[Marxism] Uday Chandra on Vivek Chibber

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu May 9 00:57:15 MDT 2013

(I don't know who Chandra is, but he is a FB friend of John Game, a 
scholar of Indian history and politics.)

Uday Chandra: My view is that left critics of poco theory do not need 
their own AV. Chibber has, unfortunately, been projected by Brenner, 
Anderson, etc, as the Chosen One to slay the dragon of postcolonial 
studies. It is even more unfortunate that "enlightenment values" and 
"human rights" are being bandied about in this way. And even more so 
that Chibber has acted in a way that has pissed many off even as Partha 
and others make clever and evasive arguments that avoid the very real 
problems with SS.

But coming to the substance of the book, I would like to draw everyone's 
attention to pp. 24-25. Here, Chibber highlights the "explanatory 
failure" and then the "critical failure" of SS [Subaltern Studies]. 
Chibber argues that SS "systematically misrepresents the relationship 
between capitalism and modernity" by 1) "obscuring the former" and 2) 
"denying it altogether." But, to the best of my knowledge, the grand 
task of explaining the relationship between capitalism and modernity is 
not SS's aim at all. That is Chibber's problem, not theirs or even mine. 
SS's aim, as the recollections of Guha and Chakrabarty rightly point 
out, was to bring the Thompsonian sensibilities of "history from below" 
into conversation with a radical critique of postcolonial Indian state 
formation under the Congress-led bourgeoisie. There was a 
historiographic context and a political context, not the imaginary aims 
that Chibber imputes to it.

Several scholars more capable than Chibber have pointed out that Guha, 
Chatterjee, etc, misread Gramsci in multiple ways in order to make their 
arguments about subalternity. It is also true that the "moral economy" 
framework in peasant studies appealed to these scholars as a nice 
critique of the then-dominant modernization theory. And, unlike their 
Cambridge and Indian counterparts, SS historians largely ignored the 
turn away from moral economy in peasant studies. A parallel reading of 
the evolution of SS and peasant studies over the 1980s and 1990s will be 
instructive in this regard. But Chibber isn't interested in anything so 
empirical. He is after Theory, grand, universal, totalizing and macho 
(so yes, the gendering is important too). And on p. 10, Chibber 
explicitly makes the case for his more masculinist Marxism: "[Their] 
Marxism, therefore, is of a particular kind, and would scarcely be 
recognized as such by many contemporary Marxists." And so, the battle of 
the swinging dicks began: whose dick, er Marxism, is bigger and better? 
By making it into a high-stakes ideological encounter, Chibber set the 
ball rolling for his eventual humiliation at the hands of the cunning 

On the question of Capital's progress in the colonial versus the 
European world, I think Chibber and all of us would be better served 
reading some of Dave Washbrook's seminal papers from the 1980s. He 
engaged extensively with Wallerstein's world systems theory, peasant 
studies scholarship, early modern historiography, and SS to come up with 
certain excellent points about colonial political economy in South Asia 
and beyond. The thesis that the colonial state, represented by a bunch 
of white men and their Indian collaborators, "traditionalized" and 
sedentarized Indian society in the domains of kinship, land, labor, and 
capital remains as important as ever. Parallel to the work of Mahmood 
Mamdani, Fred Cooper, Sally Falk Moore, the Comaroffs and others, we now 
understand that capitalism in the colonial world was married to cultural 
forms and social relations of production (customary laws over land and 
religion, for example) that are structurally different from their 
analogues in North America or Western Europe. These are not "cultural" 
differences, but differences in the way modes of production and social 
relations of production interact with each other. The colonial world can 
still be profitably compared to Eastern Europe and Russia, of course, 
but the contrast with the North Atlantic world remains intact.

When capital is tied to the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) by colonial law 
or when certain social relations known as "tribal" are deemed to prevail 
in land matters, the colonial state was knowingly ruling through 
exceptions to the universal liberal narrative it knew from Whig 
history-writing in England/Europe. SS merely repeats this, as do 
Washbrook & Co. Now, as you say Nate, HUF property laws may well 
facilitate the workings of capital in some respects by channeling it 
along pre-existing kinship networks. But the stagnation of the Indian 
economy in the later nineteenth century is a very real phenomenon, and 
the decline of indigenous capital that thrived until mid-century is 
analyzed far better in Cambridge histories than in SS. The failure of 
the Whig project of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal is another real 
failure for the early colonial project of creating an improving landlord 
class. Indeed, this is the historiographic consensus on law, state, and 
agrarian society in colonial India. Capital IS interrupted in more ways 
than one imagines, and if you see what's happening today with chiefs in 
Ghana or South Africa, you'll see how forms of political authority 
shored up by the colonial state and reinvented traditions are placing 
clear limits to the social logic of the market economy. This is not to 
say that social relations established under the colonial regime cannot 
facilitate capitalism under certain contexts. For example, the biggest 
beneficiaries of the Bengal famine of 1943 were, ironically, Marwari 
merchants, including the likes of GD Birla who financed the Gandhian 
Congress then during the Quit India movement. As Partha noted at the 
end, it is not only (as in his earlier work) a matter of showing that 
subalterns resisted capital in the margins of the capitalist world 
economy, but also that contemporary Indian and Chinese capitalisms, for 
example, continue to be shaped by cultural-economic forms that are 
different from European trajectories. I see the Comaroffs making much 
the same claims with respect to zombies and millennial capitalism in 
southern Africa. Chibber doesn't read people like the Comaroffs or 
Washbrook, but if he did, he'd realize how bad his strawmanning tactics are.

In sun, these are complex matters that cannot be approached in the crude 
sledgehammer style that Chibber uses throughout the book. I am with Jean 
Comaroff, who, in a recent interview, speaks of the dialectic between 
the cultural and the material as the most salient theme in her own work. 
The Comaroffs have never shied away from bold claims, and they've never 
bought into the post-Writing Culture turn in US anthro. Capitalism is 
central to their narratives and theorizing, but never at the expense of 
a deep understanding of what colonialism, Christianity, neoliberalism, 
etc meant to ordinary Africans in existential terms. Alas, neither SS 
nor Chibber are capable of doing the same in the South Asian context. 
This is why we need different post-subalternist narratives, Marxist or 
not, that will avoid the mindless warfare we are witnessing now between 
two left factions in the Western academy. I am not saying we shouldn't 
fight the SS orthodoxy that reigns today - frankly, Partha himself is 
all too keen to move beyond SS, especially its (and his) earlier claims. 
But we must do it in ways that understand clearly what SS tried to do 
and failed. Whether that resuscitates Marxism or not globally is a 
different question that I'll let the fighting vanguards decide.

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