The Specter of Spivak

Drawing by Nele Brönner

Drawing by Nele Brönner

Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capitala comprehensive critique of the postcolonial studies with a special focus on the Subaltern Studies project, continues to hold people’s attention though what passes for ‘debate’ sometimes is endlessly amusing.

Earlier last year Partha Chatterjee and Vivek Chibber came face to face at the Historical Materialism Conference in New York. This was followed by Chatterjee (who found a certain righteous book “original, acute, sensitive”) writing a sharp response in EPW, which Chibber defended with characteristic aplomb in a rejoinder (full version can be read here).

Then, in March 2014, yet another formidable Subalternist, Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak, “reviewed” Chibber’s book in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs (where, in most part, she refers to herself in third person, as is her wont). She chided Chibber not being able to “distinguish between ‘capital’ and ‘capitalism’” and sought to protect students from being misled by his critique of postcolonial theory. For Spivak, all this, is a part of “Little Britain Marxism” nurtured and propped by Race and Class and Verso. She even scolded Chibber for stepping out of line and criticizing “primary texts”, such as Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India by stalwarts like Ranajit Guha. (Let us set aside, for the moment, the fact that many people who love to attack Chibber or see him being attacked have refused to read the not-so-primary book in question written by Chibber—sample this.)


Chibber, in the latest issue of the same journal, takes on Spivak:

Spivak thinks that there is a class of scholarship, which she calls ‘primary texts’, whose members are to be memorialized and interpreted, but never assessed. The task of criticism is to be reserved for something called ‘secondary texts’. What the difference is between them we are never told. … Spivak asks us rhetorically, ‘Would Chibber correct Rosa Luxemburg and D.D. Kosambi? No, because he knows they are primary texts’ … Not only would I feel free to criticize Luxemburg and Kosambi, but I would be obligated to do so if their theories or their scholarship were flawed. And not only would I respect this obligation, but so have generations of scholars and activists the world over.

In the absence of strong analytical and logical criticism of his work, Chibber wonders if all the flak he has received is not the result of a certain mindset popular especially in India, where “authority” becomes an easy substitute for “argument”, for Spivak writes in an imperious tone “used with servants and children to remind them of their place in the order of things.”

(Those who cannot access Chibber’s response, please contact Navayana.)


  • Louis Proyect says:

    Don’t worry. I have Guha and Chibber’s books on my desk and plan to get to them first chance I get. In terms of what is easily ascertainable without having to read Chibber’s book, it seems absurd to turn subaltern studies into a kind of litmus test when one of Mexico’s most renowned Marxists credits it as an important part of his political development:
    Adolfo Gilly is the author of the most famous book on the Mexican revolution from a Marxist perspective. Formerly a member of the Trotskyist PRT, he is now a well-known member of the PRD.

    From the author’s page of International Viewpoint, a semiofficial journal of the Fourth International.

    * * * *

    I became familiar with Subaltern Studies and the work of Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee in the late 1980s. I only really read Edward Thompson in the 1990s. His Making of the English Working Class and Customs in Common lay a lot of emphasis on the category of experience, which in my view is extremely important to Marxist thought.

    Adolfo Gilly in the New Left Review, July-August 2010

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