Review of Subaltern Studies (2001)

First posted June 23, 2014.

Reposted here in memory of Ranajit Guha (23 May 1923 – 23 April 2023). RIP Ranjitda

NB: This was written for the International Encyclopaedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences, 2001 edition. I had erroneously dated it in 2002). The review may also be read online here

An Indian school of historiography whose inspiration lay in the Maoist movement of the 1970’s, and whose raison d’etre has been the critique of the perceived elitist bias of Indian nationalist discourse in history writing. Since 1983, when the first volume appeared, Subaltern Studies have produced ten volumes of collected research articles, which comprise the main corpus. After the appearance of SS 6, a collective has managed editorial work. Individual members of the collective have also written texts which exemplify the “subaltern” viewpoint.

The school was founded by Ranajit Guha, a Marxist intellectual from Bengal. Once a member of the Communist Party of India, Guha was influenced by the radicalism of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the late 1960’s to align himself with Indian Maoism, which characterized independent India as a semi-feudal and semi-colonial state. Arguably, the project’s impetus derived from an effort to establish the truth of this proposition – “the price of blindness about the structure of the colonial regime as a dominance without hegemony has been, for us, a total want of insight into the character of the successor regime too as a dominance without hegemony” (Guha, SS 6, 1989, p 307) However, Subaltern Studies has changed a great deal since then. Ranajit Guha is acknowledged by the collective to be its intellectual driving force and edited the first six volumes. He is also the author of Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, recognised as a seminal work in the genre of radical Indian historiography.

Subaltern Studies began with an attempt to apply the approach known as “history from below” in the Indian context. The term subaltern was inspired by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, and is used to indicate powerlessness in a society wherein class differentiation, urbanization and industrialization had proceeded very slowly. Gramsci is the source of the subalternist respect for “culture” and the “fragment” in history writing. Subaltern Studies was also influenced by the critical Marxism of the English historian E.P. Thompson, who attempted to move beyond economistic definitions of class interest, as well as by Foucauldian critiques of power/knowledge systems. Its (earlier) Maoist orientation and polemical concern with the nationalism of Indian colonial elites made for a slant toward the investigation of peasant rebellion under colonial rule as well as peasant recalcitrance vis-à-vis Gandhian nationalism and the Indian National Congress.

Initially overtly political in its stance, Subaltern Studies was popular among young Indian historians and scholars of modern India abroad as a radical alternative to an uncritical academic  celebration of Independence. The Indian national movement was seen as a failed hegemonic project (Sen, SS 5, 1987; Guha, SS 6 & 7; 1989 & 1993). Following Guha’s investigation of elementary forms of insurgent peasant consciousness, the school attracted the hostility of the Indian Marxist establishment for being “idealist” (see Chakravarty, SS 4, 1985) – a sign that it had departed from economic reductionism. In a society where cultural symbols play an important role in everyday life as well as in political mobilisation, this was a fruitful departure, necessary for comprehending phenomena such as charismatic leadership and communal conflict. (see for example, the contributions of Amin, Pandey and Hardiman in SS 2, 1983, and SS 3, 1984, as well as their books) It has since expanded “beyond the discipline of history” to engage “with more contemporary problems and theoretical formations” (SS 9, 1998, Preface). These include the politics of identity and literary deconstruction. The shift in the 1990’s was marked by the interest shown in the project by literature scholars and critics such as Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. The analysis of discourse has since become a major preoccupation for  subalternist research.

It would be wrong to adduce a uniformity of vision in the output of Subaltern Studies over the years. The explicit, if unorthodox Marxian bent of its “history from below” phase has been superseded by a recent preoccupation with community, rural innocence and cultural authenticity. The epistemological  approval of the Leninist “outsider” as the bearer of “higher” revolutionary consciousness (Choudhury, SS 5, 1987) sits in unresolved tension with the oft-expressed critique of elitism and statism in historiography (Pandey, SS 8, 1994), and the belief in the immanence of culturally mediated forms of universal community (Partha Chatterjee, SS 6, 1989). A thematic that persists however, is the opposition of two “domains” –  that of the elite, meaning the colonial state and its allies, and their forms of politics, knowledge and power; versus the subaltern. The latter has been variously interpreted as the peasantry, community, locality and traditional domesticity and distinguished by its resistance to colonisation. The difficulty caused by the problem of mass complicity has been dealt with by valorising the recalcitrance of “fragments”.

The subalternist stance of giving voice to the repressed elements of South Asian history has engendered valuable research. A prominent example is Shahid Amin’s meticulous and thought-provoking investigation of the prolonged aftermath of the (in)famous Chauri Chaura riot of 1922, which resulted in the death of 22 policemen, the suspension of the first non-cooperation movement, and the subsequent punishment by hanging of nineteen accused rioters. (SS 5, 1987, and OUP, 1995). This unravelling of “an event which all Indians, when commemorating the nation, are obliged to remember – only in order to forget”, relentlessly juxtaposes event to nationalist metaphor and existential reality to ideological representation. It will remain an outstanding text in the subalternist corpus. Pandey’s intricate account of cow-protection movements in eastern India in late 19th century exposes the interplay of symbolism, class-interest and public space. This path-breaking essay in the pre-history of communal politics (SS 2, 1983), along with his writings on the “construction” of communalism in colonial India (SS 6, 1989, OUP, 1990) has contributed significantly to a raging historical debate. 

Guha’s own Chandra’s Death (SS 5, 1987) skilfully uses a legal narrative from mid-nineteenth century Bengal to analyse the workings of patriarchal culture and indigenous justice with great sensitivity to the existential predicament of ‘low-caste’ women. In a brilliant passage, Guha qualifies a description of conventional systems of asylum thus, “this other dominance did not rely on the ideology of Brahmanical Hinduism or the caste system for its articulation. It knew how to bend the relatively liberal ideas of Vaishnavism and its loose institutional structure for its own ends, demonstrating thereby that for each element in a religion which responds to the sigh of the oppressed there is another to act as an opiate” (SS 5, p. 159).

Subaltern Studies’ concern with issues of ideological hegemony elicits a questioning of the school’s own theoretical tensions. The juxtaposition of statist versus subalternist history; or the tyrannical march of Western-inspired universals versus the resistance/ occlusion of heroic subalterns expresses a view of a society divided into discrete social zones – with a concomitant oversight regarding the osmosis between these “domains”. The idea that contemporary history encompasses a grand struggle between the narratives of Capital and Community;  that the latter is the truly subversive element in modern society – “community, which ideally should have been banished from the kingdom of capital, continues to lead a subterranean, potentially subversive life within it because it refuses to go away” – (Partha Chatterjee, OUP, 1997, p. 236), raises the question of why ‘class’ has been demoted from the estate of subalternity, even though it too refuses to go away. In an era wherein the assertion of community is rapidly transiting from the realm of peasant insurgency to that of mass-produced identity, might not “community” actually function as the necessary metaphysic of Capital rather than its unassimilable Other?

The tensions extend beyond theory to that of discursive choice and indeed, silence. The political success of the movement for Pakistan for example, the transformation in this case, of “communalism” into “nationalism” has not been investigated despite Guha’s pointers (SS 6, 1992, p. 304, and SS 7, 1994, p 99-100), and despite the urgent need for reflection on the Indian communists’ transitory but significant support in the 1940’s for the two-nation theory and Partition. Nor has the subsequent history of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh been addressed – a rich field for those interested in the ever-shifting paradigms of nationhood and identity in South Asia. Has subalternist thinking confined itself ideologically within the fragmentary remainder of 1947? 

Similarly, the category of labour and the history of the working class is absent from the main corpus of research after Chakrabarty’s publications on the jute-mill workers of Calcutta (SS 2, 1983; SS 3, 1984 and OUP, 1989). Nor would it appear from this fleeting passage of workers through the subalternist corpus, that the national movement and nationalism had any impact on them. Despite insightful commentaries by Partha Chatterjee on Gandhian ideology (SS 3, 1984, and Zed/OUP, 1986) and Amin’s work on Chauri Chaura, the widespread popular appeal of Gandhi and his ahimsa remains an under-examined theme. The scholar who tires of negativity and is looking for answers on the role of charisma might find emotional sustenance as well as food for thought in an essay by Dennis Dalton, entitled “Gandhi During Partition” (C.H. Philips & M.D. Wainright, ed., The Partition of India, Allen and Unwin, 1970). Dalton is neither a historian nor a subalternist.

This lacuna co-exists with a reluctance to tackle the history of the communist movement, within India or internationally. Given its founder’s abiding interest in the failure of radical historiography to produce a “principled and comprehensive, (as against eclectic and fragmentary) critique of the indigenous bourgeoisie’s universalist pretensions”(Guha, SS 6, 1989, p 307), it would have been intellectually appropriate for him to address the history and historiographical practice of the movement to which he owed theoretical inspiration. The subalternist antipathy towards what is perceived as the representational pretension of the Gandhian Congress, its habit of translating a constricted, bourgeois aspiration into a nationalist universal (see Guha, “Discipline and Mobilize” SS 7, 1993), elicits a query about the political practice of the “true representatives” of the workers and peasants. Guha can hardly be faulted for polemical shyness – and this makes Subaltern Studies’ sustained avoidance of  “principled and comprehensive” research on the fractious and tragic meanderings of Indian communism quite remarkable. The observations on Guha’s own political trajectory (Biographical Sketch, SS 8, 1994) which refer to his disillusionment with the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and to his association with Maoist students in Delhi University in 1970-71, throw no light on the nature and content of his theoretical transformation. 

These are not mere matters of biographical detail. They are linked to vital historical questions on Bolshevism and its impact on anti-colonial struggles in the 20th century, and not just in India. The fact that Subaltern Studies have carried the occasional essay on non-Indian societies, implies that the project of exposing elitist bias and ideological camouflage has been (notionally at least) thrown open to cross-national debate. Yet its sole addressal of Leninism in seventeen years takes the form of a theoretical apology (SS 5, 1987) without raising the matter of political hegemonism and subalternity in the USSR, initiatives “from below” in the Russian Revolution or the impact of Stalinism on the international communist movement.

As a discursive field Subaltern Studies has produced provocative research on the history of colonial India and of late, into more recent developments. It has been a forum for fresh scholarship on a variety of themes, ranging from “low” caste and “tribal” peasant insurgency, middle class ideologies of nationalism, prison life, disciplinary structures under colonialism to the politics of liquor, the significance of myth, and interpretations of “bondage”. It has also contributed important theoretical reflections on questions of nationalism, colonial science, caste, gender and identity. This includes an evaluation of the historiographical antecedents of Hinduttva or majoritarian nationalism (Partha Chatterjee, SS 8, 1994), a critique of colonial penology (Arnold, SS 8, 1994), a commentary on recent developments in Indian feminism (Tharu and Niranjana SS 9, 1996), research on concubinage and female domestic slavery (Indrani Chatterjee, SS 10, 1999) and an epistemological analysis of colonial ethnography (K. Ghosh, SS 10). 

The inquisitive scholar will also find it worthwhile to read a critique of the school written by an erstwhile member of the collective. Sarkar’s essay “The Decline of the Subaltern in Subaltern Studies” ( OUP, 1998) challenges what he considers to be its valorisation of the indigenous, its “enshrinement of sentimentality”, and the shift in its polemical target from capitalist and colonial exploitation to Enlightenment rationality. A  caveat might also be entered on the status of any scholarly claim to “represent” the voice, interest or agency of a preferred Subject – the historian’s discipline may indeed never be free of bias, but surely it must be as committed to the ideal of truth-as-the-whole, and balance, as to polemic. 

Be that as it may, Subaltern Studies has raised the level of debate in Indian historiography – the corpus may be critiqued, but certainly not ignored. It has had an impact on the orientation of many scholars, within and outside the discipline of history, and beyond the frontiers of India. Whether it will retain its original radical impetus by engaging boldly with questions posed by its own practice and the rapidly changing social and political environment in the post-Soviet global order remains to be seen.


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In Naxalbari, forty-eight years later

Democracy and workers’ movements – stories from Jamshedpur

Strike-breaking or the Refusal of Subalternity? Ethnicity, Class & Gender in Chota Nagpur: The Tatanagar Foundry Strike of 1939

1938: the year Indian workers fought for themselves

The Currency of Sentiment: An Essay on Informal Accumulation in Colonial India