Partha Chatterjee


  • Interviewed by Aditya Nigam

Partha Chatterjee is one of India's foremost scholars; his name is associated with subaltern studies, the major intervention in Indian historiography that began in the early 1980s. Chatterjee was born in Calcutta in 1947. He completed his PhD in political science at the University of Rochester, New York, in 1972, cutting his intellectual teeth, as it were, with rational choice international political theory. Back home in India, writing on matters like the ‘Equilibrium Theory in Arms Races’ in the early 1970s, Chatterjee soon realized that this kind of academics really had no takers there; he moved instead towards more historically-oriented modes of political theorization. One of his early achievements in this new mode was his book Bengal 1920–1947: The Land Question (1984). In the highly politically charged atmosphere of West Bengal, his home state, Chatterjee also started writing regularly for Frontier, a far Left weekly published from Kolkata. Many of his political commentaries from that period have been subsequently published in A Possible India and The Present History of West Bengal (both published in 1997).

The late 1970s and the 1980s was a period of intense Marxist engagement for Chatterjee and his colleagues, many of whom started a serious reading of Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, which had just been published. It was in this period that the well-known subaltern studies project took shape under the stewardship of Ranajit Guha. The twofold impetus for subaltern studies came politically from the Maoist movement and intellectually from the work of Gramsci. The second phase of subaltern studies saw its closer connection with the emerging body of post-colonial scholarship. Chatterjee's stewardship of the project during this phase coincided with the realization that the ‘autonomy of peasant consciousness’ which subaltern studies sets out to explore is a far more complex matter, the issue of subalternity being deeply enmeshed in mechanisms of power. This phase has also been linked to a turn towards Foucault in subaltern studies.

Chatterjee's own later work draws on Foucault, especially his idea of governmentality. In his book The Politics of the Governed (2004) and, more recently, in Lineages of Political Society (2011), Chatterjee develops his now well-known concept of ‘political society’ at great length, taking off from Foucault but bringing in a key concern — that of democracy — that is not quite Foucault's. The main point of his argument here is that in post-colonial societies, like India in particular, but more generally in ‘most of the world’, the domain of civil society, representing the high ground of modernity, constitutes a very small part of society. It is in this realm that we see the normative standards of Western modernity hold sway, with ‘rule of law’ and the discourse of rights constituting its fulcrum. The vast bulk of the population, however, is not dealt with by the state in terms of law and rights. On the contrary, governments deal with ‘populations’ as targets of ‘policy’, often placing the law itself in suspension. The large majority of the population in these societies is forced to live in different degrees of illegality and semi-legality, ranging from squatting on government land to illegally accessing civic amenities like electricity. Governments know this but must overlook the violations of law involved because of the powerful moral claim of these sections that the government must provide basic necessities.

Partha Chatterjee's academic life engages many disciplines (politics, international relations, history, sociology, anthropology). He divides his time between Columbia University and the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, where he was the Director from 1997 to 2007. He is the author of more than twenty books, monographs and edited volumes and is a founding member of the Subaltern Studies Collective. He was awarded the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize for 2009 for outstanding achievements in the field of Asian studies. He has many interests including theater, music and football — unrelated to the social sciences but essential, perhaps, to being a Bengali.

Let me begin by asking you about the intellectual influences that shaped the work of subaltern studies in general and your work in particular. Most people outside India seem to conflate subaltern studies with post-colonial studies. While the connection between the later phase of subaltern studies and post-colonial studies is fairly clear, how would you describe the intellectual background and project of subaltern studies? How do you assess its significance now?

Subaltern studies began as an intervention in the historiography of modern India in the early 1980s. There were then, on the one side, historians, mainly located in Britain and the United States, who wrote the history of nationalism as the attempt by Indian elites to mobilize popular support on the basis of traditional patron–client relations in order to compete for political power in a situation where Britain was preparing to decolonize. Methodologically, it was a mix of Weberian modernization theory with a large dose of English-style Namierite analysis. On the other side, there were nationalist historians in India, many of whom were influenced by Marxism, who saw Indian nationalism as an anti-colonial movement led by the bourgeoisie but with a strong popular base mobilized by the leaders of the Congress. Subaltern studies intervened in this debate to point out that both sides were in fact claiming that nationalist history was entirely an elitist project, since neither side had any place for the autonomous actions of the subaltern classes. The first phase of subaltern studies began with a series of studies of peasant revolts in nineteenth- and twentieth-century India. The idea was that whereas under ordinary circumstances the subaltern classes were dominated by and dependent upon their masters, it was at the moment of rebellion that they were able to display their autonomous consciousness.

Our theoretical location was, for the most part, within Marxism. Many of us had been influenced to some extent by the Maoist peasant uprisings in India between 1967 and 1972 that were crushed by state violence. I myself was involved in the 1970s in organizing legal aid for Naxalite prisoners, campaigning against the regime of terror and for the release of political prisoners. The context of political debates at the time made us thoroughly familiar with the Marxist classics and the history of the communist movement in different parts of the world. But my years of graduate study in the United States in 1968–1971 also made me familiar with the writings of the New Left, especially Louis Althusser's structuralism and the new writings on Antonio Gramsci. My association with my historian colleagues in subaltern studies introduced me to the new genre of French histories of popular culture, especially the books of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. My colleagues were also greatly taken by the British Marxist social historians, but I must confess that I found their writings theoretically unsatisfying.

As for the present significance of subaltern studies, more than thirty years since the project was launched, I would say that it has made its impact. The word ‘subaltern’ in Gramsci's sense has gained worldwide currency in historical scholarship. In India, the word in its various synonyms in the Indian languages has entered the ordinary language of politics and journalism. The distinct approach and the debates it spawned have shaped the course of modern South Asian social science in significant ways in the last three decades. Many inquiries that were begun in subaltern studies, such as the use of ethnographic methods in historical scholarship, or the study of non-canonical vernacular printed material as sources of political and cultural history, or the political aspects of popular religion have now become major areas of research in themselves and acquired theoretical shapes that extend far beyond the original project of subaltern studies. I think some of the questions raised by subaltern studies were fruitfully answered within the thirty-year project. Many others could not be answered within the limits of that project: they are now being addressed by other scholars working with other projects.

In your recent book, Lineages of Political Society, you have, for the first time perhaps, outlined the task of post-colonial political theory in a programmatic fashion. You have argued that the main task for it today — as starting point in order to produce alternative theorizations — must be to take the accumulation of exceptions to Western political theory that one sees when attempting to put its concepts and categories into practice. Your own conceptual innovation, the idea of political society, seeks to underline a different modality of doing politics in most of the non-Western world. This idea has become quite popular among scholars from different third world contexts and different people have sought to engage with it in different ways. In your earlier essays on political society you have pointed to the continuing imaginative hold of the idea of community (alongside the formal associations that people form in order to negotiate with the government) as one of the important aspects of this modality. This would mean taking into account some of the more ‘irrational’/‘non-rational’ elements of subaltern politics, many of which are not-so-benign forms of political mobilization. In your later writings, it seems that you have gradually moved towards a more restricted idea — one that almost exclusively hinges on the idea of governmentality. Would you agree with this understanding of the way you have developed the concept?

I think it is important to emphasize the moves I have made in the recent work to which you refer. First, I have recognized the fact that, for historical reasons, Western political theory exercises a normative hold over the forms of the modern state everywhere in the world. However, second, as I move from the legal-constitutional forms of the state to look at the actual practices of politics, I see clear divergences from the normative standards approved by Western political theory. Third, I know that these divergences have been noticed before but were usually attributed to the persistence of tradition, cultural backwardness, pre-capitalist modes of production, political immaturity, illiteracy, poverty, etc. Fourth, I set aside these arguments made by colonialist, Weberian or Marxian modernization theories and ask if these divergences might not, in fact, be the products of modern governmental practices themselves. In other words, I do not look at the political process as operating between a modern sector defined around modern state institutions acting upon, and in turn being addressed by, a traditional social sector. Rather, I look at the evolving political practices, including all of those that diverge from Western norms, as endogenous to modern politics. Fifth, and this is the key move I make, I trace the novelty of these political practices to the spread and depth of governmental technologies. Looking at the forms of popular politics in India (but not just in India — I might suggest Brazil and South Africa as other examples) in the last thirty years or so, what strikes me as new is precisely the rise of organized demands by groups mobilized around population categories defined by governmental classifications. The plethora of classifications has come about in the last three decades or so because of new approaches to governance (call them, if you will, neoliberal or biopolitical) that seek to break up older mobilizations based on traditional ethnic or modern class lines. My sense is that the phase of resisting these new governmental technologies is largely over (and hence the utter bewilderment of older political parties such as the Congress, the BJP and the Left who now can only think of alliances with these new, and often transient, formations). What we now have are mobilizations that make demands on government on grounds that are already recognized as legitimate within the parameters of policy. Thus Gujjars might demand that their name be added to the list of Scheduled Tribes who are given special benefits by government. Muslims who feel deprived because they do not get any economic benefits as a religious minority could make the demand that they be regarded as an Other Backward Class (OBC). Mobilizations in Telangana or Darjeeling can demand separate statehood within the federal system. These are demands that are shaped by the grid of governmentality.

One of the misunderstandings that my argument appears to have produced is the idea that political society shaped by the grid of governmentality is merely an extension of the concept of the welfare state — that what groups are demanding is welfare. That is quite definitely not the case. The welfare state in post-War Europe (or New Deal United States) was based, as T.H. Marshall explained so cogently in the 1950s, on the extension of the rights of citizenship from political to economic to social rights. It was an enrichment of the concept of citizenship. Despite some resonances in the rhetoric, what is happening these days in countries like India in the domain of what I have called political society is not about citizenship at all. Rather, there is an awareness on both sides that in order to elicit an appropriate response, claims have to be made by a legitimate population group whose particular demand deserves to be met, often as an exception to the normal rights of citizenship. This is not welfarism.

It is also not true that mobilizations in political society are necessarily benign and banal. First of all, they frequently violate the law and thus clearly carry the risk of retaliation by state agencies. Second, one of their strategies of mobilization (elaborated and perfected in India since the days of Gandhian satyagraha) is to invite the violence of the state on the agitators by deliberately violating the law, such as by unlawful assemblies, road blocks, disrupting rail traffic, violating curfews, mass civil disobedience, hunger strikes, etc. Third, there is often the calculated but spectacular show of violence to attract public attention (especially that of the media), such as by limited street violence, including the breaking and burning of cars, public vehicles, government property, etc. These are not benign methods, even though their frequency in Indian political life might have made them banal. But when a particular tactic becomes so stale that it fails to draw attention to the grievances and demands of a group, a new tactic is soon invented that is more effective.

Does this point to the irrational or non-rational aspects of subaltern politics? No. I refuse to call them that, because that would throw the subaltern classes straight into the category of lunatics and children who are incapable of rational thought. That is what Western liberal theory always maintained, justifying the withholding of rights of citizenship to women, the illiterate poor and non-white colonial people. That is not a line of thought I can endorse. What you are suggesting is, I believe, something else. You are probably referring to the affective side of political mobilization — to the power of rhetoric, performance, visuals, music, etc., to make tangible and palpable the sense of a moral community. I completely agree that that is an enormously important part of subaltern politics. Thirty years ago, I was much less aware of the importance of this aspect of politics. But in recent years, as scholars in India and elsewhere have begun to systematically study the forms of contemporary popular culture in literature, cinema, music, performance and visual culture, it has become clear to me that what appears to lie outside the domain of rational decision making as understood by political theorists may actually be shaped by other rationalities. The subaltern classes are not irrational; rather, they are rational in a different way. Or, to put it more precisely, they have other reasons for doing what they do.

What does community have to do with this? Obviously, I am moving away from a narrative that sees community as the quintessential form of pre-modern, pre-capitalist societies and modernity as the dissolution of community and the creation of civic associations. I am arguing that community is very much an aspect of modern political life. Benedict Anderson has done us a great service by showing how, through modern technology and capitalism, the new, utterly unprecedented, modern community of the nation is imagined. There is imagination there, there is rhetoric and performance and affect. As we know, people are sometimes prepared to die for the nation. We also know that it is not only the nation, but other forms of community based on ethnicity, language, locality, perhaps even class, that are imagined in similar ways within the space of modern politics. What I am keen to emphasize is that community is not some long-standing social structure that makes its appearance in the political field (even though its proponents may claim so) but that it is actually forged, imagined, created through active political mobilization.

The implication is this: we have to admit that the process of mobilization is not reducible to a set of known, tested, verified, scientific techniques. Political mobilization is, at its most mundane, a craft, but in the hands of the most successful mobilizers, an art. There is no manual or textbook for this. It is innovative. It is only after the fact that scholars can study how it worked. It could even lead to some sort of rational understanding of why subaltern peoples acted in the way they did. But it would still leave it impossible to derive the next great event of mobilization from a structural account of the situation.

It seems to me that the power of the idea of political society also had to do with the fact that it pointed towards a set of practices that would appear to be highly objectionable from the standpoint of the norms established and defended by Western theory — practices like ticketless travel, illegal tapping of electricity, or leveraging civic amenities. In your rendering, these practices are no longer placed within a normative framework of a desirable, modern society governed by the ‘rule of law’. ‘Illegality’ and ‘para-legal’ existence is no longer seen through the lens of a modernist teleology. However, it seems that you insist on keeping this part of your endeavour at an empirical-descriptive level. That is to say, you avoid taking the route of elaborating a different kind of normative logic that would provide justifications for these otherwise illegitimate activities — something of the kind that say Marxists might make through a critique of capital. Is this what you mean when you claim in the introduction to Lineages that you are able to talk of politics only in its real form and not to talk about utopian (normative?) politics?

Let me answer this by using the examples you have chosen. Political society, as I have described it, often brings up the issue of the everyday illegalities of subaltern life. When government agencies are required to deal with such illegalities, they usually do so not necessarily by trying to eliminate those illegalities but by seeking to regulate them without threatening the normative structure of the law. The common way of doing this is to make a case for dealing with the illegality through administrative measures that are exceptions to the law. Thus, pavement vendors may be allowed to set up stalls in specified stretches without, presumably, hurting the interests of licensed shops or pedestrians, or collective rates may be negotiated with slum-dwellers for the use of electricity without giving them individual meters. This means that while deviations from the norm are allowed, the distinction between legality and illegality is not erased. But a tension — one might even say, a contradiction — is allowed, and even recognized. This opens up the ground for critique. It shows that the law is inadequate in achieving what it is designed to achieve. It shows, in this case, that the norms of civil society cannot be applied to the entire population. And to sharpen the contradiction, that entire population is at the same time, by the constitutional norm of equal citizenship, the subject of the equal application of the law. The situation leads to an aporia, unless and until a new universal norm can be declared.

I am not sure why you think a Marxist critique of capital will resolve this sort of normative aporia. Even if we were to assume that a Marxist might advance a new universal norm to replace the present bourgeois norm of private property — let us say, ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ — you would still end up with a set of laws to enforce that norm (it does not matter here if those laws are made by the state or some other authority). Could one insist that deviations from the norm will never occur, that exceptions would not have to be made, that such exceptions would not pile up to produce, once again, a zone of political society? I believe that in all the contemporary societies we know, including socialist societies — all of which have been and are, necessarily, sought to be regulated by governmentality — administration can never successfully eliminate politics.

So what should a normative critique involve? I do not see myself as a descendant of the long line of political philosophers who have, much like the prophets of the past, conjured up new ethical universes. I do not believe that new norms are created by radically new ideas as much as they are by the emergence of popular practices. I think the role of the normative theorist must be quite modest, namely, to observe emerging new practices, to show their divergences from and contradictions with the existing norm, to engage in critique in order to identify the conditions, possibilities and limits of those contradictions and, finally, to clarify and provide new language for already emerging practices. That is what I take from Marx's work, minus his prophecies.

Actually, I am thinking here of the way in which, as a lot of recent scholarship points out, theory does not merely describe reality but is often implicated in producing ‘the norm’. In this sense, Marx's critique of capital (which I cited as an example of an effort to produce a different normativity), also collaborates in producing capital as norm, being the historical agent of the modern and, in a certain pervasive interpretation, the precondition of socialism. To clarify my question a bit, then, would we not need to displace the dominant norm through these alternative theorizations, which your idea of political society does in any case, but without making any claim to that effect? Thus, the kind of normative theorization I am asking you about would, in fact, take popular practices not recognized as legitimate, as the basis for the critique of states' practices and of governmentality. It would then indicate some possible directions for the enunciation of a new norm — say one that sees the lack of a bourgeois work ethic or the accumulation ethic as something desirable.

The theoretical critique of existing norms certainly contributes to the emergence of new norms. You are completely right there. This is done not only by political theorists and intellectuals but also by officials writing reports, legislators drafting new laws, judges pronouncing orders and activists engaged in public campaigns. All of them explicate, modify, expand, critique and provide new language with new content to old norms. I see my work as contributing to that effort.

But I don't think I see ‘political society’ as a new norm. I have repeatedly emphasized that activities in political society are not an unmixed good. There are many things that go on in political society that are difficult to endorse; even people engaged in such activities don't necessarily endorse them as values, even though they might claim that they have no choice. If I were to use Gramscian language, I don't think political society is necessarily counter-hegemonic, even though there may be elements in it that are. A new norm must be able to command a wide basis of consent in society; it must be able to persuade large masses of people cutting across the principal lines of social division. I am not sure political society has such legitimacy today or is on the way to gaining it. It is very much an oppositional space — albeit one that is constantly renewed and never erased — that is sought to be neutralized or absorbed by the dominant authorities.

As for a norm that is contrary to the bourgeois work ethic or the logic of accumulation, I always find Max Weber's classic analysis extremely intriguing. As you will remember, Weber pointed out that within a traditional culture, there was nothing more irrational than the idea of not spending one's wealth on consumption, entertainment, hospitality and charity and instead saving for future investments whose profits would once again be saved for future investment, and so on ad infinitum. How did people change their traditional idea? Weber argued that it needed nothing less than a new religion — Protestantism — to establish the ethical norm that working continuously to create wealth without consuming the profits was a duty to god. Only an irrational religious dogma could establish the spirit of capitalism. Now, we know that the traditional cultures of India, generally speaking (with the possible exception of some merchant communities perhaps), did not encourage a bourgeois work ethic. But the fact is that with the advance of capitalist production and market relations, those traditional cultures are rapidly breaking down. Should we now try to bolster traditional cultural practices because they offer some resistance to the advance of capitalism? That would put us right in the middle of the old debates between Marx and Saint Simon or Lenin and the Narodniks. Or could we in fact say that what, for instance, the new informal sector in countries like India offers is a modern, not traditional, ethic of fulfilment of needs rather than accumulation? I think the latter idea has much potential, but is still quite vague and inchoate. However, I do believe that the concept of need is utterly untheorized in political economy. If we have to offer the conceptual outline of a new ethical norm, we must first think more clearly about what we mean by the fulfilment of needs in our present economic and cultural context.

In your essay ‘Democracy and Economic Transformation’ (2008), you make a new move of linking practices in political society to the domain of what you call non-corporate capital. You argue that while civil society is the domain where the hegemony of corporate capital is more or less established, political society remains a domain where this non-corporate capital has to be continuously managed. The agency here seems to shift to the managers of the economy and state, rather than being located in those who people political society. How would you respond to such a reading?

I think looking at this as a matter of agency obfuscates things. I have never understood how, in a relationship of power, the dominated can ever lack agency. Even slaves in a Caribbean plantation or prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp must have had some agency, since they, too, must have exercised a modicum of human will in responding to what were undoubtedly some of the harshest conditions of oppression we have known. The difference between corporate and non-corporate capital came up in the context of my discussion of what is new about the structure of dominance in India today. I have argued that corporate capital today enjoys hegemony, in the Gramscian sense of moral leadership, over the domain of civil society. This is new, because the capitalist class did not enjoy such a position of recognized leadership in civil society in the first three decades after independence: the political-bureaucratic leadership of the state enjoyed greater credibility. But the vast non-corporate sector, which includes most of what is called the informal sector of manufacturing and services, as well as most of agriculture, is not a domain where corporate capital has such hegemony. Hence, as a problem of governance, this sector has to be managed in the face of a persistent lack of moral leadership: there is no willing consent to the rule of corporate capital here. My argument is that it is managed through the deployment of governmentality.

Does this mean that those who inhabit political society have no agency? Why should that be? Of course they do. That is the politics of mobilization, of varying intensity, size and duration in political society in order to press demands, either against existing governmental policies, or calling for new ones. That, if I may repeat myself, constitutes most of the everyday politics of the subaltern classes today.

Let me return to your avoidance of normative/utopian politics and your resolve to firmly stay with the real-empirical world of politics. Kalyan Sanyal, in his book Rethinking Capitalist Development (2013), posits a ‘need economy’, in contra-distinction to the ‘accumulation economy’, where, he argues, production is certainly oriented to profit but not to accumulation. In this ‘need economy’, the overarching logic is one of providing for the needs of those employed in it. In my reading, though Sanyal posits this primarily as a descriptive category, there is a certain normativity that attaches to this idea in so far as it is posited against the logic of accumulation.

Let me address the question of the ‘need economy’ first. As I said earlier, the concept of need is one of the most under-theorized features of political economy. This is indicated by Marx's quick disposal, in the context of his explication of use value at the very beginning of Capital, volume 1, of the question of how human needs arise. He said, you will remember, something like: ‘whether those needs arise from the stomach or the imagination makes no difference’. Some recent theorists, such as Amartya Sen, have attempted to define certain minimum or basic needs that must be satisfied for all humans. My discomfort with such formulations is that they rest fundamentally on universal moral injunctions. From where do we get those moral principles? Natural law? Religion? Some universal moral conception of humanness? I have the same difficulty with injunctions that would define and circumscribe needs by morality, such as, famously, in Gandhism.

On the other hand, I don't think that a move to define a growth economy on the basis of consumption and a subsistence economy on the basis of need, as in Sanyal's book, can be sustained as a normative project, as distinct from an empirically based description of the grounds of policy making in post-colonial capitalist countries. Sanyal's gesture towards a normative conception of a need economy is, for me, the least persuasive part of his otherwise enormously important book. I don't think this sort of need economy is viable in a context where commodities are produced for and distributed to millions (it doesn't matter if this is done through the market or by state-controlled agencies). How can you avoid a sense of deprivation among some and entitlement among others?

I think a serious discussion of the need question has to be grounded in the study of actual practices among the people. In other words, we need many more culturally sensitive ethnographies before we can move towards a normative conception of needs in societies deeply marked by divisions of power and status. I think the question is more anthropological than economic or moral.

My sense of Kalyan Sanyal's work was that ‘need’ in the idea of ‘need economy’ was not given any specific normative contours (like, say, in the idea of ecologically sensitive consumption or lifestyles), but was rather left underdetermined by simply stating that these economies do not follow the logic of accumulation and expanded reproduction. By implication, then, we are supposed to understand that there must be some situated sense of need that propels these enterprises in this need economy. This is pretty much the way in which, say, the normativity of political society stays underdetermined. Would you agree?

That may be a good way to describe the situation. As I said, I found the chapter on the need economy in Kalyan's book rather unpersuasive. He seemed to suggest, without elaborating on it, that it might indicate a strategy of political resistance to the consequences of primitive accumulation. If this means (I don't think Kalyan necessarily meant this) that the dispossessed or potentially dispossessed could, somewhat along the lines of Gandhi's answer to the destruction of traditional textile manufacturing in colonial India, organize themselves into self-contained communities themselves producing and satisfying all of their needs (deliberately kept limited), I don't think that is a credible answer. But you are right; Kalyan left the idea extremely underdetermined. You are also right that the idea of need has to be situated. The question is: where? I myself have started thinking about this question, using some ethnography. I have been particularly struck by the fact that when ordinary people in India speak about their needs, they describe them in terms of abhav or kami. Thus, they might speak of a lack of drinking water or electricity or sufficient food. Why is a need described as an absence or a lack, except to suggest that something is absent that should have been there? From where does the idea come that something should be there? Perhaps from a knowledge of what is normally there in ordinary times or good times. Perhaps from what other people like them are seen to be having. That is the line I am pursuing in order to find a ground to situate the concept of need. But as I said before, this is one of the most undeveloped concepts in social theory.

Many Marxists in India and in the West have hailed Vivek Chibber's recent book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (2013), as a demolition of subaltern studies and post-colonial theory. In the first place, the book conflates post-colonial theory and subaltern studies, which has had its own specificity. Subaltern studies was an intervention in Indian historiography, from within an explicitly Marxist universe, and its polemical edge was directed against nationalist historiography — much of which has little direct relation to its later connection with post-colonial theory. It seems to me that in this phase of subaltern studies, much of the Marxist common sense about the trajectory of capitalist development in the West, especially the characterization of the English and French revolutions as bourgeois revolutions, was taken as given. After all, major strands of Marxist scholarship in the West still saw these revolutions in those terms, even though revisionist non-Marxist historians had started raising important questions about such characterizations. In the work of subaltern studies scholars, the Indian experience was examined against that background. Questions had begun to be raised about the ‘English social formation’ itself in essays in the New Left Review, but they were still far from revising this fundamental claim of Marxist theory. Even Robert Brenner's Merchants and Revolution, on which Chibber bases his understanding, only appeared in 1993, long after the early work of subaltern studies had already come out. Yet, Chibber's whole focus is on subaltern studies’ wrong reading of European history. His argument is therefore not only disingenuous, based on a fundamental misreading of what Guha and others were doing, but also illustrates, yet again, how any discussion about any part of the world ends up becoming a discussion about Europe. You responded to this in the discussion at the Historical Materialism conference in New York in 2013. I would like to ask to you to say a bit about how you see this issue of the universal history of capital today and the way the relationship between capital and community in the Indian context appears in your writings. How do you see ‘community’ as a barrier to capital's drive to accumulation? Would you say this is a right way of framing the question?

It would help me to answer this question if we stay a little longer with Kalyan Sanyal's book. Sanyal highlights the key feature of colonial and post-colonial capitalism — primitive accumulation. Classical accounts looked at primitive accumulation as the forcible, often violent, destruction of pre-capitalist community, the separation of direct producers from their means of production and their transformation into a proletariat, whether as industrial labourers and their families or as a reserve army of labour. Historians of Europe have shown that peasants and artisans resisted this process, using the resources of the pre-capitalist community, but they all ultimately ended in failure. In colonies like India, too, we have evidence both of primitive accumulation as well as community resistance. Ranajit Guha's Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency (1983) is a classic theoretical account of such resistances.

But something else could be seen in large agrarian colonies like India that would later become a prominent feature of post-colonial capitalism. Primitive accumulation did not lead to the emergence of a free industrial proletariat — free in Marx's double sense. On the contrary, even industrial labourers continued to be enmeshed in ties of what looked like pre-capitalist community. This was because colonial capitalism never created the conditions for the industrial transformation of a large agrarian economy like India. Hence, while primitive accumulation continued, pre-capitalist communities were not destroyed. If we now look back at the history of European capitalism from a post-colonial point of view, we will immediately see a gap in Marx's account of primitive accumulation. What of the millions of dispossessed peasants who migrated to the settler colonies of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa? What of the thousands (perhaps millions) of peasants who were mobilized as cannon fodder in the endless European wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? What of the thousands of deaths in famines and epidemics in Europe in the nineteenth century? What if all of these millions of dispossessed peasants and artisans had somehow stayed alive as palpable remnants of the pre-capitalist past but outside the domain of capitalist production? On what terms could they have been described as an element of capital's present, and yet as its outside?

That is the problem that post-colonial capitalism has brought to the forefront. While the industrial growth economy is premised on primitive accumulation, because it needs land for industry, mining, urban settlements, roads, railways, bridges, etc. just as it also needs new consumers for industrial products, it cannot absorb the displaced millions as industrial labour, or even as a reserve army. This population is literally redundant to the growth economy. In terms of its own economic logic, it does not matter what happens to these millions. But there is something else that has changed radically in the transition from colonial to post-colonial times. That is the political fact that all of these dispossessed millions are now also citizens. They cannot simply be allowed to perish. Hence, as Sanyal points out, there is a political attempt to reverse the effects of primitive accumulation by providing for the subsistence of the victims. This happens essentially by the transfer of a portion of the profits of the growth economy to the dispossessed population through the mechanism of government schemes of public distribution of food, poverty removal, rural health, etc. This transfer, too, is a politically negotiated process. In times when accumulation shrinks, corporate capital will shout about the wastage involved in such schemes. But the so-called social expenditures will be justified as the political price that must be paid for continued accumulation. On the side of the dispossessed, what emerges is the domain of both the new informal economy as well as a large part of political society. As I have tried to indicate in my work, community is not destroyed, nor is it left intact. Rather, it is constantly recreated to cope with the demands of a new capitalist order.

So, yes, I think there is much theoretical power in posing the question as a relation between capital and community. But unlike Guha's Elementary Aspects, the relation is no longer one of pure antagonism. This way of posing the problem not only maintains a productive link with the body of classical Marxist thought, but allows one to move beyond to tackle problems that had never appeared in the history of Europe or North America. This is where I think arguments like Chibber's fail. Blinded by the blinkers of an obsolete orthodoxy, they refuse to acknowledge that the normative values of European history cannot guide the destiny of all of humanity.

Finally, you still seem to work, in a certain sense, with Marx. Not in the conventional sense, and I am sure most Marxists would not recognize you as one of them. How would you describe your relationship to Marx and Marxism today?

I don't know what other Marxists think of me. Since there is no agency of accreditation that certifies Marxists today, one is free to be a Marxist in one's own way. I don't think the label matters very much to me. But if you ask me what is the most powerful theoretical heritage to which I still affiliate — a body of theory that still provides the compass that guides my intellectual journeys — I have no hesitation in saying that it is the writings of Marx and the vast array of commentary and supplement that have followed those writings. I don't think anything else will replace that one enduring feature of my work.


  • Aditya Nigam ( is professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), 29 Rajpur Road, Delhi 110054, India. He works in the broad field of social and political theory and is the joint director of the programme in social and political theory at CSDS. His recent publications includeAfter Utopia: Modernity and Socialism, and the Postcolony (2010, Viva Books), and Desire Named Development (2011, Penguin).