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Huntington In Reverse

Achin Vanaik

By Vasant Kaiwar
Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2015, pp. 415, $28.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 9 September 2016

Postcolonial Studies (PCS) is widely seen as intellectually avant garde and politically radical and progressive. There is a small but growing literature, to which this book is a valuable contribution that critiques PCS on both counts; in these respects seeing its claims to going beyond the supposed limitations of Marxism, as mistaken and dangerous. PCS is more a retreat and a bad detour, not a rich and promising new path of exploration. Or, as the author Kaiwar puts it, ‘Postcolonial studies with its poststructuralist and post-modernist imbrications does not have the same value or valences as Marxism … [which] is also the “anticipatory expression of a future society”.’ The object of critique here is not the vast body of historical and sociological writings done in the name of Subaltern Studies (SS) or PCS which have their merits and insights as specific case studies but of their theoretical pretensions and claims. Early theorizers of SS as a distinct school of Indian historiography fed into the subsequent development of the conceptual framework that undergirds PCS. This is why Kaiwar’s book, while dissecting the writings of Partha Chatterjee, focuses more on the work of two other SS thinkers, Ranajit Guha and Dipesh Chakrabarty, and their key texts, notably Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India and Dominance Without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India; and Chakrabarty’s Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. The basic gap that SS sought to fill in the existing elitist narratives (Cambridge School, Liberal, Marxist) about colonialism and the oppositions to it culminating in Independence, was their inability to grasp the ‘autonomy’ and ‘authenticity’ of subalterns in their resistance to the depredations imposed on their distinctive ‘ways of being-inthe-world’ by colonial rulers, or by nationalist elites seeking to mobilize them but who too had adopted in fundamental terms the colonial modernizing project. The ‘structure of subaltern consciousness’ is what had to be unveiled by reading colonial archives ‘against the grain’, as it were. But from this starting point in the late seventies and eighties SS was to depart and from the nineties onwards its key figures had become eminences in the field of PCS for the most part housed in western academia. Kaiwar explains this transition by referring to changes in intellectual fashions (i.e., the ‘post-turn’) themselves underpinned by the abandonment of Keynesianism in the West, the failures of Third World modernization ...

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