard them and join as one with those who don’t.

    Comment by michael yates — May 12, 2013 @ 11:26 pm

  10. Michael Yates hit the nail on the head. Once upon a time James O’Connor was king of the hill with his theory of crisis. And then they ganged up on him to prove that he was full of shit. I’ve heard that the attack left him psychologically broken.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 12, 2013 @ 11:37 pm

  11. “It also tends to argue that class struggle and social transformation proceed by political self-organization and action, not by autonomously “rising” and “falling” classes, not by technological innovation, and not by the “contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production”–a real conundrum, given that the the relations of production are already a contradiction.”

    In other words, this is a “Marxism” that has zero to do with Marx. Quite a feat.

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — May 13, 2013 @ 9:32 am

  12. “In graduate school in economics…”

    Not just there, but in the entire bourgeois “science” of economics.

    There’s a reason Marx called his book “Capital: Critique of Political Economy” and not “An Exercise in Political Economy.”

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — May 13, 2013 @ 9:38 am

  13. Dear The Idiot or Demons or Karamazov Brothers or whichever book by Dostoevsky you are,

    No, quite a lot to do with Marx and with Marxism, As Brenner and Wood and E. P. Thompson and many others argue, there is more than one Marx–his work isn’t completely coherent. There are points at which he seems to suggest that technology etc. is “the motor of history.” But there are also places–and I agree that these dominate–that he emphasizes political struggle in a particular class context–referring to force as the “midwife” of historical change. That’s probably why he spent so much time organizing the IWMA, etc., and lauding the Commune; and why Engels, that military historian as well as economic historian, talked about the role of force in history; and why Lenin, Trotsky, and Lukacs all emphasized the crucial role of winning over some segment of the army. The key is class struggle, in other words: rather a prominent marxist concept.

    Comment by Jim Holstun — May 13, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

  14. Classes are born from relations of production. Class then struggle comes from the existence of those classes, themselves based on relations to the means of production. Spend less time reading the “Marxist” analyses of Marx and Engels (by people who get paid to make the waters as muddy as possible, this perpetuating the perceived requirement for such “professionals” to properly interpret the works) and get back to the basics (The Principles of Communism, The Manifesto, The Civil War in France, Critique of the Gotha Program, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, ) and you’ll be a lot less confused.

    Yes Marx and Engels worked quite a bit for groups that arose that they felt could be worked up into something more in the right conditions. On the other hand they also spent a lot of time warning against adventurism, trying to create something out of nothing, sects, etc.

    “Communists know only too well that all conspiracies are not only useless, but even harmful. They know all too well that revolutions are not made intentionally and arbitrarily, but that, everywhere and always, they have been the necessary consequence of conditions which were wholly independent of the will and direction of individual parties and entire classes.” – Engels

    “But what purpose this organization should serve depended very substantially on whether the prospects of a renewed upsurge of the revolution were realized. And in the course of the year 1850 this became more and more improbable, indeed impossible. The industrial crisis of 1847, which had paved the way for the Revolution of 1848, had been overcome; a new, unprecedented period of industrial prosperity had set in; whoever had eyes to see and used them must have clearly realized that the revolutionary storm of 1848 was gradually spending itself.” – Engels

    “All the socialist founders of sects belong to a period in which the working class themselves were neither sufficiently trained and organized by the march of capitalist society itself to enter as historical agents upon the world’s stage, nor were the material conditions of their emancipation sufficiently matured in the old world itself. Their misery existed, but the conditions of their own movement did not yet exist.” – Marx

    I could literally go on with this all day.

    As for Lenin and co., Engels sort of had something to say about that too (beyond what he wrote about “force” and the Blanquists, which also applies to a large degree):

    “I have a feeling that one fine day, thanks to the helplessness and spinelessness of all the others, our party will find itself forced into power, whereupon it will have to enact things that are not immediately in our own, but rather in the general, revolutionary and specifically petty-bourgeois interest; in which event, spurred on by the proletarian populus and bound by our own published statements and plans — more or less wrongly interpreted and more or less impulsively pushed through in the midst of party strife — we shall find ourselves compelled to make communist experiments and leaps which no-one knows better than ourselves to be untimely. One then proceeds to lose one’s head — only physique parlant I hope — a reaction sets in and, until such time as the world is capable of passing historical judgment of this kind of thing, one will be regarded, not only as a brute beast, which wouldn’t matter a rap, but, also as silly, and that’s far worse. I don’t very well see how it could happen otherwise. In a backward country such as Germany which possesses an advanced party and which, together with an advanced country such as France, becomes involved in an advanced revolution, at the first serious conflict, and as soon as there is real danger, the turn of the advanced party will inevitably come, and this in any case will be before its normal time. However, none of this matters a rap; the main thing is that, should this happen, our party’s rehabilitation in history will already have been substantiated in advance in its literature.”

    No, “force” is not the guiding, or even main, feature of the work of Marx and Engels. It’s a pillar of national socialism, Bismarck, putschism, fascism, etc., i.e. the sort of thing that Marx and Engels fought against.

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — May 13, 2013 @ 9:23 pm

  15. “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.”

    Discovering the pathways by which this increasingly abstracted research makes its way outside the academia into the hustle and bustle of political life would be an interesting project. No doubt it does so in the manner that we recall from kindergarten, where the teacher plays “telephone” with the students, and whispers something in a student’s ear, who is then required to repeat to the person next to her, and so on.

    “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.”

    Dare I say that this borders on an anarchist approach to education?

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 13, 2013 @ 9:42 pm

  16. “there is more than one Marx–his work isn’t completely coherent.”

    Bingo. This is a totally controversial assertion to make among “Marxists”, however.

    Most other social thinkers go through a series of ruptures, shifts in emphasis, and outright changes in the course of their intellectual life. Nobody would ever assert some seamless continuity in the work of, say, Foucault between The Order of Things and the later volumes of the History of Sexuality. On the contrary, Foucault scholars emphasize the rupture and discontinuity of his work.

    Marx scholars, especially those working with the raw manuscripts being taken into the MEGA project, are finally getting around to dealing with the discontinuities and completeness in Marx’s work.

    But the difference between Marx and Foucault is that while Foucault was basically “just” a scholar, Marx was a figure in the European labor movement, and regarded as the father of an entire worldview called “Marxism” that was adopted by an entire wing of that labor movement.

    So “Marxists” have a quasi-religious interest in defending some mythical notion of a seamless continuity of a Marxist worldview. This basically leads to a lot of squaring the circle between different periods in Marx’s intellectual development in order to misrepresent him as a singular genius who was always pursuing the same line of inquiry. So you have the ridiculous attempts to reconcile the Feuerbachian anthropology of the 1844 Manuscripts with their “species being” with later works like the German Ideology in which Marx speaks of “human nature” only in terms of the “ensemble of social relationships”; or Marxists take a couple of tossed off lines from the 1859 Preface and turn it into a grandiose “theory” about developments in productive forces leading to changes in relations of production. And this despite the fact that much of Vol. I of Capital involves demonstrating how the causality is reversed: determinate relations of production leading to certain changes in technology.

    As one comrade mentioned to me in a private email once, this quasi-religious attitude toward Marx robs him of his humanity.

    Comment by negative potential — May 14, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

  17. There is dogmatism and there is principle. There are things that Marx changed on, things that Marx was wrong about, but you either accept the world view he promoted or you don’t. Certain things, like believing in the primacy of force for example, put you squarely on the opposite side of the Moor. Otherwise it’s like anarchism, where everyone can claim the mantle despite holding positions as different as those between Stroessner and Luxemburg.

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — May 14, 2013 @ 7:24 pm

  18. Except that, when you allow for the various changes that Marx underwent in his various unpublished writings, basically two things remain:

    1) The critique of political economy, which remained unfinished, but which offers us the best starting point for a theory and critique of the capitalist mode of production,


    2) A set of concrete political positions, some of which are rather broad (“self-emancipation of the working class”, the necessity of political action) and some of which are extremely specific interventions in the 19th Century European labor movement, which might be of historical interest.

    None of this really amounts to a “worldview”; it amounts to 1) a theory of capitalism and 2) a broad political orientation.

    It only got made into a worldview by “Marxists” after Marx’s death.

    Comment by negative potential — May 14, 2013 @ 11:26 pm

  19. Hi Louis,

    A few quick points in “defence” of Gramsci and his heavily mediated offspring Subaltern Studies.

    You wrote above that: “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”.

    I really think this reading, though commonly asserted by many Marxists and interpreters of Gramsci, is mistaken. Gramsci is picking up on and signalling to other things with this category. He is not simply using code to confuse his guards.

    The category of the “subaltern”, in fact, implies an opening up of politics from below, and picks up on other kinds of social antagonism that might not primarily or solely have a class character. Controversial point, I know. If you read Gramsci, you might find that in his later notebooks he substitutes “groups” for “class”, and will often list subaltern groups together with workers, as both being opposed to “hegemony”. Subaltern thus may refer to proletarians, but also to sub- or para-proletarians (others who are marginalised as subjects in society), i.e. groups that experience subordination (thus the easy link with today’s talk of “sex”, “gender” and “race”, etc. in Cultural Studies and other “Left” academic work).

    In any case, Fascism let Gramsci, a VERY prominent Marxist revolutionary, writer, journalist, founder of the Italian Communist Party, etc., write over 30 notebooks in prison. I wonder what they thought he was writing about then… pretty simple, revolution and politics. Still, these notebooks weren’t published for decades, and were mainly written as a means for theoretical and political self-clarification. (By the way, some are still to be translated into English.)

    Rather, it seems to me that this somewhat dismissive reading (“Subaltern” is mere code for Class) is especially popular among those who aren’t keen on other Marxisms. That is, Marxists who aren’t keen on, for example, this other genealogy and politics that Gramsci referred to as the “philosophy of praxis”, and which, of course, had begun much earlier with Labriola (a Hegelian prior to being a Marxist, and someone who Engels considered a “rigorous Marxist” back in 1893). Althusser, my pet code-Marxist, isn’t particularly fond of this stuff either.

    Indeed, those code-Marxists claim that “philosophy of praxis” is, once again, simply more Gramscian prison-code for Marxism itself, thus discounting this rich Hegelian inflected Marxist tradition that was Gramsci’s. By the way, if you read closely that short Gramsci quote you pasted up there –this business of “becoming a State”–, the proximity to the Hegelian interpretation of the State should become more or less apparent.

    Finally, though I would agree that this is all a bit far off from a “critique of political economy” –-and a big YES to Negative Potential here, that is essentially IMHO what Marx’s own work is most productively about–, I do think that Guha’s Subaltern Studies, based as it is on a certain interpretation of Gramsci’s project for subaltern history, should be seen as relevant to a radical politics that looks to Marx’s critique.

    I take this kind of theoretical and historical work to be, not merely scholarly work, but also a theoretical contribution to, or an elaboration upon, the second point Negative Potential refers to, the concrete politics, and in particular, a reading of the concrete politics in a colonial or “postcolonial” world.

    By the way, in Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, second chapter, “The Two Histories of Capital”, he presents a really suggestive reading of capitalism in the periphery/postcolonial world that builds upon his and other work from the SS collective and Postone’s interpretation of Marx (his colleague at U. Chicago).

    Comment by Carlos Eduardo Morreo — May 15, 2013 @ 4:20 am

  20. I will read Chibber’s book, as it clearly touches on themes that really matter to me. But I will say that I was surprised to not find a single reference to Gramsci or Labriola (or E. P. Thompson for that matter) in the Jacobin interview! It made the whole Subaltern Studies take on Marxism seem really arbitrary, as if there weren’t any history to it.

    Comment by Carlos Eduardo Morreo — May 15, 2013 @ 4:24 am

  21. 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.

    Comment by Bennett I. Conner — May 18, 2013 @ 7:53 am

  22. […] Bence son paletlemeden bu yana tespit ettiğim en sansasyonel sosyal bilim gündemi, eski hocam Vivek Chibber’ın kitabı Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital idi. Historical Materialism dergisi 2013 konferansında da sömürgecilik-sonrası literatürün anaakımı hakkında Chibber’ın klasik-Marksist (Bob Brennercı) pozisyondan yaptığı eleştirisi sahne aldı (tartışma videosu şurada). Şurada Vivek’le bir mülakat var. Şu, kısa süre içinde yazılmış teferruatlı bir anti-Vivek yazısı. Şu da, anti-Vivek polemiğine polemik. Burada da bir yorum. Ha bir de, Louis de ağır konuşmuş. […]

    Pingback by Paletleme Amirliği – Mayıs 2013 | Emrah Göker'in İstifhanesi — May 27, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

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