Subaltern Studies:
Hegemony and Speech


by

Tabish Khair

University of Copenhagen, Denmark


Copyright © 2001 by Tabish Khair, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.


Review of:

Vinayak Chaturvedi (Ed.). Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial. London: Verso, 2000. (364 pp.)


  1. In The Dematerialisation of Karl Marx, Leonard Jackson proposes the sustainable argument that the European Left has abandoned its economic-materialist grounds in recent decades and that these grounds have been taken over by the Right in general (with conservative consequences). The trajectory of this abandonment can be traced to current uses of Gramsci and Bakhtin. I would stress the word 'uses', for there is much in Gramsci and Bakhtin that is dialectical-materialist and there is also much awareness of economic realities in their, particularly Gramsci's, writings. However, the texts (and terms) that reveal the 'orthodox' Marxism of these authors are almost always the texts that are obscured in favour of that which can be read largely on the symbolic levels. Even here, however, what is done with the texts - and terms -- is significant.

  2. Take, for example, the two terms most closely associated with the work of Gramsci today: 'subaltern' and 'hegemony.' It is clear that, used in an isolated manner, these terms may permit a less economic-materialist interpretation of the world we live in than, say, Gramsci's distinction between types of intellectuals. However, even these terms can be read in a more Marxist (dialectical materialist) manner if one recalls, for example, the context in which Gramsci formulated them. For instance, 'subaltern' was largely a term employed in place of 'proletariat' by Gramsci with the express purpose of evading prison censors.

  3. Finally, even when it comes to these two terms, it can be argued that 'subaltern' has much more visibility today than 'hegemony'. The very title of Prabhat Patnaik's book, Whatever Happened to Imperialism, poses a relevant question in this context. For hegemony as it is often used today has been so dissipated into 'small' spaces of analysis or so often confined to the symbolic realm that the grid of economic-material exploitation on which the capitalist world runs tends to be left unexposed. In the context of the book under review that might be the question to ask: does the fact that 'subaltern' has continued to eclipse 'proletariat' in the absence of prison censors not denote the hegemony of mindsets very close to those of the prison censors? In other words, is Subaltern Studies the great enabling project that it is often considered to be or is it a contingency and an index of the de-radicalisation of the Left not only in Europe but also in privileged academic circles elsewhere?

  4. To pose this question, however, is not to dismiss the work published under the rubric of Subaltern Studies but to see it in its social and intellectual context. This context is ably etched in Vinayak Chaturvedi's introduction to Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial. As Chaturvedi notes, "At the end of the 1970s, Ranajit Guha - the founding editor of Subaltern Studies -- and a group of young historians based in Britain embarked on a series of discussions about the contemporary state of South Asian historiography. From the onset, the underlying principle which united the group -- Shahid Amin, David Arnold, Partha Chatterjee, David Hardiman and Gyanendra Pandey -- was a general dissatisfaction with the historical interpretations of the 'Freedom Movement' in India which celebrated elite contributions in the making of the Indian nation while denying 'the politics of the people'. At one level, the idea of Subaltern Studies was conceived as a historiographical 'negation' of both a rigidly formulaic 'orthodox' Marxism and the 'Namierism' of the Cambridge School in Britian, both of which failed to account for the dynamic and improvisational mode of peasant political agency."

  5. The above outline of the genesis of the movement exposes both its basic strengths and its most glaring weaknesses. The strengths are obvious: a bid to fill in important methodological and historiographical gaps and to question the rigidities of Marxism and dominant schools of academic historiography. Subaltern Studies has admirably discharged these self-imposed responsibilities, producing in the process a series of excellent studies and leading to the exegesis of texts and times overlooked by most (but by no means all) previous historians. In the process, Subaltern Studies has also provided (or, rather, made more visible) productive ways of looking at larger issues: for example, subaltern/peasant violence as an agential rather than an irrational act.

  6. The weaknesses, however, have to be teased out from the above extract. Perhaps the most evident is the fact that, to begin with, Subaltern Studies used the term 'subaltern' to stand largely for the peasantry without really making clear the relationship of the peasantry to the proletariat. In the process, the proletarian seems often to disappear from Subaltern Studies texts, thus replicating the disappearance of the 'proletariat' from Leftist discourses in the First World -- a disappearance that combined the often elitist compact between national unions and capitalists in North and West Europe with the gradual elision of the fact, visible to George Orwell in the 1930s, that most of the proletariat of Europe lives not in Europe but in Asia and Africa.

  7. The other weakness that can be teased out of the above extract relates to the positioning of the Subalternists. Perhaps the main difference between the way Gramsci used 'subaltern' and the way in which Subalternists often do can be understood in this context. For Gramsci, subaltern groups were by definition always subject to the authority of ruling groups, even when they rose in rebellion. However, for Ranajit Guha subaltern politics in colonial India constituted an "autonomous domain" which did not originate in or depend on the domain of ruling groups. The fact that Guha and most Subalternists are writing against the backdrop of colonisation helps understand the compulsion behind this difference. This is a matter both subjective and objective. Subjectively, it is easier for an Italian scholar to accept that Italian subalterns have always been by definition comprehensively under the thumb of the Italian ruling classes. It is much more difficult -- and problematic -- for an Indian scholar to accept that Indian subalterns have always been under the thumb of their colonial (European) rulers. The later thesis is also objectively problematic -- for, given the greater cultural differences and lack of cultural hegemony, colonised Indians may often appear to form an 'autonomous domain' from, say, colonising Englishmen. But are (were) these 'autonomous domains' subaltern or were they subaltern in the British-colonial context but actually hegemonised by various Indian elites? If the latter was often the case, one can begin to understand why many strands of Subalternist thought seem so close to the discourse of the Hindu-nationalist BJP.

  8. In his seminal essay, 'On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India' (included in the book under review), Ranajit Guha speaks of "the failure of the Indian bourgeoisie to speak for the nation." Even a scholar like Guha, who is aware of this fact and more 'Marx-influenced' than some other Subalternists, commits the mistake of assuming (in this essay) that the bourgeoisie can speak for the 'nation'. The national bourgeoisie always fails to speak for the 'nation' (if the 'nation' is considered synonymous with the 'people') for it is always in the process of constituting the people into a nation in its own image. The bourgeoisie speaks the nation -- yes, even today, as one can see in the relationship supposedly 'free' American capital has to the US and vice versa. It is only when Capitalist hegemony has enabled the bourgeoisie to speak a particular nation that it starts appearing that the bourgeoisie of a particular country "speaks for" that 'nation'. In a place like India - where Capitalist hegemony is still not complete -- it will often appear that the bourgeoisie does not speak for the nation. But if that is simply a failure then the only success can be a complete Capitalist hegemony.

  9. Perhaps this, then, helps account for the relative disappearance of 'hegemony' noted at the start of this review.

  10. Having said this, one has to add that Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postclonial not only reproduces or includes excellent essays by such core Subalternists as Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, David Arnold and Gyan Pandey, but also some interesting critiques by, among others, C. A. Bayly and Sumit Sarkar. Both the essays and critiques expose the Subaltern project as an important, diverse and intellectually (though not necessarily socially) enabling one. Among other things, the collection helps trace the trajectory of recent Subaltern Studies texts moving further away from Marxism, with Subalternists arguing both for and against the movement. This well-produced anthology concludes with an illuminating and surprisingly coherent paper by that Subalternist who is not a Subalternist who is a Subalternist who..., Gayatri Spivak. At times some of the debates -- for example, Rosalind O'Hanlon and David Washbrook vs Gyan Pandey -- start sounding a bit like a tiring family argument, but in general it is a collection that any serious student of Postcolonial Studies, History and Cultural Studies should have on her shelves. For those who, by some fluke, have not yet heard of Subaltern Studies and are not willing to read all the XI published volumes (the first 10 by Oxford University Press, Delhi, and the latest by the new and exciting Delhi publishing house, Permanent Black), this anthology will provide the perfect introduction and overview.


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