Partha Chatterjee on Subaltern Studies, Marxism and Vivek Chibber

At the recent Historical Materialism conference held in Delhi from April 3-5, a panel was organized with great fanfare – an official panel by the HM editors – around Vivek Chibber’s new book Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital. This panel was billed to be a decisive refutation of Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial theory, not only by the chief  theorists and organizers of Historical Materialism but by many other Indians – most of whom in any case have little more than a religious faith in ‘Marxism’ and understand little of Marxism and its history.  There was glee all around and one came across the hurried announcement of a Centre for Marxist Studies that was to host further events around this book against the demon that Chibber had apparently slain. After all, Chibber  was backed by the likes of Slavoj Zizek, Robert Brenner and Noam Chomsky, all of whom  had  endorsed his book as the death knell to  Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial theory. The glee was to be short-lived.

On April 28, at the New York conference of Historical Materialism, the organizers made the mistake of inviting Partha Chatterjee (a representative of a spent force, already buried at the Delhi HM Conference!) to debate the new star on their horizon. The meticulous demolition of Chibber that followed, embarrassed even his most ardent supporters, who had hoped to see the redoubtable Partha vanquished in person. And Chhibber, let our marxist brethren note, is reduced to finally accepting that he is more inclined towards contract  theory than towards Marxism!

Partha, whose years of meticulous engagement with Marxism can hardly be taken on cavalierly by any upstart on the horizon, calmly tore Chibber’s claims to shreds. Many supporters of Chibber’s book have, in social media, glumly  described the 28 April event as a great setback to their cause…

Here is Partha in debate…

27 thoughts on “Partha Chatterjee on Subaltern Studies, Marxism and Vivek Chibber

  1. Firstly, what’s wrong with some compatibility between religious faith and `understanding’. If you think that faith and understanding are incompatible I’ll say that you are foolish. European Enlightenment – both radical and moderate- made the difference between reason and faith but even that was proved wrong by Hegel – by no means an Enlightenment thinker- by proving that religion too is subject to a rational enquiry, that they are not separated. The problem with Enlightenment was that it banished speculative philosophy, which inquired into the rational basis of faith. As for Marx he had little to say about Enlightenment thinkers, except for the likes of Spinoza and Descartes. He was no great admirer of the French revolutionaries but appreciated their intervention to make a revolution. If anything Marx was an admirer of French materialism, which formed the basis for his theory of historical materialism, but from the standpoint of its critique by German dialectic. .
    Secondly your attitude towards Indian Marxists is not only disgusting but reactionary.. You have nothing but barbs in your arsenal, which you keep throwing at them. You should not be under the impression that you and your charmed circle have some monopoly on ‘Indian traditions of socialism’ . You are basically an anti- Marxist and thus you get along well and gleefully when Marxism is attacked.
    Partha Chatterjee has read Marx in his own way but he does not consider himself as a Marxist. His exposition on abstract labour is pure nonsense, because it falls outside of history. Abstract labour is not a historical concept. He has no notion of phenomenology and psychology. His interest has to do with anthropology and anthropology, a primitive science, serves well the interest of imperialism.
    As for Guha, he has completely misread Hegel. No Hegelian would consider him anywhere close to Hegel. He has used Hegel for suiting his own bias,. So is the case with Partha Chatterjee.
    Prey tell me what is the theory of post-colonialism. There is a theory of colonialism with theoreticians from China, India, Africa, Latin America. It’s a solid theory , historically grounded. Even the theory of neo-colonialism is theoretically seen as a transformation or deviation from colonialism. There are enough theorists and historians to back that up. But what is post-colonialism? A theory built on a prefix?
    This is not a battle, as Chibber makes out to be. One side lost out way back, But it would do good if you cease giving airs
    Debabrata Banerjee, Ph D.

    1. Aditya Nigam

      I look forward to some real sense (considering that you think Partha is ‘nonesense’) in published form from you. Hurling invectives like’reactionary’, ‘disgusting’, anti-Marxist… does not cost anything and don’t think I cannot trade some with you. I can meet you on your own ground but refuse to stoop to the level of name-calling the way you do.
      If you really want a debate on marxism, I openly invite you to one here – in this forum. Or I am prepared to wait for your definitive work. Saying that I am anti-Marxist is like saying I am anti-Hindu or anti-Islamist and I wear it as a badge of honour.

      1. Rohit Negi

        Chatterjee’s final message to Chibber: why so angry?

        But more seriously, the anxiety that leads certain marxists to shoot down/bring-back-to-track critiques is an interesting matter in itself. In fact, it would’ve been valuable to approach this tendency ethnographically at the New Delhi HM, where it was a general theme, partly because the conference set out to tackle [as used in rugby] ‘new cultures on the left’. Paraphrasing a friend, ‘there is a recognition that, for instance, caste is important…but, not really’.

      2. Dear Aditya,
        If all you can read are invective’s and polemical terms in my brief response, that amounts to falsification. Polemic of whatever kind- high or low – is also a way to develop arguments and theory. Without the polemic Marx could not have written a critique of political economy and a number of other works. However, what you have done is to completely ignore what I have to say and instead begin a game of treading charges. Also what you have written is not at all substantive but a brief note praising , if not glorifying Chatterjee and pulling Chibber down., Chatterjee`calmly tore Chibber down to shreds.’; `the meticulous demolition of Chibber that followed’. I may have preferred a vicious demolition of Chibber, if that was possible. But the fact is that Marxism has turned so academic that it looks like some harmless gentleman’s game, like golf. But that is far from the spirit of Marxism.
        I have raised questions : Is faith and reason diametrically opposed to each other? What was the critique of speculative philosophy of enlightenment rationalism? Is abstract labour a historical concept? Why does Chatterjee glorify anthropology and excludes phenomenology and psychology? What is the theory of post-colonialism ? Does this theory presuppose the theory of colonialism? Do the post-colonials have a critique of Marx? How valid is Guha’s critique of Hegel?

  2. I found Partha quite systematic and his response certainly adds to the growing literature that recently appear revisiting and analysing what they wrote under the banner of subaltern studies. However, true to the demand of the occasion, this one is (relatively) less productive (than some recent write ups i.e. EPW pieces) for any one familiar with Subaltern Studies and their earlier criticisms. What was, though, refreshing was the last five minute response from Partha.

  3. There is a question left hanging in this debate, of how physical well-being, and basic human needs, are articulated simultaneously historically and materially.

    Chibber may be correct that there are needs beyond the social that generate resistance, at the same time as Chatterjee is correct that these needs do not resolve to a singular static object.

    I think a substantial debate of such questions is preferable to identifying people as pro or anti a set of under-defined social groupings.

  4. Dhruv

    This was a kind of debate which created more smoke than light. Perhaps Chibber himself is to be partly blamed for it, for it was he who had been using such a charged language since the Delhi Historical Materialism conference that any possibility of reasoned discussion was becoming an impossible thing. Nonetheless, I believe that Chibber has made a number of important interventions which would be crucial in any future discussions about Marxism as such and also its relationship with post-colonial studies (or perhaps to be more precise, “subaltern studies”).

    Let us discuss the 3 substantial issues emerging in the Chibber-Chatterjee debate. (There are many other important issues in Chibber’s book, but let us limit ourselves to these three as of now.)

    1)Revolutionary bourgeoisie: Let us accept that till the publication of Chibber’s book, all leftists in India, whether marxists or post-colonialists, believed in the historically revolutionary character of the bourgeoisie in the West. So credit must go to Chibber for enlightening us (through meticulous reference to recent secondary works) about the real character of the bourgeoisie even in the West which was always timid at best. Now Chatterjee sought to argue that this has no import on the work of Ranajit Guha, for he was not interested in the real sociology of bourgeois revolutions in the West. Chatterjee tries to convince us as if Guha was only comparing India of mid 20th century with Western countries in the same time period. This is not true: see this except from Dominance Without Hegemony:

    “the liberalism they[Indian bourgeoisie] professed was never strong enough to exceed the limitations of the half-hearted initiatives for reform which issued from the colonial administration. This mediocre liberalism, a caricature of the vigorous democratic culture of the epoch of the rise of the bourgeoisie of the West, operated throughout the colonial period in a symbolic relationship with the still active and vigorous forces of the semi-feudal culture of India.”[ Quoted in Chibber’s Post-Colonialism and the Specter of Capital. Page 49].

    Or this:

    “Their [the colonial bourgeoisie’s] opposite numbers, the indigenous bourgeoisie, spawned and nurtured by colonialism itself, adopted a role that was distinguished by its failure to measure up to the heroism of the European bourgeoisie in its period of ascendancy.”[page 5. Dominance Without Hegemony. London.1997]

    Clearly, Guha believed that the bourgeoisie of the East and the West in their times of rising, can be compared. In the West, they were revolutionary, in the East they were timid (because of colonialism or whatever reasons. But that’s irrelevant here).

    If the only motive of Guha was to show the discrepancy between the liberalism of India with the liberalism of the West in the mid 20th century, so that the double speak of the Indian liberal national leadership could be exposed, then he had no reasons to talk about the “heroism of the European bourgeoisie in its period of ascendancy.” He could have just limited himself to an explication/description of the liberal regimes in the mid 20th century Europe.

    Chibber further says that if the bourgeoisie of the West was as timid as the East, then the reasons for the failure of the East to develop a sufficiently bourgeois public culture (i.e. coming together of the subaltern and the elite spheres/domains) can be examined through an inquiry of the movements and activities of the popular/subaltern classes. Because, as Chibber notes, it was these classes which bridged the split between the elite and the subaltern spheres/domains in the West through numerous struggles, movements and campaigns running into more than hundreds of years. Chibber concedes that Guha initially hints towards it (“the possibility of a different India under working class leadership”). But after a time, he doesn’t pursue this line of enquiry (i.e. an analysis of the popular movements which had the historical potential of doing away with the elite/subaltern split) and instead keeps on criticizing the Indian bourgeoisie for its failure to live up to the standards of the Western bourgeoisie, for ruling via domination rather than hegemony, for the continual split between the elite and the subaltern spheres/domains.

    2.Abstract Labour: It’s true that Chatterjee is formally/textually more close to Marx than Chibber, as far as their respective elaborations of the concept of abstract labour is concerned. But interestingly, whereas Chatterjee (or for that matter Chakravati as well) remains fidel to Marx only to dump him in the next moment (“Marx is not enough to understand the East”!!), Chibber develops a variation from the Marx to argue that abstract labour is consistent with the presence of other notions/practices of labour such as racialised, caste-ised or patriachised labour. In fact, often capitalism itself further develops these heterogeneities, although it doesn’t always have to be the case. Further, if the demand of a brahmin worker for higher wages than the dalit worker means that the principle of abstract labour is not at work here, then the same applies to the West, US or other European countries where a white worker may demand better wages than a black worker! Sure, such racist or casteist notions do create problems for the unity of the working class (subjectivity etc.) and the left must fight against such practices of the white and brahmin workers and should heed to the special needs of the dalit or black workers. But how come they invalidate the general Marxist assertion “workers of the world unite”? (as Chris Taylor does in his critique and seem to be approved by Aditya Nigam). Coming back to Chatterjee and Chakravarty, if the existence of such anti-diluvian practices among the workers means that capital has not universalized, then the same thing applies to Europe as well!

    3. Basic Human concern for Physical Well Being: It’s true that Marx never tried to look for any trans-historical human nature. (Perhaps he could never imagine that a time will come when everything will be seen in so relativised terms that any notion of common humanity will face such stubborn resistance). It’s also true of Marx that he visualized the emergence of universal notions of interests and needs only in the modern bourgeois period. So for a scholar working on say the colonial history, it creates a huge problem: how to account for the subjectivity of the rebel peasants into whose domains the modern universal notions of needs or interests can noy be said to reign supreme? This problem provides scholars like Chatterjee or Chakravarti the opportunity to assert that the colonial subaltern classes were primarily motivated by reasons derived from beliefs in the times of revolt. Although in the everyday lives, needs and interests show their presence, in extraordinary times, they gets replaced by reasons derived from beliefs, emanating from their autonomous subaltern domain.

    But this begs a further question: is it so that in pre-capitalist times there was no sense of interest or needs, even in embryonic or hazy forms? Interestingly, Chatterjee himself admits that notions of self interest made their presence in the Bengal peasantry even before the arrival of colonialism. So it seems conceivable that barring the times of “primitive communism”, in all class societies, there were some notions of interests, though they may differ from the modern bourgeois notions of interests. What about class interests, to take an example? Chibber perhaps could develop some themes along these lines.

    But even in its crude form, what is the problem with the notion that in all humanity there is some basic human concern for physical well being? Just labeling it as liberal is no answer at all.

    1. Aditya Nigam

      Dear Dhruv,
      Thanks for your comment which opens out the possibility of a more serious debate on issues that emerge from the exchange that followed in the HM conference in New York. Let me start with a confession. I am one of those who believes that even though the work of Subaltern Studies has been very important for people like me, it is time to revisit this episode in our intellectual history in a dispassionate and critical way. I have so far only seen writings dismissing SS or SS scholars defending their enterprise in the face of these attacks. Which is why there is ‘more smoke than light’. It was neither Chibber’s attempt – nor of those bigwigs of the Western Left who gleefully endorsed it as a demolition job of subaltern studies and postcolonial theory – to actually engage in any such activity.
      My own responses to some of the questions you have raised do not necessarily follow Partha’s in many respects. I would answer some of them very differently. So let me respond to the three points you have raised in your comment above, in my own way:
      1. The revolutionary bourgeoisie: In the first place, I think that it is wrong to assume that ‘before Chibber’ (BC!) came and enlightened us, ‘all leftists in India’ believed in the historically revolutionary character of the bourgeoisie in the West. My emphasis here is on ‘all Leftists in India‘, because this was pretty much the state of Marxist theorizing in the West as well. Historians had indeed been showing that there were indeed different trajectories in evidence but that had not really made any serious dent in the theoretical paraphernalia of the Marxists (Guha and others included). More importantly, there is a curious omission in Partha’s response that constitutes the missing link: Gramsci. Gramsci, the prime inspiration behind SS, has actually theorized the idea of the ‘passive revolution’ in his Prison Notebooks, precisely in order to distinguish the Italian scene from the British and the French – where a frontal battle was not possible because of the ‘weakness’ of the bourgeoisie. And this ‘weakness’ arose primarily from the fact that it did not have popular backing, that is to say, it was not hegemonic. This was the idea that actually resonated very strongly with many, including Subaltern Studies scholars. And let us remind ourselves that the Prison Notebooks had just come out in English a few years ago in the 1970s, when the SS project was basically incubating. So, here is a quote from Gramsci on the passive revolution:

      One could say that both Quinet’s ‘revolution-restoration’ and Cuoco’s ‘passive revolution’ express the historical fact that popular initiative is missing from the development of Italian history, as well as the fact that ‘progress’ occurs as the reaction of the dominant classes to the sporadic and incoherent rebelliousness of the popular masses—a reaction consisting of ‘restorations’ that agree to some part of the popular demands and are therefore ‘progressive restorations’ or ‘revolutions-restorations’, or even ‘passive revolutions’.

      Unfortunately, at the moment I cannot quote at length from Gramsci but there are important passages on the passive revolution that show the close relationship between Guha and this idea of ‘dominance without hegemony’. In fact, at places even Guha’s words virtually echo Gramsci’s. My disagreement with Partha’s response would actually lie in the fact that there is no need today to be so bound to the texts that were produced decades ago. Many Marxist scholars have critiqued them from the very inception, as Partha himself points out (and one could name Aijaz Ahmed, Sumit Sarkar and Javeed Alam among other, none of whom Chibber even thinks fit to reference). The fidelity that Guha expresses to Marx or Gramsci in the 1970s and 1980s is really not something one need take as it is today.

      However, this said, let me underline that Partha’s key point is something else: It is not really a history of Europe and its revolutions (once more and over and over again) that Guha or Chakrabarty or Partha himself are really interested in. Their interest lies in examining and engaging with their own context, their present (the Naxalite movement and its antecedents) – none of which are of any concern to any of the European or diasporic Indian scholars like Chibber.

      2. Abstract Labour: This is indeed the place where I think the tables can be turned completely on most dominant interpretations of Marxism and you are absolutely right in your claim that in reality, the idea of ‘abstract labour’ remains a fiction, even in the context of the West/ Europe. My own position on this would be that it is only subaltern studies/ postcolonial studies (of which anti-race scholarship is a crucial moment) critique that opens up the possibility of our ‘retroactively’ examining even the history of the West in this light. I do not however agree that ‘capitalism develops these heterogeneities’ – it is rather that it has to confront recalcitrant life-forms which it never able to fully subdue and assimilate.

      3. Basic Human Concern for Physical Well-Being: In my convoluted mind, it is the ‘human concern, ‘human being’ and ‘human nature’ – in whose name all universalism always seeks to speak that is the most questionable fiction of our times. Animals do not have class exploitation; no animal kills another because of the colour of the other’s skin or because it has beliefs different from its own. No animal ever went to war the way human beings do, bombarding civilians out of existence. The nuclear bomb, two world wars, and the daily destruction of ordinary lives on a daily and hourly basis – are these aberrations in an otherwise ‘noble’ human nature? Whose common humanity do you speak of? And don’t tell me that all this is due to capitalism! It is most certainly not.

      1. P. Kershaw

        For the sake of time, I will only comment on part of your response to Dhruv, regarding the basic human need, which seems a non sequitur. I don’t think that anyone, including Chibber, is claiming that human (or animal) nature is noble nor itself reducible to class. The human nature, to which he refers, is that humans (like animals) have a fundamental desire to reproduce their own physiological existence (and perhaps that of others too) on a daily basis. Capitalism, feudalism and any other system of class domination, however, threaten human’s capacity to meet this objective. Human nature thus prompts humans living within a socially constructed condition of class domination to resist this threat through class struggle. Class struggles under feudalism or capitalism, whether in the ‘East’ or ‘West’ may play out differently due to the specific relations of the social system and due to cultural antecedents, but this doesn’t deny that the fundamental operating category is class. It is my impression that this is Chibber’s and Dhruv’s point.

        It is not clear to me at all why you have inferred from this that Chibber believes that every instance of conflict is reducible to class or the system of social domination that might be predominant at the time. I don’t believe that he has even implied anything of this sort. Nor do I understand how your claim that animals do not not have class struggles is relevant to what Chibber is saying about human nature. You concede that “animals do not have class exploitation.” If this is true, then animals do not live in a system of class domination and therefore are not comparable.

  5. Pingback: A Note on Chibber, Chatterjee, and Guha | Marxist Marginalia

  6. Cyrus Vakil

    Viewing the debate is an excellent means of understanding why the Marxist Left, outside small pockets in academia, is in a beleaguered (or did Chibber use the word benighted?) state: 1) here are two celebrity academics who substantially agree in their Left world-view but choose to chew other apart in public 2) the debate centers on what Ranajit Guha wrote or meant, thirty years ago, and whether it is was true to Marx or not 3) the debate fails to discuss the role of agency in history, especially the agency of subalterns — which perhaps is the only interesting departure of subalternists from traditional Marxist historians (other than the local history vs universal grand-narrative fist-fight — though who would disagree that the subaltern worldview is now itself a very seductive grand-narrative?) 4) while one speaker addresses a live audience the other (PC) entirely ignores what Chibber has just said and instead reads out a ponderous book review. 5) It is left to the Brazilian historian-moderator to gently ask: were there women, or gender issues, either in subaltern studies or in the debate she just heard?

    Marginalia indeed.

  7. Tripoli- 9-5-2013
    Dear Aditya,
    Here is a comment from medical field, I do not know if it will be relevant or appropriate in your scholarly debates, as we are just simple medical workers who try to record Everyday history in North Africa and Mediterranean, but are inspired and educated by works of Subaltern studies group.Even if you do not post the comments, I would just like to express thanks for this educative debate.
    * * *

    Thanks for posting this educative debate.

    Read with great interest the comments and explanations after the debate.

    These will be particularly useful to persons who are not scholars but see the day to day workings of systems, how they come about, what are the links and how they can evolve.
    As medical workers in North Africa, we see misery in different forms every day, and the concern for human well being are different for a worker from Subsaharan Africa who tries to evoke the Church networks to survive, or the insured member of a corporate linked with the world of Oil, or an immigrant worker from Asia who has to worry about his Exit-Visa if he falls sick.

    To medical workers, they all come as human beings, but their contexts and realities are very different.

    The supply chains of materials, machines, maintenance equipments, medicines, prosthesis which are integral to structure of modern medicine are realities faced in this chain of ‘well being or health’.

    The way neo-colonialism works on the ground for the “wretched of the earth” is evident in the different dynamics unfolding here, after the particularly violent Libyan Chapter of the Arab spring. The Political Isolation Law, the militias surrounding the ministries, the way Oil-Reserves are well protected by NATO from the skies all give us lessons in hegemony in a raw 21st century form, even as common people try to navigate their changed lives in a system which is still evolving and extending from Syria across to Mali.

    Thanks for posting these debates, discussions and explanations which will definitely be of use to any advanced worker. Thanks to Aditya for the comparisons and links of work of Gramsci and Guha, the explanations regarding ‘dominance without hegemony’

    * * *

    A suggestion- Could a transcript of the debate be posted?



  8. This is with reference to Aditya Nigam`s response(posted on May 8) to Dhruv. All the three points made by Mr. Nigam circumvents issues raised by Dhruv or by Chibber.

    1.While the interest of the Subaltern studies may lie in engaging with and examining the Indian context, this engagement draws upon a theoretical framework which finds Indian bourgeoisie lacking in many respects after comparing it with the European bourgeoisie of 17th and 18th centuries and not with the European bourgeoisie of mid-20th century.. Gramsci , on the other hand, found Italian bourgeoisie non-hegemonic after comparing it with the contemporary British and French bourgeoisie. Therefore, Subaltern Studies should not blame Gramsci for its own blunders in historical sociology.

    2. Mr. Nigam does not think that capitalism develops heterogeneities of labour.Then what about various instances given by Chibber where capitalism often promotes these heterogeneities?

    3. Mr. Nigam’s arguments about human nature are rhetorical and beside the point. I do not expect it from an intellectual of his stature.

    1. Aditya Nigam

      Let me try to explain once more – at least for the benefit of those who wish to understand what is at stake here.
      1. The point very simply is this: Vivek Chibber is castigating Subaltern Studies scholars (and you repeat it in your comment) for something they are simply not doing – a historical sociology of Europe! That is not their project. At the most they can be faulted with taking Marx and Gramsci on trust about Europe and the history of capital there, and taking that as their starting point for their exploration of the trajectory of capitalism in India. What you and Chibber are demanding simply means – as Dipesh Chakrabarty has so evocatively underlined – that whatever we do, Europe will always remain the sovereign subject of history. Subaltern Studies scholars made their choice long ago and clearly, Chibber and you have made yours. Let us just accept that these are different projects and lodged in completely different views of what the task of scholarship and theory in the non-West is all about.
      2. As for the second point, may I point out that what you say represents to my mind a completely hegemonized view of agency. In this view, capital (and by extension, Europe/ West) is the sole agent of history. So, even that which is different from it, even that which resists it, cannot but be posited by capital itself. This is one of problems where many western marxists paint themselves into a corner. Having once decided that all other societies were changeless or without history or maybe, in more contemporary terms, just inert masses – they can only see any change as being produced/ introduced by capital/ Europe. As opposed to this, my own argument (that I have developed elsewhere and cannot go into in any detail here) is that capital did not simply have the world for its taking. It encountered the resistance and recalcitrance of non-capitalist life-forms wherever it went. And continues to do so even to this day. Heterogeneity is the very condition of life is not the product of capital.
      3. Finally, I also fail to see what you found rhetorical about my argument about human nature. You and Chibber give so much weight to something called human nature in a completely unthought way. No serious philosopher will find it possible to stand by you on this today. My poser in the comment was with reference to Dhruv’s question about “basic human concern for human well-being” and I said therefore that in fact human history shows that more destruction has been visited by human beings on other human beings. So where does this confidence come from that claims that there is some ‘basic human concern’ for human well being? Which is ‘true’ human nature, pray? And yes, I still remain guilty of believing that animals perhaps display much greater respect for other animals and life-forms – they kill only when they need to eat, not because they do not like the colour of another’s skin or their beliefs. You are of course, entitled to your view on each of these matters as I am to mine.

  9. Aditya Nigam

    @ P Kershaw,
    I do not really understand what you mean by basic human needs being a ‘non-sequitur’, but I will let that pass. You are right when you say that “the human nature, to which he refers, is that humans (like animals) have a fundamental desire to reproduce their own physiological existence”. Chibber refers to the “social agents’ universal interest in their well-being, which impels them to resist capital’s expansionary drive” (p. 291). You expand Chibber’s positing of this interest in resisting capital to include “feudalism and any other system of class domination” as well, which according to you threaten human’s capacity to meet this objective. And so you proclaim triumphantly, “Human nature thus prompts humans living within a socially constructed condition of class domination to resist this threat through class struggle.”
    I am afraid, this vision is hardly borne out in actual life – it exists only in Chibber’s ‘Marxist’ Wonderland. In real life, people find their own ways of dealing with their life-situations and often take decisions that may not ensure their well-being. Supporting a fascist party that will destroy all union rights for instance.
    I wonder whether you or Chibber have heard of something called Dalit capitalism – where large sections of the most oppressed, excluded and humiliated people (that is to say, people whose well-being is reduced to a cipher) find in capitalism a liberating force. False consciousness, will you say? This is not just an idiosyncratic position but one that has gathered strength over the years, so much so that we now have a Dalit Chamber of Commerce and Industry!
    But this is just one instance of a particular kind. Every time there is communal violence in which the working class is also implicated in inflicting violence on minority communities, we find brave marxists suddenly explain such matters (as they did after the Gujarat 2002 massacre) by saying that over a few lakh workers had become unemployed due to closure of textile mills and so they became cannon fodder (all this is on record – see the 2002 issues of EPW for further reference). Destruction of livelihoods and ‘well-being’ led them, not to organize and fight capital but join the violence against Muslims.
    I can go on with instance after instance but let me stop here. I bring up these instances simply to underline that life is far more complicated than what Chibber and you believe. Further, surely you do not think that class struggle involves the struggle of humans against non-humans. There are humans on both sides and they do not have the same understanding of their well-being, even when they enter class struggle.

    1. P. Kershaw

      The reason that I refer to your comment as a non sequitur is because the conclusions you draw about basic human needs under conditions of class domination cannot possibly be inferred from a comparison with animals, which as you noted do not operate under class domination. My understanding, therefore, is that such an error in logic is referred to as a non sequitur. If I am wrong, then you should not give me a pass. I am certainly not above having my word usage corrected. As a mechanical engineer, I have had that happen to me many times in my life—no shame.

      Moreover, Aditya, your propensity for sarcasm does nothing to make your argument more compelling on an intellectual basis. Rather, lashing out merely appears defensive and needlessly emotional in a way that suggests you have a political more than intellectual interest in the debate. For instance, I haven’t proclaimed anything “triumphantly.” I’ve merely made an argument about the basic human condition. Your characterization of Chibber’s book as a “‘Marxist’ wonderland” does nothing to address the subject at hand either.

      Regarding the substance of your response, however, I am trying to understand your argument but I still find it unconvincing and in large part irrelevant to what Chibber argued in his book and to what I argued in my original response. I assume that you are not doing this on purpose.

      For instance, you say, “In real life, people find their own ways of dealing with their life-situations and often take decisions that may not ensure their well-being.” Yes, that is very true, but this does not contradict Chibber’s argument in the least. He never argued or even intended to argue that people never act against their own personal interest. Nor did he argue that there is only one way “of dealing with their life-situations.” His claim, as I see it, is that people who live in a capitalist society feel class pressures, which—whatever else such pressures might do or not do—fundamentally threaten their ability to reproduce their existence on a daily basis. They, therefore, engage in class struggle, which may take many forms, depending upon many historically contingent conditions, but it in the end it is still class struggle. If you think that this is not true, then you are going to have to explain why.

      As an example, you say, “Supporting a fascist party that will destroy all union rights for instance.” Yes, that’s very true; people did support anti-union fascist parties, but again I think you misunderstand exactly what influences individuals “in actual life” when they make such decisions. One certainly does not need to resort to a claim of false consciousness to explain how this would happen. For example, an individual who fundamentally believes in unions and who recognizes that the fascist party might destroy the unions, might support the fascist party anyway, precisely because this individual could very reasonably calculate that his/her individual act of not joining the party might not save the unions anyway and would almost certainly threaten that particular individual’s basic human need, i.e., that person’s ability to reproduce his/her existence on a daily basis. Why do you think it is so difficult to form a union anywhere, whether under conditions of fascism or not? Potential union members face this decision every day, although the consequences under fascism, imprisonment or death presumably, are more severe than just being fired. Nevertheless, the calculation is the same. So, despite your anticipation that I would say false consciousness, I give you a highly likely scenario that has nothing to do with false consciousness. Based on Chibber’s writing, I imagine he would do the same. In other words, I find neither your original claim nor your evidence compelling.

      Now, I can’t speak for Chibber, but I have not heard of Dalit capitalism. So, you may have to enlighten me further to allow me to fully assess your argument. As its stands now, however, you seem to be arguing that workers or peasants who operate under its social relations “find in capitalism a liberating force.” I have no reason to doubt you on this. But what exactly am I supposed to infer from it? And how is it relevant to what has already been discussed? You do not say. I presume that you offer this as evidence to support an argument that these workers are essentially different from workers in the ‘West’ in terms of whether they engage in class struggle, but you do not say how this is actually evidence of not engaging in class struggle or whether they engage in class struggle in other ways. If that is what you believe, however, then you are going to have to expand upon on how that makes them distinct, i.e., how they do not engage in class struggle and . A distinction requires a comparison, which you have not offered. As such, no distinction can be drawn.

      In your final comments, you return to the communal violence thing, but again you make no effort to explain how this is at all relevant to Chibber’s argument. You say that this “to underline that life is far more complicated than what Chibber and you believe.” Life is always more complicated than what someone writes in a book. So, this seems a sort of absurd criticism. That is the nature of writing books. You can’t write about life in all its complexity—there is not room to do so. Everyone who writes a book has to narrow that book to a project of several arguments, including only the complexity of life that is relevant to those questions. So, stating that “life is more complicated” is merely to state the obvious. The real question is whether you have found some complexity, which when exposed to the reader undermines Chibber’s argument. If the complexity that you wish to expose is communal violence issue, then you have to explain why communal violence is evidence that contradicts his argument. But you make no effort to offer any such explanation. I can only infer again that you believe that communal violence represents some kind of essential distinction between the ‘East’ and the ‘West.’ We can never take such premises for granted, however. Again, you must articulate why such a distinction would place Chibber’s argument in question. Then you must demonstrate that such a distinction exists, which requires a comparison of these groups with groups in the ‘West.’

      I look forward to your response.

  10. Dhruv

    Dear Aditya,
    Thanks for the reply. I will come back to my first and third point (revolutionary bourgeoisie and human nature) later on. As of now, let us discuss the second point i.e. abstract labour and the question of heterogeneities.
    I think you are mistaken about Chibbers argument. Actually Chibber discusses about three sources/channels of diversities in capitalism (page 244). 1) Capitalism itself reproducing already existing heterogeneities. 2) Capitalism producing new heterogeneities. 3) Capitalism remaining indifferent to existing heterogeneities.
    Now there are indeed some leftists who confine themselves only to the first two points. They believe that *all* the heterogeneities are produced and reproduced by capitalism itself. They should be certainly criticized for their capital-centrism and here I totally agree with you. But Chibber is not arguing that. Let me directly quote him here:
    “…this means there is no presumption that a universalizing capitalism must become the explanatory master for every social phenomenon. It will be highly relevant for phenomena that are generated in channels One or Two, but not in channel Three. Where we find that a phenomenon falls in channel Three, it is not in any way corrosive to the universalizing claims of the theory, for it is entirely consistent with the later that a large number of practices will fall outside the theory’s scope. These phenomena will have their own explanations, and what these are cannot be prejudged. …there is not even a presumption that the explanation must be a materialist one, at least not with respect to the proximate cause.” (page 247. Chibbers book)
    “In cases that embody the Third channel, the universalizing categories of post-enlightenment thought could well have no relevance to the practices in question. This is because the diversity being examined will be an instance of History 2 to which capitalism is largely indifferent. Remember that the myriad social practices to which we are referring here are the ones that retain their independence from the rules of capitalism. The explanation as to how and why they persist will, as a result, likely make no reference to capitalism. Unlike the first two channels, therefore, histories of these practices will not have to draw on the universalizing categories of capital. They might turn out to be driven by highly localised institutional dynamics, or be tied to other cultural practices, or be highly contingent outcomes of social conflict not connected to capital. Consequently, the main issue will not be whether or not they are products of capitalism, since they are not. It will be whether they are products of material social practices or are produced by dynamics internal to discourse or culture. In other words, what will be at stake is not the relevance of a Marxian framework but rather the relevance of a materialist framework.” (page 246. Chibbers book.)
    So in case, if there is a fear that Chibber is being capital-centric, holds no real ground. Rather, he opens up new grounds for social research. For instance, whether heterogeneities posited by say casteism or patriarchy belongs to Channel One or Channel Two or Channel Three, or some combination of two or all of them, the nature of their combination etc etc can be fruitfully pondered over. They can produce some really interesting research findings! The communists no longer will have to be obsessed with capital. They will no longer face the either-or dilemmas and questions. They may end up by becoming more open minded. May be this will create more meaningful dialogues among communists, feminists and dalit activists. May be Chibber’s text will help in rescuing peoples blood-and-flesh history from the iron clutches of capital rather than subsuming it underneath. Or may be, I am being little over-optimistic. 
    As far as the “resistance and recalcitrance of non capitalist life forms” vis-à-vis capitalism is concerned, I found some interesting materials in Chibber’s discussion of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s two histories of capital – History 1 and History 2. I quote Chibber again,
    “But the mere fact that some social relations retain their independence [History 2] cannot possibly justify regarding them as practices that will undermine or disrupt capitalism. They might just as easily continue to reproduce themselves on a parallel tract, abiding by their own internal logic, while capital pushes along its own grooves. They will be a source of instability only if their conditions of reproduction clash in some way with the conditions that sustain capitalism. But is this a realistic assumption? Even while some relations associated with History 2 might be dysfunctional for capital, it is simply impossible to imagine that every such relation would have to be. Chakrabarty seems to equate the autonomy of a practice from the logic of capitalism with that practice being corrosive to capitalism. This amounts to the claim that unless a social practice is functional to capitalism’s stability, it is necessarily dysfunctional. It is hard to imagine how such a claim could be supported. Chakrabarty is there quite mistaken to conclude that just because History 2 might retain its own integrity, it has the effect of interrupting capital’s universalisation.
    Of course it is true that some practices internal to History 2 will indeed conflict with capitalist dynamics. But even though they may conflict with capitalism, it does not follow that they will disrupt its reproduction or its universalisation. The mere fact that a practice or norm conflicts with capitalism’s logic says nothing at all about its capacity to successfully block capitalism. It could very well be that instances of History 2 will encounter capitalism, clash with it…and then find themselves transformed by it. In other words, it could be that on those occasions where the logics of History 1 and History 2 clash, it will be History 1 that prevails. Hence the mere fact that there being an incompatibility between the two will not suffice to resuscitate Chakrabarty’s argument. In addition to their incompatiability, it must also be the case that the practices associated with History 2 have their social support- and its agents the capacity – to overturn the demands imposed by capitalism. Only if all these conditions are in place can we conclude that History 2 will have the effect of blocking the universalisation of capital.” (page 229).
    I think this passage has some very clear political implications in our contemporary struggles and how we think about strategies. If ‘capital-obsession’ has proved to be bad for the left, then an overestimation of the radical potentials of the ‘non-capital’ vis-à-vis the immense maneuvering power of capitalism-as-a-system may also end up frustrating those who are struggling for a post-capitalist future. In fact Chibber accuses Chakravarti of overestimating the power of History 2 to destabilize History 1, and underestimating the source of instability within History 1 itself(recent Global recession?). What we perhaps need is a creative combination of both these two destabilizing elements lying in History 1 as well as History 2.

  11. Aditya Nigam

    Thanks a lot for your detailed response, clarifying Chibber’s position, Dhruv. Between your and P. Kershaw’s comments, I am somewhat more enlightened about his project – even if, my own reading did not give me this impression. I do not want to really carry on this debate on Chibber any further. Unlike him and many others who spoke on his book at the Delhi HM conference, I do not comment or make up my mind on things without reading them – and truth to tell, I still have to finish reading his book – of which I am some two-thirds through. You would have noticed that my remarks and observations above were in response the the points you raised and not about Chibber’s argument.

    I will certainly keep your points in mind but just for the record, let it be stated here that Chibber accepted in the Delhi discussion that before he decided to launch his full-scale attack on Subaltern Studies, he had not read any Subaltern Studies scholar. In other words, he read only in order to attack them – a point made by other speakers on the panel. They had not read SS at all, ever, because they considered it a waste of time. Chibber also added that the five years of his life that were wasted on reading them and writing the book were the most miserable (I think he used the term ‘darkest’) years of his life. So much for intellectual engagement. To me, this is not the attitude of an intellectual but of theologians who think hearing or reading blasphemous material will pollute them.
    Kershaw, I have been writing on all the above issues – including Dalit capitalism for a very long time now and cannot reproduce all that here. I do not expect you to read what I write, but please realize that there may be things you do not know about.
    Anyway, let me get back to finishing reading the book now. I will keep the points you raise in mind:)

    1. P. Kershaw


      I appreciate that you don’t want to spend further time on this, and I appreciate the time you have spent on it so far. I should not let this continue to distract me from my work either.

      Let me address quickly the final point from your last response. Chibber may not have read any of the Subaltern Studies texts prior to setting his sights on them, and I can imagine how you and others may see his motivation to write the book as an attack for the sake of attacking. But he does address in the introduction to the book that after writing the article “On the Decline of Class Analysis in South Asian Studies,” Critical Asian Studies, 38:4 (2006) 357-387, many encouraged him to write what turned into this book project. More importantly, however, on the level of his argument, his motivations are neither here nor there, because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how cynical he may have been or what motivated him to write the book. The only thing that matters to the intellectual integrity of his project is whether his argument is right or wrong. Everything else is irrelevant.

      Thanks again and good luck with your work!

  12. Ullu

    The battle between VC and PC

    It is universally acknowledged that when a dark-skinned man/woman is out to kill other dark-skinned fellows in academia he/she is welcome news to big, fat, white (and mostly male) Marxists. So our little VC (may Marxbaba bless him), the innocent hero of our story, wrote a book. Just imagine, he just wrote a book; he did not rape, plunder, or murder, just wrote a book, and that was such a big occasion for all those white sahibs! By his own admission (in Delhi), this poor fellow has never been bothered to read texts from other faiths. In fact, when he was forced to read those ungodly books, in order to refute them and nothing else mind you, he felt that that was the “darkest” period of his innocent life! He, like many of his clans, steadfastly clung to his lessons that he received from the venerated Marxbaba, the all-knowing and all-inspiring priest in the white spotless temples of Europe. He, like many other Indians (expatriate or not) had equal belief in Sri Marx and Sri Krishna. Accordingly, our misibaba (may Marxbaba bless him) wrote his book, saying that all those dirty people who cannot understand the great Marxbaba have really made a mistake. They have done the horror of horrors, of misinterpreting the great Marxbaba. And what a book it was! Everybody from those white male European temples patted his him on his back and said, “Beta, you have produced a remarkable book.” Let us listen to some of these white saints who said it’s a book that would change the world:

    Saint 1 (of course the biggest saint): “The book we were all waiting for, a burst of fresh air dispelling the stale aroma of pseudo-radical academic establishment.”

    Saint 2 (somewhat muted; even his unflagging loyalty to Marxbaba is doubted by some): “Chibber’s analysis also provides a very valuable account of the actual historical sociology of modern European development, of Indian peasant mobilization and activism, and much else. It is a very significant contribution.”

    Saint 3 (only Marxbaba knows why he is important; but since Marxbaba knows it, VC (may Marxbaba bless him) took him very seriously): “It is a bravura performance that cannot help but shake up our intellectual and political landscape.”

    By now I guess you have got the drift of what all those saints say about our little VC (may Marxbaba bless him) and his great book. I am also sure that you are all, in spite of your varying degrees of respect to Marxbaba, by now have accepted that our little VC (may Marxbaba bless him) has produced nothing short of a miracle.

    But you know this world of ours is all full of monsters. Nobody likes the progress of our little VC (may Marxbaba bless him) from sheer ignorance to stardom. Even though all those saints from white European temples (just think, how wonderful they are) and all their coloured converts were guarding him zealously, suddenly our little and innocent VC (may Marxbaba bless him) had to confront a monster. This monster called PC (only Marxbaba knows if it’s an acronym for a more dangerous thing) is bald, with greying hair and beard, glasses, and full of all sorts of ugliness. Compared to our hero he does not even stand a chance. Even with one glance at him, you would be able to tell that he comes from a less glamorous place, does not know a thing about our great Marxbaba, and probably eats his own nails as well. What do you expect our little innocent VC (may Marxbaba bless him) to do in such a situation? Fight of course! And our little VC (may Marxbaba bless him) fought tooth and nail! What a fight! I don’t even have words to explain it, but I’ll reproduce something one of VC’s (may Marxbaba bless him) close friends said (in a rare mixture of Hindi and English, which is probably too difficult for our little VC (may Marxbaba bless him) but never mind): “Blood-hi-blood, flood-hi-flood.” Our little VC (may Marxbaba bless him) was bruised, no tell you the truth, he was hacked by this monster. The grey-haired monster called PC also had a mesmerising spell, because of which our innocent VC (may Marxbaba bless him) couldn’t even say his choicest abuses. Just think of it! Maiming our boy, and then claiming victory over his silent book must be a very bad thing. But what to do yaar. This is how life is. I hear these days our little VC (may Marxbaba bless him) is preparing a mask to hide his face, only Marxbaba knows why!

  13. Judy Whitehead

    Hi, This is not to defend Chibber’s book per se, but I think there was a great deal of obfusaction—albeit elegant and erudite— on Chatterjee’s part. One of his most ‘devastating’ points was that Chibber had completely misunderstood Guha’s Dominance without Hegemony because he took Guha’s critique of liberal historiography of bourgeois revolutions for a critique of those revolutions themselves. Actually, Guha critiques both in Dominance without Hegemony, and definitely includes a critique of liberal, bourgeois state forms, so Chibber was right to include them. It’s difficult to debate with someone who continually changes the goal posts, a point Chibber warned his readers about in relation to subaltern studies. Hence, his numerous and lengthy quotations. I certainly have problems with Chibber’s formulation of needs, but that ‘debate’ only proves the need to read both texts and to make up our own minds. Judy Whitehead

    1. Yes I agree that Chibber was wrong to proceed from a simple-minded rational choice paradigm reducing human action to some ahistorical “human nature.” Even Gramsci criticizes that. But Chatterjee was a moving target during this entire debate! I fail to see how anyone thought he “wiped the floor” with Chibber. Maybe its professional tribalism.

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