Marxism and the future
 of postcolonial theory

Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital

Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital is a welcome contribution to the rich ongoing debate about the relationship between Marxism and postcolonial theory, the set of ideas and methods now prominent in the academic study of colonized and formerly colonized regions. But PTSC also stands apart for the political chord it has struck among those interested in the future of Marxism outside academia. Beyond attracting intellectuals from a rather specialized field, Chibber’s book has generated wide interest among academics and activists alike. Featured prominently at the Historical Materialism conferences in New Delhi, New York, and London in 2013, highlighted in many leftist and activist publications, and debated in academic conferences, PTSC has resonated with audiences who are tired of the postmodernist brand of radicalism that is expressed in postcolonial theory and elsewhere and those who hope to see a resurgence of Marxist ideas. The buzz around PTSC reflects, it seems to me, an excitement and renewed interest in

Marxism as the global left regroups in the twenty-first century—and it is my hope that ongoing debates about the book among Marxists will be productive in furthering and clarifying Marxism for a new generation.

My aim in this review, therefore, is to present and assess Chibber’s book for readers both familiar and unfamiliar with the field. Accordingly, I begin with a brief, self-contained section outlining PTSC’s motivations and conclusions and continue, in the next section, with an explanation of terms like “postcolonial studies,” “postcolonial theory,” and “subaltern studies.” The third section turns to a much more detailed summary of PTSC’s specific arguments against postcolonial theory, which involves moving between various theoretical arguments and technical language. Finally, I outline some of my comments and disagreements with the book, mostly involving the question of how postcolonial studies and other left-leaning fields dominated by postmodernism ought to be approached by Marxists.

PTSC: The short version
Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital makes large claims about postcolonial theory as a whole—but the book is not interested in providing a comprehensive map of the field or weighing its various debates and trajectories. Rather, Chibber selects three theorists he regards as representative and asks a direct question: is postcolonial theory correct in its portrayals of capitalism, colonialism, and the relation between “East” and “West”? Reading the works of Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, and Dipesh Chakrabarty—three writers affiliated with the Indian journal Subaltern Studies and now prominent in postcolonial theory—PTSC is motivated by questions like these: Does postcolonial theory give us a clearer and more accurate understanding than Marxism, as it claims, about what capitalism looks like globally or about the reasons behind the political and cultural differences between the West and the colonized/postcolonial world (or Global South)? Is postcolonial theory more radical in its critique than Marxism, as it claims, because it completely dissociates itself from European and Eurocentric notions of “universalism” and “progress”? When understanding the world, do we need different theories to explain Eastern and Western societies and peoples, or can we develop a unified theory and a universal history that can nevertheless account for obvious historical and cultural differences? 

Let’s step back for a minute to find out why Chibber is giving so much attention to postcolonial theory in the first place. It is useful to recognize that Chibber’s book is not the first Marxist critique of postcolonial theory or subaltern studies but, in fact, is only the latest salvo in a long and often antagonistic debate. As postcolonial theory has come to prominence over the last three decades, it has largely rejected Marxism as Eurocentric and ignored its theoretical and practical contributions to anticolonial and radical struggle. Marxists of various persuasions, accordingly, have challenged postcolonial theory at every step—but in diverse ways. Some writers (Aijaz Ahmad, Arif Dirlik, E. San Juan Jr., Sumit Sarkar) have been openly hostile to postcolonial theory while putting forward alternative readings of history and culture, while others (Tim Brennan, Barbara Harlow, Neil Lazarus, Benita Parry) have aimed to create a space for Marxist scholarship within postcolonial studies, combating and constructing alternatives to its postmodernist elements. 

PTSC shares much with these writers, although Chibber deliberately (and unfortunately) chooses not to engage with them, thus portraying postcolonial theory as a much less contentious field than it always has been. In terms of polemics and controversy, PTSC begs comparison with Ahmad’s In Theory (1992), which also shocked the establishment by declaring that postcolonial theory pales in comparison to Marxism in terms of explaining colonialism, capitalism, and the relationship between the most advanced zones of capital (the Global North) and the colonized/postcolonial zones (the Global South). Similarly, Chibber’s contention that postcolonial theory posits a fundamental division between “West” and “non-West” echoes Lazarus’s observation in “The Fetish of ‘the West’ in Postcolonial Studies” that “the Marxist problematic has been definitely displaced by a Third Worldism which eschews any focus on capital and class in favor of a thoroughly culturalist definition of the neocolonial world order.”1 As we shall see, Chibber says “Orientalism” where Lazarus says “Third Worldism,” and we will return to the significance of this difference in the last section. Nevertheless, we can say that PTSC, whether it acknowledges it or not, is involved in a common project with these Marxists to reverse the development that Lazarus describes and reassert a Marxist understanding of the imperialist world order, in which capital and class are once again given central prominence.

PTSC’s method of answering the central question (“Is postcolonial theory correct?”) is to identify and analyze its foundational ideas, a task made difficult by the lack of a single articulation of such a framework. Upon examining the work of Guha, Chatterjee, and Chakrabarty, Chibber claims that the key pillars of postcolonial theory are: (1) the West and the East are fundamentally different from one another, and (2) any theory seeking to understand these spaces under a common global framework is doomed to be Eurocentric. Imperialist, liberal, and even Marxist theories of global capitalism and modernity, goes the argument, end up taking the history of capitalism in northwestern Europe as the template for what has happened in the rest of the world, and all of the categories used assume that parallel. But in reality, they say, colonial capitalism was completely different than capitalism in the West and produced entirely different societies and cultures. For postcolonialists, according to Chibber, the stark difference between regions in the world proves the limits of what Marxists call capitalism’s “universalizing tendency” (its tendency to go global) and that European theories like Marxism cannot provide the theoretical or historiographical tools to discuss that difference because they either ignore cultural and historical diversity or posit narratives and subjectivities that do not exist in the Global South. 

PTSC is dedicated to drawing out how postcolonial theorists make this argument and revealing that their understanding of capitalism is wrong (even when their empirical evidence is correct), their portrayals of Marxism are inaccurate, and their accounts of a stark “Third World difference” are Orientalist. Chibber’s position is not that there is nothing different or specific about colonial capitalism or the political culture of the Global South, but that postcolonial theory splits the world into distinct parts in a way that is, ironically, reflective of imperialist divisions. The emphasis on the difference between East and West ends up in the same place as Orientalism: it “relentlessly promotes Eurocentrism [by portraying] the West as the site of reason, rationality, secularism, democratic culture, and the like, and the East as an unchanging miasma of tradition, unreason, religiosity, and so on.” Readers might compare Chibber’s formulation with that of Sarkar—a founding member of Subaltern Studies who famously left the editorial collective after it turned decisively toward postmodernism. In “The Decline of the Subaltern in Subaltern Studies,” Sarkar argued that the “detachment from socio-economic contexts and determinants” in Subaltern Studies had led to a simplistic vision of the “subaltern” (the marginalized, the oppressed) as being frozen in time, outside of modern life. As both Chibber and Sarkar contend, postcolonial theory and subaltern studies take us back to the same Orientalist representations the colonizers peddled—now repackaged by this movement in the language of radical theory.

In constructing its critique, PTSC offers a defense, from a left-wing perspective, of universalism, totality, reason, truth, reality, progress, knowledge, and other terms and concepts that have been denigrated and caricatured—by postcolonial theorists and others—since postmodernist theory began its ascendance in the Western academy in the 1970s and 1980s. The powerful counterarguments in PTSC, while not offering a full-blown alternative theory, point to what a materialist understanding of colonial and postcolonial contexts would look like. Chibber demonstrates that insisting on the universality of capital is not the same as perceiving or desiring homogeneity, because capitalism itself produces heterogeneity and difference; that the history of the rise of capitalism in northwestern Europe is not only linked to the history of the rise of capitalism (via colonialism) in the Global South but is as uneven, nonlinear, and complex as the latter; that the postcolonial bourgeoisie’s betrayal of “subaltern” classes (peasants, workers, the poor) in the Global South has less to do with their adoption of Western ideologies and discourses than their growing expertise in extracting surplus value from their people; and that comprehending the universality of material human needs—like the need for food, housing, or shelter—is essential to any leftist understanding of justice, equality, and truth.

PTSC’s conclusion usefully draws out how the development of twentieth-century Marxism (of various types) was quite closely linked to the problem of uneven capitalist development and the development of anticolonial struggle. Whether or not Marxism is right in all of its theories of how capitalism works on a global scale, Chibber argues, it has worked with a much different idea of capitalism and the differences between West and non-West than what postcolonial theorists have ascribed to it. Citing Lenin’s theory of imperialism, Kautsky’s and Lenin’s work on agrarian society, Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, Mao’s theory of New Democracy, Gramsci’s differentiation between Eastern and Western Europe in terms of state formation, and post-1960s ideas like dependency theory and world-systems theory, Chibber argues that, however “deeply flawed” these theories might be, they are not “teleological, or deterministic, or stageist” but in fact were “developed as an explicit rejection of these very modes of thought” , showing a constant desire to examine “social reproduction in parts of the world where capital was not working in exactly the way Marx described it in Capital”. But in order to engage with Marxists’ different attempts to understand the complexities of global capitalism, Chibber suggests, postcolonial theory will have to question its own paradigm about what the world looks like and which theories can explain it.

Defining terms
Before going more deeply into the specific arguments themselves, let me clarify some basic terms and mark out where my usage differs from Chibber’s. While many writers, including Chibber, use “postcolonial studies” and “postcolonial theory” more or less interchangeably, I separate them in order to distinguish between a field of study and the theories produced in that field, respectively. “Postcolonial studies” is the name of an academic field that emerged first in US literature departments. We can say that it has had four main purposes: to expand the literary curriculum to include writers from postcolonial Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and other places that became independent from colonial rule after World War II; to link these writings to the long historical legacy of anti-imperialist writings and struggles; to challenge the representations and also the self-representations of the Global South as found in both imperialist and nationalist histories; and to develop a theoretical vocabulary (“postcolonial theory”) in order to contest Eurocentric paradigms that subordinated the Global South to the West economically, politically, and culturally. It is this fourth element, postcolonial theory, that has enabled postcolonial studies to travel beyond its disciplinary borders to area studies, history, anthropology, and the social sciences—and it is this element that is the central object of Chibber’s devastating critique

There is more to this difference in terminology than the narrow concerns of academic jargon. By constructing “postcolonial studies” as a broader category than “postcolonial theory”,  I am drawing attention to the fact that the field cannot be reduced to the theories around it. Just as there are Marxists, feminists, queer theorists, and others in, say, African American studies or South Asian studies, scholars in postcolonial studies take up a variety of angles on the materials they research. Postcolonial studies is, thus, the institutionalized location in English departments for the study and teaching of literatures in English from Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean, and often, depending on departments and individual professors, literatures from the Middle East and Ireland as well. Recognizing the difference between the field and the theories produced within and around it allows us to understand why scholars of so many different theoretical orientations work within it.

In other words “postcolonial theory” is not a coherent theory, but the name of a collection of ideas associated with postcolonial studies. This is why it has always featured tensions between different theories and methods. On the one hand, postcolonial theory today is certainly dominated by postmodernism. Indeed, by the mid-1980s, postmodernist theories began to decisively shape the field and to deliberately cast aside Marxism; as Benita Parry puts it in “The Institutionalization of Postcolonial Studies”, “The historical materialist analysis of colonialism as inseparable from an expansionist capitalism . . . was typically set aside.”2 Even theorists skeptical of postmodernism, like Edward Said, criticized Marxism; Said’s Orientalism (published in 1979), now seen as a founding text of postcolonial studies, popularized the idea that Marxism is Eurocentric. But it is worth recognizing, on the other hand, that Marxian political and cultural theory have played an important role in shaping postcolonial theory—whether we consider, for instance, the centrality of anticolonial activists like Frantz Fanon, the use of categories like Antonio Gramsci’s “hegemony,” or the theories of “underdevelopment” emerging from the work of Samir Amin. There has always been a tension in the field between “the postmodern” and the “postcolonial,” often from a Third Worldist position claiming that postmodernism imposes Western methods of reading onto non-Western literatures and texts. As Lazarus amply demonstrated in The Postcolonial Unconscious (published in 2011), postcolonial literatures constantly push back against postmodernist theories because they continue to value old-fashioned concepts like “speaking truth to power,” “listening to the voice of the voiceless,” and “getting history right.” In most of the materials we study in the field, the basic division between colonizer and colonized might get complicated by issues of race, gender, sexuality, and class—but I haven’t yet come across a novel or poem that acts as if colonialism was simply a matter of “discourse.” In this context, Marxism and materialist theories and methods in general have never disappeared from postcolonial studies. 

Finally, even when we examine postmodernized postcolonial theory—the dominant and prevalent version—the picture is quite complex. To take some examples: Said uses Michel Foucault’s theories in Orientalism, but Foucault seems to disappear in Said’s other works; Gayatri Spivak’s sharp critique of Foucault while championing deconstructionist Jacques Derrida raises questions about how different branches of postmodernism relate to one another; Said’s critical defense of Palestinian and other anticolonial nationalisms sits uneasily with the rest of the field’s dismissal of all nationalism as such; Homi Bhabha’s readings of Fanon and his deconstruction of the “binary opposition” of colonizer and colonized is implicitly refuted by the bulk of work in the field, which takes that division for granted; and the materialist feminisms of Chandra Mohanty and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan cannot be categorized easily as postmodernist, even though they also distinguish themselves from Marxism. 

Postcolonial studies and postcolonial theory thus sustain a fairly eclectic mix of ideas, both materialist and antimaterialist, even though the most prominent theories have been unapologetically postmodernist. In this light, any time someone makes a claim about the theoretical foundations of postcolonial theory, we have to ask: what is the critic selecting as representative and for what purpose? On this front, Chibber’s motivations are actually quite clear: he foregrounds the subalternists Guha, Chatterjee, and Chakrabarty because he is particularly interested in the link between postcolonial theory and the social sciences, and the impact of anti-materialist theories in the study of history and society. Chibber carefully explains what he means by “subaltern studies”: the term certainly does refer to the Indian historiographical journal of that name, which began in 1982 with Guha, Chatterjee, and Chakrabarty among its founding members, but today “subaltern studies” means something more: namely, the theorizing done by these critics and others beyond the journal. This theorizing involves the use of “subaltern” (the marginalized/the oppressed) as a theoretical category, not a descriptive category—one that began as a way to supplement the rigid and mechanical use of class by Stalinist historians and then turned into a replacement of classical Marxist categories of class.

Readers interested in Chibber’s strategic blending of postcolonial studies, postcolonial theory, and subaltern studies can investigate it further. On the one hand, this means pushing aside valuable work—like the early Subaltern Studies journal, which was quite interested in drawing out the voices of the marginalized and oppressed beyond the rigid constraints of Stalinism in India. On the other hand, conflating the terms is nevertheless quite productive in the context of Chibber’s argument, for it allows Chibber to develop a coherent critique that is useful and even eye-opening in taking on the assumptions and conclusions of postmodernized postcolonial theory. 

PTSC: Core arguments
Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital is organized in a way that makes its arguments and methodology quite easy to track. The opening chapter makes the argument, foundational to the project, that theories developed under the rubric of the Subaltern Studies project, although originating in Marxism, deliberately aimed to challenge and displace Marxism. Chibber charts how the project went from being contained within an Indian historiographical school to producing an entire theory and indeed becoming “the most illustrious representative of postcolonial studies in the scholarship on the Global South”, with the category “subaltern” circulating far and wide as the preferred term to indicate marginalization and oppression. From its very origins, Chibber argues, citing Chakrabarty’s “A Small History of Subaltern Studies,” Subaltern Studies deliberately set out to become not just an alternative historiography (a way of writing history) but an alternative theory of history (a way of conceptualizing history)—primarily challenging not mainstream theory but “the Marxism from which [Subaltern Studies] emerged”. It is this core idea that provides the energy and perspective of the book—that the Subaltern Studies project deliberately set out to write a different account of the history of capitalism and its spread around the world, one that is oppositional to Marxism’s account. 

Subaltern studies, Chibber writes, sets itself against a “Conventional Story,” shared by liberalism, imperialism, and Marxism, about capitalism’s origins and spread. Capitalism originated in Western Europe, the story goes, through the emerging bourgeoisie’s heroic struggles against feudalism, which meant uniting all of the various antifeudal forces under its banner (gaining hegemony) and leading them toward victorious revolutions in Britain (1640s) and France (1789). Once in power, the bourgeoisie created political and economic institutions that transformed all economic and political relationships, creating the “fundamental pillars of modern citizenship” through liberal and democratic institutions and structures that transformed, at a deep level, the very way in which individuals thought of themselves in relation to one another. But, unable to contain itself within national borders, capital had to go abroad, seeking new markets and setting up footholds in Asia and the Americas. According to the Conventional Story, this arrival of capital onto other shores set in motion a parallel process, though delayed and fitful, to what had happened in Western Europe: a heroic bourgeoisie (imported from Europe but also indigenous) would unite all classes to fight feudal and precapitalist powers, establish liberalism and civil society, and bring about modernity and historical progress. Any delay in this process was simply a matter of local intransigence and external obstacles. A good mental exercise to get into Chibber’s book would be for readers to consider whether they, in fact, also buy into some version of this Conventional Story—one that Chibber presents, correctly, as a caricature of Marxism. 

Against this Conventional Story, Chibber says, subaltern studies/postcolonial theory makes several arguments—and it is his explanation and refutation of these arguments that organizes the book. Chibber identifies six major theses underpinning the subaltern studies critique, reflecting an interest in three major themes: (1) the nature of the bourgeoisie in the West and East (chapters 2 to 4), (2) the question of power and its relation to capital’s universalizing drive (chapters 5 and 6), and (3) the issue of agency, or what Chibber calls “psychology” (chapters 7 and 8). Chapters 8 and 9 take on, specifically, Chakrabarty’s rejection of historicism in Provincializing Europe and Chatterjee’s portrayals of anticolonial and postcolonial nationalism. What is crucial and new in Chibber’s analysis of postcolonial theory is the argument that the ideas about power, culture, and agency circulating in the field are not independent and random but are based on a fairly clear proposal about the distinctive development of colonial capitalism. I will discuss all six theses for the sake of the review, but the emphasis and uniqueness of Chibber’s text, in my view, involves his discussion (and rejection) of Guha’s idea of “dominance without hegemony”—the idea that capitalism came to rule in the colonies but did not, as the Conventional Story predicted, rule by creating consent (“hegemony”) but by force (“dominance”). Interested readers should take up Guha beyond Chibber’s substantive quotations in order to judge his claims. 

The first two subalternist theses, according to Chibber, concern a disagreement with the Conventional Story about the nature of colonial capitalism. These involve the assertion (thesis #1) that the bourgeoisie in colonial India (British and Indian) did not gain hegemony over the society (they did not fight feudalism, they did not unite all forces under their banner, they did not fight for democracy). From this follows a larger historical and theoretical claim (thesis #2), that the failure of the bourgeoisie to play the hero is actually an account of the limits of capital, for it shows that capitalism’s alleged universalizing drive ends once it hits the colonies. Chibber’s response in refuting these claims is to demonstrate Guha’s incorrect understanding about capitalism in Western Europe itself, one that sets up a false measure for understanding colonial capitalism. 

Drawing from theories of the English and French revolutions put forward by Robert Brenner, Chibber argues that elites in the European revolutions did not establish hegemony from on high but were pushed forward by the masses, whose aspirations they “tried their best to contain and suppress”; that once in power they pushed the subalterns aside, establishing oligarchic, not bourgeois-democratic, rule; and that coercion was central to this rule. Chibber refutes the idea, which he detects both in Guha and in certain Marxisms, that the bourgeoisie is the central agent and hero “in the rise of political culture”. Second, Guha’s argument about the limits of capitalism’s universalizing drive is made with a false expectation that universalization will always lead to the hegemony and democratic rule of the bourgeoisie. But subalternists’ conflation of Western capitalism with liberalism wrongly imposes twentieth-century norms onto seventeenth- and eighteenth-century struggles. As Chibber puts it: “What is universalized under the rule of capital is not the drive for a consensual and encompassing political order, but rather the compulsions of market dependence”. Furthermore, the historical record shows that both in the West and in the colonies, capitalism universalized market relations without homogenizing every aspect of life. Therefore, the fact of heterogeneity and difference is not proof of capital’s limited universalization but is one of its consequences. In a detailed discussion of Marx’s theory of abstract labor—an idea that has been taken by some scholars in postcolonial studies and ethnic studies to signify the wiping away of social and cultural difference—Chibber argues that Marx recognized capitalism’s ability to “sustain and even create tremendous diversity in social identities” and that equating “universal” with “homogenous” is incorrect.

The second set of the subalternists’ theses, drawn from capitalism’s failure to universalize colonial society, concerns questions of power. It tries to explain why precolonial and precapitalist forms of economic organization and social/political power coexist with capitalist forms of exploitation. Unlike in Europe, colonial capitalism brings about a “pluralization of power” (thesis #3) such that, as Dipesh Chakrabarty argues, “Capital and power can be seen as analytically separable categories”. Subalternists argue that a distinctive colonial modernity emerges, made up of an elite domain that is integrated into Western-European thought and a subaltern domain that remains relatively autonomous from it (thesis #4). This subaltern domain, hidden from view, has its own discourses, its own modes of resistance, and its own political language. 

In responding to these notions of power, Chibber takes on Chakrabarty’s argument in Rethinking Working-Class History (published in 1989) that the “arbitrary, personal, violent, and aggressive” forms of authority deployed in the jute mills of Bengal were “nonbourgeois”. This assumes that “bourgeois power” is somehow less about personal domination and more about “formal and impersonal” exploitation. However, Chibber refutes this dichotomy of “the West” (capitalism/impersonal power) versus “the East” (limited capitalism/personal power) by pointing out that repression (antiunion laws, private armies, debt, bonded labor) is very much part of capitalist rule in the West and that capitalists everywhere “mobilize all available means to increase their power in the organization of work”. Postcolonial theorists, in an effort to move away from economic reductionist readings of all hierarchies, often stop analyzing capitalism at all: “Instead of theorizing how capitalism reproduces status and caste hierarchies, [they detach] these hierarchies from capital”. Regarding the idea of distinct elite and subaltern domains, Chibber is careful to acknowledge the importance of works like Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (published in 1983) in the face of historians and theorists, including Marxist ones, who either discount peasant and tribal uprisings as “pre-political” or explain them only by looking at them through an elite viewpoint. At the same time, Chibber questions Subaltern Studies when it moves from documenting subaltern struggle in a “history from below” style to developing entirely new theoretical paradigms around the notion that the subaltern domain is discrete and autonomous from the elite domain.

Accepting a distinctive colonial modernity and bifurcating the elite and subaltern domains leads to a different understanding of agency and history than that posed by Western theory. Nationalism now appears as completely separate from subaltern concerns, and the nation is merely an imposition of Westernized ruling elites onto subalterns (thesis #5). Western theory, whether imperialist or nationalist or Marxist, is unfailingly Eurocentric (thesis #6) because it is unable to grasp this distinctiveness of the colonial social formation. It proposes models of agency and history-writing that assume (a) that Indian workers and peasants think and act in the same way as subalterns in Western social formations dominated by secular liberalism, whereas they are actually motivated by religion and organized by kinship and ethnic ties, and (b) that the linear, progressive-driven, and closed model of history appropriate for understanding Western capitalist society fails in the colonial capitalist society, which needs a more localized historiography, one that can recognize the importance of the fragment that resists incorporation into a whole.

Chibber’s critique of the models of subaltern agency and subaltern notions of time and history presented in Chatterjee’s different writings and in Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, is direct and blunt: in the name of fending off Eurocentric thought, they are encouraging a revival of Orientalism. In several of his essays, Chatterjee highlights and seeks to support empirically the idea that “peasant consciousness” is inherently collective and bound by tradition and is distinct from the individualist, rationalist “bourgeois consciousness” of both Westerners and Westernized elites. Chibber, using Chatterjee’s own evidence, argues the opposite: that South Asian peasants actually do operate like everyone else. Just like Guha’s explicit assertions about the strong place of material interests in peasant consciousness, Chatterjee’s studies of peasants in colonial India actually confirm their abilities to think of class interests and individual rights against the alleged “obduracy of their communitarian identity”. Similarly, Chakrabarty’s Rethinking Working Class History so wishes to avoid a materialist reading of the jute-mill workers’ and peasants’ motivations, that, according to Chibber, the book overemphasizes the cultural roots of their actions in the face of its own evidence. Chakrabarty then reproduces typical Orientalist characterizations: they are religious, they can be provoked to violence very easily, and they lack a concept of individuality. In addition to rereading Chakrabarty’s own empirical data to a different purpose, Chibber enters into a full-fledged defense of universal material interests between people and of their “capacity to recognize” their basic needs regardless of cultural location. It is this universalism, the universalism of labor, that forms the basis for Chibber’s critique of Provincializing Europe and its perspective that to tell a universal history of capital is inherently Eurocentric and biased. 

Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital’s greatest achievement is that it reorients the debates between Marxism, postcolonial theory, and subaltern studies around key questions of history and political economy. In critiquing the work of prominent theorists, Chibber foregrounds a materialist method: identifying and contesting assumptions about capitalism and colonialism that underlie their theories of the absolute differences between East and West in terms of politics, culture, and even rationality. Chibber also reinvigorates debates about universalism, asserting that in order to understand a world brought together by capitalism we need to see the world as one—not by ignoring diversity across regions but by explaining how capitalism thrives on the creation of difference and heterogeneity. Among the plethora of ideas generated by PTSC, there were some with which I strongly disagreed (like the idea that recognizing the universality of human needs means limiting the place of culture in human life) and others that I am inspired to investigate further (like the argument that European capitalism and democracy were mainly a product of internal class dynamics). That said, it is clear to me that PTSC has the potential—already being realized—to open up a wide space for the discussion of Marxist ideas in the academy and thus to play an important role in clarifying and refining Marxist theory today.

In terms of the arguments Chibber puts forward, his specific analyses of Guha, Chatterjee, and Chakrabarty are persuasive to me, but his broader claims about postcolonial theory and subaltern studies are not. There are four issues involved here: Chibber’s selection of texts, his methodology of close reading that isolates theory from historical contexts, his representation of the relation between postcolonial theory and subaltern studies, and his political characterization of the two. In many cases, my comments could be seen as supplementing PTSC; in others, they represent basic disagreements.

In terms of selection, in all fairness, Chibber never claims that he is providing a comprehensive picture of the postcolonial theory and its various trajectories. However, he does say that the theorists he picks are representative, and I’m not convinced that his claims about Guha, Chatterjee, and Chakrabarty apply to the field as a whole. While it may be true that refuting Guha’s “dominance without hegemony” argument takes the wind out of the sails of subaltern studies, it is not at all obvious that the work of postcolonial theorists like Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha—three incredibly influential figures in postcolonial studies—is affected by Chibber’s counterargument. Indeed, the absence of Said, Spivak, and Bhabha has larger consequences: it points to PTSC’s almost complete silence on the question of postmodernism, whose impact on postcolonial theory is most responsible for its general move away from Marxism. Said, Spivak, and Bhabha played a key role in bringing the theories and methods of Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan, respectively, into the very center of postcolonial studies. Perhaps because he is primarily interested in postcolonial theory’s spread into history and the social sciences, Chibber makes the three subalternists stand in for postcolonial theory as a whole. 

A more complete critique of postcolonial theory, however, would have to recognize (1) the overwhelming force of postmodernism in the Western and Anglophone academy, influencing many fields within the humanities, (2) the dovetailing of the postmodern and the postcolonial in the early 1980s as the anti-Enlightenment ideas of the former met the anti-Western and anti­imperialist concerns of the latter, and (3) the ways in which the postmodernist emphasis on culture, discourse, and identity influenced theorists who worked in different disciplines, including literary and cultural studies (Said, Spivak, Bhabha) and history (Guha, Chatterjee, Chakrabarty). To speak in terms of PTSC, which is ultimately best read as a critique of subaltern studies and not of postcolonial theory itself, we can say that it was the postmodern moment that shifted subaltern studies away from its materialist and Marxism roots, not, as Chibber suggests, the weakness of the subalternists’ understanding of capitalism that opened the door to culturalism and idealism. Marxists in postcolonial studies certainly have addressed the question from this point of view, and I urge interested readers to pair PTSC with collections like The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Theory or Marxism, Modernity, and Postcolonial Studies.

On the question of methodology, Chibber anticipates my criticism by saying early on that he is not including a “historical sociology” or a contextualized account of these theories; rather, he is focusing on what they have to say. Let’s go further: Chibber points to an earlier article of his on Subaltern Studies where he does discuss the historical context, and PTSC also offers a short but clear account of the Indian journal. Nevertheless, I would have liked to see greater recognition of the fact that Guha and the early subalternists were involved in trying to produce new people-centered histories, using a structuralist Marxist framework, that would correct the problems brought about by Indian Stalinist historians’ rigid and deterministic methods. Guha, who was directly influenced by the crises of the late 1970s in India, marked by the authoritarian rule of Indira Gandhi and the betrayals of the Indian Communist parties, and inspired by the Naxalist upsurge, borrowed the category of “subaltern” from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci as a way to expand leftist discussions of ordinary life beyond the proletariat—yet, at least initially, without displacing classical Marxist categories of class.3 Guha was joined in the subalternist project by Sumit Sarkar, who, though mentioned only in passing by Chibber, is an important Marxist historian whose influential book Modern India was published at the same time as the first volumes of Subaltern Studies. Sarkar, as I stated above, very publicly left the journal following its turn to postmodernist methods. 

Keeping this nuanced background in view forces us to remember that the subalternists’ move away from materialism was not caused by bad ideas about Western capitalism but by a deep crisis in the Indian and global left after the end of the national liberation movements in the Global South, the crushing of rebellions and mass struggles in the West, and the weakness of workers’ struggles all around. The story about the origins of postmodernism, indeed, is different in terms of content but needs to be situated in this same moment of political crisis and pessimism. This sort of historicized account of recent radical scholarship and its decline is completely in line with Chibber’s statement at the end of PTSC that only with the rise of struggle in the world at large can academic theory move, once again, toward Marxist politics. 

Finally, I propose that when we highlight the fact that contemporary radical theory originated from the crushed aspirations of the Left, our whole approach to them changes, even when we are in the mode of critique. Let’s take one example: Chibber’s categorization of the East/West divide that dominates postcolonial theory as “Orientalist.” The depiction of non-Western peoples as possessing a unique and glorious irrationality is, of course, deplorable, and I fully agree with Chibber’s critique of the romanticization and paternalism contained in many contemporary portrayals of the subaltern. But in my view, “Third Worldism,” not “Orientalism,” better explains the assumed East/West division because it accounts for the postcolonial theorists’ tendencies both to cultural nationalism and to anti-imperialism. Orientalism is not just any set of false assumptions and stereotypes about the East that pervade the Western atmosphere; it is an ideological tool of imperialism, designed to ease its dominance of the Global South. Postcolonial theorists hardly function as such tools for imperialism, and their tendency to fetishize the East/West split needs to be read differently—especially when the real generators of Orientalism and Islamophobia in the government and media are operating on a scale that is demonstrably different than that of these academics. Third Worldism—an insistence on the irreducible difference of the colonized—was already a dominant feature of anticolonial nationalism, and it has found a new articulation in the work of writers who are opposed to empire and critical of existing postcolonial nation-states, but also deeply pessimistic about solidarity and change.

PTSC does not focus on works published beyond the late 1990s, the decade when many of us were mired in the theoretical death-matches between Marxism and postcolonial theory. A productive question to ask might be: Would Chibber’s critiques apply to scholarship since then? Has the East/West divide been challenged after the entrenchment of neoliberal capitalism, the rise of India and China, the rebooting of American empire after 9/11, and the beginnings of struggle on a mass scale in the non-Western world? Is there, as the organizers of a recent postcolonial studies conference declared, a “materialist turn” in the field?

It may be too early to say, but some hopeful signs exist. For instance, the introduction to a fairly recent anthology, Postcolonial Studies and Beyond, points to the potential of the field as a space for engaging with and rebuilding the Left even as the anthology’s editors acknowledge its deficiencies:

The shadow the 2003 US invasion of Iraq casts on the twenty-first century makes it more absurd than ever to speak of ours as a postcolonial world. On the other hand, the signs of galloping US imperialism make the agenda of postcolonial studies more necessary than ever. In a context of rapidly proliferating defenses of empire . . . by policy makers and intellectuals alike, the projects of making visible the long history of empire, of learning from those who have opposed it, and of identifying the contemporary sites of resistance and oppression that have defined postcolonial studies have, arguably, never been more urgent.4

Undoubtedly, this historically and politically grounded understanding of “the agenda” of postcolonial studies is not shared by all. For many leading theorists in the field, “postcolonialism” and “postcolonial theory” are synonyms for “postmodernism” and “post-Marxism.” But the kind of self-criticism evident in the quotation above, as well as its clearly political purpose and agenda, is noteworthy. Is there any question that the writers of such a statement—however they would characterize their affiliation with Marxism—are on the political left? Isn’t it true that the agenda they describe for a US academic field, in this current situation of rampant imperialism and lukewarm resistance among progressives, is one Marxists would support and embrace? Even as they articulate their entire project as being against some of the dominant strands of theorizing in postcolonial studies, these writers very much see the field as one that can be bent toward understanding and opposing imperialism today.

With these objections and questions in mind, I rephrase Chibber’s call to challenge and displace postcolonial theory in the following way. Postmodernized postcolonial theory needs to be challenged and displaced so that the field can produce theories and studies that are more accurate in how they understand colonialism and capitalism, in what unites us across the world despite our obvious cultural and socio-economic differences. But we can do this by understanding, quite clearly, the value of a field whose formation rests on studying and learning about the literatures, cultures, and histories of colonized peoples. We can do this by understanding that what becomes popular among left-leaning academics is largely determined by the struggles in the world at large and that academics today, whether attracted to postmodernism or not, have often shown their openness to participating in such struggles. We can also examine moments where Marxism itself, distorted and weakened by the same historic demise of mass struggle, did not provide a theoretical space for those desiring to study the marginalized and oppressed—as we have seen in the recent pages of the International Socialist Review with regard to feminism. I am strongly compelled by the core arguments of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital in relation to the specific theorists and texts it takes up, and by its larger goal of Marxist recovery and resurgence in academia. I pursue these ends, however, with a different understanding of postcolonial theory’s origins, its trajectories, and its possibilities.

  1. Neil Lazarus, “The Fetish of ‘the West’ in Postcolonial Studies,” in Marxism, Modernity, and Postcolonial Studies, eds. Crystal Bartolovich and Neil Lazarus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 51.
  2. Benita Parry, “The Institutionalization of Postcolonial Studies,” in The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies, ed. Neil Lazarus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 70.
  3. See Vinayak Chaturvedi, ed., Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial (London: Verso, 2012).
  4. Ania Loomba, Suvir Kaul, Matti Bunzl, Antoinette Burton, and Jed Esty, eds., “Beyond What? An Introduction,” in Postcolonial Studies and Beyond (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 1. 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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