The Naxalite Angle

Subaltern Studies and Capital

Hiren Gohain

Partha Chatterjee in his characteristic erudite and elegant prose has joined issue with Vivek Chibber (EPW, September 14, 2013) on the latter's criticism of the theoretical positions of three stalwarts of this group of historians and social scientists. lt is a little disingenuous of Chatterjee to claim that the group has only differed from the traditional Marxists in their different analysis of the class-structure of the post-colonial state, and that they are as keen to see the overthrow the reign of capital as the former. For their critiques do not offer any alternative line of political struggle, except a vague general disapproval of the present conditions and a general support to all forms of local struggles against social injustices and oppressions.

Both sides have engaged in a debate on the relevance or otherwise of universalism which seems uncalled for. For if, as Chatterjee believes, the rule of capital is ubiquitous and that it has provoked different groups of people into struggle against it, in ways shaped by their histories; then capital is the universal key for unlocking the common basis of the global struggles. ln fact Marxism is not confined to the works of Marx, including the Grundrisse. Lenin's exposition of imperialism extends Marx's analysis to later forms of capital and their impact on the non-Western world, and he found a way in which Marxism could approach and comprehend the struggle of less developed societies invaded and dominated by capital and align it with the classical Marxian proletarian struggle. For instance, the national liberation movements of the early twentieth century were regarded by him as allies in the struggle of the proletariat with capitalism.

The idea that the European paradigm of a proletarian revolutionary struggle cannot be applied tout court to non-European continents under domination of imperialist capital is beyond dispute. lt is also a fact that in its earliest phase the Indian communists' approach to revolution dogmatically applied to very different conditions of the European model—as during the leadership of B T Ranadive. But from such negative experiences the Subaltern historians passed on not only to reject the Western model, but even the conceptual tools of socio-political analysis provided by Marxism.

Thus the Bengali jute mill workers of Calcutta were shown by Dipesh Chakraborty as living a very different kind of consciousness than the Western working-class owing to their deep and strong ties with rural peasant communities from which they sprang. That was the root cause which made it possible later on to attract them with communal slogans. This is an oversimplification, it ignores the fact that a section of them did hold out for a considerable period against communal mobilization. In any case even the European working-class could not outgrow its rural roots for several generations as shown by E P Thompson in his classic The Making of the English Working-class. So the sense of rural community that allegedly pervaded the consciousness of jute mill workers was neither atypical nor inexorable. Their work in jute-mills had also helped to give a certain shape to their identity. Ranajit Guha in his turn had gone on to examine and analyse peasant consciousness as a separate independent entity capable of violent insurrection but motivated by different ideological beliefs and ideas than proletarian workers. Guha takes the tribal peasant at a certain stage of social development as typical of the Indian peasantry as a whole, an outsize generalization. For Guha, "peasant insurgency" is an a-historical phenomenon, and he does not link it theoretically with concrete developments in the economy and society.

In this way these scholars are led step by step from a revolutionary perspective into a sometimes nostalgic, sometimes passive conception of social ferment and struggle. This accounts for Dipesh Chakraborty's later attempt to "provincialise Europe"—the transcendental valuation of Europe as the Centre was to be reversed by putting the orient in its place, a practically pointless intellectual exercise. Today international capital still remains largely a Western phenomenon informed by Western ideas and attitudes, and contained within a Western frame-work of governing institutions like the WTO, IMF and the World Bank, not to speak of the financial giants and mega-MNCs.

The same congeries of forces and institutions have been trying to persuade client states dominated by them that liberalism is the end of history, its ultimate destination. By "democracy" they mean this veneer of liberal institutions and values. If brutal force is the demand of feudal allies and big capital, the rule of law and civil liberties are the counsel of neo-colonialism, which make them conditional for their financial and political assistance to the ruling classes of client states. This liberalism is thus only the ideological dictation by neo-imperialism. lt has little to do with what liberalism meant in its heyday in the 19th century.

These scholars could have found another pathway first formulated by Mao Tse-tung with evident practical results. He had clear-cut notions of a revolutionary transition from a semi-feudal semi-colonial/colonial society by putting the burden of the revolutionary initiative on the peasantry, with a working-class leadership working as their guide but very much aware of its weakness in a semi-colonial country where compradores outweighed national capitalists. The relationship between the peasants and the workers-whether in Lenin's Russia or Mao's China is however an extremely complicated if not confusing issue. The practical implementation of this alliance had led to terrible social convulsions and unacceptable levels of violence among the allies. Had the Subaltern school devoted their incisive analysis to such issues with a positive interest in social transformation, they would perhaps have rendered a more valuable service than they have done, however important it is. Instead they wandered into the fascinating wilderness of anthropology, which is given to depicting societies/social phenomena theoretically frozen in time without any interest in intervening in the process intellectually. If it studies social change it does so in a fragmented way—e.g. the family, the aged, childhood, gender relations, co-operation and so on. Anthropology had been by and large an imperialist product born out of the necessity to comprehend societies ruled and dominated by imperialist capital. In the end the Subaltern school is reduced to turning concrete events into abstractions and refusing to grasp any historical leverage on unfolding events.

Chibber may have erred in ignoring the obvious fact that the expansion of capital into countries with powerful feudal traditions had led to a certain qualitative change in its character and repercussions, as formulated by Lenin, which had required a certain change in revolutionary strategy. But Subalterns have been guilty of a more grievous error in their neglect of the revolutionary stimulus that capital triggers through its destructive impact, and in consequence forced to make compromises with various post-modernist tendencies.

The Subaltern formula of the post-colonial state as "dominance without hegemony" which allegedly gives it a coercive character is attractive but not entirely true. There are severe tensions between Fascist tendencies and the sporadic gestures towards the Rule of Law. This is what distinguishes it from Kuomintang China which it fits like a glove. Chatterjee's remark that the seventeenth century Whig tradition has little to do with modern liberalism is also unfounded, as ideas like civil liberties, Rule of Law, religious toleration, freedom of expression are all products of the 17th-century turmoil, and Nehru (and his colleagues) had imbibed those ideas from modern British inheritors of the Whig tradition. Whether Nehru succeeded in establishing those ideals and values in India is another question. lt is true the element of coercion and naked force is much stronger than consent in the so-called post-colonial state in India. But the Marxist approach to that state is determined by this uneasy alliance between rule of law and violence over-riding law. Any attempt to put it into a theoretical straitjacket will prove to be counter-productive. But there are signs that its hands are slipping and it is more given than ever to apply force and chicanery.
Chatterjee's rejection of Chibbers's claim that hegemony includes accommodation with the aspirations and views of the subaltern classes also goes against the facts. lndeed, Gramsci's meticulous studies in the Italian Risorgimento are replete with his criticism of the Italian bourgeoisie's failure in accommodating peasant aspirations.

As for Gandhi's role during the struggle with British imperialism, two things may be noted. First both Lenin and Gramsci were sympathetic to Gandhi's mobilization of the masses, though they could hardly have endorsed his ideology. Secondly Gandhi's faith and trust in Nehru are also likely to be more than a personal quirk. Elsewhere Lenin bluntly associates peasant insurgency with mystical, millenarian ideology, as in his essays on Tolstoy. Gandhi had tapped this source of peasant passion with great adroitness. He was the bridge between the peasantry and the middle-class spokesmen of the Indian bourgeoisie. Once that task was accomplished he was relegated to the background and the middle-class got busy building what the Subalterns call the 'post-colonial state'.

The decline or perhaps weakness of capitalist hegemony in India may perhaps be explained by its obligatory alliance with feudal forces in the countryside, which it requires to keep the peasants under control with downright suppression of individual liberties by khap panchayats, caste-conventions etc. and of reason by a massive resurgence of outdated beliefs and superstitions masquerading as religion. The Naxalites' theorization of "semi-feudal semi-colonial" character of the Indian society is thus a little stretched, but it still holds in the main. The proper response to it is re-visiting the Naxalite theory of the Indian state, and that demands a more than academic bias. 

Vol. 46, No. 19, Nov 17 - 23, 2013

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