Tag Archives: Partha Chatterjee

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…

Politics, ‘Political Society’ and ‘the Everyday’

Politics, ‘Political Society’ and ‘the Everyday’

 Book Review 

Lineages of Political Society, by Partha Chatterjee, Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2011. Pages: 278, hardcover, Rs 750.


Lineages of Political Society

 Over a decade ago, political theorist Partha Chatterjee embarked on what was a novel journey in the history of political thought in India and perhaps, in the postcolonial, non-Western world. Bringing together the results of decades of his own intellectual engagement with Indian politics and the question of subalternity in particular, Chatterjee began articulating a concept that has now acquired wide currency: his concept of ‘political society’. ‘Political society’, in Chatterjee’s hands, was a way of recuperating a sphere of politics that had been a permanent source of anxiety for theorists of Indian (and postcolonial) modernity and democracy – the vast domain that existed outside the designated spheres of modern politics, where the untutored masses made claims on the state and formed their own associations and organizations, unmindful of the formal grammar of rights and citizenship. A crucial part of what defines activities in this domain is ‘illegality’, or, at any rate, non-legality, where the state itself places the law in suspension in order to recognize the claims of the governed. Thus for instance, squatting by the poor on government land that is strictly speaking, encroachment in legal terms and can never acquire the status of a ‘right’, is nevertheless allowed by governments to continue through the recognition of some kind of moral claim of the poor on governments and society at large.

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On Populism – A response to Partha and Aditya: Gyan Prakash

Guest post by GYAN PRAKASH

In following the discussion on the Anna Hazare phenomenon, I have found the references to populism very interesting.  In response to Partha, Aditya reminds us that populism should not be dismissed as non-political or anti-political. Partha clarified that he does not regard Anna Hazare’s populism as anti-political but as anti party-politics and anti government.  Team Anna narrowly defines politics as the domain of party politics and the government, which it then identifies with corruption. Om Puri’s rant and Kiran Bedi’s vaudeville performance expressed this sentiment.  Politics means netas, who are corrupt.  References to 2G, CWG, Kalmadi, and various land scams refer to politics in this sense.  Such a definition of politics allows the claim that the gathering at Ramlila was non-political or beyond politics.  Anna as a saintly Gandhian figure who does not seek office, and the status of Kiran Bedi and Kejriwal as civil society members, contributed to the representation that the mobilization of the “people” transcended politics.

Continue reading On Populism – A response to Partha and Aditya: Gyan Prakash

Populism and the Anna Hazare Event: Swagato Sarkar

Guest post by SWAGATO SARKAR

I have been trying to make sense of the Anna Hazare event. I agree that it was historical, but was it a tragedy, or a farce? The swift exchange between Partha Chatterjee (PC) and Aditya Nigam (AN) and their reference to Ernesto Laclau and ‘populism’ have given me a familiar frame to enter into the debate around the event. Here, I will concentrate on the question of populism and its normative status. However, unlike PC and AN, I have got nothing to offer to ‘the Left’ (Independent or Dependent), because I am not a leftist, rather one who likes sitting on the fence on a nice arm-chair and this piece will perhaps bear an imprint of that position. Also, apologies are due to the readers of Kafila as I have not read, just browsed through, the two pieces written by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, which have been wildly popular – if Facebook is an indicator – and have been referred to by both PC and AN. Therefore, I might be repeating what Sengupta has already said.

Continue reading Populism and the Anna Hazare Event: Swagato Sarkar

In the Ruins of Political Society – A Response to Partha Chatterjee

Partha Chatterjee’s post, following on Shuddha’s Hazare Khwahishein… is something of an eye-opener for me. I will not enter into a debate with him on his reading of Shuddha’s post as Shuddha and I have had our long online and offline exchanges and I have learnt immensely from these exchanges, even if a core of disagreement persists. I do think, however, that Partha is mistaken in thinking that this is the first time the question of corruption has been discussed on Kafila or elsewhere but since I am not interested in discussing that question here, I will leave that matter aside. I think I have said pretty much what I wanted to say on the movement and the myriad issues related to it and so I am no more interested in going over that territory all over again. Interested readers can see the Kafila archives if they so wish.

What has been an eye-opener for me is the way a certain other Partha Chatterjee has emerged, as soon as his theories were brought face to face with the hurly-burly of politics. The imprint of this other Partha is clearly evident in every word and sentence of this post, but most clearly in the concluding sentence where he claims that the indepdent Left has ‘its populist moment in Nandigram’. This sentence encapuslates the gist of our disagreements. It was this assessment that led Partha to write the essay, ‘Democracy and Economic Transformation‘ where, in some elliptical fashion, his own discomfort with popular politics  found expression. That is when he extended the definition of ‘political society’ to say that it was the sphere of ‘management of ‘non-corporate capital’ (of course, by capital and government). That Partha links his discomfort over the Anna Hazare movement to his discomfort over Nandigram, is in my view, a sign of the fact that his idea of ‘political society’ lies in ruins, that it collapsed at the precise moment of its encounter with the popular.

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Against Corruption = Against Politics: Partha Chatterjee


Shuddhabrata Sengupta has done a great service by opening up the question of corruption which lies at the heart of the Anna Hazare movement but which has been, surprisingly, accepted quite uncritically as a universally known and universally condemned evil. It is actually quite puzzling how this effect has been achieved. It is a question which, I think, touches the core of the populist mobilization brought about by the Anna Hazare movement.

Think of it. Who are the beneficiaries of corruption? The entire middle class in India (lower, upper, aspirant lower to upper, whatever category one wants to use) seems to think that it is the victim of corruption. “It touches the lives of everybody”, as Nivedita Menon said in her recent piece in Kafila. But then who are the engineers, the accountants, the babus in the offices, the touts who surround the courts and the hospitals and the railway ticket counters? Aren’t they our uncles and nephews and sisters-in-law? The corrupt people of India are blood relations of those who are flocking Ramlila Maidan. But, needless to say, no one you meet there will accept that.

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The Singur Act and the Deontological Reaction: Prasanta Chakravarty


The remarkable Singur Land Development and Rehabilitation Bill, passed in the West Bengal Assembly on June 14 became an Act on June 20. The Act scrapped the previous Left Front government’s deal with Tata Motors and has provisions to return land to unwilling farmers. Consequently, Singur land was taken over by the State government prompting Tata Motors to legally challenge the whole Act and a judicial battle has ensued between them and the newly elected State government. The State government may continue to return land in right earnest since there is no legal bar to that as of now. One would think that by many standards, this is a landmark bill that challenges and confronts policy consensus in issues of land transfer, models of enclosing and a concomitant notion of development that marks our nation at this point of time.

Reactions to this enactment have been thick and fast—alarmist and cautious to generous and triumphant. Continue reading The Singur Act and the Deontological Reaction: Prasanta Chakravarty

The Two Zizeks

Slavoj Zizek spoke on Tragedy and Farce in Delhi on January 5, 2010. He spoke for about an hour and a half, then I responded for about 18 minutes, then he came back spiritedly for about forty-five minutes. This post is in two parts. The first part is the brief intervention I made at Stein Auditorium. In the second part of this post, I expand on my critique in the light of his response. I could not of course, speak after he had spoken the second time, so I’m doing it here.


A jinn appeared to a man and granted him three wishes. First, said the man excitedly, I want to be Slavoj Zizek. You idiot, said the jinn. You are Slavoj Zizek.

This is one of the many stories that the internet throws up on the eminent Slovenian Lacanian whom it has been our pleasure to listen to today. His own jokes and anecdotes are of course legendary, the medium through which he makes complex theoretical points. It thus becomes the burden of every unfortunate person writing about him or commenting on his work, to tell a few jokes themselves. Often Profesor Zizek’s own.

So. It struck me that the truth of the joke with which I began is that Slavoj Zizek longs to be Slavoj Zizek. He never quite makes it, though, because Zizek keeps escaping himself. In an interview to The Guardian a couple of years ago, he was asked – What do you most dislike about your appearance? And he replied – That it makes me appear the way I really am.

Having followed Professor Zizek’s work for a while now in growing bewilderment, I understand his predicament There are at least two Zizeks in there, and whichever one manifests himself, Slavoj is taken aback and rather dissatisfied. This is me? He seems to ask.

Continue reading The Two Zizeks

Prasanta Chakravarty – Of Demos, Innovation and Affect

Carrying forward the debate around Partha Chatterjee’s article in EPW.


In the wake of the development debates around the nation, one witnesses an interesting array of articles—polemical as well as academic—that takes on headlong issues of political intervention by developing the terms of negotiation and deliberation in a certain direction. And that is the story of growing up—that democracy is the story of pragma, of mature understanding of the contestatory space. These are reminders that politics of good intentions is benign self-deception. Worse: it is apolitical, prophetic, self-indulgent.

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Political Society and the Fable of Primitive Accumulation

This is a response to Partha Chatterjee, whose recent essay we had posted for further debate.

Partha’s work has been a central reference point for the work of many of us and his notion of ‘political society’ has provided an unprecedented opening, a possibility – that of thinking the ‘unthinkable’. I would go so far as to say that the enunciation of the idea of ‘political society’ has been one of the most important conceptual interventions of ‘postcolonial’ political theory – that is to say, political (and social theory) produced from/in the postcolonial world; an intervention in theory that for the first time brings in the postcolonial experience into its very heart. I shall even claim that the potential and possibilities of this concept are of far wider applicability than the geographical ‘third world’ and can provide a lens for looking at the so-called first world itself. But on that more later. Continue reading Political Society and the Fable of Primitive Accumulation

Democracy and Economic Transformation – Partha Chatterjee

[Political theorist Partha Chatterjee’s work has been the reference point for many contemporary theorizations of politics in India and others parts of the postcolonial world. Chatterjee has recently published an important essay, which we reproduce below. Many friends and colleagues in Kolkata and elsewhere have requested Kafila to provide the forum for this debate, considering the common interest that many of us have in issues raised here. Some reformulations by Chatterjee, especially in the aftermath of Nandigram, call for a more sustained political theoretical reflection. The article also raises issues directly related to questions of rural-to-urban migration that has seen some debate in Kafila lately. – AN]

Economic & Political Weekly

April 19, 2008 [Download PDF]

Democracy and Economic Transformation in India

With the changes in India over the past 25 years, there is now a new dynamic logic that ties the operations of “political society” (comprising the peasantry, artisans and petty producers in the informal sector) with the hegemonic role of the bourgeoisie in “civil society”. This logic is provided by the requirement of reversing the effects of primitive accumulation of capital with activities like anti-poverty programmes. This is a necessary political condition for the continued rapid growth of corporate capital. The state, with its mechanisms of electoral democracy, becomes the field for the political negotiation of demands for the transfer of resources, through fiscal and other means, from the accumulation economy to programmes aimed at providing the livelihood needs of the poor. Electoral democracy makes it unacceptable for the government to leave the marginalised groups without the means of labour and to fend for themselves, since this carries the risk of turning them into the “dangerous classes”.

Partha Chatterjee

The first volume of Subaltern Studies was published in 1982. I was part of the editorial group 25 years ago that launched, Continue reading Democracy and Economic Transformation – Partha Chatterjee