Provincializing Marxism: Vivek Chibber and the Specter of Subaltern Studies

Provincializing Marxism: Vivek Chibber and the Specter of Subaltern Studies[1]
Noaman G. Ali

Vivek Chibber’s trenchant criticisms of the Subaltern Studies school of Indian historiography in Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (2013) have justifiably attracted considerable attention. Marxist critiques of postcolonial theory have a long pedigree, but at least since the 1990s they have been somewhat defensive in orientation. Buoyed by the emergence of mass movements in North Africa and in the West, Chibber seeks to present his contribution as a decisive blow.

Aside from the question of criticism, the engagement between Chibber and the Subaltern Studies project (SS) should also reignite debates within Marxism. At one point, Chibber describes SS’s Marxism as that of a “particular kind [that] would scarcely be recognized by many contemporary Marxists” (10).[2] Chibber refers specifically to SS’s supposed “amalgam of liberal and Marxist elements” and the resulting “Whiggish interpretation” of modernity that glorifies the role of the bourgeoisie, but he is actually making deeper claims about Marxism as a whole, that are not only analytical but also normative. This, too, is worth interrogating.

Chibber’s criticisms of SS hinge on what he describes as their “historical sociology,” that is, the ways in which they compare the development of capitalism in India and in Europe. If the SS argument is that the “structure of modernity in the East is so different from its structure in the West that the categories developed out of the European experience cannot possibly be adequate for analyzing the East” then, Chibber suggests, the converse must also hold. He therefore isolates SS’s analysis of the “structure of modernity” to three operative variables, “the nature of their bourgeoisie, the power relations in place, and the subaltern groups’ motivational structure.” If these can be shown to be similar in Europe and in India, then “theories emerging from the European experience may capture the basic structure of Eastern development” (23).

Bourgeois revolutions

The next four chapters are an attempt to rebut the historical sociology of SS through an examination of Ranajit Guha’s Dominance without Hegemony (1997). Guha appears to argue that the bourgeoisies in Europe acquired the consent of subaltern populations in order to attack feudalism; the Indian bourgeoisie, however, accommodated precapitalist structures and made no such coalition with the subaltern, which remains excluded from elite political culture. To refute him, Chibber describes in “excessive” detail so-called bourgeois revolutions in England and France. He shows that the English revolution was not actually a bourgeois revolution, because all of the elites were already bourgeois and there was no feudalism to contest; and moreover, in the internecine fighting all factions of the bourgeoisie wanted to avoid popular participation, until it simply could not be avoided at all, pushing reformist factions to become more revolutionary. Similarly, the French revolution was not actually a bourgeois revolution because there were few, if any, capitalists involved and feudalism persisted until several decades later. As in England, the reformist factions avoided popular participation until it was unavoidable; the intervention of the popular masses pushed reformists to revolution.

Chibber makes the important point that Guha’s critique of European liberal historiography is not penetrating enough, because the bourgeoisies were never as revolutionary or progressive as they portray themselves—a view that Guha does not seem to challenge. In fact, Chibber argues, no bourgeoisie willingly attacks landed property, whether in Prussia, Russia, or Korea. The Indian bourgeoisie therefore does not appear to be so exceptional in its venality and timidity, or in its unwillingness to incorporate the subaltern classes. Guha’s “premise that postcolonial India deviated fundamentally from the norm established by early modern Western Europe is thus quite dubious” (90). Except that it is not.

Chibber reduces Guha’s test for whether capitalism has universalized to whether bourgeois culture is hegemonic. He then seeks to provide an alternative definition of the universalization of capitalism to prove that capital has, indeed, universalized (109). Yet, even a summary reading of Guha shows that he sees the universalization of capitalism as a more total phenomenon than just the political-cultural. Guha argues, rightly or wrongly, that capitalism does not universalize in India because the colonial state harnesses rather than abolishes semi-feudal practices of mobilizing labour, which generates a logic quite distinct from that of free wage-labour; these are tied in with semi-feudal practices, institutions and theories of power that are maintained and pressed into the service of colonial rule, rather than dissolved or fundamentally transformed. For him the absence of a hegemonic bourgeois culture is as much the symptom of the failure of capital to universalize as the failure of capitalism to subjugate and transform antecedent modes of production, as it appears to have done to a significant degree in Europe.[3]

Indeed, if, as Chibber argues, the English revolution did not need to involve any compromises with feudalism because feudalism was already done away with, then there certainly was a “feudalism” (or whatever one wants to call it) to contend with upon independence in India. Or if, as Chibber argues, the French revolution laid the basis for a dynamic agrarian base some fifty years later, then subaltern struggles in India both led to and arose from a kind of bifurcation of the agrarian economy into a small dynamic capitalist sector and a much larger, stagnant field that sits rather uneasily, at least in our analyses, with broader capitalist development. In other words, one could well argue that the “structure of modernity” in India deviates quite fundamentally from the “norm.”

Chibber deals with these questions by redefining what it is that capitalism is supposed to universalize. Not social relations of production or power, he argues, but rather, market-dependence is universalized. What is market-dependence, exactly? It appears to be when “economic agents” face the “imperative to survive in the market” and to “focus single-mindedly on accumulating ever more capital” (112). In redefining the matter in these terms, Chibber asserts that the “tension with the historical record disappears” (125). Yet, Chibber is not clear on who economic agents are, on what capitalist social relations are, and on how capital is supposed to be accumulated—market-dependence of sorts can be found in different modes of production (indeed, in precolonial India). This leaves out concepts like the forces of production and the relations of production, labour power and surplus value. Do these concepts, as Guha suggests, have something to do with the universalization of capitalism?

Guha’s reasoning may be inadequate or might focus in excessive detail on political culture and the role of the bourgeoisie, but the premise that “postcolonial India deviated fundamentally from the norm” is not necessarily dubious. What is dubious is Chibber’s assertion that “No gulf separates the rise of the European bourgeoisie from that of its Indian descendants. The political and social vision of capital in its European incarnation was fairly similar to the vision that shaped its course in India” (109). European capital did not emerge from under foreign colonial domination in an era of imperialism. One would think there is some kind of gulf here, and Chibber would be on far stronger ground if he were to think through its implications for political culture and provide an alternative narrative to that of Guha’s.

For instance, the argument could very well be made that Guha’s attempt to ground all indigenous idioms of power in concepts from texts like the Laws of Manu (!) is very dubious. This imputes to Indian discourses an air of static essentialism, insulated from the historical and material developments of, say, Mughal Islam or polities grounded in relatively more vernacular classes and idioms like those of the Sikhs and Marathas. This also forces us to think through claims about the gap between the two domains of politics that Guha identifies, and which are taken in further directions by Dipesh Chakrabarty and Partha Chatterjee. However, this is not a line of critique Chibber appears to be interested in.

Forms of power

In Chapters 5 and 8, Chibber criticizes some of Chakrabarty’s later formulations on the basis of his earlier work in Rethinking Working-Class History (1989). In Chapter 5, Chibber’s point is that “if it can be shown that interpersonal coercion is perfectly consistent with capitalist employment relations, then we will be forced to reject these conclusions, in which case, the history of power—of this kind—can indeed be assimilated into the ‘narrative of capital.’” (109).

Chibber sets out to demonstrate theoretically and historically that capitalists will happily rely on interpersonal domination; indeed, that they need to rely on domination in the process of production, in order to extract greater surplus-value. It is irrelevant, theoretically and historically, whether this is absolute surplus-value or relative surplus-value; capitalists use domination. Similarly, Chibber briefly demonstrates that capitalists need not obliterate social hierarchies but can and do make use of them, or that such hierarchies and divisions can be intensified and reinforced in interaction with the structural conditions of capitalist competition. (Chibber veers unnecessarily into functionalism and economic reductionism when he argues that billionaires in India or in the United States will fund religious institutions in order to ensure the stability of norms of deference. He does not substantiate this claim with any evidence.)

However, it is not clear what Chibber is trying to refute here, because he is not really contradicting any argument that Chakrabarty makes in his book. Chakrabarty says at the outset:

Capitalist production—whether resulting in development or underdevelopment—has thrived in a variety of cultures, ranging from the hierarchical to the most democratic one. Perhaps we have long overestimated capitalism’s need or capacity to homogenize the cultural conditions necessary for its own reproduction. (Chakrabarty 1989, xiii)

Chibber appears to miss that Chakrabarty is trying to engage a set of texts from Karl Marx’s Grundrisse and Capital concerning the relationship between base and superstructure, between capitalism’s universalizing drive and the kinds of political culture it is supposed to give rise to, but that it faces barriers to its universalization in both precapitalist relations and in the logic of its own development.[4] It’s not so much the narrative of the universalization of capitalism that Chakrabarty is concerned with (indeed, he acknowledges it) so much as the narrative of the universalization of culture and consciousness that are supposed to be an integral subset of the “narrative of capital.”

Indeed, while Chibber’s formalistic exposition of power relations and capitalist production is appreciably brief, it falters when he thinks of non-Western power relations outside of the factory in terms of European social democratic theory. “The fear of being sacked is perhaps the main inducement felt by workers to submit to [the capitalist’s] authority and his demands,” and as a result, Chibber asserts, capitalists are “wary of measures that decrease their workers’ dependence on their waged work—hence business groups’ often intense resentment of the decommodification of sundry goods by the welfare state” (120).

How does this translate to the non-West? There is a rather extensive literature of how colonial capitalism maintains rather than decreases the proletarian’s ties to the land precisely in order to depress the value of labour-power and thereby increase the rate of exploitation. How was this peasant, not separated from the land, induced to offer his/her labour to the capitalist? How did the preservation of semi-feudal or peasant production influence forms of power and relations of culture? What relation does this have to the kinds of coercion of labour in Europe and the U.S. that Chibber describes in detail? How does that challenge Chakrabarty’s broader argument? These kinds of concerns are set aside by Chibber.

Subaltern motivations

In Chapter 8, Chibber seeks to criticize the notion that non-Western subalterns have a unique “psychological disposition.” Chibber argues that Chakrabarty claims that subaltern groups are not motivated by defense of their interests, but rather by valuation of community, honour, religion and so on. Chakrabarty argues that Indian workers do not adhere to “bourgeois consciousness,” a term that, Chibber claims, Chakrabarty does not define (179). Yet, Chakrabarty does not use the term “bourgeois consciousness” in his book, and he is not particularly concerned with “psychology” as such. Chakrabarty writes of “hegemonic bourgeois culture,” which he describes in the Introduction, and he frames his discussions around contrasting workers’ consciousness to that one might expect to find in the English bourgeois culture described by Marx and E.P. Thompson.

Let us expand upon the question that Chakrabarty is asking: If needs are something that are universal to all culture, which he agrees that they are, then they cannot explain the specificity and inner logic of cultures, from which people derive the meaning that motivates their actions. Why would a Brahmin take on more debt than he needs merely in order to keep up appearances? The broader theoretical question that Chakrabarty asks emerges from engaging E.P. Thompson’s work, where the latter states that the “Industrial Revolution … [was] imposed, not upon raw material, but upon the free-born Englishman…” (quoted in Chakrabarty 1989, 221). If the Englishman was already free-born, Chakrabarty asks, if this bourgeois culture was hegemonic before the Industrial Revolution, then where is the unfree-born Indian to draw upon cultural materielle in order to build a society of equality and freedom? These themes carry over into Provincializing Europe (2000).

Chibber could have examined whether Chakrabarty’s reading of Marx is accurate or defensible, or he could have expanded on his very sensible point that Chakrabarty seems to underplay the extent to which people construct and reconstruct cultural sensibilities as they respond to changing conditions. Yet, this point is lost in his bulldozer approach to responding to Chakrabarty, along such lines: “Chakrabarty claims that people are not motivated by interests, they are motivated by culture; however, his work can be interpreted to show that people are motivated by interests, particularly the need for physical well-being; therefore Chakrabarty is proven wrong by his own empirical evidence.” Chibber’s approach requires reading Chakrabarty very selectively and poorly.

The alternative approach that Chibber suggests, moreover, requires the evacuation of the historical from materialism and positing an ahistorical form of methodological individualism in its place. Incredibly, Chibber develops a theory that explains why subalterns not only have, but will in the future, fight for “liberal democracy” (179): because of their interest in enhancing their “physical well-being.” This appears to apply across time and space as capital and labour universalize. But in fact, this explains nothing. One can quite reasonably assume that any aggregate of humans will undertake actions in order to preserve or enhance their physical well-being, from eating and sleeping to consuming immediately instead of investing to consume even more in the future.

The salient question is why “the struggle,” which Chakrabarty agrees exists and is the “only thing we can speak of with confidence” (Chakrabarty 1989, 230), does not always take the form of or result in a “liberal, rights-based culture” (200) or the “pursuit of liberal freedoms” (205). Why are groups of people who are concerned about their physical well-being willing to crush the physical well-being of others of their own class? Do Mumbai’s workers turn to Hindutva because they are unconcerned with their physical well-being? Are the people being mobilized by Nepalese or Indian Maoists so unaware of their interests in physical well-being that they don’t understand that Maoist “new democracy” is inconsistent with Nepalese and Indian liberal democracy? Are we to reduce both reactionary and progressive struggles to inadvertent (and inevitable) contributions to the achievement of a more liberal and more democratic liberal democracy? Answering such questions requires the rethinking of received theories that rely on pat teleology, it requires thinking through the question of consciousness and political culture, and it requires thinking through historical differences.

Rather than addressing such questions, Chibber affirms that there is a universal narrative of political culture and consciousness: “Indian and Egyptian workers are every bit as capable of mobilizing to attain liberal freedoms as were their British forebears. The importance of political freedoms, then, is not something they have to be taught” (205). To Freedom, one is tempted to add Equality, Property and Bentham. By now, even Francis Fukuyama would be embarrassed by such arguments.

What kind of Marxism?

The problem is not that Chibber wants to vindicate theories that emerge from the European experience (for which one would have to write a very different book); the problem is that he wants to argue that Indian modernity is not really different from European modernity.[5] This requires focus on a few variables, and showing that, controlling for time and space (and disbelief), they are similar and can be expected to operate similarly. This does far more to obscure than illuminate the “core problem [of] how the history of the non-West has been affected by the incursion of capitalism” (213). In fact, the implications are rather boring: The bourgeoisie in India is just like that of imperialist countries, the labouring classes in India are the sociological twins of their pale-faced counterparts, and except for the pockets and fragments of pre-capitalism or something out there (more-or-less sealed off from the operation of capitalism?), India can be expected to follow of in the tracks of its future-in-the-present, Europe.[6]

Chibber doesn’t once consider the possibility that India’s “structure of modernity” may well be quite different from Europe’s for reasons other than those he attributes to SS. He operates from the rather odd premise that if the structure of modernity in India can reasonably be shown to be different from that of modernity in Europe, then that does vindicate SS’s arguments and discredit theories that emerge from the European experience. The deeper task, perhaps more challenging, would have been to demonstrate that the only meaningful way to explain differences in structures of modernity is through mobilizing historical materialism.[7]

One can imagine what Chibber would have to say to my critique because he has already said it in his debate with Chatterjee:

This imputation – you should be ready, it will be made every time somebody critiques my book – that I think it’s all going to be the same… The whole book is intended to show that a commitment to universalizing categories does not commit you to the prediction that the East will follow in the tracks of the West, and yet it will be insisted time and time again that that’s what I’m saying.

As a matter of fact, that is exactly what Chibber says time and time again throughout the book,[8] so I think he does protest too much. His statement captures what is at stake in what I hope will be a debate about the “kinds” of Marxism out there and how they ought to be approached. In the conclusion to his book, Chibber invokes Marxist analyses of the East, particularly those of Lenin, Kautsky, Trotsky, Mao, Gramsci, and Cabral, as well as the debates on the articulation of modes of production in Africa and South Asia. Yet he never bothers to situate the “kind” of Marxism the SS professes in the context of any of these approaches—particularly not the Indian modes of production debates, which corresponded to political debates among various shades of Communists in South Asia, and which one would imagine were most contemporary to SS and formed the backdrop of what SS was, rightly or wrongly, attempting to argue. In wanting to contest the conclusions that many in the SS group reached, Chibber simply denies that their engagements with Marxism were ever meaningful to begin with.

Chibber therefore tends to ignore the contributions of Marxist analyses of the Third World and, with that, closes off from view their continued relevance to ongoing debates about the nature of capitalist development in the whole world today. All of these theorists were united in their agreement over the fact that the “structure of modernity” in the non-West was very different from that in the West, and that both Marxist analysis and revolutionary practice had to take this into account.[9] It is not for nothing that Frantz Fanon spoke of stretching the Marxist analysis, or Aimé Césaire said that “Marx is all right, but we need to complete Marx” (quoted in Davis 1997, 98). The question for SS was what this meant for historiography and analyzing political culture, a question they sometimes examined with brilliant insight and at other times by obscurely meandering close to the precipice of potentially reactionary nativism and/or effective abandonment of class analysis. Ironically, Chakrabarty also produces his arguments against Marxism by ignoring the actual trajectories of how Third World Marxists and many Marxists studying the Third World have tried to “open up the Marxist narratives of capitalist modernity to issues of historical difference” (Chakrabarty 2000, 19).

In sum, Chibber replaces historical materialism with a positivist, methodological individualist, analytical materialism. While brimming with flashes of insight, these are obscured because the book ironically ends up sidestepping the questions and concerns raised by SS without doing much to engage in any interesting way the epistemological questions they raise, or for that matter, the oblique radical posturing they have adopted. Not only that, Chibber’s Marxism is quite frankly “of a particular kind, and would scarcely be recognized by many contemporary Marxists”—especially not those in the jungles of the Philippines or India, or those in the streets of Nepal and many parts of Latin America. Slavoj Žižek apparently thinks this is the book “we” have all been waiting for. That may be true, but it is not the book that we deserve, though it might be the kind of book that a provincial brand of Marxism needs.


The following are quotations from Chibber’s book about the universal history of the East and West. Readers will have to read the book for themselves and see whether the context makes them any less perplexing:

It turns out that once the two European cases are properly described, the Indian experience no longer appears as a deviation from some classic norm. Indeed, the bourgeoisie’s road to power in the Indian Subcontinent now appears quite consistent with the European experience and settles comfortably into the grooves laid down by them. (55)

No gulf separates the rise of the European bourgeoisie from that of its Indian descendants. The political and social vision of capital in its European incarnation was fairly similar to the vision that shaped its course in India. (109)

Finally, I demonstrate that there is a distinct and quite generous payoff from defending the Enlightenment view. It enables us to anchor the rise of liberal democracy in a theory of human agency that is neither question-begging nor Orientalist. And it allows us to surmise that the same interests that drove the struggles for the deepening of democracy in the West have been and will be operative in the non-West. It allows us, in short, to anchor democratic politics in the bedrock of certain universal human interests…. (179)

…the advent of a liberal, rights-based culture can be linked to popular struggles around the defense of basic needs, both East and West. (200)

insofar as laborers in the East mobilize to defend their physical well-being, they have the same interest in demanding political liberties as did workers in the West. They cannot avoid fighting for their political enfranchisement and for the broadening of their basic freedoms, as preconditions to securing their economic and physical necessities. Hence, when the political culture is transformed so that “bourgeois forms of power” displace and supplant the various forms of traditional, interpersonal coercion, the route to that transformation may very much resemble the one taken in Europe—with the subaltern classes at the front of the campaign. All this follows from the defense of a single basic need: to defend one’s physical well-being. (202)

Since this is a universal interest, and since the capacity to perceive it as an interest is common to agents across cultures, we can affirm that Indian and Egyptian workers are every bit as capable of mobilizing to attain liberal freedoms as were their British forebears. The importance of political freedoms, then, is not something they have to be taught. These groups strive to defend their individual freedoms because these freedoms are naturally attractive to them, just as they were for their European predecessors. Hence, there is nothing intrinsically Western about the valuing of democratic liberties. (205)

I have shown that all the phenomena that the Subalternist theorists adduce as symptoms of capitalism’s failure are in fact quite consistent with its success. So there is every reason to believe that the capitalism of the East is basically the same as that of the West. (214)


Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 1989. Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal 1890–1940. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

——. 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Chibber, Vivek. 2013. Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. London: Verso.

Davis, Gregson. 1997. Aimé Césaire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fanon, Frantz. 1968. The Wretched of the Earth. Tr. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press.

Guha, Ranajit. 1997. Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[1] Props to Parmbir Gill for the latter half of this title, and for many incisive comments on this critique, though we continue to disagree on much of its contents, especially in our assessments of SS. I am fairly certain the mistakes herein are mine.

[2] All page references are to Chibber’s book unless otherwise stated.

[3] This premise is not entirely different from that of, say, Amílcar Cabral or of Frantz Fanon. Fanon argues that “we must remember that colonialism has often strengthened or established its domination by organizing the petrification of the country districts…. the majority of countrydwellers are still living in the feudal manner…” (Fanon 1968, 109-10); “whereas in the industrialized countries it is just this traditional setting which has been broken up by the progress of industrialization” (Fanon 1968, 111). (The Wretched of the Earth should be read as a rhetorical inversion of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and a theoretical break with the French Communist Party; here, the peasantry and lumpenproletariat are the historically progressive classes, not the bourgeoisie and proletariat.)

[4] Chibber raises this point in his Chapter 9 criticism of Chakrabarty’s Histories 1 and 2 in Provincializing Europe, but this point, raised in the Grundrisse, is the base upon which SS built their ideas: History 1 does not seem to be leading to any inevitable rupture with precapitalist relations of power, as liberalism is not only an ideological dead end but exists not at all uneasily with unfreedoms, nor does History 1 appear to be leading to an inevitable transition to socialism. History 2, however, appears to provide a reservoir of resistance against capitalism, but its culture of hierarchy and inequality is a problematic resource.

[5] For the sake of brevity, I am skipping over Chibber’s criticisms of Chatterjee, as well as his discussions of abstract labour, and historicism, all of which deserve critical attention. These discussions, however, do little to alter the thrust of the book—or my critique of it—and would have us engaged in ever more arcane Marxist theory.

[6] Again, thanks to Parmbir for much of the phrasing in this sentence.

[7] It appears to have passed Chibber and many others by that Partha Chatterjee’s response in the debate at Historical Materialism New York was, in fact, in large part a most resounding vindication of historical materialism, and an accurately posed agenda for future research and reconfiguration of categories and theories.

[8] See Appendix.

[9] Actually, the only people who diverged on the latter point were Trotsky and Kautsky, neither of whom could figure out just what it was that revolutionaries were supposed to do with the peasantry (as opposed to over and above or aside from them). Incidentally, these two are the theorists Chibber highlights in his conclusion, and, incidentally, the question of the peasantry is what is conspicuous by its absence throughout the book. this!

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