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Rethinking Working-Class History Author(s): Dipesh Chakrabarty Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 26, No. 17 (Apr.

27, 1991), pp. 1117-1119 Published by: Economic and Political Weekly Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4397996 Accessed: 22/10/2008 17:29
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not ask it of my critics that they agree with my reading of Marx but a fair review has to acknowledgethis readingbeforedisagreeDipesh Chakrabarty ing with it. Amiya sagare sinan karite sakali garal bhela especiallyafter Lyotard,HaydenWhiteand Bagchi'sdemand,then, that I should have -Jnanadas (16thc) others have alerted us to the problem of 'specified' "the generative processes of I AM honoured by the extendeddiscussion meta-,grand-or master-narratives in history. . .'pre-capitalist' relationships"(PE 55) orin your journal' of my book Rethinking What I think I do document and analyse in documented the "slow social processes" Working-Class History: Bengal 1890-1940 the book, by way of my particular and (PE-56) and/or the "logical transforma(Princetonand Delhi, 1989). I shall mainly historically-grounded example,is a dilemma tions" (PE-59) through which the 'preconfine myself here to responding to the that is special to 'Marxist' labour history capitalist'could become 'capitalist'is quite review-essay by Amiya KumarBagchi since (particularly historiesof consciousness)and wide of the mark. Firstly,it leavesa masterhis is the essay that discusses the book as perhapsto the projectof 'Marxist'histories narrative, a meta-historyof transitionfrom a whole. I do not intend to inflict on your generally. I cannot summarise the book 'pre-capitalist'to 'capitalist' unquestioned the tediumof a point by point rebut- here-though I recommend readers reproduces a standard, historicist to the interested and thereby tal of the criticisms by Bagchi. The more reader chapters 1, 3 and 7 of the book in reading of thesephilosophical/epistemological curious reader, I hope, will read the book addition to the Preface-but let me address categories. My book, whateverits failures, and come to her or his own conclusions. I the issue very briefly. is a conscious argumentagainstthis tendenwrite because some important parts of my The problem is something like this. An cy. Secondly, if the world is theoretically argument-much of it contained in the last interesting epistemological proposition knowable only from the vantage point of chapterof the book whichremainscuriously underlies Marx's use of categories like 'capital'(i e, an ensembleof bourgeoisrelaabsent from Bagchi'sdiscussion-appear to 'bourgeois'and 'pre-bourgeois'or 'capital' tionships), does not the very enterpriseof haveescapedBagchi. I am also interestedin and 'pre-capital'. The prefix 'pre' here Marxisthistory then become a special case drawingout some of the more general im- signifies a relationship that is both of narratives that privilegea particularview in an efplications of our "disagreements" chronological and theoretical. (The two of modernity the roots of which alwaysgo fort to situate this debate within a largerin- aspects cannot be separated.)The coming back to certain traditions in European tellectualcontext. I shall thereforeonly note of the bourgeois or capitalist society, Marx thought and which will alwaysperipheralise here, but not respond to, some of the arguesin the Grundrisse and elsewhere, gives non-Westernpasts (precisely through the gestures rise for the first time to a history that can gestureof universalising gratuitously insultingor patronising them)?One aim-of that Bagchi adopts in his'review-essay-his be apprehended and my book was to both recognise and*prothrougha philosophical suggestion, for instance, that I write better universal category, 'capital'. History blematisethis as the condition that enabled only when I write,as a "mere historian"or becomes, for the first time, theoretically 'me' to speak.6 the revelryof his prose over my alleged "ig- knowable.All past histories are now to be Perhapsbecausehe missestheseobjectives norance"and "confusion".To these I can known (theoretically,that is) from the van- of the book-or perhapsbecauseto his ears only respondas a studentand ethnographer tage point of this category,that is, in terms these are all "a mishmashof philosophicalof Bengali 'Bhadralok' culture-after all, of their relationshipto or differences from sounding phrases" (PE-58)-Bagchi miseven criticisms and book reviews can be it.3 Things reveal their categorical essence reads my reservationsagainst the prevalent analysedas culturalpractices-but I realise only when they reach their fullest develop- and dominant political-economic apthat this is not the time or place for such ment, or as Marx put it in that famous proachesin studiesof consciousness/culture ethnography. aphorism of the Grundrisse: "Human in Indianlabourhistory.My reservations are Let me begin then with a brief exposition anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of in the first place part of the overall as theoreticalaims of the book and should not of the argument that I think goes totally the ape"4The category'capital' however, unrepresentedin Bagchi's critique. Bagchi I havediscussedin the book, containswithin be treatedin separationfrom them. Furtheritself the legal subject of Enlightenment more, if Bagchi has found me exhibitingan spends a fair few words "exposing" the "ahistorical" and "residual" of my thought. In other words, it is the name of attitude of "utterdisdain"(PE-58) towards character and "pre-capital" a set of relationships which embody the political-economicanalysis, I can only concategories"pre-bourgeois" (pp PE-57, PE-59, etc). I don't grudge him (bourgeois)juridical notion of equality. Or clude that I have failed miserablyin comhis sense of triumph. But I had explained as Marx said in that very Hegelian first municating to him the spirit of my prose. in the book how my use of these categories chapter of Capital I, the secret of 'capital', I actually undertake a lot of the kind of the category,"cannotbe deciphered untilthe analysisthat Bagchiaccusesme of not doing restedon a particularreadingof Marx and notion of human equality has acquiredthe (see in particularpp 198-210).I say it in my how that reading was connected to one of fixity of a popular prejudice".5 the centralobjectivesof the book. As I said Prefacethat my analysisdoes not deny "the My use of the category 'pre-bourgeois' in the Preface: is validity of Marxianpolitical economy as a then not a historicist one for I don't use it way of explaining working-class history" In looking at this [jute workers'] history in terms of Marx's categories. . . my objective as a historical category. In other words, it (p xii), a statementthat Bagchidropsout of is to develop a critical understandingof these is not a category like 'the bhadralok'which the quote with which he sets the tone of his categories themselves and of their use in the tries to extractanalyticalvalue from a social critiquein its opening paragraph.The bulk construction of historical narratives.2 group's description of itself. (I am not of the analysis in chapter3 is of a politicalThe book is an attempt to critique the very thereby declaring historical categories economic kind where I conclude a major categoriesthat enable it to be, to surveyand useless, for I do use some in my book, but part of the discussion with the comment: explore critically the very (theoretical) 'pre-bourgeois'was not one of them.) 'Pre- "Thepolitical economy of the jute industry groundon whichit stands.The questionthat bourgeois' or 'pre-capital(ist)', in my book, thus goes a long way toward explaining I saw as fundamental to my exercise was: always has the epistemological stance that, why. . ." (p 95). Of narrowly political what arethe conditionsof possibilityfor my as I haveexplainedabove,I readinto Marx's arguments, I say: "We should listen careparticular narrative? Students of postuse of them. It is a short-handwayof saying fully... for it is not without some force to structuralistthought will realise that I am "when seen from the point of view of the it" (p 198). I am disappointed that this not the first person to ask this question, universal-theoretical categorycapital'"I do sounded like "utter disdain" to Bagchi.

Rethinking Working-Class History

Economic and Political Weekly

April 27, 1991


damental. Bagchi wants a history that out the workers'real voice"and "search[es] "filluminates] the area of workers' consciousness" (PE-59). I write at a time when a host of scholarsand intellectuals-among theme RanajitGuha, JamesClifford,Hayden White, GayatriSpivak, Richard Rorty, not to mentionFoucaultand Derrida-have problematised ideas about representation, language,realityand voice/consciousnessin such a way that it is no longer possible for ... enter into the consciousness of these peome to be theoreticallyinnocentin these matple"(PE-58).Posed in such commonsensical ters. This is not to put my book forwardas terms, the question can only be rhetorical the best example of what it sets out to do; in function, for both Bagchi and I (or any others, I hope, will writebetterbooks on the other observerfor that matter)give enough subject. Nor is this to deny the value of the evidence to suggest that these so-called humanist traditiQn within which history economic factors wereimportant.My ques- books are usually writtenand the pleasures tions were posed at another level. With they can give. It is just that this was not the regard to this particular statement, they principal pleasure my book was meant to would have entailed asking, for instance: produce.Mine was a self-conscious exercise Who is the subjectof this 'experience'? Does in method, using history to rethinkcertain the adverb'perilously'indicatean authorial ideas in Marxistpolitical philosophy.I may presence? Fromwhat kind of meta-narrative not have succeeded in achieving my own does the expression 'the margin of sub- aims but that is a different question. sistence"come? Is the consciousnessthat inI may add that from an existential point forms this observation the same as the jute of view, I found a method-orientedstance worker's consciousness (obviously a con- easier to handle than any pretensionthat I struct)? What are the conditions for these was speaking for the class I was writing two consciousnessto be the same (so that an about. A book is born in its own historical analytical statement could look innocently context. My book belongs to the tradition descriptive)? To what extent did the jute that it sets out to critique. It is, in that workers' history fulfil these conditions? sense, itself a part of the long history of Perhaps this is to offer o'nly more "philo- 'bhadralok' fascination with Marxist sophical mishmash" to Bagchi (who ob- thought and its categories, though it aims viously has no taste for it), but my discus- to provide a critique of that history, as it sion of "rationality"that has so offended were,from within. If Bagchi'sand my ideas Bagchi both derives from and reachesback wrestle,they wrestleon this sharedground. to these questions, for it is set, as indeed is It will be clear then that it could not the whole book, within an attemrt to have been my idea to "sneer at" Bengali understand the problems of subject- 'bhadralok'tradeunion leadersor to "pour production encountered in n-,rrafivising, scorn" and "contemptuousanger" (PE-56, from a Marxist point of view,"he pasts of 59) on the workers whose historyI examined. subaltern classes. As I said in the first I am surprisedonce again that Bagchireads chapter of the book: "An analytic strategy these attitudes into my prose, even though that seeks to establish a 'working class' as I had describedthese 'bhadralok'leadersas the 'subject'of its history must also engage "men who tried to become one with the in the discursive formation that makes the workers instead of wanting to dominate emergenceof such a subject-categorypos- them ... whose faith in socialist ideologies sible' (p 6). GayatriSpivakhas piit the point remained unflinchingto the veryend of their more eloquently in a recent interview: lives"(p 146);while of the workers'willingthe problem of political subjectivity is not ness to submit to dominant forms of going to be solved by romanticising the authority, I had said: This is not to weaken my reservations, however.They run throughthe whole book and I stand by them. Nor does Bagchi's retrospective attempt to rescue his own writing (which I quote on p 211 and he defends on PE-57) convince me, "Sen and Williams"and my "ignorance" notwithstanding, that Bagchiand I havecommunicated. The point at issue was not whether or not "the experienceof living perilouslynearthe marginof subsistence... etc"did "somehow
subaltern. All the complications of 'subject production' apply to us. It does not apply to them. When we talk about them, they become unified subjects... The problems of subject production do not disappear when you're actually with other human beings who happen not to possess your class privilege.7 One is reminded of Hegel's discussion of the master-slave relationship, in which the master'sdominance is dependent on the slave recognising him as the master. In referring to the 'bhadralok' trade union leaders as 'masters' then, we do not intend to portray the working class as a passive instrument of the leaders' will. At issue is the question of the worker'sown will, his own consciousness, his shrewd realisation that under the circumstances he could sometimes best exercise his power by choosing to serve (p 141).

narrative-a far cry fromThompson'spoint that "the [English] working class was present at its own making".We Indians,in contrast, are neverpresentat our own 'unmaking'. This 'unmaking'is something that has been done to us by the Britishand a fetishised demon called 'colonialism'(a historian's version, I suppose, of what the Indian government,wheneverfaced with domestic trouble, calls the 'foreign hand'). That is why, for Bagchi, our current "problemsof ... class, ethnic and linguistic[andgender?] differences", and those created by "numerous.. . prejudices and superstitions" are all simply inheritances from the colonial period, "the legacyof colonialism"(PE-59). In his sarcastic spiel over my passing
comment-that "the ... indigo planter ... modelled himself on the Bengali ...

landlord" he forgets that some of the Bengali landlords were themselves indigo planters,that the plantersoften considered themselves 'zamindars' and used many instruments of the latter's and that authority, evenwhenthe planterwas someoneschooled in the slave-drivingtechniquesof the sugar islands, their Bengali-Indian 'amlahs' (officials) made considerableand creativecontributions to the regimes of torture they inflicted on the peasantry.(Some of these 'amlahs'werepetty landlordsthemselves.)8 Letus be clearabout the issueshere.There is no question of condoning the oppressive practices of the European bosses in the mines, factories and plantations of India. But the Indian bosses were not necessarily any sweeter in their attitudes. There was a blending, I claim, in the colonial situation, of the British authoritarianpracticeswith our own 'undemocratic' traditions. The tyranny of the petty (or big) official we experiencein our everydaylives even today cannot be explainedawaysimplyas a 'legacy of colonialism'. The landlord's authority, even after one fully grants the peculiarities of the colonial context, always had elements-as Ranajit Guha has amply
demonstrated in his Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi,

The argument in chapter 6 (that Bagchi could not "lay [his] hands on") questions, within this overall theoretical context, the pervasivetendencyin 'secularist'and Marxist writings on the 'communal' problem in India to privilege a certain version of the homo economicuswheneverthe questionof consciousness is at issue. Bagchi reads the book with expectations that it was not designed to fulfil. Our disagreements-and feelings of disappointment which I can assure him are mutualstem from differences that are quite fun1118

Is this the voice of 'contempt'or 'scorn'?I do think that Bagchi misspends his vitriol. Fundamentally,Bagchi looks for a comforting narrativewhere all Indians are cast into the role of passive victims of the huge juggernaut of colonialism. No Indians, whetherelite or subaltern,take any responsibility for their own histories in this

1983)-derived fromculturalcodes that had a history much longer than that of the British in India.9 To blame everythingon colonialismis to presenta point of viewand not a proven fact; nor is it to give a very precisedefinition to colonialism itself. But, most of all, it is to write a history that can only be comforting for the modern Indian ruling classes. (To the extent historical debates reflect the concerns of the generations that write these histories, producing intellectualdiscomfortfor the Indianruling classes (to which the historian often personally belongs) seems a more worthy aim now, more than four decades after independence,than the old (though understandable) nationalist objective of visiting every sin on our (past) foreign masters.) In conclusion,let me sharewith the reader a small historical irony that relates to this debateand one that Bagchiand Ghosh have, betweenthem, reproduced in theircriticisms. A long time ago, in 1975, I presentedin a
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Economic and Political Weekly

seminarin Calcuttasome of the first results of my researchinto the history of the jute mill workers of colonial Bengal. The audience,mostlyMarxistacademicsof the city, largely respondedin a tone very similar to Bagchi's. My superiors told me about my theoretical 'confusions' and 'ignorance'. While most of the censurecame to me orally and through the 'bazaar gup' of the left academic circles of Calcutta and Delhi, a debate ensued in writing between Ranajit Das Guptaand myselfwhereclearlypolarised positions were presented.'0More than fifteen years have gone by, and I now read Parimal Ghosh (a younger scholar who is by no means a sympathetic reader of my book) generouslydescribethat old paperof mine as a "seminal" one that, in his opinion, "no doubt ... effected a kind of breakthrough"(PE-61). I want to end by saying that it is ironies of this kind that help the historian survive the acrimony of hostile criticisms. For opinions change, even in Calcutta. Notes
1 Amiya KumarBagchi, 'WorkingClass Consciousness', EPW, Review of Political Economy, July 28, 1990; Parimal Ghosh, 'Communalism and Colonial Labour: Experience of Calcutta Jute Mill Workers, 1880-1930', EPW, Review of Political Economy, July 28, 1990; and Arup Kumar Sen, 'Towards an Understandingof 'Worlds of Labour' ', EPW, October 6, 1990. 2 Rethinking Working-Class History, p xi. 3 see Karl Marx, Grundrisse:Fqundations of the Critiqueof Political Economy translated by Martin Nicholas, Harmondsworth, 1973, pp 469-512and KarlMarx, Capital:A Critique of Political Economy, Vol 3, Moscow, 1971, pp 593-613. 4 Grundrisse, p 105. 5 Capital, Vol 1, Moscow, nd, p 60. 6 1 have developed this point further in two recent pieces: a short article in Seminar, October 1990, entitled 'Of 'Communal' Workersand 'Secular' Historians' and in a forthcoming article called 'Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for 'Indian' Pasts?'. 7 Gayatri Spivak, Interview in Socialist Review, Vol 20, No 3, July-September 1990, p 90. 8 See Girishchandra Bosu, Sekaler darogar kahini (1888), Calcutta, 1983, section entitled 'neelkuthi' Bosu's discussion makes it clear that the amlah's conception and exercise of authority (i e, torture) was something that was in part derived from his own culture. 9 Gautam, Bhadra, 'The Mentality of Subalternity:Kantanamaor Rajdharma' in Ranajit Guha (ed), Subaltern Studies VI (Delhi, 1989), pp 54-91 contains an illuminating discussion of some of these issues. 10 Dipesh Chakrabarty and Ranajit Das Gupta, 'Some Aspects of Labour History of Bengal in the Nineteenth Century: Two Views',Occasional Paper No 40, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, 1981. Much of this debate will now be of only historiographical interest. Economic and Political Weekly


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