Marxism and “Subaltern Studies”

Against the Current, No. 165, July/August 2013

Adaner Usmani

SEVERAL YEARS AGO in a seminar on social theory packed with left-wing graduate students from around NYU, I had the misfortune of being assigned Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe. The book, which impugns not only Marxism’s incorrigible European-ness, but also the very possibility of making arguments that traverse the East-West divide, struck me immediately as antithetical to the ‘universalizing’ project that is radical social science.

Yet, to my horror, it hit a chord with much of my cohort. One friend, who was later very active in Occupy NYU, met my criticisms of the argument by asking, in all seriousness, whether I could name even one thing that people across borders had in common. That they have to eat, I had answered.

As an undergraduate, Marxism won my mind because it had given clarity to exactly this intuition: that societies everywhere were rent by class divisions, that these schisms structured the production and appropriation of the social product, that they bred similar antagonisms and patterns of struggle, and that this shared architecture was the basis for a common politics — for me, the analytical accompaniment to the moral universalism that animates any radical.

Today, societies everywhere exhibit similarly revolting forms of dominance and exploitation; our task, it seemed obvious, is to make sure that tomorrow they all look different, for the same reasons. But we Marxist few in that classroom had been incapable of convincing the majority who had found Chakrabarty’s arguments compelling.

It is only in light of that challenge that the significance of Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital can be understood. Ours is a time of welcome political ferment, but among radicals Marxism is far from being considered commonsense. Surely one of our important tasks, today, is to clear away the detritus that years of academic exile have heaped on the flag of radicalism, and to win today’s activists back to our camp. Here Chibber comes to the rescue — and I don’t mean this hyperbolically. In my several years of reading Marx and Marxists, I cannot think of a book that is as clear in its explication of the analytical foundations of our project.

The stakes are not academic. A movement staffed by people who think that different cultures construct human beings of irreconcilably different constitutions, that power resides in what you and I say just as much as it resides in the State and in Capital, that class is just one of several ways in which society can be sliced, that “rights” and “interests” are swear words and the Enlightenment one long war crime, will be a movement incapable of mounting even the slightest challenge to today’s ruling-classes. After all, even if Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach indicted academics for having only “interpreted the world,” it doesn’t enjoin those of us committed “to change it” to stop understanding it, first.

The Challenge of Subaltern Studies

Before being a book about Marxism, this is a book about one aspect of postcolonial theory — more specifically, Subaltern Studies.

The central animus of the Subaltern Studies project was, in its own way, a radical one. The flagship journal was founded in the context of political turmoil in India which seemed to illustrate the violent and all-round illiberal character of the world’s largest bourgeois democracy. Its progenitors were Marxist, but the approach after several years came to be identified by their shared conviction that European Marxism hadn’t quite gotten India right. India, it seemed, wasn’t on a path towards the stable forms of political contestation that characterized Europe, nor was it enjoying self-sustaining capitalist development of the sort that had made the rich countries rich.

Chibber’s book suggests that the substance of Subaltern Studies’ differences with Marxism lies in six interrelated arguments. For our purposes, two of these are the most pivotal.

First, Subaltern Studies originally attributed the peculiarly undemocratic trajectory of Indian (and/or non-European) politics to the timidity of its national bourgeoisie. Whereas in England and France, the great bourgeois revolutions toppled feudal forms of domination and ushered in political liberalism, if not democracy, their Indian counterparts hesitated to lead subalterns in a similar assault on pre-capitalist institutions.

The result has been a distinctive polity. In India, unlike in Europe, the bourgeoisie was happy to leave its historic mission unfinished. As a consequence, pre-capitalist and non-liberal forms of power have persisted. In Ramchandra Guha’s famous phrase, the Indian bourgeoisie enjoy “dominance without hegemony” (i.e. coercive power without needing consent).

Second, Subaltern Studies argued that the political culture of India has evolved differently from the West’s — not only in the sense that the bourgeoisie has ruled in this more openly illiberal way, but also because the failure of this bourgeoisie’s historic mission had implications for subaltern politics, too.

The bourgeois revolutions in the West weaseled their way into the consciousness of Western subalterns. The language of liberalism constituted Western subjects as individuals with rights. In India, however, the bourgeoisie’s unwillingness to see their mission to fruition left Indian subalterns analogously untransformed. As a result, they don’t think about their interests or their needs in quite the same way. Instead, Indian subalterns draw on a pre-bourgeois, often community-oriented culture — when they mobilize, they don’t do so as individuals or in defense of their individual interests.

“Bourgeois” Democratic Revolutions?

If this last claim sounds like your Uncle Calhoun’s dinner table disquisition on “Eastern culture” with a sprinkling of academese, you’re only being slightly ungenerous. But it’s one thing to sense that something is amiss, and another to demonstrate what’s wrong and what should take its place. The standout virtue of Chibber’s book is that it does both of these things extremely well. Not only does he demonstrate the follies of his three chief antagonists, but in the process he outlines an alternative account of India’s “difference” that should do for a Marxist what, say, has done for the underfed and self-centered yuppie.

To the charge that Marxism as once formulated needs tweaking in the Indian case because of the Indian bourgeoisie’s diffidence, Chibber responds with a crisp overview of the recent historiography of the bourgeois revolutions. He shows that Subaltern Studies has ignored a flood of scholarship demonstrating that bourgeois timidity was normal, even in the Western experience.

Neither in England nor in France were capitalists doing any of the three things Subaltern Studies attributes to them. First, they weren’t heroically antifeudal. In England, this is because feudalism had disintegrated by the mid-17th century; in France, it was attacked, but only because mass peasant rebellion made compromise impossible.

Second, capitalists never led cross-class coalitions. They were arrayed on either side of the English Civil War, both of which were uniformly indifferent to, if not hostile towards, subaltern demands. In the French case, there were no capitalists. The depiction of Jacobins as bourgeois radicals trades on an ambiguity in the term “bourgeois” — in fact, they were middle-class professionals who were little different in political outlook from the middle-class radicals that comprised the left-wing of the Indian nationalist movement.

Third, the political order these revolutions produced was oligarchic and prone to violence — no liberal, democratic peace prevailed. England had a narrower franchise in 1832 than in 1630, and 19th century France was racked by revolution. To the extent that there were democratic gains, either during or following the ‘”Great Bourgeois Revolutions,” Chibber stresses that these were the dividends of subaltern struggle of which Subaltern Studies seems — not a little ironically — entirely unaware.

The aforementioned facts, well-established as they are, might seem unfamiliar to many readers of this piece. But the doyens of Subaltern Studies are professional academics, many of them historians, yet they seem to have missed the  memo that the concept of a courageous bourgeoisie is about as passé as smallpox and the Atkins Diet.

Significantly, Chibber’s refutation blows open the question of why India looks different from the West. If indeed nothing about the Indian bourgeoisie’s behavior was particularly pathological, we need a new explanation of how India’s path has diverged.

Chibber supplies this, in the subsequent chapters of the book. But — and this can be taken as a criticism, if you like — he does so through an argument about capitalism’s universalizing drive that understates, to my mind, the extent of his contribution to a “universalizing” social science (more on this later).

Human Self-Interest for Survival

Recall the second of Subaltern Studies’ arguments about the bourgeois revolutions. What these were understood to have transformed, in Europe, was not just property arrangements and the political order, but agents’ world-view. Because the bourgeoisie abandoned its tasks in India, the individualism that is the hallmark of bourgeois ideology never seeped into Indian culture. Put differently, bourgeois heroism in the West explained why Westerners are individuals before they’re anything else; bourgeois timidity in India explained why brown people are community-oriented, first and foremost. On the terms of their argument, showing the bourgeoisie were never heroic invites confusion.

This is where Chibber’s book is at its most important. Against the thesis that Western subalterns are made of different stuff, Chibber argues that human beings are, at their core, not that different across contexts. The winds of history and culture may change many things, but not  human constitutions. His defense of this argument sets the stage for what, in my opinion, is the most deliberate, careful explication of the key tenets of historical materialism that I have read.

This argument is that humans, everywhere, take an interest in defending their well-being and their dignity. Chibber offers three reasons to believe this (though he doesn’t say this explicitly). First, it’s an entirely reasonable assertion about (gasp) human nature.

Second, it seems inductively true — everywhere we look, people seem to act accordingly, when they’re able. In one of the book’s most gratifying parts, Chibber shows that the evidence Partha Chatterjee advances to prove Indian peasants’ non-bourgeois socialization actually illustrates the tenacity of individual interest.

Third, the general defense of self-interest can be derived from another postulate about humans in society: namely, that individuals have to secure a basket of necessities if they’re to survive, one day to the next. So, while individuals can undoubtedly assimilate all sorts of norms and injunctions, to the extent that this socialization interferes with the task of surviving to fight another day, it will have to be resisted. If it isn’t, the agent who bears these norms (and thus these norms themselves) won’t live on. All cultures have to accommodate themselves to this constraint.

In the debates that have followed this book’s release, I’ve been struck by how much this argument seems to have bothered Chibber’s critics. I can only interpret the anxiety as an index of the left’s confusion. That claims about human behavior across time and space can trigger mass palpitation in a tradition that brought us “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle” (The Communist Manifesto — ed.) is a sad sign. A Marxist without transhistorical commitments is a bit like the Pope in a world without God — feel free to go through the motions, but forgive the rest of us if we can’t take you very seriously.

Some have perhaps confused Chibber’s argument with the flagship postulate of neoclassical economics — that humans, everywhere and always, are utility-maximizers. But whatever we think of that argument (and I agree it’s a stretch, though it’s hardly the most unconscionable thing they’ve ever said), it is not Chibber’s. To argue that individuals seek to maintain a basic level of well-being and defend it against attacks is a much weaker hypothesis.

Nonetheless, what follows from this claim about human nature is actually quite profound. For if indeed individuals everywhere can be expected to behave in ways broadly consonant with a defense of their well-being, important aspects of their behavior become explicable. Not everything — historical materialism doesn’t explain the sex appeal of skinny jeans — but the Marxist argument is that it explains much of what strikes us as politically and morally relevant, as revolutionaries: the pace of productivity improvements, the distribution of resources, the allocation of capacities with which to fight that distribution, the broad patterns of political contestation, the sorts of ideas that will circulate and thrive (more on this soon), etc.

An excellent example of this approach is Robert Brenner’s work on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, to which Chibber’s debt is clear. Distinct social relations yield distinct “rules of reproduction” for individuals, Brenner argues, which aggregate to explain distinct developmental strategies.

This, then, is Marxism: an approach which is unabashed in its use of universalizing categories, which grounds this universalism in transhistorical expectations about individual agents, and which does it all for a good reason.

India’s Difference

If it were left at this, though, Chibber’s rendering of historical materialism invites an immediate objection. India is, after all, very different from the West. How is the fact of deep difference intelligible, if we’re deploying categories that are universal? Shouldn’t these imply homogeneity?

Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe amounts to a winding, prolix defense of the verdict that yes, in an important sense, they do. There will always be residual, meaningful differences which can’t be explained. These, presumably, demand indigenous categories. Operating otherwise is an index of the hubris of the European academic. And since arrogance towards the subaltern ranks highest among the Seven Deadly Sins of guilt-ridden grad student radicalism, this line sells.

Chibber’s retort is careful, but decisive. India is of course different from the West, he agrees, but these differences are of two types.

First, there are those differences between India and the West that are beyond the pale of historical materialist explanation: the fact that certain forms of bodily exclamation are profane in India but not in the West, say, or that Indians eat with their hands and Westerners with their forks.

There are phenomena with which universalizing categories will not concern themselves. This contains those habits and beliefs that don’t interfere with individuals as they set about the task of feeding themselves and their loved ones. So the fact that rickshaw drivers in Delhi steal cricket breaks between trips but MTA conductors play baseball on their lunch hour is intriguing,  but neither amenable nor an obstacle to our kind of explanation. Marxists need not fret that ours isn’t a Theory of Everything.

This, of course, hardly exhausts the differences between India and the West. There is a second class of differences which contains the kinds of things with which we, as socialists, are preoccupied and thus the kinds of things that, as Marxists, we want to explain.

Here I depart from the language Chibber uses in the book, although on my reading his argument is the same. Defined most broadly, this set includes social facts, habits and beliefs which in some meaningful way structure the production and distribution of the social product.

The signal “difference” in this domain discussed in the book is one I’ve already noted: the more democratic character of political contestation in the Western world, and the greater rights granted to Western subalterns. One can dispute the specifics of this difference — it’s not clear, after all, that the chasm has been nearly as great as Chibber’s antagonists think — but as a general fact, there’s little question that bourgeois democracy has been better “civilized” in the West than in the non-West. Better to be a retired Swedish truck driver than grow BT cotton in Maharashtra, certainly.

Chibber grants all this, but offers an explanation rooted in a universal: it’s the relative success of subaltern agitation in the West, he argues, that explains this divergence. The relatively democratic (or social democratic) character of Western Europe reflects the enduring contributions of mass, left-wing parties, a phenomenon which has no real analogue in India or even the rest of the non-West.

This, though, immediately invites a further question: why have Western subalterns been more successful at forming these organizations and winning these gains than their non-Western counterparts? Culturalists might well be chomping at the bit — any diversity counselor honest to their closeted stereotypes would happily admit brown people have such trouble getting along — but there’s really no reason for it to sow confusion. Generally, the relative sanity of the societies forged by Western subalterns reflect both the greater class capacities and larger social product associated with a longer and more successful history of development.

Over the few centuries that comprise the “great divergence,” the particular ways in which agents have been arrayed with productive resources and opportunities in the West has differed systematically from the non-West — whether due to endogenous structural facts about these societies, or through one or another variety of imperial intervention. At their core, theories of development and underdevelopment reduce to accounts of how these different permutations arise, and why they’ve persisted in some places but not in others.

All this has been so pivotal a part of Marxism’s intellectual legacy that it’s a bit dismaying to have to repeat it. As Chibber argues in his interview in Jacobin magazine (, Marxism is a particularly odd defendant for Subaltern Studies to have indicted on these charges. There probably isn’t a body of thought around that has been more committed to understanding the unevenness of social progress.

Even if we concede, as Chakrabarty argues, that prevailing theories proved insufficient for the differences Subaltern Studies wanted to explain, forfeiting (rather than working with) ‘universalizing’ categories makes no sense. (As it happens, I have trouble accepting even this. There’s little about India’s developmental trajectory or its patterns of political contestation that seem conceptually vexing for actually-existing Marxism.)

Difference, Redux

So, differences between social formations pose no problems for universalizing explanations. But what about arguably more well-worn claims about differences within social formations, between agents? Chibber takes a detour through this territory, temporarily broadening his antagonists to include Lisa Lowe, David Roediger and Betsy Esch, regarding disagreements over whether the Marxist category of abstract labor leads it to theorize away racial divisions in the working class.

In a particularly lucid chapter on “abstract labor,” Chibber shows why this is a non-problem. These objections confuse what’s intended as an accounting category (the amount of socially-necessary work performed by any given worker) with thick description. Chibber shows, pithilty, that this is like arguing that one can’t compare free throw percentages because, well, Steve Nash is from British Columbia.

Furthermore, not only does the existence of differences within the working class pose no obstacle to quantifying the work extracted from individual members,  but it’s actually these same universalizing categories that can best explain the genesis and persistence of racial difference. Under capitalism, specifically, cleavages within the working class are typically enlisted in one of two universal pursuits. Sometimes, they prove functional for capitalists — it’s easier to exploit (i.e. extract abstract labor from) a divided workforce than a united one. And sometimes, these identities aid workers looking for a leg up in the unceasing competition for employment.

Either way, Chibber shows that the rules of reproduction of capitalism, stated abstractly, are not only compatible with but often also productive of the sorts of differences with which his antagonists are preoccupied.

For Subaltern Studies, all this is fatal. Chakrabarty in particular insists that the tenacity of traditional hierarchies and identities in India demonstrates its dissimilarity from the bourgeois West. India, it follows, can’t be understood through categories developed for that West. But not only does he grossly oversimplify Western history (where, as Lowe and Roedgier would remind him, reliance on these identities is hardly uncommon), these purported differences are always compatible with, and frequently explicable through, universalizing categories.

An Objection and a Half

Attentive readers of Chibber’s book will notice that my rendering of his argument differs from the presentation in the book. As I suggested already, this is because the structure of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital — while suited optimally to the task of launching his critique — understates the scope of his own contributions.

Chibber constructs his defense of Marxism around what he calls “the two universalisms;” first, the universalizing drive of capital; and second, the universal interest of social agents (as briefly discussed above) to defend their well-being. These together, he suggests, enable a universal history of East and West. As he writes in his conclusion, “both parts of the globe are subject to the same basic forces [these two universalisms] and are therefore part of the same basic history.” (291)

But this can be misleading. This way of defending universalizing categories suggests that it’s only once the universalizing drive of capital snaked its way around the globe that this shared history began. Chibber’s own book has given us reason to argue something more expansive.

The defense of a universalizing analysis actually rests on a single argument about human nature. As already argued, it’s this claim that licenses stable expectations about human behavior, which in turn ground all derivative claims about transhistorical patterns produced by particular permutations of humans, resources, and opportunities —the substance of historical materialism.

This isn’t novel, but does bear restating. Marxists have never shied from writing intelligent, universalizing histories of pre-capitalist societies, nor should we in the future. GEM de Ste. Croix’s masterful The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World is but one example.

The first of Chibber’s universalisms, then, is just a specific instance of a larger hypothesis. Put differently, he’s correct to emphasize that capitalism universalizes certain rules of reproduction, whether its agents are from Tahiti or Uruguay. But this was no less true of the history that preceded it.

An auxiliary issue concerns the mechanism at the heart of Chibber’s rendering of materialism. Marxists have spilt considerable ink addressing the relationship between ideas and material life. Most often, the mechanism adduced is functional — we’ve commonly sought to explain the salience of particular ideologies by tracing how they help their bearers navigate their social world.

The trouble has been that these are often just-so stories — agents can always find many different ways of making sense of practically identical social situations. If Bob the Builder has his construction crew sprinkle rosewater on their jackhammers at lunchtime, it’s not nonsensical to attribute this to the vagaries of the housing market; but why does his competitor three avenues over instead have them sing “The Internationale”? Perhaps it’s a contingent consequence of the class struggle — but the more we rely on class struggle  in explaining why individuals gravitate towards certain ideas and not others, the more ad hoc our materialism.

Chibber’s argument sidesteps this quagmire. His account of materialism is, instead, a selectional one — ideas are de-selected where incompatible with agents’ defense of their well-being. This is terribly powerful at doing much of what materialism should do; it is remarkable how much we can explain, I think, solely on its basis. But I wonder if this  forfeits too much terrain to contingency.

It’s a sociological truism that individuals are in large part the products of the environments in which they’re raised. Caveats aside, it seems unambitious not to give this a Marxist inflection. Given that this environment is meaningfully patterned by any given agent’s structural location, surely we should endeavor to say something about the content of the ideas from which similarly positioned agents are likely to select, and thus about, among other things, the sorts of religious belief or cultural forms that are likely to flourish?

Admittedly, this carries the danger of encouraging explanations of phenomena that are really beyond the pale — even if “The Fast and The Furious” movies are obviously late capitalist pornography, there will never be an explanation for why Hollywood produced six of them. But, once again, the fact that we needn’t explain everything shouldn’t be an invitation to say less than we can.


Subaltern Studies and similar schools of thought have fashioned quite a niche for themselves in the academy. This has generated an incentive structure skewed towards reproducing fashionable rather than accurate ways of thinking. Your dissertation on the Lacanian interpretation of atomic fission might lead nuclear physicists astray, but if your discipline rewards you (and no scientists read you) it matters not a jot.

There’s no hiding the fact that the institutions that would come to the rescue, here — those of the Marxist left — are very weak. The Occupy movement reflected the consequences of our marginality.We shouldn’t be surprised, for instance, that Tidal Magazine is largely unreadable — and where readable, useless.

As we seek to rebuild, Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital represents what we most need — a meticulously researched, well-sourced and highly reflective tribute to the power of reasoned and critical thinking. Marxists will leave it, justifiably, with renewed confidence in our tradition, and able again to believe that the arc of our theoretical universe, at least, bends towards truth.

July/August 2013, ATC 165


  1. If you stop and think about it, Chibber is attempting to equate his own “political Marxism” with Marxism in general. If the vanguard party methodology so bent on litmus tests is something Solidarity was launched to supersede, it is distinctly odd to see the same hair-splitting tendency on display around academic debates. The scholars involved with Subaltern Studies–admittedly something I have had little inclination to pursue–are not the enemy of Marxism. They just have a different interpretation than Chibber. You can see how one reviewer exhibits some fairly toxic behavior in praising Chibber’s book:

    “In the film Avengers there is a scene where the villan [sic], Loki, faces the Hulk and does not come out well in the encounter. In irritation he puffs up his chest and shouts, “Enough! I am a God!” Hulk picks up Loki by his feet and smashes him all over the place like a rag doll and leaves him lying helpless in a pile of rubble and sniffs, “Puny God!” Vivek Chibber does a Hulk on the Subaltern School (SS).”

    Adolfo Gilly, who is regarded as the preeminent Marxist scholar in Mexico and a long-time supporter/member of the Fourth International stated in the July-August 2010 NLR:

    “I became familiar with Subaltern Studies and the work of Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee in the late 1980s. I only really read Edward Thompson in the 1990s. His Making of the English Working Class and Customs in Common lay a lot of emphasis on the category of experience, which in my view is extremely important to Marxist thought.”

    I am opposed to Gilly “lying helpless in a pile of rubble”.

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