Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Gramsci and the Postcolonial World

The Postcolonial Gramsci edited by Neelam Srivastava and Baidik Bhattacharya (New York: Routledge), 2012; pp 288, £85

Reviewed by Arun K. Patnaik, Economic & Political Weekly

The book under review, while explaining the relevance of Gramsci’s thoughts in the postcolonial world, deals with three key concerns: the role of intellectuals, cultural hegemony and neo-liberal political economy. Drawing upon the above three resources from different geographies in the postcolonial world, the book draws our attention to how Gramsci’s ideas have travelled across the globe from Peru, Algeria, India to China and elsewhere.

Anti-Colonial Movements

Showing remarkable sensitivity, the editors draw our attention to three very important insights of Gramsci that are relevant in postcolonial studies. First, Gramsci’s critique of the civilising mission is relevant to us as he, in a rebuttal of the Marxist Labriola, argues that natives in colonies are no children who gain political wisdom through colonial education. Rather, Gramsci tells us that natives gain political maturity by opposing colonial projects. Second, it is so typical of Gramsci that he shows how it is possible to learn from anti-colonial wars by offering a new paradigm of war: war of position (ideological and moral criticism), war of movement (mass movement) and war of frontal attack (armed struggle).
I would go further to claim that Gramsci moves away from his own binary discussion of politico-ideological warfare (war of position/frontal attack) in Europe to discover what the editors call “a paradigmatic case” of war. While Gramsci may be inaccurate for entirely drawing this new paradigm of war from Gandhian experiments, but his three moments of war are present in India’s anti-colonial struggle.

In a sense Gramsci, a critique of Enlightenment, sets an example for his own Marxism, willing to learn from popular movements of the East. The editors must be given credit for an unusual recognition of Gramsci’s non-Eurocentric knowledge. I think this interpretation of Gramsci is very enlightening. Here, if I may add, Gramscian theory becomes relevant to explain a new configuration of war in post-war Europe’s new social movements, which largely rely on a war of movement, a conception learned by him from anti-colonial struggles. Third, the editors argue that Gramsci’s theory of internal colonialism in connection with the southern question/peasant question in Italian nationalism has the potentiality to understand Europe’s colonial and postcolonial politics. For Gramsci the story of exploitation of resources of the peasantry in the south of Italy by the northern industrialists without leading to the development of productive forces in the south, offers us interesting parallels in Europe’s colonial accumulation.

Dialectical Materialism

Most papers in this volume demonstrate how Gramsci’s concerns and conceptual tools may have relevance in comprehending the intellectual/cultural project in the postcolonial world. However, there is one paper that does not argue so. It discovers the spirit of Gramscian enquiry. The postcolonial world may have different contexts – racism in Africa. A borrowed model of Gramscian enquiry may be partially valid but usually does not offer anything on our internal history – decoloniality or racism and struggles specific to these situations. Therefore, to stay with the Gramscian spirit of enquiry, it may be more relevant to examine social or cultural contexts where Gramsci may be useful or not. Just as Gramsci discovers new histories and new modes of struggle for non-Russian Europe, it would be necessary for us in the postcolonial world to stay with his method of enquiry and offer similar departures from Gramsci’s Marxism to understand new forms of power and opposition – colonialism and decoloniality.

Thus, Walter Mignolo in the last chapter of the book (Chapter 9) draws our attention to what may be called Gramsci’s geographical materialism (Said’s expression) as opposed to dialectical materialism which advocates a universal model of history by suppressing historical and geographical differences. Mignolo argues that it is not only Gramsci who might inspire us but also, among others, Mariátegui of Peru and M K Gandhi of India who could be our inspirations if we ought to concern ourselves with decoloniality. If I may add, in postcolonial India, the left will have to draw inspirations from caste critics like B R Ambedkar, R M Lohia, Periyar and others. I agree with Mignolo that the brilliant Gramsci alone will not serve the left’s cause if decoloniality, the end of racism/casteism and so on ought to be its prime concern.


Robert Young (Chapter 1) argues that Gramsci, through his strident criticism of Italy’s occupation and exploitation of Libya and his critique of internal colonialism in the southern question, lays down ground rules of postcolonial thinking. Paolo Capuzzo and Sandro Mezzadra (Chapter 2) try to demonstrate how Gramscian ideas are received in Italy during the post-war period.

Gramsci has travelled a long way – from Togliatti’s partial revival and orthodox appropriation of Gramsci’s ideas during 1950s, N Bobbio’s liberal use of Gramsci and further to the use of Gramsci in Negri’s autonomist-workers’ movement during 1970s. Neelam Srivastava’s invocation (Chapter 3) of Gramsci’s concept of organic intellectual in connection with two foremost postcolonial intellectuals such as G Padmore and F Fanon adds strength to this volume. She tries to show how both of them, while being critical of communism for ignoring black liberation movements, draw inspirations from Gramsci’s counter-hegemony through culture. Like Gramsci, both stress the need for an organic connection between intellectuals and masses in order to develop a strong national-popular movement in different geographical settings in pan-Africanism.
Baidik Bhattacharya (Chapter 4) draws a parallel between Gramsci’s secular humanism and Said’s secular criticism that is inspired from Gramsci. In a brilliant move, Bhattacharya presents Gramsci as a non-realist thinker and argues that secular humanism in Gramsci is concerned with the recovery of a global culture of humanity which is not inconsistent with the recovery of the popular. In his secular criticism, Said is equally concerned with such a recovery. Both remain critique of cultural hegemonies through globalisation. Now the following questions may arise. How does Gramsci reconcile national-popular with secular humanism which goes beyond nation? What happens to the idea of nation, different geographies, geographical materialism and so on in Said’s secular humanism? Does post-colony mean a move beyond a national frame? Does nationalism always invoke imperial projects? Why did Gandhi, Mao, Fanon and Padmore fight for a new nation?

Of the Weakest Links

Ian Chambers (Chapter 5) tries to locate different practices across religious communities and tries to identify common sense in order to transform it to good sense in different modern-Muslim communities. He suggests that modern ideas of public good and social justice have a complex history in diverse cultural formations that cannot be grasped by hegemonic Orientalism that reduces their importance by imposing liberalism, individualism and anti-cleric secularism.
Partha Chatterjee (Chapter 6) highlights a new concern while interrogating India’s experience with neo-liberal political economy. He argues that there is a move away from the split between the state and peasantry during the pre-liberalisation period, to a new split between civil society and political society. Thus, the structure of India’s passive revolution is shifted from a coalition between the capitalist class, landlords and middle classes during the pre-liberalisation phase to a coalition between corporate capital and urban middle classes in civil society during the liberalisation period. While Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution is still useful to explain the process of hegemony, his concept of contradictory consciousness is no longer valid as the state is no longer an external entity vis-à-vis the peasantry. The state and developmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) together form part of governmentality which has penetrated within peasantry/informal sector.

The split between civil society and political society corresponds to the split between corporate capital and non-corporate capital. The state pursues two kinds of policies – the policy of primitive accumulation for the corporate capital and the policy of welfare governmentality for the non-corporate capital to maintain hegemony over informal sector/peasantry. Various kinds of peasant resistance adopting violence are utilitarian and want publicity in media in order to get appropriate government benefits (p 132). The split between the left and the right is virtually not there as the current demand is now to implement welfare governmentality (p 133).

Chatterjee’s analysis of the changing story of India’s passive revolution may be partly correct. However, he forgets to add, a la Gramsci, that if passive revolution is still carried out, capitalist hegemony remains the weakest. The structure of domination/coercion appears more imminently than that of hegemony/consent. The penetration of welfare governmentality remains weak in India today. Only a fraction of the rupee spent on anti-poverty programmes reaches the poor, according to Mani Shankar Aiyar, the former minister of panchayati raj and rural development. So, despite many developmental NGOs working as extensions of state power, welfare governmentality still remains an externality in actual practice. Wherever primitive accumulation projects are envisaged in India, methods of coercion are more visible.

Dalit Struggles

Pheng Cheah’s work (Chapter 7) on Jia Zhangke, the Chinese film-maker, both reconfirms Gramsci’s usage and challenges some of its assumptions in the changing context of commodification under transnational migration in post-socialist China. Jia’s recent films portray the plight of peasantry and migrant labour in a rapidly globalising China and tries to connect with their life stories which are lived through by the film-maker who is variously described a “migrant film-maker”. His films provide double gesture: first, they expose the myths of globalising China by showing the degraded life of migrant workers in towns and second, they stimulate a counter-hegemonic element by projecting how the migrant workers try to build a shared space/community through care rather than self-interest.

The next essay by Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (Chapter 8) uses two literary texts – Bharathipura by U R Anantha Murthy and Kuruthi Punal (River of Blood) by Indira Parthasarathy. These texts are used to show how two different kinds of social struggles demanding temple entry of dalits, one led by a brahmin intellectual and the other by an organic intellectual for higher wages for dalits met with failure and consequent retaliatory violence on dalits by brahminical forces. Sunder Rajan shows how in both cases, the role of political leadership of the intellectuals – one by a déclassé intellectual and other by an organic intellectual – may be problematic in anti-caste struggles in south India. Following Gramsci, she correctly argues that in these cases, the failure of subalterns needs to be seen as a “crisis of authority” of brahminical forces and the detachment of subalterns from traditional ideologies of caste/class systems, thus providing a sort of interval in actual historical process.

The Gendered Subaltern

In the epilogue, the interview with Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak clarifies the relevance of Gramsci in Subaltern Studies. She reasserts that subalterns are not just class collectives but also gendered subjects. As gendered subjects, the subaltern may exist as a “singular” subject. The gendered subject allows us to think outside of capitalism, hegemony, abstract citizenship and agency talks. She claims, “the gendered subaltern lives in another space” (p 225). Spivak’s language offers many complicated nuances.

While I agree with her, that in extreme situations like suicide by a woman, subaltern subjectivity may be singular (losing sense of connection with any social collective), I am worried about her essentialist/generic use of language. The gender also forms the collective subjectivity part of hegemony as well as counter-hegemony. Gender aristocracy may be an integral part of capitalism, whereas gender interlocked with working class/peasantry may be part outside capital logic and part hegemonised by capitalism. I am surprised by her silence on the dialectic logic employed by Gramsci in describing subaltern status. Subalterns – gendered or not – are an integral part of subjection by ruling classes/patriarchy which in any case operates collectively rather than singularly. To present power relations or resistance process as singularity is to defeat the cause of democratic socialism which Spivak seeks to defend.

However, the present volume is a healthy addition in postcolonial literature that draws on several ideas of Gramsci who remains its central focus and will undoubtedly be the point of discussion among scholars who, like Lenin and Gramsci, must learn from the strengths of the enemy. By merely talking about the weaknesses of enemies, the left would proceed nowhere in counter-hegemony.

Arun K Patnaik ( teaches at the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad.