Though many things are being said about Vivek Chibber’s new book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, it is unlikely at this point that anyone will call the book boring. It has ignited a fair amount of controversy in its claim that the central arguments emerging from Subaltern Studies are wrong, and that a universalist social theory grounded in Marxism is capable of explaining the phenomena they fail to.
The posting of Chibber’s debate with Partha Chatterjee, one of the main targets of critique in the book, at Historical Materialism New York, will no doubt only intensify the disputes. Indeed, some are already claiming that Chatterjee has closed the book on Chibber’s arguments with his “meticulous demolition” a few weeks ago.
In this post, I’d like to examine one small aspect of the debate, centering around the contending interpretations of Ranajit Guha’s work. It is my contention that Chatterjee, in attempting to defend Guha, misrepresents the latter’s arguments, often strikingly.
Before proceeding, it is worth noting what this post is not arguing. I am not asserting here that either Chatterjee or Guha’s work is worthless or should not be read. Indeed, Guha’s criticisms of the bad faith of colonialist historiography, his portrait of the way aspects of Indian culture were mobilized to support colonial rule, and his emphasis on the brutality of the raj are all valuable and compelling. I am less familiar with Chatterjee’s work, and for that reason do not want anything in this post to be construed as a broader commentary on his other publications. However, the issue of misrepresentation is a serious one, and deserves consideration.
Chibber lays out his side of the argument briefly in an interview about the book published at Jacobin:
Subaltern studies offers two distinct arguments for how and why the universalizing drive of capital was blocked. One argument comes from Ranajit Guha. Guha located the universalizing drive of capital in the ability of a particular agent — namely, the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class — to overthrow the feudal order and construct a coalition of classes that includes not only capitalists and merchants, but also workers and peasants. And through the alliance that is cobbled together, capital is supposed to erect a new political order, which is not only pro-capitalist in terms of defending the property rights of capitalists, but also a liberal, encompassing, and consensual order.
So for the universalizing drive of capital to be real, Guha says, it must be experienced as the emergence of a capitalist class that constructs a consensual, liberal order. This order replaces the ancien régime, and is universalizing in that it expresses the interests of capitalists as universal interests. Capital, as Guha says, achieves the ability to speak for all of society: it is not only dominant as a class, but also hegemonic in that it doesn’t need to use coercion to maintain its power.
So Guha locates the universalizing drive in the construction of an encompassing political culture. The key point for Guha is that the bourgeoisie in the West was able to achieve such an order while the bourgeoisie in the East failed to do so. Instead of overthrowing feudalism, it made some sort of compact with the feudal classes; instead of becoming a hegemonic force with a broad, cross-class coalition, it tried its best to suppress the involvement of peasants and the working class. Instead of erecting a consensual and encompassing political order, it put into place highly unstable and fairly authoritarian political orders. It maintained the rift between the class culture of the subaltern and that of the elite.
So for Guha, whereas in the West the bourgeoisie was able to speak for all the various classes, in the East it failed in this goal, making it dominant but not hegemonic. This in turn makes modernity in the two parts of the world fundamentally different by generating very different political dynamics in the East and West, and this is the significance of capital’s universalizing drive having failed.
JB: So their argument rests on a claim about the role of the bourgeoisie in the West, and the failure of its counterpart in postcolonial societies?
VC: For Guha, absolutely, and the subaltern studies group accepts these arguments, largely without qualification. They describe the situation — the condition of the East — as a condition in which the bourgeoisie dominates but lacks hegemony, whereas the West has both dominance and hegemony.
Now the problem with this is, as you said, that the core of the argument is a certain description of the achievements of the Western bourgeoisie. The argument, unfortunately, has very little historical purchase. There was a time, in the nineteenth century, the early twentieth century, even into the 1950s, when many historians accepted this picture of the rise of the bourgeoisie in the West. Over the last thirty or forty years, though, it has been largely rejected, even among Marxists.
What’s strange is that Guha’s book and his articles were written as though the criticisms of this approach were never made. And what’s even stranger is that the historical profession — within which subaltern studies has been so influential — has never questioned this foundation of the subaltern studies project, even though they all announce that it’s the foundation. The bourgeoisie in the West never strove for the goals that Guha ascribes to it: it never tried to bring about a consensual political culture or represent working-class interests. In fact, it fought tooth and nail against them for centuries after the so-called bourgeois revolutions. When those freedoms were finally achieved, it was through very intense struggle by the dispossessed, waged against the heroes of Guha’s narrative, the bourgeoisie. So the irony is that Guha really works with an incredibly naïve, even ideological notion of the Western experience. He doesn’t see that capitalists have everywhere and always been hostile to the extension of political rights to working people.
These arguments are expanded upon in Chapters 2-5 of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital.
To rebut Chibber’s criticisms, Chatterjee offered four arguments:
1.) Guha’s text is not comparative at all, and does not make any claims about what actually happened during the development of European capitalism. Rather, it simply comments on what liberal historiography assumed would happen in India. Therefore, Chibber’s argument that Guha compares India to a European history that never happened is simply the product of an inept reading. (made at 27:23 in the debate)
2.) Guha is not actually talking about what capitalists did or did not do, but instead is speaking of a much broader anticolonial elite. Therefore, Chibber’s attempt to compare their actions with the actions of European capitalists is an invalid exercise in comparing two very different kinds of social entities. (31:00)
3.) Guha does not hold a Whig view of history. The Whiggish view Chibber criticizes is precisely what Guha is criticizing in liberal historiography. (30:45)
4.) The appropriate grounds of comparison, and the one Guha is actually making, is between England and India of the 1950s, not between the European bourgeois revolutions and modern Indian history. The comparison Chibber makes renders the contemporary history of India nothing more than a replay of Europe’s past, an extraordinarily Eurocentric maneuver. (31:44).
All four of these arguments represent serious distortions of the arguments made in Dominance without Hegemony. In order:
1.) Chatterjee claims that “nowhere in the essay does Guha offer any propositions of his own that might be construed as a historical sociology of bourgeois revolutions in England and France.” What, then, are we to make of passages such as the following?
“liberal historiography has been led to presume that capital, in its Indian career, succeeded in overcoming the obstacles to its self-expansion and subjugating all precapitalist relations in material and spiritual life well enough to enable the bourgeoisie to speak for all of that society, as it had done on the occasion of its historic triumphs in England in 1648 and France in 1789.” (Dominance without Hegemony, 19)
“Much of the specificity of Indian politics of this period derives precisely from the failure of nationalism to assimilate the class interests of peasants and workers effectively into a bourgeois hegemony. Nothing testifies more clearly to the predicament of a bourgeoisie nurtured under colonial conditions and its difference from its opposite numbers in Western Europe…In other words, it was initially as an acknowledgment of the connection between its own interests and those of all the other nonruling classes that the bourgeoisie had led the struggle against feudalism and established its hegemony over the peasantry, whereas in India the influence it gained over the rural population in the 1920s and 1930s did not develop into a full-fledged hegemony because of its reluctance to break with landlordism. Again, in Western Europe, the conditions prevailing under the ancien regime did not allow the interests of the bourgeoisie to be reduced at once to “the particular interest of a particular class.” (ibid 133-134)
“how is it that even after British capital, powered by industrialism, had come of age and the culture corresponding to it had created a homogeneous space for itself by overcoming the resistance of all that was parochial and particularistic in metropolitan politics — how is it that even at its hour of triumph the universalist tendency was resigned to live at peace with the heterogeneity and particularity of the indigenous political culture of an Asian colony?” (ibid 64)
Here, in locations throughout the 1997 text, Guha is quite plainly making claims about what actually happened in Europe during the period of the rise of capitalism. In two of these passages, there is not even a reference to the liberal historiography which Chatterjee claims is Guha’s true reference. Instead, we have what are unavoidably statements about the history of capitalism in Europe, in which it is claimed that the bourgeoisie led the struggle against feudalism, overcame the resistance of the particular, established a homogenous space, and was thus able to speak for the nation. Even in the first passage, which begins by referencing the liberal historiography, the sentence’s final clause implies that the bourgeoisie was actually able to speak for all of society after 1648 and 1789.
Chatterjee’s description of what is in Guha’s text is then quite plainly false. But he also argues that Guha does not require any historical sociology of bourgeois revolution in Europe to substantiate his claims. This is a more complicated argument to adjudicate, as it cannot be settled simply with references to the text. However, I think there are still good reasons to think that Chatterjee is wrong here. It is quite true that the overwhelming bulk of Dominance without Hegemony is not focused on the question of what happened in India versus what happened in Europe. Guha’s explication of the role of Dharma, of the ideological machinations of colonialist historiography, and of the dynamics of nationalist struggle do not depend on any claims about Europe. Indeed, Chibber says as much in the book, praising Guha’s empirical description of Indian history while contesting his theoretical explanation of it. It is this theoretical account which depends upon a comparison between Europe and India. Chatterjee is correct to claim that, for his critique of historiography, Guha only needs evidence a) that the liberal historiography assumes that the bourgeoisie enjoyed hegemony in Europe b) that it also enjoyed hegemony in the colonies c) that Indian liberals saw the postcolonial order as similarly hegemonic and d) that neither the colonial nor the postcolonial regimes enjoyed hegemony. Unfortunately for Chatterjee, however, Guha offers us rather more than a criticism of the historiography. Indeed, in the second passage quoted above, Guha is quite explicit that the failure of the Indian bourgeoisie explains “the specificity of Indian politics.” For this claim to be successful, one must assume the bourgeoisie succeeded elsewhere. If the bourgeoisie failed in Europe as well as in India, how could its failure in India explain the specificity of Indian politics? Guha’s argument does indeed imply claims about what happened in European history, and, as we have seen, he is not at all shy about making these claims.
2.) Chatterjee’s claim that Guha is not talking about Indian capitalists, but rather Indian nationalist elites, is wrong on several levels. The argument is proffered as an attempt to rebut Chibber’s claims about the French Revolution, where he argues, in the tradition of political Marxism, that the French bourgeoisie who participated in the revolution was in no sense capitalist, and that therefore the French revolution cannot be taken as an example of the capitalist bourgeoisie succeeding in forging hegemony and speaking for the nation. Chatterjee argues in response that Guha is only describing nationalist elites, not capital. It is unclear what exactly he thinks is gained by making this point. On the surface, there is the obvious effect that this claim, if true, would buttress his general argument that Chibber has misunderstood Guha. However, it does little to rehabilitate Guha’s theoretical claim – namely that the French bourgeoisie succeeded in speaking for the nation, while the Indian bourgeoisie failed. Even assuming that we are talking about non-capitalist bourgeoisies in both cases, Chibber shows that the French revolution was wracked with class conflict, with the bourgeoisie fighting for a very limited set of reforms, while attempting at every turn to restrict and repress the development of more popular insurgencies. As in India, there was no hegemony. Abstracting from the question of capital, the attempt at contrast still fails.
Moving into Guha’s text itself, we find that once again Chatterjee’s attempts to defend Guha run aground on the pages of the very work he purports to be defending. Guha offers an expansive picture of the bourgeoisie in India, encompassing nationalist elites, Indian capitalists, and British capitalists. Indeed, his references to capital’s universalizing tendency throughout the book make clear that his argument is very much about what capital failed to do. Restricting his arguments to cover only nationalist elites is a distortion of the text.
3.) Chatterjee claims that Guha does not hold a Whig view of history, but rather criticizes the one found in the texts of liberal historiography. Yet Chibber’s argument that Guha, by claiming that the European bourgeoisie fought for liberty and democracy, romanticizes the bourgeoisie, finds substantial support throughout Guha’s text. Guha names, among the “achievements” of the bourgeoisie, “democracy” and “liberty” (67). He describes “bourgeois law” as having made “inviolable…the individual’s right to the security of his or her own person” (26). And he describes it as a “paradox” that forms of pre-capitalist oppression were mobilized by “the world’s most advanced bourgeoisie.”
In these statements, the European bourgeoisie receives credit for a series of reforms it actually struggled tooth and nail against. As Chibber notes, by the time the English Reform Act of 1832 was passed, the English electorate was actually smaller than it had been in 1630 (65). Almost two centuries of bourgeois rule yielded precious little evidence that the European bourgeoisie had any interest in democracy. Similarly, the description of the inviolability of the individual body whitewashes the sordid history of the consolidation of bourgeois rule in England, ably recounted in Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged and Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History. Finally, the utilization of precapitalist institutions in the interest of capital accumulation is hardly a paradox. Karen Orren’s Belated Feudalism tells the story of precisely such a dynamic in the United States. In Europe, the consolidation of capitalism often took place in part through a similar process, as in England, where market dependency among peasants was achieved through the assertion of a host of lordly rights to the land. In short, Guha attributes to the bourgeoisie a number of properties – an interest in liberty and democracy, a proclivity to do away with precapitalist social forms, and an investment in the rule of law – which the historical record simply does not support. This is what it means to draw on a Whig view of history. It is view that exists in the texts Guha is criticizing, to be sure, but finds expression throughout his own text as well.
4.) Chatterjee’s last claim is in some ways the most puzzling. The motivation for the criticism is easy enough to understand; it is the familiar postcolonial critique that Marxism too often reduces the history of the colonial world to Europe’s pre-history. Yet, as we have seen, it is precisely Guha who makes this claim, bringing up the revolutions of 1648 and 1789 as points of comparison with the development of capitalism in India. I will only add to this that, in focusing so heavily on the period of Indian independence, Chatterjee obscures both Guha’s text and Chibber’s critique of it, neither of which have anything resembling an exclusive focus on the moment of independence, but consider the history of Indian capitalism as a whole.
Why go through this unfortunately lengthy exercise in correction? A few reasons. First, as I have noted, Chatterjee is already being celebrated for allegedly knocking out Chibber in the debate. It is hard to square such plaudits with the reality of his misrepresentations of Guha’s text.
More fundamentally, however, I think both Chatterjee’s claims in the debate, and the support they have found, are indicative of the state of the left academy. To put it bluntly, bullshit, in the Frankfurtian sense, rules the day. Chatterjee’s cavalier misrepresentation of the text he purports to be defending seems a classic token of the concept.