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Postcolonial Theory in the 21st Century: Is the Past the Future or Is the Future the Past? (February 2021): Postcolonial Theory and Marxism: Culturalism vs. Materialism

by Tarique Niazi

Postcolonial Theory and Marxism: Culturalism vs. Materialism

Marxists of various stripes have been critical of subalternism and postcolonialism, even though the former was initially rooted in Marxism. Turning away from materialism and toward the culturalism of Gramsci, Foucault, and Derrida caused dissent among the subalternists. One such dissenter was Sumit Sarkar, who wrote the influential essay “The Decline of the Subaltern in Subaltern Studies” and broke away from the Subaltern Studies Collective, a group that paved the way for postcolonial theory. Postcolonial theory and Marxism have since lived in tension, which erupted in a particularly volatile firestorm when Vivek Chibber published his widely acclaimed book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital in 2013. The title was a powerfully persuasive critique of postcolonial theory, and a potent defense of Marxism. Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Žižek, Robert Brenner, Archin Vanaik, and Joshua Cohen praised it, as recounted in Alex Sager’s 2014 review. The book became so influential, in fact, that it is now the Marxist response to postcolonial theory.

In The Debate on Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, editor Rosie Warren documents the major debates on The Specter of Capital (as the book has come to be known by its truncated title), as almost all major scholarly publications in the field printed extensive reviews of it. The Journal of World-Systems Research treated it to a star-studded symposium by assembling leading theorists and critics that included Ho-fung Hung, George Steinmetz, Bruce Cumings, Michael Schwartz, William Sewell, Jr., David Pedersen, and Vivek Chibber himself, as outlined in Hung’s introduction to the symposium. The journal devoted thirty pages of its 2014 summer/fall issue to document critical evaluations of The Specter of Capital. On the other side, however, Gayatri Spivak scorched the book in her 2014 review, published in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, and referred to Chibber as “brash,” “boyish,” and a “correct-fetishist,” as Chibber recounts in his counter response in the same journal (p. 624). Spivak even likened Chibber’s criticism of the ninety-year-old Ranjit Guha, a founder of the Subaltern Studies Collective, to a “child’s cry” against “the old guy” ( p. 184). Partha Chatterjee, one of the three major postcolonial authors whom Chibber critiques in his book, also wrote a lengthy response to The Specter of Capital, titled “Subaltern Studies and Capital,” in the progressive Indian journal Economic and Political Weekly.

In The Specter of Capital, Chibber focuses on three key figures in postcolonial theory (though critics posit that they belong to the Subaltern Studies Collective) for his critical evaluation: Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, and Dipesh Chakrabarty. To begin, Chibber analyzes Guha’s claims in Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India, in which Guha addresses why capitalism did not run its course in India as it did in Europe. His analysis shows that in Europe it was the hegemony (dominance with consent) of capitalist power relations that undergirded it, while in colonial India it was dominance (coercion) without hegemony that hindered its growth. In Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Guha then investigates the cultural differences—of caste, creed, religion, region—that failed capitalist modernity.

Chibber next turns to Chakrabarty, who, in Provincializing Europe, examines rationality, universality, and difference in the postcolonial world, and argues that capital tends to subordinate, erase, or absorb all social relations with varying success. He develops a two-tiered system of classifying history, according to which social practices that become incorporated into capitalism’s logic are designated as History 1, while those that survive its assault Chakrabarty labels History 2. History 2, he continues, is the source of capital’s instability, which hobbled its march in South Asia. In short, subalternists, and especially Chakrabarty, believe that capitalism cannot universalize, and because of this, Enlightenment universals (e.g., capitalism, class, solidarity, rationality, objectivity) are strange in the East (History 2), while they intimately speak to the West (History 1). Chakrabarty also contests the universality of basic human needs and objective interests as a motivational force for non-Western people, as does Chatterjee. They argue that South Asians are not moved by class interests but by immaterial cultural icons such as religion or caste.

Chibber agrees that differences do exist between and among various social settings (e.g., India and Europe), but he shows that the idea of a historically homogenized, secular, liberal, democratic Europe (or History 1) is fiction, and that there were no “bourgeois revolutions” in Europe to fuel the rise of capitalism. In particular, he challenges the postcolonialists’ view of the English and the French revolutions to argue that the constitutional monarchy in England and the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) in France were not due to “bourgeois revolutions,” but to the rising chorus of the working classes for greater political freedoms. He also contends that Guha’s and Chakrabarty’s notion of “universalizing capital” is mistaken. Again, Chibber goes to great historical lengths to show that capitalism can happily coexist with pre-capitalist, pre-modern social formations and practices (or History 2). Although he concurs that History 2 can be a source of instability for capital’s growth, Chibber shows that the far greater source of instability for capitalism lies in History 1 (i.e., boom and bust cycles, economic breakdowns, and workers’ struggles for higher and fairer wages and increased benefits).

He goes on to argue that basic human needs and individual interests are in fact universal and great motivating forces for human behavior, which Chakrabarty and Chatterjee contest to be true in the East. In his 2014 response to Spivak, Chibber additionally argues that human needs “play a central role in any viable social theory,” without which even capital’s expansion would be difficult to explain. As he writes: 

It is hard to see why laborers in every part of the world, every culture, in every setting where they are expropriated end up offering their labor power for sale, if it is not because of their desire to uphold their physical well-being. And it is equally hard to see why the wage contract breeds resistance and conflict in every part of the world, if it is not because those same laborers try to defend their autonomy and their well-being against the depredations of their employers (p. 316).

Chibber concludes his book by asserting that postcolonial theorists ultimately misunderstand capitalism, European history, and Enlightenment universals.