Whatever happened to class?
21 November 2017
The decline of class analysis in Southasian studies has followed the decline of Marxism as an intellectual and political force.
(Also read this essay by Aditya Nigam who argues class-versus-identity-politics debate misses the complexities of lived experiences.)
Not so long ago, activists and intellectuals who regarded themselves as progressive had a pretty clear idea of what this entailed. Then, as now, it carried a commitment to democratic rights, to equality, to fighting gender and racial domination. But it also meant a deep and abiding opposition to capitalism. To be radical was to be anti-capitalist. This was not just out of habit, or due to sectarian indoctrination. Hard experience over two centuries had taught activists that capitalism not only generated inequalities in a systematic way, but that the insecurities it created had the effect of pitting people against each other – for jobs, for housing. and for basic amenities. Moreover, any movement that called for redistribution of resources found itself confronting the hostility of the rich, since redistribution cannot but make demands on the wealthy. Gender and racial domination have their own independent sources, to be sure. But these are exacerbated and become increasingly entrenched in the context of poverty and material insecurity. So, even as our sense of radicalism evolved over time, there was no question but that it had to highlight the role of capitalism and class.
For almost five decades after Independence, Southasian scholarship embodied this commitment. And why wouldn’t it? One merely has to step onto the street to witness the horrid conditions that domestic capitalism has imposed on the vast majority of its citizens. To generations of scholars, it seemed unimaginable that any diagnosis of Southasia’s social ills could leave out the central role of class and exploitation. No wonder, then, that Marxist theory had such an attraction to intellectuals based in the Subcontinent. For more than a century, Marxism had been the framework most committed to analysing how capitalism systematically generates inequality in wealth and in power. In most of the world, radicalism had enjoyed a very close affinity with Marxism, since no other framework had so highlighted capitalism as a source of social ills.
How times change! For the past two decades, class analysis has been in decline in Southasian studies, and at an accelerating pace. This is not in itself surprising, since it is symptomatic of Marxism’s decline as an intellectual and political force more broadly, and the Marxist tradition has historically been the main source of class-related theory. What gives added urgency to the issue is the nature of the theories – and politics – that have gained prominence in its stead. On the right, it is the revival of free-market ideology and, more broadly, neoliberalism. On the left, it is the rise of post-structuralism and postcolonial theory, a tandem that will hereafter be referred to as PSPC. Indeed, the proponents of PSPC have rather boldly laid claim to the mantle of
radical theory in the wake of Marxism’s retreat. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Southasian studies.
This focus on PSPC requires some explanation. It certainly is not the only influential intellectual trend these days. Neoliberalism, or what is sometimes referred to as ‘free-market fundamentalism’, could justifiably lay claim to real dominance in the field. Undeniably, neoliberalism does indeed exercise tremendous influence among Southasianists, but it can be ignored in the current context for two reasons. First, neoliberalism’s influence is largely confined to one discipline, economics (though also to a certain extent in parts of political science); with regard to the other key disciplines of Southasian studies – history, anthropology and cultural studies – neoliberalism has remained marginal.
Second, and more to the point, it should not be particularly puzzling as to why neoliberalism is so influential today, nor why this is particularly so in economics. This is a doctrine, after all, that is hostile to state regulation of markets, typically regards labour unions as infringements on market freedoms, downplays the social character of wealth, and hence is opposed to redistribution. Such a doctrine has great resonance in a period when labour is weak and capital strong. Further, this doctrine has been assiduously propagated by corporate-sponsored think tanks for over a quarter-century now, and has constituted the lodestone for mainstream politics in the United States, across both major parties. It is, then, no surprise that it should exercise some influence in academic life, as well, and even less so that it becomes prominent in economics, which revolves more tightly than any other discipline around the business community and the halls of political power.
That PSPC should become so prominent, however, is not nearly as obvious. The decline of class analysis, in itself, could have given rise to a variety of new fashions. Everything else being equal, one might have expected that academic culture would settle into a kind humane liberalism, more similar to the culture outside the academy. Or, perhaps there could have been a turn to more conservative views, in reaction to the advances the left made during the 1970s. Instead, the erstwhile Marxist intelligentsia evolved into practitioners of various species of post-structuralist theory.
What makes the slide into PSPC politically interesting, and important, is that while it continues to hold on to the mantle of ‘radical’ critique, PSPC practitioners show not only a suspicion of class theory and the Marxist tradition, but an outright hostility to them. This is perhaps the first time that a major radical trend in the Western intellectual firmament has been so hostile to the entire tradition of class analysis – and, by extension, class politics. So, while Marxists came to expect criticism from the right over the past century, they now also have to contend with attacks from the left. Hence, it is not that the retreat from class has heralded a fading of leftwing scholarship; rather, the very meaning of left critique is changing. Class, meanwhile, is simply being pushed out of the progressive milieu.
What is more, the displacement of class analysis will most likely deepen in the years ahead. For one thing, the very fact that the turn to PSPC theory is strongest in elite universities gives it a privileged position in the production of future scholarship – via job placement, control over journals, influence over allocation of research funds, etc. But even more important, in both the US and India, a spectacular generational bubble is currently working its way through the intellectual community. Most of the scholars committed to class analysis came of maturity during the 1960s and 1970s, and are now fairly advanced in their careers. Conversely, class is much less of a concern among scholars who finished graduate studies during the 1990s and thereafter. Hence, the number of Marxists among the younger scholars in Southasian studies is already fleetingly small. Thus, even though things are already difficult in this regard, we have not yet seen the worst. Within the next decade, as scholars who were radicalised during the 1960s wind down their careers and the baton is passed to the next generation, there is likely to be an even further drop-off in the visibility of class analysis.
The peculiarity of Southasian studies
At the outset, it may be useful to clarify a few things. First, the most obvious explanation for the rise of PSPC, and one that many in Southasian studies no doubt subscribe to, is that it is quite simply the best theory around. After all, it displaced class analysis and political economy due to their obvious shortcomings. This essay will try less to counter this notion, however, than to explain the rise of PSPC. Second, it should be stressed that an argument dealing with trends in intellectual fashion cannot avoid relying on ‘stylised facts’ – somewhat general descriptions that capture basic trends. Hence, for every characterisation about Southasian studies over the past three decades, there are undoubtedly exceptions.
Lastly, the main focus here will be on the scholarship coming out of the United States, and then from India, with an occasional glance at the British scene. This is because the centre for Indian scholarship in the transatlantic world is increasingly shifting away from England – its traditional base – and into US universities. Another reason to focus on the United States is that, in addition to its sheer weight in the production of scholarship, this is where the postmodemist turn has been strongest and the retreat from class analysis the most complete.
To a certain extent, Southasian studies shared in the process of radicalisation that overtook other ‘area studies’, or the specialisations in particular regions. The founding, in 1968, of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, and the launch of the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (BCAS) in May 1969, created an opening for Marxist and radical analysis of Asia, in broad parallel with the other leftwing area-studies journals. Even though BCAS was initially more focused on East Asia than it was on Southasia, the latter region nonetheless figured prominently in the journal’s pages. The subject that experienced the deepest inroads by Marxist analysis was, unsurprisingly, agrarian relations, both in the United States and in Great Britain. To this day, in the English-speaking world, the analysis of Indian rural social structure and history remains class oriented. Still, if we look beyond the domain of agrarian studies, what stands out about Southasia scholarship in the United States is that Marxism and political economy made little impression on the field during the 1970s. It remained curiously resistant – or perhaps unattractive – to the so-called New Left. Hence, class analysis rarely reached out beyond the confines of rural social structures or movements.
For the most part, American and British scholars during this period produced little on the class basis of the Indian state or its neighbours. In addition, there was still less being done on the Indian capitalist class, or on the dynamics of industrialisation, and virtually nothing on the structure and fortunes of the labour movement. In fact, a quick search of the major database of American PhD dissertations reveals that political science was the only discipline among four – history, anthropology, sociology and political science – in which dissertations on India actually decreased in number from the 1960s to the 1970s. If we compare this with the flood of class analysis focused on other areas (South America, Africa), the difference is striking. For example,
while the political experiments in Tanzania gave rise to a whole body of literature on the nature and limits of ‘African socialism’, nothing even remotely comparable analysed its Nehruvian counterpart. Likewise, there was nothing on the internal structure of the Indian ruling class. Indeed, there is still is not a single study of post-war labour in an all-India context, beyond a few journalistic books.
It is fair to say that, while class analysis was growing by leaps and bounds for regional specialisations outside of Southasia, social-science work on this region generally slipped into decline during the 1970s and 1980s. As such, it is not just that class analysis failed to transform the research agenda during these years, but that class-focused analysis as such remained on shaky ground. The first likely reason for the discipline’s imperviousness to Marxism was simply a matter of timing and geography. Latin American and African studies attracted some of the best and brightest of the New Left, because those regions were undergoing momentous changes at the time. The 1960s was the decade when British colonialism finally collapsed in Africa; but
more importantly, the whole colonial game seemed to be coming to an end. This was not only an exciting time to be studying Africa, but a good reason to enter the field in the first place.
Southasia, on the other hand, had shaken off British rule almost a half-century before, and was thus less attractive to young radicals. In the United States, it was not only that Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Salvador Allende appeared suddenly relevant to students, but that US citizens also felt a responsibility to involve themselves in the struggle of their counterparts to the south, following decades of US subversion in the region. Southasia, on the other hand, was remote and rather mysterious in comparison. India too was experiencing mass mobilisations at this time, as well as its own radicalisation. But while this did attract some radical scholars to the Marxist current, this was nowhere near the number of academics looking at the other two continents.
A second reason for the weaker Marxist impulse is that Southasian studies already had a well-consolidated and entrenched internal culture – namely, classical Orientalism. Had a powerful radical stream of thought desired to enter the field and take it over, it might perhaps have been able to push back the older approaches and take their place. But given that India’s attraction to student radicals was weaker to begin with, old-style Indologists never had to work
particularly hard to maintain their dominance. Whereas Marxism was motivated by a bedrock sense of materialism and universalist assumptions about human needs and interests, the Orientalist tradition was resolutely `culturalist’ in its approach: not only did it focus on cultural productions (literature, artwork, music), but more specifically on culture as the source of the institutional and structural differences of these areas from the West.
Even more ominously, it was not just Marxism, but social-science approaches in the field in general that went into temporary decline. It is easy to forget that during the early to mid-1960s social-science literature on India was abundant and shared similar basic assumptions with scholarship on other regions. Indeed, US scholarship on India during the two decades after Independence was not only noteworthy but strained mightily against the conventions of Orientalist scholarship. For example, there arose a trend of research on Indian trade unions, economic planning, political parties and agriculture, which rivalled the best scholarship in the West, and which carefully avoided the obsession with religion and culture. But even this framework suffered a relative decline during the 1970s. Due to the unshaken place of old-fashioned Indology in places such as the University of Chicago, emphases on culture retained a very strong hold over the discipline’s basic assumptions, and in its mode of training. Religion, language, literature – these were what incoming students encountered when they took a Southasian-studies class. They served not as the phenomena to be explained, but as the sources of Indian history and its politics.
This point needs emphasis. The problem with Indology was never that it was interested in explaining Southasian culture. The analysis of culture should be central to any intellectual tradition, and it has been an abiding concern to liberal and Marxist traditions as well. The problem was that Indology has always taken culture to be the basic source of Southasian social structure and institutions. This is where it falls in line with Orientalism, which progressives criticised during and after the struggle for Independence. So, for this tradition, Southasian history – its political institutions, its social structure, state – were outgrowths of the Indian or the Pakistani mindset.
Here, then, is the answer to the question as to why PSPC took deeper root in Southasian studies than in other regional concentrations: because Southasian studies never underwent the kind of transformation that other parts of the area-studies field experienced during the 1970s. By the 1980s, Latin American studies and Africana had been overtaken by the New Left on a scale sufficient to establish a solid tradition of focusing on issues of politics and economy. But this was not so in the case of India and Southasia scholarship; the New Left largely passed the Subcontinent by. This was particularly important for research on Southasia, because the traditional approach of the field was one that gave central importance to discourse and culture. This subsequently made the field especially fertile ground not only for a decline in class analysis – since the latter had never been very widespread in the first place – but for the rise of PSPC in particular.
Had the convergence between the New Left’s trajectory and old-style Indology remained the provenance of US scholars, its influence would have been significant but limited. It would have been too easily associated with a kind of conservative reflex that took place in the wake of the left resurgence of the 1970s. But by the late 1980s, this trend was given an additional boost by the emergence of a particular faction of Indian intellectuals, some based at home but many located in US universities.
Like the Orientalists, this group was working under an approach that gave a central role to culture, symbols and discourse. Furthermore, these were intellectuals whose self-identity was openly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, characteristics that only added legitimacy to arguments that progressives, at least, would have regarded as a continuation of the conservative tradition of old-style Indology. To understand how this strand of theorising could not only emerge but become so influential, and how Indian intellectuals could play so prominent a role in its dissemination, we must again contextualise the evolution of Southasian studies within the wider trajectory of the New Left in the United States after the 1960s. While the New Left may have failed to transform the basic assumptions guiding Southasia scholarship in Anglo-American universities, it did exercise an important indirect effect, by transforming the academic and cultural environment in which area studies functioned. In particular, it created a space in which intellectuals from the global South could wield real influence. In more favourable times, this probably would have given significant impetus to Marxist and class-based scholarship on US campuses. And, indeed, for a while it did; in some cases, it still does. But the timing was largely wrong for any such broad-based outcome.
The internationalisation of these fields came at a time when there was a newly enlarged space for scholars from the South, but when interest in class theory was also in rapid decline. Even more importantly, the left was putting more emphasis on culture-based analysis. This placed a filter on the kinds of Third World scholarship that elicited interest in the United States. The arrival of various new approaches (particularly subaltern studies, which focused on long-marginalised groups) did not, therefore, signal a continuation of the radical thrust of the 1970s. What it did, ironically, was legitimise and give a radical face to a body of literature that undermined class analysis.
One of the most important shifts in academia in the US took place during the 1960s and 1970s, when higher education suddenly became much more of a mass institution. In this context, new programmes were established focusing on ethnicity, gender, African-Americans, Latinos and the like. As such, area studies could not remain dominated by Anglo-US scholarship. By the 1980s, US scholars were actively including research coming out of the developing world – not just as ornamentation, but as an essential part of the scholarly universe. This opened up an important opportunity for the exploration of some of the extraordinary outpouring of scholarship, literary work and polemic from the postcolonial world. While these advances were real, they were structured by an underlying contradiction: as matters of social oppression were entering the academic mainstream, the concern with class and capitalism was beginning to wane.
This defeat of the working-class upsurge across the advanced capitalist world was critical to the evolution of the New Left. While the defeats of the working-class movement worldwide during the 1930s were followed by rightward shifts in political culture, the setbacks of the New Left during the 1970s were in many respects deeper. The upsurges of the first quarter of the loth century had, after all, left in their wake a panoply of socialist parties and class organisations, which provided the milieu in which radical intellectuals survived for much of the century. They served as conduits to the more radical sections of the labour movement, and immersed the intellectuals in an intensely charged culture outside of academic institutions.
In the case of the New Left, however, even this was not accomplished – its defeat was more complete, leaving no organisational legacy and hence no political milieu that could sustain its intellectual coherence. The environment that most directly shaped the evolution of New Left intellectuals, therefore, was the academy. Unlike the left of the past, intellectuals had little or no connection with actual working-class organisations, and what they saw of the movement was now in tatters. This set into motion a fairly natural process of de-radicalisation, which triggered a growing sense of disillusionment – first with the prospect of anti-capitalism movements, and later with the very idea of mass organising.
It was during the 1980s that the argument became increasingly popular within left circles that a major flaw in Marxist theorising was an overly optimistic take on class formation. Marx was considered guilty of assuming highly deterministic relationships between class structure and class formation – between classes as objective relations and classes as consciously organised groupings, fighting for their own interests. Such criticisms led to two reactions. First was a gathering pessimism, within the erstwhile left, about the salience of class analysis itself. Second was a turn to culture and discourse to explain the highly mediated relationship between class structure and class formation – an evolution that, over time, gave increasingly shorter shrift to the former. This wing of the New Left became the vanguard of the turn towards culturalism over time, and provided the seedbed for the growth of PSPC, both within area studies and without.
By the middle of the 1980s, the New Left had mostly been domesticated into academic culture. Class analysis was practiced only within a small slice of it, and this was an increasingly marginal component of the academic mainstream. This institutional environment created a mass base for what is now called ‘identity politics’ on campus. For students, a college education is a means of social mobility. Even though their origin may be in the working class, their aspirations are of a more elite nature. For those students who make it into college, the mere fact of social advancement serves to confirm central elements of the dominant ideology, which insists on the fluidity of social hierarchies, and the absence of structural constraints. The increased number of working-class students entering higher education – as they did in the US after the 1950s – would simply not generate a mass base for socialist ideas. On the other hand, while students coming to college are escaping from their class constraints, they continue to experience varieties of social discrimination, even in their new environment, around issues of identity. So, while college dilutes awareness of class exploitation, it often heightens sensitivity to one’s subordination on social lines. The result is to create a mass base for the study, and the critique, of non-class forms of domination. Yet the changed composition of the campus, in the context of the shifts in broader culture, meant that the retreat from class politics would not trigger a slide away from radicalism as such. Criticism of class domination would indeed find firm anchor in universities. So, as area studies came to include an increasing number of voices from the global South, scholars who found this political shift away from class most appealing were the ones who received the greatest attention. Simultaneously, as Anglo-American scholars looked to the South and sought out scholarship with which they could relate, there grew a natural affinity with approaches that eschewed a central focus on class, and even materialism altogether.
The arrival of subaltern studies
The discussion thus far has laid the basis for gaining a greater understanding of our main concern: how Southasian studies, as practiced in the United States, not only experienced a turn towards PSPC, but did so with scholars of Southasian origin playing a central role. The pressures against class, during this process, were complemented by a bias towards work that could be easily assimilated into the dominant trends in the field – an emphasis on culture-based frameworks.
What is remarkable about the importation of subaltern studies, primarily from India, into the United States is how influential this approach has been beyond Southasian studies. That it could do so is largely because the subaltern approach melded easily into the intellectual culture of area studies, and of disciplines in which area specialisations play an important part, especially history and anthropology. In some respects, the fact that Indian scholars experienced particular success in the new context was institutionally driven.
First, there was the mundane fact that, unlike much of the developing world, Indian intellectual production was carried out primarily in English. It was thus readily accessible, not just to specialists but to the far reaches of the academic community. This immediately distinguished it from, for instance, Latin American intellectual circles, which were producing extremely rich and textured scholarship that was largely out of reach to anyone lacking the necessary language skills in US academia. On top of this was the importance of pre-existing networks. Indian scholarship was already located in the social milieu of Anglo-American universities, not only by its existing connections with US academia, but also by its longstanding connections with
Cambridge, Oxford and London. This was a circuit that many US scholars already knew well, far more so than ones that went through, for instance, Dar es Salaam, Mexico City or Cairo – all of which were producing tremendous scholarship of their own at the time.
Of course, it was not just any Indian scholarship that benefited from these factors. If it had been only the institutional factors mentioned above that mattered, the import of scholarship from the Subcontinent would have been much more broadly based. But there was a flourishing school of Marxist historians and political economists in India who were not given anywhere near the same attention as were subaltern studies. Indeed, many of the same factors also applied to historical and political research being conducted in South Africa, but which, at the time, was strenuously Marxist in orientation. This latter section of work, if anything, ought to have resonated more powerfully in the United States, since the middle and late 1980s was a time when campuses across the country were humming with activism against the South African apartheid.
Perhaps the most important element favouring the patronage of work such as that of the Subaltern Studies Collective (made up of a group of Southasian scholars) was that it contained discussions that not only came out of a familiar institutional setting, but were also moving in a theoretical direction that was familiar and attractive to both the New Left and to the practitioners of Southasian studies. This is an important point to stress, because in the commentaries and reflections that are in circulation, the role played by the highly regarded Calcutta literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in promoting subaltem studies is given a great deal of attention. Spivak’s famous 1988 essay ‘Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography’, in the influential Subaltern Series of books, is now considered something of a watershed, and is often presented as the point when the subaltern studies made its entrance into the US scene. Spivak’s imprimatur is accorded significant responsibility for the subsequent success of subaltern studies, in that it acted as a stamp of approval to the broader post-Marxist discussions. But while Spivak’s influence cannot be denied, it also should not be exaggerated. What made her endorsement (and, later, that of Edward Said) of the Subaltern Series so effective was that, from the start, the series was crafted in a framework attractive to reigning sensibilities in area studies, both its left variant and its more traditional one.
The most important component of this framework was the influence of Antonio Gramsci, a founding member of the Communist Party of Italy. By the middle of the 1980s, two interpretations of Gramsci’s arguments were making the rounds, the second (and eventually more dominant) of which suggested that hegemony was grounded in the ruling class’s successful ideological or cultural indoctrination of subordinate groups. Those who adhered to this idea subsequently began to concentrate on the instruments of ideological production – literature, television, film, etc. This was also the approach that was (and continues to be) accepted by the Subaltern Collective – Gramsci was thought of as a theorist of ideology and culture, not of class struggle.
It is in this context that Spivak’s endorsement ought to be viewed. Her patronage was effective because the Subaltern Series was recognisable, and digestible, to the US audience. Without Spivak’s intervention, the series would have been read and admired, but probably as one of the several efforts at a ‘history from below’ that were ongoing at the time both in the global North and South – important and innovative, but not of particular interest to those beyond the specialist
community. From that point on, subaltern studies marched in lockstep with the New Left’s turn away from class analysis, and towards a wholesale embrace of post-Marxist theorising.
The emphasis on culture in the Subaltern Series also made this approach palatable to the more traditional wings of Southasia studies, which had been trained to view the Subcontinent through the prism of its culture and ideology. Traditionalist scholars had every reason to join up. Thus, the strenuously culturalist commitments of the Indian avant-garde gave it a natural resonance within Southasian studies in the United States (where traditionalist approaches had never been dislodged), while also providing a bridge into the broader New Left. It is plausible to suggest that, if the landscape had not been so barren of class analysis, the slide into PSPC would not have been so severe – as, indeed, it has not been in more radical wings of the area-studies universe. But Southasian studies turned out to be one of the few fields in which the radical and the not-so-radical wings of the field could converge on their hostility to class theory.
The Empire strikes back
It is hard to miss the fact that the decline of class analysis in the United States has been mirrored by a similar dynamic in Indian scholarship, as well. The culturalism and anti-Marxism of PSPC that have affected Southasian studies in the United States have become tremendously popular in academic settings in India. And here, too, we see a generational bubble similar to the one in the West. To the extent that class analysis and Marxism still survive, they do so mainly among intellectuals of the older generation, radicalised during the 1960s and after. Within the younger generation, the far more common orientation – especially in the humanities and anthropology – is firmly set in the direction of PSPC.
Class analysis in India, while certainly more visible than in the West, is unmistakably under stress, especially in elite universities. An immediate caveat is in order here, which also provides a clue to some of the sources behind Marxism’s decline. The turn away from class analysis has not spread across, or even through, most of the forums for intellectual production in the Subcontinent. In universities and settings outside the major metropolitan centres, Marxism continues to play a central role in political and cultural debate. Literary production still has a deep base in socialist traditions, especially in regional languages. Theoretical debates, too, continue to utilise class analysis in settings in which the English-speaking intelligentsia has not usurped the available space. Where class has made a visible retreat is in the English-speaking elite universities, located, for instance, in Delhi, Calcutta and Hyderabad. Even though Marxism has taken a beating in the elite Indian universities, it has not disappeared altogether. A respectable group of Marxists continues to persevere – not only in the social sciences, but also in cultural studies, the field in which, in the US, there has been the greatest retreat.
The basic causes behind the retreat of class in intellectual discourse in elite universities in India are twofold. First, there has been a fairly deep shift in the social environment of academia. And second, there has been a significantly deepened integration of elite academic life into the US orbit since the 1990s. The former weakened the Marxian impulse in Indian academic culture to the extent that, by the late 1980s, it was more hospitable to various types of post-Marxist theorizing. The latter, meanwhile, functioned to amplify these tendencies by inserting a large number of Indian academics into US academia, either as professors, visiting scholars or graduate students.
It is a remarkable fact that, for close to four decades, class analysis occupied a prominent place in elite academic production in India, even if it was not the dominant strain. Certainly, some institutional and political facts accounted for this state of affairs. There is no doubt that an ‘official’ commitment to socialism (even if it was, in reality, state capitalism) was an enabling
factor in the longevity of class analysis. For instance, Indira Gandhi’s decision to set up Jawaharlal Nehru University in the early 1970s, and to allow it an avowedly progressive mission, provided institutional support to radical scholarship. Even the official state discourse of egalitarianism, despite its obvious ideological functions, sustained an attention to class issues, and throughout the Nehru family’s rule, the state continued the fiction of being ‘socialist’ in some sense. This tilt within the state could only create the space for radical analysis, however; it could not determine scholarly quality or vitality. If it were only the state’s adoption of socialism that sustained the culture of class analysis, there would have been no reason to expect Indian Marxism to be any more creative or vital than the stultifying theoretical work that emanated from the Soviet Union, or which these days comes from China. The remarkable vitality of intellectual production on the left required fuel from independent sources. The main such source was the two eras of mass radicalisation that came with the wave of mobilisation before Independence, and then the resurgence of left struggles during the mid-1960s, in the wake of the Naxalbari uprising. Two generations of intellectuals were deeply affected by these movements, each of which had a predominant focus on class.
India during the 1970s thus joined the global melee that produced a whole new generation of radicals – and, in the Subcontinent, a new generation of Marxists. Indeed, this was probably the zenith of class analysis in Southasia. If Marxism ever approached dominance in the Subcontinent, it was probably during the heady decade of the 1970s, as the generation of 1947 was joined by the newer cohort of radicals from the turmoil of the post-Naxalbari late 1960s. This direct engagement with politics was amplified by more far-ranging factors, as well, chief among which was the tectonic shift occurring in world politics – most importantly, the epochal collapse of colonial empires.
And yet, a decade later, class analysis in the Subcontinent began its decline. In some ways, this is not altogether surprising. By the end of the 1980s, Marxism was in retreat not just in India, but across much of the world. Intellectual discourse was, by that point, being shaped by new forces that pushed class analysis to the background before marginalising it altogether. To some extent, it was only natural that Southasia scholarship should be pulled into this slipstream. What is noteworthy is how rapidly the change occurred among India scholars, and the particular intellectual trends that now became dominant. In a country such as the United States, where Marxism had never been anything but marginal in intellectual life before the 1970s, it was not unexpected that this kind of radical scholarship would wane over time, as the pull of social movements weakened. But given that Southasia scholarship, particularly coming out of India itself, had been so steeped in the language of class for four decades, its marginalisation merits greater examination.
Sources of decline
The past two decades have marked something of a watershed in modem India. In contrast to the four decades that preceded it, the period since the mid-198os has been a distinctly bad time for radicalising the Indian intelligentsia. To begin, economic liberalisation has, at least to this point, led to an increased conservatism on the part of the urban middle class. An expanding private sector, the opening up of consumer credit, the greater presence of multinationals looking for English-trained talent – all of these have ballooned the income of much of the middle class. And, as elsewhere, the cultural and political effects have rippled far beyond the incidence of actual material changes. One need only look to the extraordinary enthusiasm for liberalisation
in the English-language media to get some idea of the hostility that the middle class evinces toward the left, or towards any whiff of class mobilisation.
This broad cultural shift has only been exacerbated by the fate of political movements in India. It has now been more than 40 years since left movements of anywhere near the scope or longevity of the Naxalbari upheaval have emerged in India. Indeed, the mobilisations that have occurred have tended to make the urban middle class even more conservative: the emergence of Hindutva as a mass strategy of the Sangh Parivar in the 1990s, and the massive mobilisation against reservations imposed by the Mandal Commission are just two examples of this. Not surprisingly, the political culture within universities tilted visibly in a rightward direction during the 199os. Although for some intellectuals, especially younger ones, the open chauvinism of Hindutva, and the sheer mendacity with which so much of the middle class attacked the Mandal Commission, served as a source of politicisation, it should be conceded that political energy during the 1990s emanated from the right. And what radicalisation was there was not aimed in the direction of class politics per se, but rather at the thin edge of fascism that seemed to be beginning to bare its teeth in Indian politics.
By the late 1980s, it was already possible to see an increasing prominence of various post-Marxist strands of theorising in Indian academia. What gave this movement explosive force, however, was a handful of institutional facts about elite academic life in India. Chief among these was a deepened integration of Delhi, Calcutta and a few other cities into US academic life. It is important to stress, again, the specificity of the US connection, so as to avoid characterising this process as an assimilation into the West in general.
Indian intellectuals had been integrated into Western academic life for a very long time, only the main conduit had, for obvious reasons, always been the United Kingdom. But then, there were two changes that came about during the 1990s. The first was a basic reorientation, with a relative shift away from England in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s assault on higher education in the UK, following which US universities rapidly jumped to pre-eminence in the developed world, especially for graduate instruction. It is thus no surprise that Indian intellectual production, too, shifted its frame of reference increasingly to US shores. This was accelerated by the success of subaltern studies, and the pre-eminent positions of people such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in US academia. Indeed, Southasians were experiencing very real success in academia, and even enjoyed some measure of influence in setting academic fashions.
The second change was the apparent increase in the number of Indians gaining experience within the US academic scene. Over the course of the 1990s and thereafter, there was a noticeable increase in the number of Indian scholars in Southasian studies in the US. Over the past few years, a steady stream of anthropologists and historians from Indian universities has likewise settled into permanent positions in the United States. Others continue to cycle through, either as half-time professors or visiting scholars. In addition, over the past decade alone, there have been initiatives to reinvigorate or launch entirely new Southasia centres and departments. This has been paralleled by an impulse to look very seriously at scholars from Southasia or of such descent. The current receptivity toward Indian academics can also be traced to the changed demographic situation on US campuses, in particular the greater cosmopolitanism of intellectual culture. All the while, this dynamic has had the effect of further weakening class analysis – strengthening PSPC.
While it is widely recognised that the spread of neoliberal ideas into policy circles in the global South has been aided by the growing importance of US universities in the training of their economists, it is surely plausible that the powerful presence of PSPC theory in US humanities is also being transmitted to the South through similar channels. The fact that Indian postcolonial theorists have been most successful in elite US universities has given them significant influence over the direction of future research, including in India. Western-trained PhD students in Delhi or Calcutta or Bombay are thus, in increasing numbers, the next generation of PSPC theorists. The result of this process of integration is that a circuit has been created, linking centres of Southasia scholarship in the United States with elite universities in India. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that some key concepts of PSPC have been developed by this stratum – regarding migration, ‘hybridity’, diasporas and the like.
These effectively convey the intellectuals own conditions of existence. In the United States, as well as in India, the past two decades have been a time of a rightward political drift, based on a balance of political power that has tilted massively toward dominant classes. In both countries, anti-capitalist movements have become weaker (and just about nonexistent in the US case) hence greatly diluting the social milieu that has historically served both to sustain Marxist intellectuals, as well as to ensure generational reproduction. The United States witnessed a fundamental shift in the locus of Marxist theorising – away from a directly political environment, which had been the historical hub for the left, and into academia, where the left had hitherto been a marginal presence. This shift played an important role for the fate of class analysis in Southasian studies, as it did for scholarship across the spectrum. There has been an internal momentum toward a radicalism of sorts, but one that is strongly culturalist in approach. In the context of Southasia scholarship, it has resulted first off in the emergence of various forms of post-Marxisms as the reigning form of anti-colonial or anti-imperialist critique.
The penetration of these theoretical fashions into the Indian scene has been more limited, but real nonetheless, propelled by an institutional mechanism: the increasing integration of intellectuals from elite universities into the US orbit, and the waves of students that have followed in their wake. It is widely recognised that the spread of neoliberal ideas into policy circles in the global South has been aided by the growing importance of US universities in the training of their economists. It is surely plausible that the powerful presence of PSPC theory in US humanities should also be transmitted to the South through similar channels. There is no reason to expect any of this to change in the foreseeable future. In the past, it has taken deep and enduring mass upheavals for a significant cross-section of middle-class intellectuals to turn toward anti-capitalist ideas and class theorising. The way things stand now, the most realistic prognosis is that the visibility of class analysis will decline even further in the next decade or so, as the remnants of the New Left become less active or productive. Once the generational shift is complete to those academics who completed their training during the 1990s and later, the landscape will only get more barren and more hostile to all but the most token nods to class. On the brighter side, it is also likely that, at least in the United States, there will be a turn towards a greater place for materialist analysis, since Southasian studies is finally recovering from its flight out of the social sciences. This does not, of course, betoken a return to class, but at least it will mean a relative de-emphasis on culturalism as the reigning framework for scholarship.
~This essay was first published in our April 2008, based on a paper published by the writer in the December 2006 issue of the journal Critical Asian Studies.
~Vivek Chibber is a professor of sociology at New York University. He developed the argument made in this essay in his 2013 book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital.
~Also read this essay by Aditya Nigam who argues class-versus-identity politics debate misses the complexities of lived experiences.