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Subalterns, Postcolonialists, and the Specter of Capital: A Polemic from Marxism

The theories of the “postcolonialists” condemn us to the mere repetition of local resistance with no way out of the brutal plundering of people by imperialism, multiple repressions, and exploitation. The socialist strategy is a tool to eradicate the society based on this brutality.

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A slightly blurry photo of a crowd of people all raising their fists.

“Postcolonial,” “decolonial,” and “coloniality of power” — these are some of the terms that flooded debates in academia and on the Left in the decades of the neoliberal boom. After the shock of the capitalist crisis of 2008, and with the return of some debates regarding global capitalism and imperialism, criticisms of postcolonial thinking have been reactivated.1See, for example, Enrique de la Garza Toledo (ed.), Crítica de la razón neocolonial [Critique of Neocolonial Reason] (Buenos Aires: CLACSO/CEIL CONICET/Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana/Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, 2021). The book is a collection of interesting critical essays on decoloniality, particularly its Latin American variant. This article addresses some of them, especially Vivek Chibber’s book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capitalism — both its strengths and its limitations.2Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2013). A Spanish edition of the book was published in 2021. See Vivek Chibber, La teoría postcolonial y el espectro del capital, translated by José Maria Amoroto Salido (Tres Canto, Spain: Akal, 2021).

First, though, we must explore what “postcolonial” means and why it has become such a “unique way of thinking” among many intellectuals of the so-called “Global South.” Is it a unified theory or a set of heterogeneous critical perspectives? And what should we make of its onslaught against Marxism?

Postcolonial, as the word’s prefix indicates, is a specific variant of the rise of post- in academia. Terry Eagleton once noted that postcolonialism was the foreign relations department of postmodernism.3Terry Eagleton, “Capitalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism,” New Left Review I/152, July/August 1985.Postcolonial studies, which has grown in influence since its beginnings in the 1980s and 1990s, has drawn on authors such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida as its proponents have intervened on the intellectual terrain. It is a poststructuralist matrix for thinking about the relationship between center and peripheries, as well as between capitalism and racism/colonialism.

Genesis of Postcolonial Criticism

The origins of postcolonialism can be traced to the emergence of the Subaltern Studies Group of Indian intellectuals, and the series Subaltern Studies published annually since 1982. Combining a culturalist reading of Antonio Gramsci with notions of Foucaultian and Derridean textualist deconstruction, they set out to intervene in Indian historiography. However, it would be wrong to attribute to this current alone the more pluralistic beginnings of postcolonialism. In those same years, intellectuals of color from the Asian, African, and Caribbean diaspora were engaged in a prolific ideological production in the English-speaking world, especially in literature departments.

As an antecedent, Stuart Hall carried out his own Gramscian reading oriented towards post-Marxism, which had several points of contact with Ernesto Laclau’s work.4See Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies 1983 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); it is a compilation of Hall’s lectures that year on Althusser, Gramsci, and poststructuralism. See also Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 2001); it was originally published in 1985. The notions of articulation and hegemony found in Hall’s work, together with those of hybridity and diaspora, are a precedent for what became the idea of postcolonialism (although Hall remained more anchored in a certain cultural Marxism).

Then there are the works of so-called “Black Marxism” or Black radicalism, which advanced further with a more general critique of Marxism — as in the work of Cedric Robinson, with his definition of “racial capitalism” and call to “decolonize Marxism.”5Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (London, UK: Zed Press, 1983). 

Finally, in Latin America, what is known as decolonization was imposed, especially since the 1990s with the formation of the “modernity/coloniality” group, composed of several Latin American intellectuals who taught in the United States.6Aníbal Quijano, Ramón Grosfoguel, and Walter Mignolo are among the best known. Aníbal Quijano’s concept of coloniality of power is characteristic of this trend, which from the beginning had markedly postmodern features. Some authors emphasize the differences between postcolonial and decolonial, while others present them as nuanced variants of the same logic.

Postcolonial or decolonial feminism developed its own concepts and has extended in important ways all the way to the present, with the work of Chicana, Latin American, Indigenous, Asian, and African authors who took aim against what they defined as white, Eurocentric feminism. They include María Lugones, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

It should be noted that the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978 stands as a fundamental antecedent to all these currents.7Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Concepts of the Orient (New York: Pantheon, 1978). His sharp critiques of Eurocentrism, tracing the construction of the Oriental “other” in the great classics of Western literature and philosophy, was paradigmatic for the new postcolonial thought. Said included Marxism in his critiques of Eurocentrism, something that was also taken up by later currents.

More broadly, postcolonial theories converged on certain common conceptions, themes related to the periphery (and peripheries), and reflections on racism and gender in postcolonial societies.8Here the term “postcolonial” does not allude to the theoretical current, but to the historical and social process of “decolonization” from India’s independence in 1947 to the processes of national independence on the African continent in the decades that followed. In the case of postcolonial studies in Latin America, however, the chronological references emphasize the schism of the conquest of America and colonialism-coloniality from 1492 onwards. It constitutes a general critique of “Western reason” and a questioning of Marxism for its “blindness” to the colonial or racial question.9This is a topic on which I have written more extensively elsewhere. See Josefína L. Martinez, “Racism, Capitalism, and Class Struggle,” Left Voice, June 9, 2020. These affinities required a set of theoretical shifts as part of taking the “cultural turn”: the focus on cultural and ideological phenomena, and the abandonment of the centrality of class, in the face of the emergence of the “subaltern” or new social movements. More generally, it substituted an intellectual practice of deconstructing the “Western and Eurocentric episteme” for the anti-imperialist critique (to which I return later).

In this article, beyond the more general elements about postcoloniality, the focus is on the production of the Subaltern Studies group. This allows for addressing the shift from Marxist categories toward a postcolonial reading and dealing with some specific criticisms that this current has raised.

Gramsci in Bengal

The Subaltern Studies group in India was formed around Ranajit Guha, who emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1959.10Various authors have written that Guha and the group of young intellectuals had been influenced by the Maoist-inspired Naxalite peasant rebellion and later by the openly repressive course of Indira Gandhi’s government and the Congress Party beginning in the mid-1970s. Other well-known intellectuals in the group include Dipesh Chakrabarty and Gyan Prakash. Postcolonial feminist philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak remained very close to them, although without adhering to all their assumptions.

Guha was key to the appropriation of Gramsci, reconfiguring the concepts of “subaltern classes” and “hegemony” for a new reading of Indian history. It was not a reflection on the hegemonic capacity of the working class in alliance with the peasantry — something at the very core of Gramscian concern — but an analysis of the self-activity of subaltern subjects, especially the peasantry. It was a reflection that could be maintained within the terms of a more classical populism or Maoism, which considers the peasantry to be the basis for “popular” or “national” movements of a populist-front type.11Guha had been a member of the Communist Party, breaking with it after the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Later, before his post-Marxist drift, he had affinity with Maoism, although he was not a militant in an organization. Guha, however, went even further, toward a sort of post-Maoism. His reflection on peasant rebellions led him to formulate the existence of an autonomous peasant consciousness, irreducible to Western categories and to the “universal” tendencies of capital. It was then that subaltern studies took a step towards postcolonialism.

Guha argued against the idea that the peasants had deployed a “pre-political” or “purely spontaneous” activity,12The polemic is directed centrally at Eric Hobsbawm’s conceptions. although he recognizes that these rebellions often failed to overcome “localism, sectarianism, and ethnic divisions.” The initial objective of subaltern studies was to “rehabilitate” the peasant “subject” forgotten by liberal and nationalist historiography.13Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1983). Guha sets out to read the sources (official documents, colonial reports, etc.) against their grain in order to find evidence of this rebellious consciousness. To do so, “we must take the peasant-rebel’s awareness of his own world and his will to change it as our point of departure.”

For his part, Dipesh Chakrabarty focuses not so much on subaltern subjects, but on “subaltern pasts.” 14Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). These subaltern pasts “break historicization” because there the spiritual, sacred, ethnic, and caste relations take place, which populate a world that becomes incommensurable from the logic of Western reason. For Chakrabarty:

This is another time that, theoretically, could be entirely immeasurable in terms of the godless, spiritless time of what we call “history,” an idea already assumed in the secular concepts of “capital” and “abstract labor.”15Ibid., 93.

So the subaltern, in subaltern studies, is a notion that differs from both nationalist and liberal historiographies, as well as from Marxism.

In a related argument, Guha puts forward the idea of the existence of two separate spheres, the subaltern and that of the politics of the nationalist elites — something that expresses “the failure of the Indian bourgeoisie to speak for the nation,”16Ranajit Guha, “On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India,” in Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism, ed. by Supriya Nair (London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2005), 406. or the failure to integrate the subaltern strata into its hegemony. From his point of view, the central problem of the new Indian historiography is the “study of this historical failure of the nation to come to its own — a failure that he attributes to both the bourgeoisie and the working class.17Ibid., 407. Although it is not the focus of his argument, at one point Guha points out that “the working class was still not sufficiently mature in the objective conditions of its social being and in its consciousness as a class-for-itself, nor was it yet firmly allied to the peasantry.” Thus, “it could do nothing to take over and complete the mission which the bourgeoisie had failed to realize.” Guha points out that modernity in India showed that capital failed, historically, to realize its universalizing tendency under colonial conditions, which in turn led to its failure to crush native South Asian culture or completely assimilate it. He calls this phenomenon “dominance without hegemony,” a characteristic he finds in both the colonial period and the nationalist experience. Now, what would be the causes of this frustration?

Guha tackles the problem in Dominance without Hegemony.18Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. The book has very interesting chapters, such as the one devoted to British colonial rule in India. There he points out that the construction of the state, promoted from above by British colonialism together with the local elites, relied above all on coercion to maintain/impose forms of forced labor of a quasi-servile type and the crushing of all resistance. The native bourgeoisie was born subordinate to colonialism, and strongly hierarchical pre-capitalist social relations, such as caste and patriarchal relations, were preserved or reconfigured. Guha points to the historical engagement of the native bourgeoisie with the landlords and the “complicity with many forms of feudal oppression,”[Ibid., 132.]] as well as the fact that Indian industrialists identified workers’ mobilization (especially after the Russian Revolution) as a threat to their class interests. In the chapter on the nationalist movement, Guha points out that Gandhi set out to discipline the entire initiative of the peasant masses, to regiment and control them. To this end, he encouraged Congress Party militants to act as “people’s policemen”19Ibid., 145. and called for demobilization after each cycle of the movement’s rise.

These reflections regarding the historically subordinated role of the native bourgeoisie and the limits of the nationalist movement point to key elements for thinking about the problem. However, once raised, they neither become a continuous thread in the book nor more generally in the elaborations published in Subaltern Studies. Rather, they came to revolve around a different hypothesis: that the historical failure of Indian nationalism originated in the impossibility of the nationalist elites to incorporate subaltern subjectivity into a unified national project, within the frameworks of the rational categories of the West.

Chakrabarty, for his part, challenges the idea that “[Indian] capitalism or political modernity has remained ‘incomplete’” and points out that India’s “history of political modernity could not be written as a simple application of the analytics of capital and nationalism available in Western Marxism.”20Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 15. It would be a capitalism without hegemonic bourgeois relations, following Guha’s formulations. Chakrabarty’s proposal is to “provincialize” Europe so that European thought can “be renewed from and for the margins”21Ibid., 16. — recovering a thought “tied to places and to particular forms of life,”22Ibid., 18. necessarily fragmentary.23Chakrabarty states that his intention is to bring Marx and Heidegger into dialogue in the context of the study of modernity in India. This line of reflection on the marginal, the fragmentary. and the locally situated would mark the evolution of subaltern studies, in which textualist tendencies became increasingly strong.

One of Spivak’s first interventions in the debate on subalternity was her well-known text “Can the Subaltern Speak?” It opens with a polemic with Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. The author challenges both authors for not taking into account the relationship between power-knowledge structures and the constitution of Europe as a colonial power. The central thesis of her essay is that the subalterns are those who cannot “speak” for themselves and, therefore, their history cannot be written. In her words, “the subaltern is necessarily the absolute limit of the place where history is narrativized into logic.”24G.C. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Die Philosophin 14, no. 27 (1988). Here Spivak radicalizes the group’s initial approach, noting as “strategic essentialism” the claim to recover the consciousness of the subaltern. As a postcolonial feminist, Spivak notes further that subalternity is found more than anything else in the “paradigmatic victims” of the international division of labor, the women of the urban “subproletariat,” and in informal labor, as well as in those belonging to the unorganized layers of rural labor.

As a general trend, the subalternist group was, by the 1990s, acquiring a language and reflections increasingly akin to postmodernism, focusing on the reading of literary sources and other textual resources. But, as already indicated, this was only one of the strands of postcolonial reason. Let us now consider, on a more general level, some of the criticisms that have been made of postcoloniality.

Critiques of Postcolonial Reason

Postcolonialists share with other intellectuals the conviction that the emancipatory projects of the 20th century — the rebellions, uprisings, workers’ and peasants’ insurrections, and struggles for socialism — do not offer a strategic perspective for today. They question the “metanarratives of emancipation,” among which they include bourgeois nationalism and Marxism (although they do not question capitalist social relations with the same radicalism, even in the heyday of neoliberalism). This is what Aijaz Ahmad called the “‘post-’condition.”25Aijaz Ahmad, “ “Postcolonial Theory and the ‘Post’-Condition,” Socialist Register 33 (1997). It is an “intellectual style” marked by the rejection of “universalist” ideas such as emancipation, equality, freedom, socialism, and communism, since for postcolonialists, these are synonymous with Eurocentrism, colonialism, and totalitarianism. They also share with poststructuralists their fascination with the fragmentary, the episodic, and the difference, as well as the substitution of an anti-systemic political practice for a deconstructive textual practice.

Ahmad points out that the postcolonial dissolves the difference between literature and history, as well as between literature and philosophy, prioritizing rhetorical criticism. He also notes that the postcolonial “dissolve[s] all enduring questions of imperialism and anti-imperialism into an infinite play of heterogeneity and contingency.” The postcolonialists question Marxism for supposedly making use of abstract and totalizing categories that do not account for the particular and contingent. And they define “Western reason” in a way that abstracts it from all historical determination.

Several authors have criticized postcolonialism for affirming a “backwards essentialism” in which the spatial location of a thinker or the geographical origin of a current of thought would determine its “Eurocentric” and “colonialist” condition. It is a geographical and ethnicist determinism that also constructs the false idea of a unique “Western episteme,” denying the complex and multiple theoretical, cultural, and social disputes that have taken place within it in different periods.26Ariel Petruccelli, “Teoría y práctica decolonial: un examen crítico” [Decolonial Theory and Practice: A Critical Examination], Políticas de la Memoria (2020): 45–62. 

On the one hand, these authors reject the “Western” categories of Marxism, such as working class, revolution, and socialism, because they do not allow them to account for the “incommensurability” of the colonial and postcolonial world. At the same time, they translate for their own purposes the highlights of French poststructuralism, as part of the idealist heritage of Western philosophy. The identification of secularism with colonialism or Eurocentrism is especially problematic, as if secular thought, science, and rationality had to be flatly rejected simply because they had emanated historically from Western European countries. The rejection en bloc of all the elements of modernity can lead only to variants of conservatism, in the precise sense of the word as that which seeks a return to millenarian or religious ways of thinking.

Finally, most postcolonialists counterpose modernity and coloniality with vindication for “other ways of being in the world” such as millenarian peasant communities. But they omit that in many of these pre-capitalist societies, there were also brutal forms of oppression of women, caste hierarchies, inter-ethnic violence, slavery, and other forms of social subjugation.

Critique of Postcoloniality: The Universal and the Particular

In his book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, Vivek Chibber takes up several of these critiques of postcoloniality, although he focuses his polemic on the work published in Subaltern Studies. The book provoked intense debate at the time of its publication, and it is worth dwelling a bit more extensively on his arguments.

Chibber points out what he considers to be the main theses of subalternist historiography: 1) the idea of a non-hegemonic bourgeoisie; 2) derailing the universalizing impulse of capital in the East; 3) the pluralization of power; 4) the idea of two separate spheres, the elites and the subalterns; 5) the failure of nationalism as a result of adhering to Western reasoning about modernization; and 6) the Eurocentrism of social theories, including Marxism. From this, he questions the emphasis placed on the difference between the West and the East by subalternists. He argues that they romanticize bourgeois revolutions, giving to past European bourgeoisies a “universalizing” role that they never really had precisely because the defense of their own class interests would always have been paramount. In this sense, Chibber argues against the idea that the bourgeoisie ever represented anything like the interests of the “nation as a whole.” In doing so, he takes aim at what appears to be an idealization of bourgeois revolutions and liberal democracies by postcolonialists.

At the same time, Chibber ends up undervaluing the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie against the old order in the French Revolution of 1789. He thus erases the differences between that historical moment and the one that opened up after 1848, when Marx drew conclusions about the German bourgeoisie’s defection from its own national cause. After Marx, this became key to considering the question of whether national bourgeoisies could lead bourgeois revolutions in “backward” countries or those with later capitalist development. It is a subject that came to be central in the works of Lenin, Trotsky, and Gramsci, no less.

Chibber also questions the differentiation between forms of domination with and without hegemony, as postulated by the subalternists. He points out that in the West there is also repression, violence, and forms of interpersonal domination, so there would be no reason to establish a fundamental difference. He rejects the subalternist thesis regarding hegemony, but at the same time seems to rule out the entirety of Gramsci’s reflections on the matter. The Italian Marxist’s elaborations on the differences between East and West in the relationship between state and civil society have no place in his book.27On Gramsci’s thought regarding hegemony, see Juan Dal Maso, El marxismo de Gramsci [The Marxism of Gramsci] (Buenos Aires: Ediciones del Pensamiento Socialista, 2016.

Finally, Chibber argues that the subalternists are wrong on the question of “the derailment of capital’s universalizing drive”28Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 36. in the East. The reason for their mistake, he says, is that they take as a measure of “universalization” the degree of implantation of liberal institutions. He challenges that this is necessary to prove the universalization of capital. Thus, we see that, according to Chibber, “The main thrust of Subaltern Studies is to stress difference.”29Ibid., 52, emphasis in original. This vast difference between the West and the East would imply that “we need to construct entirely new theoretical frameworks.”30Ibid., 290.

Chibber argues “that the claims for a fundamental differences with regard to capital, power, and agency are all irredeemably flawed.”31Ibid., 54. His conclusion is that, rather than being a radical theory, postcolonial studies is a “failure” as a critical theory because “its theorists cannot formulate a critique of globalizing capitalism if their theorization of its basic properties is mistaken.”[Ibid., 58.]]

I generally agree with this conclusion, in the sense that postcolonial studies do not pass the test as critical theory, and much less has it “surpassed” Marxism. Chibber’s arguments, though, have major problems. Whereas subalternists argue that there is an unbridgeable, incommensurable gap between East and West, Chibber challenges that idea in an entirely one-sided way. Where subalternists tend to see only vast differences, Chibber highlights structural commonalities. While he seeks to distance himself from the idea that Marxism homogenizes differences, he underestimates all the concrete differences in social formations and the unequal character of capitalist expansion on a global level. He even goes so far as to write, “No gulf separates the rise of the European bourgeoisie from that of its Indian descendants.”32Ibid., 222. It is an affirmation that greatly simplifies the historical process and does not allow him to see the particulars of uneven development, in relation to the capitalist totality in the epoch of imperialism. The word imperialism is, in fact, difficult to find in Chibber’s book, except in a secondary reference to Lenin’s work. 

This is something into which we will delve deeper since it has important strategic consequences. First, though, let’s explore another of his arguments.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is the one devoted to the question of abstract labor. There, Chibber notes, “Postcolonial theorists have fastened onto Marx’s concept of abstract labor as a prime example of the deficiencies of universalizing theories.”33Ibid., 264. He responds to this as follows:

Far from blinding us to the heterogeneity of the working class, or being unable to accommodate the persistence of caste-based, ethnic, or racial divisions within it, the concept of abstract labor powerfully illuminates these very phenomena.34Ibid.

Chibber correctly points out that postcolonial theory has equated the notion of “abstract labor” with the idea of “homogeneous labor,” as if Marx considered that the automatic movement of capital’s expansion was erasing all differentiation of gender, race, or other hierarchies of oppression. Chibber argues that attributing this to Marx is mistaken, since “capital can reproduce social hierarchies just as readily as it can dissolve them.”35Ibid., 288–89. And while, under certain conditions, it tends toward greater homogenization, in other cases “the [capitalist] system is equally capable of reproducing, and even solidifying, existing forms of social domination or differentiation.”36Ibid., 289. He completes this argument with the idea that there are two “universalizing” tendencies:

The first is the universalizing drive capital which has operated in the East as well as the West, albeit at different tempos and unevenly. The second is the universal interest of the subaltern classes to defend their wellbeing against capital’s domination, inasmuch as the need for physical wellbeing is not merely specific to a particular culture or region.37Ibid., 396, emphasis in original.

Here again, Chibber responds to the postcolonial critique with a simplifying schema: Does the “universal interest of the subaltern classes to defend their wellbeing” counteract, in and of itself, differences of caste, gender, or race? The argument brushes aside, with the stroke of a pen, the full complexity of this question, which is not only a “historical” problem but a key strategic question for the working class in today’s world. The reality is that the “universal interest of the subaltern classes” does not automatically transform itself into class unity, above the divisions imposed by capital, but rather that this is a political, strategic task.

Finally, Chibber argues that:

The core problem with which we have been grappling in this book is how the history of the non-West has been affected by the incursion of capitalism. Marxism is known for claiming that once capitalism becomes the organizing principle in a social formation, its historical development is centrally shaped by capitalist imperatives. The particulars of this argument may vary.38Ibid., 422.

To say that capitalist imperatives hold sway despite that “the particulars of this argument may vary” misses, again, some of the main strategic polemics in Marxism. The debates that occupied the famous exchange between Marx and Vera Zasulich concerning the Russian rural commune pass through here,39Translator’s note: Vera J. Zasulich (1851–1919) was, in 1883, one of the founders of the Emancipation of Labor group, the first Marxist organization in Russia. She also translated many of Marx’s works into Russian. The correspondence with Marx referenced here, from 1881, concerns social relations in Russia and especially the nature of the peasant commune. It was this exchange that convinced Zasulich to embrace Marxism. Later, Zasulich was a member of the editorial board of Iskra with Lenin and Plekhanov. She was with the Mensheviks after the split in the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party and eventually became a social chauvinist during World War I, adopting a hostile attitude toward the Soviet government. as do the theoretical and strategic disputes of Russian Marxism. The “particulars of this argument” included profound differences over the character and dynamics of the revolution, the role of the bourgeoisie, the worker-peasant alliance, and so on — in addition to being a key issue in Lenin’s writings on imperialism and the differentiation between imperialist countries, dependent countries, colonies, and semi-colonies. More generally, the “particulars of this argument” mark Trotsky’s polemics with Stalinism about revolutionary dynamics in “backward” countries such as Russia and China, as well as the generalization of his theory of Permanent Revolution, against the stagist positions of class conciliation. All this seems alien to Chibber’s line of argument, but let’s return to that and see how far it takes him.

History 1, History 2, and Uneven Development

Chibber polemicizes with Chakrabarty and his concept of differentiating between a History 1 and multiple Histories 2 to account for the particular histories of non-Western pre-capitalist societies.40Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 50. Translator’s note: Chakrabarty uses labor to illustrate what he means by these two histories. His History 1 is “a past posited by capital itself” (63) as its precondition, whereas History 2 consists of “capital’s antecedent” that “does not contribute to the self-reproduction of capital” (63–64). For the subalternist author, History 2 hinders the totalizing thrust of capitalism. His critique of Marxism is that it fails to perceive the importance of History 2, which follows its course, and does not subsume itself in History 1 (he considers it a blindness to the particular). He also questions Marxism’s expectation, due to its historicism and Eurocentrism, that History 2 will repeat the steps of History 1. He considers History 2 to be only a development “backlog,” and that it should remain in the “waiting room” until modernization.

This is refuted by Chibber, who argues that the existence of History 2 does not mean that universalization is not completed, because this universalization does not mean that all political practices are subordinated to the “logic of capital.” He adds that the main source of destabilization of capital does not pass through History 2, but through the internal contradictions of History 1 (economic contradictions and class struggle). Here he reiterates the idea that if there is a challenge to the universalizing impulse of capital, it is to be found in the class struggle, “the equally universal struggle by subaltern classes to defend their basic humanity.”[Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 455.]

Chibber avoids nothing less than the question of imperialism and uneven and combined development.41The question of uneven and combined development does not appear in Chibber’s book. It is introduced only in the subsequent debate published as a book [Rosie Warren, ed., The Debate on Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (New York: Verso, 2016], a compilation of critiques of Chibber’s book by various postcolonial theorists, along with his responses. In the introduction, Indian intellectual Achin Vanaik raises the question of uneven and combined development and vindicates Trotsky’s work, reproaching the postcolonialists for never taking it into account. That is to say, he never accounts for the great question of the Indian bourgeoisie’s subordination to imperialist capital and the consequences of this not only in terms of capital accumulation, but also with respect to the particulars of political, social, and ideological forms.

In Provincializing Europe, Chakrabarty refers to the topic. He argues with Eric Hobsbawm’s historicism and calls it a variety of what Western Marxism has always cultivated. He posits that Western Marxist intellectuals have addressed the incompleteness of capitalist transformation in Europe and elsewhere while maintaining the view that there is an evolutionary and necessary path from backwardness to modernity. Here he includes “the old and now discredited evolutionist paradigms of the nineteenth century,” and then points out that the same model persists in the “variations on the theme of ‘uneven development’”42Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 12. first addressed by Marx and later by Lenin and Trotsky. He asserts that “whether they speak of ‘uneven development’ [or] ‘synchronicity of the non-synchronous’ or ‘structural causality,’ these strategies all retain elements of historicism in the direction of their thoughts. They all ascribe at least an underlying structural unity (if not an expressive totality) to historical process and time.”43Ibid.

Space precludes delving here into the important differences between the evolutionist paradigms of the 19th century and the positions of Lenin and Trotsky that led to the split between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, and later to the confrontation between social-chauvinists and internationalist revolutionaries during World War I. It is important to reaffirm, however, that there is no “evolutionism” in the theory of uneven and combined development, which precisely transformed the paradigm on this issue. From Trotsky’s point of view, the fact of considering that there is a totality (capitalist social relations that have an international character) implies neither any historical teleology nor an expectation of the repetition of stages — but rather the opposite.

On this issue, Trotsky’s thinking offers a superior alternative with which to analyze the relationship between the universalizing tendencies of capital and the persistence of difference and historical particulars, in its spatial and temporal dimensions in the imperialist epoch.44At the same time, other Marxists, such as José Carlos Mariátegui, also thought about this question and offered creative answers. See Juan Dal Maso, “Una guía para leer y releer a Mariátegui” (A Guide to Reading and Rereading Mariátegui, Contrapunto, August 30, 2020. And contrary to what Chakrabarty maintains, Trotsky pointed out — against all “evolutionist historicism” — that “a backward country assimilates the material and ideological conquests of the advanced countries. But this does not mean that it follows them slavishly, reproduces all the stages of their past.”

Of capitalism, Trotsky continued in his first chapter of The History of the Russian Revolution,

It prepares and in a certain sense realizes the universality and permanence of man’s development. By this a repetition of the forms of development by different nations is ruled out. Although compelled to follow after the advanced countries, a backward country does not take things in the same order. The privilege of historic backwardness — and such a privilege exists — permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages.

For Trotsky, this leap over the intermediate stages is not absolute; rather, “its degree is determined in the long run by the economic and cultural capacities of the country.” It is worth quoting at length from the passage because it addresses in a concentrated way many issues that intersect the postcolonialist polemic with Marxism.

From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for the lack of a better name, we may call the law of combined development – by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of the separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms. Without this law, to be taken of course, in its whole material content, it is impossible to understand the history of Russia, and indeed of any country of the second, third or tenth cultural class.

To respond adequately to postcolonial critiques of Marxism, these polemics with the currents that held evolutionist and stagist positions in 19th- and 20th-century Marxism, from Social Democracy to Stalinism, cannot be ignored. Chibber does not give much importance to this question, so his answer is incomplete and abstract.

Finally, in his book’s conclusions, Chibber correctly notes that postcolonialists lack strategy. If one rejects the rules of logic, evidence, and rational deliberation, he points out, then one “rules out not just this or that strategy, but the very possibility of a strategy altogether.”45Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 533. This is a fact, and postcolonialists cannot go beyond discursive operations to destabilize or decenter colonialist narratives. The result is a practice powerless to end oppression and exploitation effectively, which go far beyond the discursive plane. But in Chibber’s case, there is a different problem. His refusal to consider the problem of workers’ hegemony in relation to the oppressed as a whole, his omission of the question of imperialism and of unequal and combined development, disarms him in the face of the strategic challenges posed in the 21st century.

Postcolonial Theory or the Theory of Permanent Revolution?

The idea of the historical failure of the Indian bourgeoisie to hegemonize the subaltern masses in a project of nationhood is at the origin of subaltern studies. These were born out of the deep disappointment of a group of leftist intellectuals with the experience of nationalism in India, as well as their frustration with the emancipatory project represented by Marxism, which they see only through the disfigured lens of Stalinism. In his introduction to The Debate on Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, Achin Vanaik asks why the subaltern intellectuals never took into account Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development to explain the relationship between the universal and the particular in Indian history. He points to the past Stalinist affinities of many of the founding members of the group to allow us to imagine the answer.

That allows us to go one step further. Trotsky not only championed the theory of uneven and combined development to explain the complexities of historical development in the imperialist epoch. It was also the foundation of his theory of Permanent Revolution. For India, the theory implied that the political mechanics of the revolution became, as Trotsky wrote in his 1930 The Revolution in India, “a struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie for the leadership of the peasant masses.” And to those who underestimated the revolutionary capacity of the Indian proletariat because it was numerically small in relation to the broad peasant movement, he replied that “the numerical weakness of the Russian proletariat compared to the American and English was no hindrance to the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia.”

In his writings of the 1930s, Trotsky polemicized against Stalinism’s popular-frontist positions for India, as well as against Gandhi’s nationalist strategy and his “passive resistance” that subordinated the peasantry to the liberal bourgeoisie. He also confronted the criminal campist strategy of Stalinism that renounced the anti-imperialist struggle in India in order to align itself with the “democratic” imperialisms against fascism. In India’s 20th-century history, there was no shortage of huge struggles, uprisings, and heroic peasant insurrections, or important working- class movements. But there was no strategy to fight for workers’ hegemony that could unite the peasant and subaltern masses. This balance is beyond the horizon of subaltern thinkers.

A double frustration thus becomes the basis of postcolonialist or subaltern theory, which is summed up in a school of resignation. The anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggle, as well as the class struggle, is replaced by the murky but infinitely limited practices of discursive deconstruction. This is an itinerary akin to most postcolonialist thinkers. Here the focus has been on subaltern studies, and on analyzing this displacement from categories taken from the Marxist heritage and applied to more post-structuralist positions. Later elaborations of decoloniality are already fully informed by this spirit.

Since the capitalist crisis of 2008, the narrative of capitalist triumphalism has entered into crisis. The working class has spread and diversified more than ever, reaffirming its hegemonic potential to unify all oppressed layers against capital. The pandemic, the climate crisis, and inflationary trends have made the brutal contradictions of capitalist accumulation more visible. The war in Ukraine and the militaristic rearmament of the major powers raises the urgency of strategically rethinking the question of imperialism. In turn, in successive waves of class struggle, with strikes, revolts, and upheavals, the subalterns show that they can also speak. Unlike postcolonial theories — which condemn us to the mere repetition of local resistance with no way out — the socialist strategy is a tool to eradicate this society based on the brutal plundering of the people by imperialism, multiple oppressions, and exploitation.

First published in Spanish on July 30 in Contrapunto.

Translation by Scott Cooper

Notes

Notes
1 See, for example, Enrique de la Garza Toledo (ed.), Crítica de la razón neocolonial [Critique of Neocolonial Reason] (Buenos Aires: CLACSO/CEIL CONICET/Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana/Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, 2021). The book is a collection of interesting critical essays on decoloniality, particularly its Latin American variant.
2 Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2013). A Spanish edition of the book was published in 2021. See Vivek Chibber, La teoría postcolonial y el espectro del capital, translated by José Maria Amoroto Salido (Tres Canto, Spain: Akal, 2021).
3 Terry Eagleton, “Capitalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism,” New Left Review I/152, July/August 1985.
4 See Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies 1983 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); it is a compilation of Hall’s lectures that year on Althusser, Gramsci, and poststructuralism. See also Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 2001); it was originally published in 1985.
5 Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (London, UK: Zed Press, 1983).
6 Aníbal Quijano, Ramón Grosfoguel, and Walter Mignolo are among the best known.
7 Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Concepts of the Orient (New York: Pantheon, 1978).
8 Here the term “postcolonial” does not allude to the theoretical current, but to the historical and social process of “decolonization” from India’s independence in 1947 to the processes of national independence on the African continent in the decades that followed. In the case of postcolonial studies in Latin America, however, the chronological references emphasize the schism of the conquest of America and colonialism-coloniality from 1492 onwards.
9 This is a topic on which I have written more extensively elsewhere. See Josefína L. Martinez, “Racism, Capitalism, and Class Struggle,” Left Voice, June 9, 2020.
10 Various authors have written that Guha and the group of young intellectuals had been influenced by the Maoist-inspired Naxalite peasant rebellion and later by the openly repressive course of Indira Gandhi’s government and the Congress Party beginning in the mid-1970s.
11 Guha had been a member of the Communist Party, breaking with it after the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Later, before his post-Marxist drift, he had affinity with Maoism, although he was not a militant in an organization.
12 The polemic is directed centrally at Eric Hobsbawm’s conceptions.
13 Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1983).
14 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).
15 Ibid., 93.
16 Ranajit Guha, “On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India,” in Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism, ed. by Supriya Nair (London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2005), 406.
17 Ibid., 407. Although it is not the focus of his argument, at one point Guha points out that “the working class was still not sufficiently mature in the objective conditions of its social being and in its consciousness as a class-for-itself, nor was it yet firmly allied to the peasantry.” Thus, “it could do nothing to take over and complete the mission which the bourgeoisie had failed to realize.”
18 Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
19 Ibid., 145.
20 Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 15.
21 Ibid., 16.
22 Ibid., 18.
23 Chakrabarty states that his intention is to bring Marx and Heidegger into dialogue in the context of the study of modernity in India.
24 G.C. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Die Philosophin 14, no. 27 (1988).
25 Aijaz Ahmad, “ “Postcolonial Theory and the ‘Post’-Condition,” Socialist Register 33 (1997).
26 Ariel Petruccelli, “Teoría y práctica decolonial: un examen crítico” [Decolonial Theory and Practice: A Critical Examination], Políticas de la Memoria (2020): 45–62.
27 On Gramsci’s thought regarding hegemony, see Juan Dal Maso, El marxismo de Gramsci [The Marxism of Gramsci] (Buenos Aires: Ediciones del Pensamiento Socialista, 2016.
28 Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 36.
29 Ibid., 52, emphasis in original.
30 Ibid., 290.
31 Ibid., 54.
32 Ibid., 222.
33 Ibid., 264.
34 Ibid.
35 Ibid., 288–89.
36 Ibid., 289.
37 Ibid., 396, emphasis in original.
38 Ibid., 422.
39 Translator’s note: Vera J. Zasulich (1851–1919) was, in 1883, one of the founders of the Emancipation of Labor group, the first Marxist organization in Russia. She also translated many of Marx’s works into Russian. The correspondence with Marx referenced here, from 1881, concerns social relations in Russia and especially the nature of the peasant commune. It was this exchange that convinced Zasulich to embrace Marxism. Later, Zasulich was a member of the editorial board of Iskra with Lenin and Plekhanov. She was with the Mensheviks after the split in the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party and eventually became a social chauvinist during World War I, adopting a hostile attitude toward the Soviet government.
40 Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 50. Translator’s note: Chakrabarty uses labor to illustrate what he means by these two histories. His History 1 is “a past posited by capital itself” (63) as its precondition, whereas History 2 consists of “capital’s antecedent” that “does not contribute to the self-reproduction of capital” (63–64).
41 The question of uneven and combined development does not appear in Chibber’s book. It is introduced only in the subsequent debate published as a book [Rosie Warren, ed., The Debate on Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (New York: Verso, 2016], a compilation of critiques of Chibber’s book by various postcolonial theorists, along with his responses. In the introduction, Indian intellectual Achin Vanaik raises the question of uneven and combined development and vindicates Trotsky’s work, reproaching the postcolonialists for never taking it into account.
42 Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 12.
43 Ibid.
44 At the same time, other Marxists, such as José Carlos Mariátegui, also thought about this question and offered creative answers. See Juan Dal Maso, “Una guía para leer y releer a Mariátegui” (A Guide to Reading and Rereading Mariátegui, Contrapunto, August 30, 2020.
45 Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 533.
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Josefina L. Martínez

Josefina is a historian from Madrid and an editor of our sister site in the Spanish State, IzquierdaDiario.es.

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