A Marxist challenge 
to postmodernist Orientalism

Vasant Kaiwar’s The Postcolonial Orient offers a smart and perceptive Marxist assessment of a dominant concept in postcolonial theory: that the histories and peoples of the formerly colonized “East” are utterly different from the colonizing “West,” and therefore cannot be understood by concepts and analytical methods that emerge from that “West.” Focusing his critique on the book Provincializing Europe by Dipesh Chakrabarty, but also addressing work by Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, and others, Kaiwar argues that the monolithic “West” constructed in postcolonial theory is a fiction. It is a fiction based on a lack of knowledge of European history and its class dynamics, a poor understanding of the historical development of colonialism and capitalism, and a flawed methodology that privileges the analysis of culture and discourse over that of history, economics, and society. 

Kaiwar contends that Marxism can address the questions of postcolonial studies with far greater insight than postmodernists. He contends that capitalism’s emergence in Europe was dependent on colonialism

and slavery in the new world. Its universalizing laws of uneven and combined development produced differences in societies across history and continue to do so throughout the world today. 

He does not dismiss the importance of culture and discourse, but argues that they must be explained as part of the totality of capitalism’s social relations. Marxism thus emerges explicitly in The Postcolonial Orient as the “unrenouncable” project: the key to understanding the links between exploitation and oppression and to forging solidarity across the world.

These arguments may remind readers of Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, published just before The Postcolonial Orient. Both books are examples of a long history of Marxist critiques of postcolonial theory, stretching back more than two decades. To dig into this further, see my review of Chibber’s book in ISR #92 for a basic overview of terms and debates in postcolonial studies and the contributions of Marxists in the field. Despite the two books’ similarities, The Postcolonial Orient stands apart from Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital in two specific ways that make Kaiwar’s text more useful. 

First, Kaiwar grounds his theoretical critique of postcolonialism in a historical account of how colonial modernity developed in relation to capitalism, and how the post-independence world (especially in Africa and Asia) arose out of the crises of World War II. This history is largely missing in Chibber and it enables Kaiwar to demonstrate the superiority of the Marxist over the postmodernist analysis of colonialism. 

Second, Kaiwar self-consciously links his work to a rich tradition of thinkers inside and outside postcolonial studies, including Aijaz Ahmad, Timothy Brennan, Arif Dirlik, Antonio Gramsci, Frederick Jameson, Neil Lazarus, Benita Parry, and E. San Juan Jr. While Chibber largely conducts a close reading of texts from subaltern studies and postcolonial theory, Kaiwar offers an explicitly Marxist framework for understanding the cultural practices, identities, and discourses that allegedly cannot be comprehended in a Marxist framework.

The greatest contribution of The Postcolonial Orient is that it combines the work of critiquing postcolonial theory with that of building better understandings of history and culture in the colonized and postcolonial world. As such, The Postcolonial Orient can be fruitfully read alongside texts like Ahmad’s In Theory and Lazarus’s The Postcolonial Unconscious, which are as committed to building alternative understandings of culture and literature as they are to historicizing and challenging the theoretical premises of postmodernist, postcolonial theory. 

The early chapters of The Postcolonial Orient refreshingly ask the big questions that move us away from narrow turf-war debates in academia. What happens, Kaiwar asks, when we approach the history of colonialism through the lens of Karl Marx’s insistence in Capital that the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas, the enslavement of Africans, and the colonization of Asians were crucial to the formation of industrial capitalism in Europe? Establishing that capitalism, colonialism, and slavery are part of the same, complex totality, Kaiwar challenges the notion that since difference and heterogeneity are evident across the world, we must live in multiple worlds. 

In postmodernist postcolonial theory, recognition of a “fragmentary history has been replaced by substantive fragments, held together conceptually by the notion of alternative, different, hybrid modernities.” This is a result of the complete disappearance of capitalism in understanding colonialism. Citing Stuart Hall, Kaiwar argues that after rejecting “deterministic economism” postcolonial theory has not given alternative ways of “thinking about economic relations and their effects . . . but a massive, gigantic, and eloquent disavowal.”   

Instead, Kaiwar suggests that properly accounting for the historical difference and specificity of colonialism means tracing “a local development of a global mode of production”—not putting the local in opposition to the global, or declaring any global approach to be a simplistic “meta-narrative.” In fact, making capital “a central structuring and anchoring concept” allows us to better identify what was uniquely specific about European colonialism, and what made it different than so many forms of colonialism that have ravaged the earth, well before capitalism. Understanding capitalism is therefore crucial to understanding colonial and postcolonial modernity.

The second part of the book delves more deeply into the theoretical debate, with special attention to Provincializing Europe. In the abstract, Kaiwar applauds the ideas of “provincializing Europe” and challenging claims to universalism reflecting the arrogance of imperialism and white supremacy. However, Kaiwar asks about the disappearance of other aspects of the real history of Europe in postolonial theory—the struggles of the subaltern Europe and the development of a whole radical tradition that has also rejected liberalism, racism, and imperialism. 

Without an understanding of class divisions globally, the postcolonial theorists—very much like the bourgeois nationalists they criticize—flip around the Orientalist division of the world into civilized/backward, scientific/spiritual, democratic/authoritarian, white/nonwhite, etc., championing the latter over the former but keeping the binary thinking intact. The “East” created in postcolonial theory is thus Orientalism in reverse.

Kaiwar’s argument takes up different aspects of this East/West divide. One strand is what Kaiwar calls “postcolonial populism,” a critique of modernity that constructs a romantic, pre-colonial and pre-capitalist past in which “the people” were simply happy and fulfilled in themselves. This populism directly reflects elite and upper-caste nationalist projects, for even a simple rendition of pre-colonial and pre-capitalist history from the point of view of women, oppressed castes, and oppressed classes would reveal a world of sharp inequality and horrors, not any sort of ahistorical South Asian identity that ought to be preserved. 

Another strand is the theory of the “subaltern”—signifying the marginalized and oppressed subject—that posits a completely autonomous subaltern world unaffected by “elite” actions, whether British or Indian. Kaiwar shows how such a concept of the subaltern is firmly connected to postcolonial Orientalism, as the subaltern carries the true essence of “Third World difference,” as it were. 

Finally, once subaltern studies traveled to New York, Chicago, London, and Canberra, it appears that diasporic academics, too, can be subalterns. In the context of multiculturalism and identity politics in US universities, theorists transform themselves into “postcolonial subjects” carrying “Third World difference.” Subalternity goes from being a marker of class and caste in earlier subaltern studies to racial and ethnic difference after the postmodern turn in subaltern studies and postcolonial theory. Kaiwar is especially ruthless when spirituality and religion are given center-stage in defining the indissoluble essence of non-Western or South Asian identity, given the Hindu fundamentalist attack on secularism. 

All of this is powerful and well argued. At the same time I take issue with two arguments that Kaiwar makes. First, he mistakenly uses the identity and location of the scholars he criticizes as if those are, in and of themselves, enough to explain their theoretical arguments. This is as unconvincing as saying that because Marx was from the middle class and European, he could not explain capitalism as a world system.

Second, Kaiwar posits an undue significance to postcolonial studies when he contends that it is “a necessary moment of the global consolidations of right-wing ideologies for the 21st century.” Clearly ideologies like neoliberalism are far more important than academic specialties like postmodernism. This argument also fails to appreciate the space for progressive and left-wing thought that postcolonial studies—along with ethnic studies, women’s studies, and other related fields—have created in a US climate in which the actual Left is weak and fragmented, and academia is increasingly corporatized. 

The welcome critique of postmodernist thought in these fields needs to acknowledge that, ironically, they attract people who are committed to social justice, historical truth, and other values that postmodernism dismisses. We should remember that professors in postcolonial studies and related fields are supporting Palestinian liberation and #BlackLivesMatter, organizing teach-ins in the era of Trump, and being placed on right-wing watch lists. 

These observations aside, The Postcolonial Orient is an important contribution to Marxist scholarship in postcolonial studies. By historicizing postcolonial theory and also offering an alternative understanding of colonialism, capitalism, modernity, and culture, Kaiwar’s book gives us the breadth and depth field we need to understand the complex workings of capitalism with colonialism, ideology, and culture. 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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