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Marx after Marxism: A Subaltern Historian's Perspective Author(s): Dipesh Chakrabarty Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.

28, No. 22 (May 29, 1993), pp. 1094-1096 Published by: Economic and Political Weekly Stable URL: Accessed: 22/10/2008 17:32
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Marx after Marxism

A Subaltern Historian's Perspective
Dipesh Chakrabarty The old certitudes which once made Marxists feel like they belonged to one international tribe have to be rethought. But this rethinking has to issue from our own positions as intellectuals who think out of a real or imaginary base in India, and its tasks cannot be deduced from contemporary European and AngloAmerican theory in any formulaic manner. An attempt at outlining a possible approach to this question.
AT the outset I should make it clear that my remarks do not in any way implicate the Subaltern Studies collective. What follows are my own reflections on some current problems of Marxist historiography as they appear to me, and they arise from an interest in writing histories of subalternclasses and of the phenomena of subordinaton and domination in general. But they also arise at a particular time when Marxisn is- being seriously questioned in avant-gardewestern theorising. Since to be a Marxist is to work within European traditions of thought anyway, one can ignore the challenge of what generally pass under names like 'poststructuralism' or 'deconstruction' only at one's peril. The old certitudes that once made Marxists feel like they belonged to one international tribe have to be rethought. (This at any rate is one of the assumptions on which this short intervention is basd.) But this rethinking has to issue from our own positions as intellectuals who think out of a real or imaginary base in India, and its tasks cannot be deduced from contemporary European and Anglo-American theory in any formulaic manner.What follows is an attempt at outlining a possible approach to this question. Many readers will recall that Subaltern Studies began as an argument within. Indian Marxismand in particular against the teleologiesthat colonialist and nationalist-Marxist narratives had promoted in the 1970s in the field of Indian history. to oppose the methoInitially, we %anted dological elitism of both varieties,but our Marxist aim was also to produce %better' histories. It sooiv had become clear, however,as our researchprogressed, that a critique of this nature could hardly afford to ignore the problem of universalism/Eurocentrism that was inherent in Marxist (or for that matter liberal) thought itself. This realisation made us receptive to the critiques of Marxist historicism-in particular to the message advocating an attitude of 'incredulity toward grand narratives'- that French post-structuralist thinkers increasingly made popular in the English-language academic world in the 80s. But there have always remained important and crucial differences.Unlike in the Parisof the poststructuralists,there was neverany question in Delhi, Calcutta or Madras of a wholesale rejection of Marx's thought. Foucault's scathing remark in The Order of that "Marxism exists in nineteeth-century thought as a fish in water, that is, it is unable to breathe anywhere else", may -have its point (however exaggerated) but it never resonated with us with anything like the energy that anti-Marxism displays in the writings of some post-modernists. This was so not because we believed in any Habermasian project of retrieving Enlightenment reason from the clutches of an all-consuming instrumental rationality. Our attachment to Marx's thought has different roots. They go back to the question of European imperialism from which the problem of Indian modernity cannot* be separated. (The question of colonial modernity, or I might say the question of colonialism itsdf, remains an absent problem in much post-structuralist/post-modern writing.) However,for a modem Indian intellectual-that is, someone who engages in serious commerce of the European with the thought-products Enlightenmentand with their inheritances and legacies but someone who is also aware,from the culturalpracticesof Indian society, of there always being other possibilities of 'worlding' that now exist in uneven and often subordinaterelationship

to 'Western metaphysics' (forgive this summary expression)-it is difficult to trash Marx's thought quite in the manner of a Foucault. Again, not because it is difficult to sympathise with the intellectual criticisms of historicism. (I will in fact go on to argue here that these criticisms have to be made central to our reading of Marx.) It is because critical narrativesof imperialism are constitutive of our collective origin-myths. The story of becoming an 'Indian' academic-intellectual and having to (because there is no other realistic option!) deal in and with thoughts that never fail to remind you of their European origins, does not make sense without there being a concomitant narrative locating the emergence of such an intellectual class in the history of capitalist/European imperialism. To say this is not to claim the privileges of the 'victim'. Imperialism enables as much as it victimises. Without English imperalism in India and a certain training in AngloEuro habits of thought, there would not have been any Subaltern Studies. The story of 'capital' and that of the emergence of the market-society in Europe-undeniably a historicist narrative in the most popular recensions-have a central place in our collective selffashioning. It follows then that Marx's critique of capital and commodity will be indispensable for any critical understanding we might want to developof ourselves. How can a critique of modernity in India ignore the history of commodification in that society? But, at the same time, this relationshipto Marx cannot any longer be the straightforward one that the Indian communist parties once encouraged, where the scriptingof our histories on the lines of some already-told European drama posed no intellectual problems for self-understanding. As deconstructive political philosophy increasingly ponders the intractable problem of genuinely 'non-violative' relationship between the Self ('the West') and its Other, and turns to questions of difference and ethics-questions made urgent by th current globalisation of capital, information and technology-the task for students of Marx in my part of the world does not seem to be one of improving 'Marxism' in order to make it impregnable against further assault from the post-modernists. Much in Marx is truly 19th-century, gender-blind and obviously Eurocentric. A post-colonial reading of Marx, it seems to me, would have to ask if and how, and which of, his


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categoriescould be made to speak to what we have learnt from the philosophers of 'difference' about 'responsibility' to the plurality of the world. The age of multinational capital devolves on us this responsibility to think 'difference'not simply as a theoreticalquestion but as a tool for producing practical possibilities for action. The talk of 'difference' often elicits hostile response from Marxists. There appear to be a couple of things at stake. There is, first of all, the long-ingrained habit of thinking the world through the common, and seemingly universal and solidarity-producing,languageof Marxist prose. Secular history itself is a mastercode implicit in modern political thought. Historians are comfortable with the talk of difference so long as the talk does not threaten the very idea of history itself. This produces a second-order problem to which ther is no quick and readymade solution and which therefore looks to many like an intellectual dead-end. How conversation proceed between two wouwld historia if 'differences' could not be contained within the samenessof the very code (i e, history) that made the conversation possible in the first plce? One may legitimately ask: How can one write/ think/talk the non-West in the academia without in some sense anthropologising it? Most historians would prefer to stop at this point and simply get on with the job. Progressivehistorians would perhaps even endorse the strategy of 'anthropologising': it is part and parcel, they would in effect argue, of the struggle to make the world more democratic. After all, what material benefits can the subaltern classes gain from imaginations in which gods, spirits, humans and animals cohabit the same world? Pointing out that a secular and modern historical consciousness is itself part of the problem of 'colonisatiDn of the mind' for many 'traditions' such as those of the 'Hindus' I am not making a universal claim and I have put the word Hindu in quotes to indicate its socially constructed and contingent nature-is often of no help to these historians. Yet,as an Indian historian,this is where I think we confront an almost insoluble problem in writing subaltern history. The problem is also of some critical urgency in India given the current wave of Hindutva. Let me explain the problem of method by referringto this group we have called 'Hindus. For most Hindus, gods, spirits and the so-called supernaturalhave a certain 'reality'. They are as real as

'ideology'is-that is to say,afterZizek, they are embedded in practices.The

secular calendar is only one of the many time-worlds we travel. The bringing together of these different time-worlds in the construction of a modern public life in India has always had something to do with all the major crises modem India has had to endure, the most recent being the current upsurge of a fascistic Hindu movement that has already caused enormous sufferings to the Muslims.The usual vocabulary of political science in India, which discusses this problen in terms of Europeancategoriesof the secular and the sacred and makes this into a question (recycled fromn European history) of 'religion' in public life, is pathetically inadequate in its explanatory capacity. The word 'meligion, everybody agrees, captures nothing of the spirit of all the heterodox Hindu practices it is meant to translate.For howevercynical one may be in ones analysis of the 'reasons' why the Hindu political parties may want to use the 'Hindu' card, one still has to ask questions about the many different meanings that divine figures (such as the god-king Rama) assumes in our negotiations of modernity. But this is where I return to the dilemma I posed in the previousparagraph:Do we, in the already universal language of Marxist prose, simply anthropologise these meanings, or do we, in developing a Marxist prose suited to our struggles (i e, the struggles that arise for modern Indian intellectuals from their being situated in a colonial modernity) also struggle to inscribe into the visions of Marx's critique of capital, horizons of radical otherness? I cannot pretend to escape these problems any more than other Marxists can, nor do I aspire to do so. The very limited question I can deal with in this short space is: Do Marx's categories allow us to trace the marks of what must of necessity remain unenclosed by these categories themselves?In other words,are thereways of engaging with the problem of 'universality' of capital that do not commit us to a bloodless liberal pluralism that only subsumes all difference(s) within the Same? Looking back at some work I did on (Indian) 'working class' history a few years ago, I only seem to have halfthought the problem. I documented a history whose narrative(s)producedseveral points of friction with the teleologies of 'capital' In my study of the jute mill workersof colonial Bengal I tried to show how the productionrelationsin these mills were structuredfrom the inside as it were by a whole saies of relations that could

not appear to lead to the politics of equal rights that Marx saw as internal to the categories. I refer here in particularto the critical distinction Marx draws between 'real' and 'abstract' labour in explaining the production and form of the commodity. This is how I then readthe distinction (with enormous debt to Michel Henryand I I Rubin): Marx places the question of subjectivity rightat the heart of his category'capital' when he posits the conflict between'real labour'and 'abstract labour'as one of its centralcontradictions. 'Reallabour'refers to the labour power of the actual individual, labour power 'as it exists in the personalityof the labourer' that is, as it exists in the 'immediateexclusiveindividuality' of the individual. Just as personalities differ, similarly the labour powerof one individualis differentfrom that of another.'Reallabour'refersto the essential heterogeneity of individual or general capacities.'Abstract' labour, on the other hand, refers to the idea of uniform,homogeneous labourthatcapitalism imposes on this heterogeneity,the notion of a generallabourthat underlies 'exchangevalue. It is what makes labour measurable and makespossible the generalised exchange of commodities. It expressesitself... in capitalistdiscipline, which has the sole objective of making every individual's concrete labour-by nature heterogeneous 'uniform and homogeneous' through supervisionand technology employed in labour process.
... Politically, . . the concept of 'abstract

only be consdered 'pre-capitalist'. The comingof 'capital' and 'commodity' did

labour' is an extensionof the bourgeois notion of the 'equal rights' of 'abstract whosepoliticalli fe is reflected individuals: in the ideals and practiceof 'citizenship'. The politics of 'equal rights' is thus preciselythe 'politics'one can read into the category 'capital'... (Chakrabarty, Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal 1890-1940,Princeton University Press, 1989, pp 225-26.) It now seems to me that Marx's category of 'commodity' has a certain builtin openness to 'difference' that I did not fully exploit in my exposition. My reading of the term 'pre-capital'remained,in spite of my efforts, hopelessly historicist, and my narrative never quite escaped the (false) question, Why did the Indian working class fail to sustain a long-term sense of class-consciousness?, the metaproblemof 'failure'itself arising from the well known Marxist tradition of positing the working class as a transhistorical subject. Besides, it is also clear from the above quote that my reading took the ideas of the 'individual' and 'personality' as unproblematically given, and read the word 'real' (in 'real labour') to mean something primordially natural (and therefore not social).

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But my larger failure my inability to see that if one reads the 'real' as socially/culturally produced-and not as a Rousseauvian 'natural' something that refers simply to the naturally different endowments of different, and ahistorical, individuals-other possibilities open up, among them the one of writing 'difference' back into Marx. For the 'real' then (in this reading) must refer to different kinds of 'soaal' and.hence to different orders of tanporality. It should in principle even allow for the possibility of these temporal horizons being mutually incommensurable. The transition from 'real' to 'abstract' is thus also a question of transition from many and possibly incommensurable temporalities to the homogeneous time of abstract labour, the transition from 'non-history' to 'history. 'Real' labour, therefore, is precisely that which cannot not be enclosed by the sign, commodity, while it constantly inheres in the latter. The gap between real and abstract labour and the force constantly needed to close it, is what introduces the movement of 'difference' into the very constitutionof the commodity and thereby eternally defers its achievement of its true/ideal character. The sign 'commodity, as Marx explains will always carry as parts of its internal structure certain universal emancipatory narratives. If one overlooked the tension Marx situatedat the heart o f this category, could indeed produce the these narrati%es standardteleologies one nonnally encounters in Marxist historicism:that of citizenship, the juridical subject of Enlightenment thought, the subject of political theory of rights, etc. I do not mean to deny the practical utility of these narrativesin nmdern political structures. The more interesting problem for the Marxist historian, it seems to me, is the problem of tanporality that the category 'commodity: constituted through the tension between 'real' and 'abstract' labour, invites us to think of. If 'real' labour,as we have said, belongs to a world of heterogeneity whose various temporalities-Michael Taussig's work on Bolivian tin miners clearly shows that they arenot even all 'secular'(i e, bereft of gods and spirits)-cannot be enclosed in the sign History, then it can find a place in a historical narrative of capitalist transition (or commodity production) only as a Derridean trace of something that cannot be enclosed, an element that constantly challenges from within capital's and commodity's-and by implication, History's-claims to unity and

be said siniilarly,is not a referenceto what is simply chronologically prior on an ordinal, homogeneous scale of time. 'Pre-capitalist' is a hyphenated identity, it speaks of a particular relationship to capital marked by the tension of difference in horizons of time. The 'pre-capitalist' can only exist within the temporal horizon of capital and is yet something that disrupts the continuity of this time precisely by suggesting another time that is not on the same, secular, homogeneous calendar (which is why what is pre-capital is not chronologically prior to capital). This is another time which, theoretically, could be entirely incommensurable with the godless, spiritlesstime of what we call 'history' Subaltern histories, thus conceived in relationship to the question of difference, will have a split runningthroughthem. On the one hand, they are 'histories' in that they are constructed within the miastercode of secu lar History and use the accepted academic codes of historywriting (and thereby perforce anthropologise all other forms of memory). On the other hand, they cannot ever afford to grant this master-code its claim of being a mode of thought that comes to all human beings naturally, or eveWn to be treated as something that exists cut there in nature itself (rememberthe telli-taletitle of J B S Haldane's book, Everything Has A History?). Subaltern histories are therefore constructed within a p)articular kind of historicised memory, one that remembers History itself as a violation, an imperious code that accomp?aniedthe civilising process that the European Enlightenment inaugurated iri the 18th century as a world-historical task. This memory does not have the chiaracterof nostalgia for it bespeaks a pain that is in no sense historical in our parts of the world. Of course, the empirical hi storian who writes these histories is not .i peasant or a tribal (and often not even a woman) himself. He producesHistory-as distinct from other forms of memory-precisely because he has been transposed and inserted-in our case, by Emngland's work in India-into the global narratives of citizenshipand soialism. Hiewriteshistory, that is, only after his own labour has enteredthe process of being made abstract in the world-marketfor ideaional commodities. The subaltern, then, is not tle empirical peasant or tribal i n any straightforward sense that a populi st programme of history-writing may wat it to imagine. The figure of the subaltern is necessarily

to develop here, one might say that, subalternis what fracturesfrom within the signs that tell of the insertion of the historian (as a speaking subject) into the global narratives of capital. It is what gathers itself under 'real' labour in Marx's critique of capital, the figureof difference that governmentality-in Foucault'ssense of the term-all over the world has to subjugate and civilise. There are implications that follow: subaltern histories written with an eye to difference cannot constitute yet another attempt-in the long and universalistic tradition of 'socialist' histories-to help erect- the subaltern as the subject of modern democracies, that is, to expand the history of the modern in such a way as to make it more representative of society as a whole. This is a laudable objective on its own terms and has undoubted global relevance. But thought does not have to stop at political democracy or the concept of egalitarian distribution of wvalth (though the aim of achieving these ends will legitimately fuel many immediate political struggles). But, fundamentally, this thought is insensitive to philosophical questions of difference and can acknowledge difference only as a practical problem. Subaltern histories will engage philosophically'withquestions of difference which are elided in the dominant traditidns of Marxism. At the same time, however, just as 'real' labour cannot be thought outside of the problematic of 'abstract' labour, the subaltern cannot be thought outside of the global narrative of capital though it does not Stories about how belong to this narrative. this or that group in Asia, A frica or Latin America resisted the 'penetration' of capitalism do not constitute 'subaltern' history for subaltern historiesdo not refer to a resistance prior and exterior to capital. Subaltern Studies, as I think of it, can only situate itself theoretically at the juncture where we give up neither Marx nor 'difference',for the resistanceit spaks of is something that can happen only within the time-horizon of capital and yet disrupts the unity of that time Unconcealing the tension between real and abstract labour ensures that capital! commodity has heterogeneities and incommensurabilitiesinscribedin its core. Or, to put it differently, the practice of subaltern history would aim to take history to its limits in order to make its unworking visible. 11 am gratefulto Fiona Nicoll, Rajyashree SethandRachel JohnRundell, Sanjay Pandey, draft. of an earlier forcriticisms Sommerville

universality. it could 'pre'in 'pre-capital:, The prefiUx

of thispiecewill version mediatedbyr problems of ripresentation. A slightly different in Poty.raph,USA.] In termsof theanalysisth'at I havetrying appear


Economic and Political Weekly

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