International Gramsci Society Online Article
January 2004

Subaltern Studies, Racism, and Class Struggle:
Examples From India and the United States*

Peter Gran

When exactly. ... does the ‘post-colonial’ begin? queries Ella Shohat in a recent discussion of the subject. Misreading the question deliberately, I will supply here an answer that is only partially facetious: When Third World intellectuals have arrived in First World Academe.

For the past generation, social historians have found the possibilities open to them intellectually expanding exponentially with the development of new techniques and with the cross mixture of their work with those of other disciplines. At the same time, they have also found that they were expected to continue adhering to the traditional elite-mass approach on which the discipline has long rested. No matter how well social historians could explain a given country in terms of what groups of people happened to be doing, their approach was not “real history” if it did not give full power to the elite or to international influences.

Subaltern Studies arose some thirteen years ago as a way of situating historical research so as to minimize this problem of collision of elite and mass. As the name implies, the subjects to be studied are understood by the researcher to be somewhat outside of traditional history. Being outside of traditional history, the researcher can move forward in his or her work unchallenged. It becomes possible to take up quite daring and progressive issues; and this is happening. At the same time, there is the risk that by acquiescing to the traditional elite and mass parameters, what an author presents can be made not to “matter.” This paper addresses these concerns concentrating on India and the U.S., the two main-centers of Subaltern Studies today. It begins with a general account of the subject in, first, its Indian and, subsequently, its American context. How has culture been organized in the U.S.? What strategies have immigrant groups been pursuing in recent-years in the U.S.? From a range of examples, it is possible to situate Subaltern Studies in both sociological and cultural terms and from there to speak of praxis.

Since the U.S. and India each have their own form of hegemony, the paper treats India as an “Italian Road” country, the U.S. as a Bourgeois Democracy. The praxis of Subaltern Studies is assumed to reflect these two sets of conditions.[2] With regard to India, the evidence suggests that Subaltern Studies has been an effort by secular “Southerners” (Biharis, Bengalis) to withstand the hegemony of the “North,” represented by the liberal-Marxist alliance centered in New Delhi. Equally, it has been an attempt to withstand religious fascism, a trend rapidly taking over West Bengal or what I will term the “South” of India. In the United States, Subaltern Studies appears as a movement of self-assertion against the prevailing social history. Its principal novelty is that it finds a way to coexist with the dominant puritan white supremacist tradition of history of that country by emphasizing difference. Finally, while there is some overlap between what is written by subalternists in India and in the U.S.-here to anticipate the conclusion-difference in hegemony makes subalternists more cosmopolitan, metaphysical and ethicalist in India, and more “modernist” and deconstructionist in the U.S. [3]

Following the publication in 1983 of Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India by Ranajit Guha, a Bengali historian, Indian Subaltern Studies became visible in India. If traditional historians addressed the progress of the state, Guha and the other Subalternists wrote about the activities of those peripheralized by the state; if the one used “event history”, the other used myth and legend, if the one homogenized, the other particularized, if the one praised the development of nationalism, the other found its faults. [4]

While this sounds like-and some commentary literature has made it out to be-the basis of a major intellectual battle in India, in fact the state and the Subalternists turn out less to conflict with each other than to complement each other. As the opening statements suggested, neither seriously challenged the other’s turf. Indeed, when one considers the two together, India is like Italy, each country has its event history in the “North” and its folklore in the “South.” Guha appears in this optic as a “Southern” intellectual, someone who has gained prominence functioning as a subordinate member of the dominant intellectual community in India, e.g., as a Croce had earlier in Italy.

Linking Guha and Croce (and not Gramsci) may be a bit unexpected as the term “subaltern” which Guha introduced came from Gramsci. This, notwithstanding, Guha and Gramsci in other respects are distinctly different. As we shall see, Guha is in fact closer to the Neapolitan philosopher, historian, and folklorist than he is to Antonio Gramsci; indeed how each understands the term “subaltern” reflects these differences. A brief aside to establish this point may be useful here. During his lifetime, Gramsci mainly approached the subject of the peasantry not so much as an observer, but from the vantage point of the struggle for change in Italy. “Subaltern” meant for him a condition to be overcome, a condition requiring an alignment with the Southern peasantry, the segment the state oppressed by using it as a source of cheap labor. Gramsci believed that to do this effectively, one must immerse himself/herself in the peasantry, overcoming in the process the problem of the abstractness of his/her coming from life in the class structure; what he or she could give back to the peasantry was the technical service of generalizing its experience, a service which would be beneficial to both in the struggle. One can extrapolate that Gramsci’s view was that subaltern experience was rich but particularized.

Only secondarily was Gramsci concerned with peasants in their own right or as a subject of inspiration as Subaltern Studies has been. So, finally, where Gramsci was concerned with how to bring about broad-scale social change in Italy, Guha evinces a generalized interest in the mass as one finds them, again a la Croce.

Guha’s writing in fact reminds one of that of the, Southern Intellectual. While many Indians write in English, they do so for other Indians. Guha’s writings about the elementary forms of peasant insurgency address a universal as well as a local audience. Guha, like Croce, is a cosmopolitan; perhaps as a consequence he and several other leading subalternists were both willing to leave India and were able to find their niche in a foreign academic world. Finally, both Guha and Croce despite their numerous reservations about writing history both write history.

To sum up, what is proposed as a hypothesis is that the Indian side of Subaltern Studies will be largely a liberal romantic one a la Croce with some Marxist vocabulary mixed in its writings. It takes as its praxis the primacy of ethics. Consciousness of the oppression of the subaltern, one senses from reading Guha, will induce the ruling class to change its ways. The paper now turns to the American context to show how Subaltern Studies adjusts to function there. In the American context, Subaltern Studies becomes more anarchist, becoming more specifically a contribution to the tradition of American modernism. This anarchistic tendency is expressed in the turn from Gramsci to Foucault and Nietzsche. History becomes less a science than a discourse. To pursue these themes, the paper proceeds to sketch out the political economy and then the organization of culture of the United States, suggesting that immigrant intellectuals have in fact long had a role in the history of modernism.

The U.S. as a “Bourgeois Democracy” – An Attempt At Political Economy

If the dominant liberal paradigm of history-writing finds the modern U.S. emerging out of a pageant of famous events between Jamestown and the Civil War, political economy finds the birth of the modern country in 1877. In 1877, the crisis caused by a century of war, territorial expansion and unregulated capitalism was brought under effective political control. Political alliances fell into place, the bureaucracy was reformed, the nation-state was born. In that year, the ruling classes institutionalized a workable strategy of dividing poor people against each other. Where the Indian ruling class played region against class, the American one played class against a racial undercaste. In the process, it created and maintained a permanent Afro-American racial undercaste.

From 1877-1932, finance capitalists defined the economy; the dominant image of the world for U.S. intellectuals was one of cultures. Basically, the world was a combination of the West and the rest. This period was the heyday of the traveler and of the missionary, individuals who went out to see these different cultures and report back on what they found. Mark Twain, a much beloved writer of the period, supposedly made 35 cents a word for his travel accounts. President Theodore Roosevelt’s injunction to “carry a big stick” underscores the rightwing anarchism of actual law and policy.

From 1932-1970, the failure of finance capitalism and the success of industrial capitalism brought the latter to the fore allied to segments of the petty bourgeoisie. This era was characterized by the ideology of development. Positivism sank deeper roots. It was the responsibility of the Chosen People to develop or modernize not only themselves but the underdeveloped or Third World.

In the most recent period, 1970-present, finance capitalism made another comeback, the description of the world once again changed, development giving way to the idea of a global village of international business propped up by various cultures. Multiculturalism flourished but, as before, not to the point of threatening the general Eurocentric view of the world.

During the years of industrial capitalism, not only economic, but social development occurred and actually threatened to bring about change in the hegemony. The racial hierarchy was giving way. The old strategy of using the Irish, the Jews and the Italians to hold down the Blacks was not working as well as it had before. Opportunities presented to Black soldiers by the war and as workers in factories gave them more economic power than they had before; the GI Bill, e.g., permitted the old buffer races, that is, the Jews, Irish and Italians to assimilate, creating a void in the middle of the racial hierarchy.[5] By the 1960’s, a large number of Whites openly sympathized with the civil rights struggle of the Blacks. An alliance of Blacks and Jews had arisen and functioned around many issues. Ten years later, the War in Vietnam brought to the surface the contradictions caused by these changes. At the same time, the industrial economy was slowing down, this at a point when more and more people were seeking a piece of the pie. The ruling class headed by the redoubtable figure of. Richard Nixon decided on a clampdown and on an internal reorganization to bolster up the system to keep it from unraveling.

The early 1970s-particularly the Nixon years-saw many important changes instituted to preserve the traditional hegemony. Not only was the industrialist encouraged to flee the “Rustbelt” and not rebuild it, but to seek out first the non-unionized “Sun Belt” and subsequently the Third World. In this period as well, here to repeat, many capitalists shifted out of industry into finance capitalism; often there was more money to be made that way. With these moves, a savage blow was dealt first the working class and then the lower middle class.

To impose these changes Nixon proceeded with a further militarization of the police; the relationship of the police to the people changing accordingly. Black militants were targeted for assassination and many among the Panthers and other groups were killed in this period in attacks apparently coordinated by the state apparatus. This period also saw the assassination of some whites.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the white liberal middle class withdrew into a self-imposed isolation from the arena confused by the rise of more radical Black movements and relieved that the War was coming to an end. Blacks, essentially defeated and pacified, were pushed into state-imposed isolationist trends; religious separatism and chauvinist nationalism surfaced conspicuously. Important relations between Whites and Blacks diminished sharply, and this presumably was what the state wanted. A byproduct of the breakdown of these relationships was that whole areas of inquiry, such as how the American racial hierarchy functions, were shelved and have remained shelved virtually to the present day. This period also saw yet another phenomenon and this too remains poorly studied, which is unfortunate for anyone seeking to understand American Subaltern Studies. I refer here to the rebuilding of the buffer races, i.e. the racial groupings intermediate between Whites and Blacks.

The new or rebuilt buffer races of the contemporary era, i.e. from about 1970 onward, at first appearance seem to be simply a continuation of the earlier buffer race phenomenon. They certainly serve the same function as earlier ones. However, they differ a bit by virtue of when they emerged on the scene the country was now on the decline’-and thus by the strategies they were able to pursue to secure their position. While there were poor immigrants then and there are poor ones now, a very visible component of these recent arrivals have been able to impose themselves immediately on the middle class, e.g., East Asians on the West Coast. And, as some predicted and perhaps even hoped, here to return to the buffer race idea, their arrival has led to collisions with the Black community, most notably at Watts. Some whites in any case construe these events “not to be their fault.”

Another example. Middle class Latin Americans, especially Cubans, emerged in Miami in the 1970s in greater numbers turning that and other cities on the East Coast into places where some Spanish-speaking people today have political clout.

In addition, a large number of Middle Eastern professionals have arrived, often ironically enough coming from countries designated by the State Department as “terrorist.” Arabic is easy to hear today in Jersey City and in Brooklyn, Farsi in Los Angeles. This is new; it is not simply an addition to the older Middle Eastern communities of Detroit and California. Many professional people from India have arrived as well; large numbers are in New Jersey. While much has been written about these groups, what one tends to find is more commentary on the brain drain from the Third World than on the reconstruction of the racial hierarchy of America.[6]

Yet, clearly there is a connection between immigration policy and the maintenance of racial hierarchies in a country whose political economy is based on race. Of course, there are facts about immigration available and these are even well-known. What is missing in the existing scholarship is evidence of official intentions lying behind the policies. What was it that made these facts? During the first liberal age, at least the period from the 1870s-1924, the record indicates a rate of foreign immigration of a half million a year. Some evidence supports the contention that the jobs these immigrants got appeared to be otherwise slated for Blacks and poor Whites. The closing of the foreign labor market during the First World War combined with the uncertainties of the immediate postwar period and with pressure from trade unions led to the 1924 Immigration Act.

The 1924 Act was an important moment in U.S. social history. It changed the country’s demography; it stayed in effect until 1965 and during this period, immigration policy favored only the countries of North-West Europe in contrast to the older immigration policy which had brought in many people from the Balkans and from Asia. During these forty-one years, immigration fell precipitously to an average of 178,000 a year. In this period as well, many Blacks and Whites got their first well paying jobs. This is commented on by Southerners, Black and White, many of whom come from families essentially unemployed since the Civil War.

With the passage of the 1965 Hart-Celler Amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act, again one finds the return of high levels of immigration and a breakdown of the labor market for Blacks. During these recent years, large numbers of Irish arrived as did Mexicans under family reunification provisions. For those disposed to tie racial issues to economics, the record does show that employer lobbies were always in the forefront of open immigration policies, while labor and Civil Rights organizations opposed them.[7]

Here one must lean a bit against drawing the quick inference. Life would have improved for Blacks except for immigration. Things have never been good for Blacks or for the White working class to any large extent. In fact, from the late 1960s on, the blows to Blacks and labor have fallen left and right. Even if the number of immigrants had for some reason remained low, capital would still probably have fled, plants would have been automated and race relations would have deteriorated over what they had been in the earlier 1960’s. Systemic logic would have demanded this.

Immigrants of course make choices and their choices modify the country’s history; they are not pawns even if they are often caught in situations and structures, which they did not anticipate. While the older buffer races set out to achieve assimilation and to become Americans either as communities or as individuals, today, with some changes in the U.S. power positionhere to return to an earlier point-there is a greater feeling of power on the part of the newer cultural communities, a feeling of power reflected in attempts on their part to achieve some leverage over the mechanism of consensus, the device actually used to define and to maintain the control of culture and society. To pursue such matters and their implications for understanding Subaltern Studies in America, a more detailed analysis of the organization of culture is needed.

The Organization of Culture in the United States

Despite its well-known attraction to pragmatism, American culture is a mixture of worldviews. Americans consider themselves to be the Chosen People, of God and this romantic assumption continues throughout modern history despite changes in the dominant form of capitalism and in other features of the society. In addition, one finds an anarchist/modernist side of American culture. Subaltern Studies, the paper will argue, builds on it.

Dominant groups in the U.S. have been actively involved in the organization of culture following the practices of their counterparts elsewhere. In the case of the U.S., since conflict was to be deflected by race, a major feature of it revolved around keeping Blacks visible but subordinate.

This is not widely realized. Traditionally, American scholars have associated racism as the law does with certain overt acts. But as recent scholarship suggests, it is not as coercion but as persuasion that racism may in fact be at its most pervasive, culture being the great terrain of persuasion. Today, some writers suspect that the narrative form of writing is a culprit. I think this is true but only to a degree. Since the nineteenth century in the U.S. as in most other countries, the narrative-e.g., the traditional history book, the classical nove--might be something one could understand not just on its own terms but in addition as a tool of control through which the ruling class drew the mass population to it. A protagonist occupies the foreground, the masses following behind. There were thus advantages to its existence, given a literate population; but there were also liabilities, given the possibility that it would fall in the wrong hands. Control of the narrative was thus important. In the wrong hands, e.g. those of a W.E.B. DuBois, the narrative could rather quickly be made to include too many of the wrong kind of people. This meant in practical terms that narrativity could not be left as the only way of structuring societal logic, there had to be cultivated on the side a kind of in house loyal Nietzscheanism or deconstructionism and a cultural modernism to beat down unwanted versions of the narrative and other expressions of popular rationalities.

Here the hegemony faced some problems. The history of the United States shows that attempts to manufacture usable and credible homegrown Nietzscheans and modernists were not too successful. Homegrown American anarchism of the dominant White community tended to oppose the state and want power returned to the local level. Efforts to draw this sort of service from Black society and from the working class were not very successful either. At least until the 1980s, most of the intellectuals produced in such contexts tended to believe in the expansion of the narrative, in other words, that history could and should include the oppressed. Thus, it is not farfetched to imagine that if one looked one would find a connection between the glossy theory magazines and the foundations on the one hand, and immigrant intellectuals and American modernism on the other. While archival evidence to back such claims up is probably not yet available, it is obvious that large sums of money are needed for what is being produced.

But, why would immigrant communities subscribe to modernism? The most reasonable explanation-as the layout of this paper suggests-would be one emphasizing what the immigrant encountered on being inserted into the racial hierarchy of bourgeois society, and then what the immigrant chose to do given these constraints.

What the recent Third World immigrant, whom one might associate as a potential contributor to modernism, encounters in the U.S. is a society of mixed signals. Relative wealth and recognition coexist with residential segregation and glass ceilings. One is appreciated but not wanted. Career mobility thus demands a skill and willingness to dismiss one’s own background and to do so under conditions in which one cannot replace the old by easy assimilation into something new. How can one raise children under such conditions? Isn’t it likely that under such conditions, Nietzsche and the American modernist tradition with their emphasis on caprice and fate would make more sense than Marx and his certitudes? Before these points can be pursued, we need to spell out what this social context is in greater detail.

By the late 1960s (and this is the point when the latest immigration law began to have an effect), the challenge represented by the American working class and by Blacks was leading to massive capital flight. At that point, unemployment in the rustbelt and other social problems were increasingly manifesting themselves. As was noted before, the power structure had to make numerous adjustments to maintain the status quo. What I would now suggest is that not all these adjustments were implemented through coercion nor took place in the narrow confines one associates with the government itself. Here another hypothesis needs to be introduced. A shared intuited logic induced by life in this type of hegemony led groups of people in foundations, universities, school systems and more generally in civil society as well as in the government to reach the same or similar conclusions. It is thus perhaps coincidence (and perhaps not) that this wider circle of “dominant elements” chose in the late 1960s to abandon the cultural structure of the Developmental Revolution period (1940s-1960s) with its proponents of the linearist rationalist approach and to turn to supporting nihilist fiction and criticism. Cultural anthropologists had a brief inning. Then, proponents of postmodernism, the devotees of Foucault and Derrida, took over.

In making this shift, what the state hoped to gain, I am assuming, was more control over popular rationality and this can be deduced to my satisfaction from two important details. First, for all the rapidly growing number of immigrant intellectuals teaching language and literature in the American education system in this period, the field of comparative literature remained undeveloped. The most likely reason for this appears to be that comparative literature generally offers a grounded, often historical, understanding of culture and this was not wanted at that point. Second, little was done to stem the decline in the number of American undergraduates majoring in English. If control of one’s language and culture was perceived during the Developmental Revolution years as an asset, it gave the citizen a sure footing and perhaps even mobility in society. After 1968, the well-spoken citizen was perceived as a threat. It, thus, seems useful to look at this breakdown of the college-level English major in a political light. Isn’t the state effectively diminishing social expectations by driving American youth away from English by making it an obscure subject?

The field of history, perhaps as a result of the above, has become the refuge of oppressed groups, such as Blacks and women, who were still hoping somehow to be recognized as a part of the narrative. During the past generation, Blacks and women have done much high-quality historical scholarship, much of it not surprisingly in areas quite new to the profession, much of it empowering ordinary people. The production seems to be having cumulative weight perhaps some political significance. Throughout the country, struggle on the local level is progressing. State attempts to folklorize less privileged communities and regions are being beaten back; fewer people today can be folklorized, and more will sue a museum or a TV Station, which tries to folklorize them.

In recent years in addition, there have been a number of indications that what the state is looking for is a way to control who gets to write history, that social history is not so appreciated. Should there be standardization of the college curriculum? Should higher education abolish area studies? How should consensus be restored? How can the elite reestablish its presence after a generation of social history? Could Subaltern Studies possibly be made to serve? This is the interesting political dilemma for Subaltern Studies today.

Unfair, my colleagues in history will be saying at this point, what drives history is what is internal to it. What the government wants is irrelevant. If talented immigrants come to this country, they assimilate. But this is not so! As was the case with the “melting pot” theory of yesteryear so with the racial underclass theory of today. Much evidence points in other directions, supporting, e.g., the contention introduced above that Blacks in this country constitute a racial undercaste and not a racial underclass. Is it not obvious that not all Blacks are poor; but poor or not, they are caste-defined by skin color? A tiny subgroup of Blacks partially penetrates White culture by affiliating closely with it and with Whites, but they still are Blacks. They do not assimilate.

In characterizing bourgeois democracies as hegemonies based on rule by race and by characterizing the situation of Blacks in terms of race and race modified by caste, and by including the idea of buffer races as actors, this paper establishes a link between race awareness and the possibility of social change. In so doing, it took up, as a particular instance, the connection between the Nixon era immigration policies and the clampdown on the civil rights movement of the same period. And from that point, here to sum up, it becomes apparent that as Blacks became less visible to the average White, Whites lost their awareness of “the” race issue. As a direct consequence, Blacks lost the moral and political leverage which might potentially come from white understanding of the actual nature of the hegemony, not to mention-at least in some instances-the economic leverage which came from actually getting jobs. Finally, for the narrow purpose of this paper, such an approach offers a way to interpret the opportunities suddenly open to the Indian community then arriving. How did the Bengali intellectual community react to the opportunity presented by their insertion into the U.S. racial hierarchy of the 1980s? Here one must turn to a deeper consideration of the Indian context which produced it as reactions reflect cumulative experience.

The Indian Context: the Subalternists and the Southern Question

The macroanalysis of political economy obliges one to start with a consideration of general dynamics. What dynamics in modern times mark Calcutta’s history or more precisely those affecting the “Calcutta Presidency,” ones which could serve us here as a way to explain the production of a trend like Subaltern Studies and the decision of some Subalternists to emigrate to the U.S.?

To begin with, one could note that Calcutta has undergone very major changes in this century. By the end of the Raj in 1948, Calcutta was anything but the stronghold of nationalism and of political power it had been up through the 1920s. Its elite economy, one tied to the financial capitalism of the Raj and jute, was from the years of the Great Depression onward becoming subordinated to the rising industrial and agricultural capitalism of the North and West of India, e.g. the Gangetic Plain. West Bengal (the old Calcutta Presidency and its peripheries) were, to use the language of Gramsci, becoming the “Southern Question” of contemporary India. If once the Madras Presidency served the function of a “South,” by the years of the Great Depression this had changed.

After the Great Depression, the North-East became increasingly a huge labor reservoir cum slum. Historians of Calcutta go on and on about the Primate City of India, about the City of Palaces and about the romance of jute, but this explains little after the Great Depression.[8] Gandhi may have begun in Champaran in Bihar but that was in 1917. Much changed thereafter. As in the case of Italy when its South was being turned into a cheap labor zone, what is relevant to note here is that the growing exploitation by the landlord class resulted in a growing class struggle. Peasant struggle rose particularly in Bihar. By the Second World War, however, the seasonal migration of Bihari agricultural labor North and West into the more affluent regions of the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh had become an established fact paralleling that of the Southern Italians going North to the Piedmont and to Tuscany. Conflict carried on in communal and caste forms.

By this point, the historian of India of almost any stripe will be asking: but what about the political history of Bihar or Calcutta? My answer is that a Southern Question approach offers the most useful way of explaining even the “events” of political history, e.g., the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930 or the Quit India Revolt of 1942, political events which took place partly in Bihar. Were these events-as standard accounts insist-led from above on a nationwide basis or did they arise (as subalternists more recently claimed) from a purely unique concatenation of local events from below? These extremes don’t help. Why not postulate a middle level for history including both region and nation? Why not do this as a matter of course for the study of communalism in Bihar? How otherwise can historiography avoid trivializing the subject? Is the last sixty years of Bihar simply to be explained by its backwardness or its uniqueness, because it doesn’t conform to a nationalist model? Is the Bihari Zamindar, the semi-feudal landlord functionary, simply an archaic leftover? If so, why? Must Bihar be a “terribly complex other,” or is it possible to portray Bihar as a logical part of some larger whole? If so, what is it?

Another example of the difficulties of the prevailing historiography emerges with the problem of interpreting the Partition in West Bengal. Nationalists have treated the Partition as the chaos leading to Freedom at Midnight. Decisions made were faute de mieux. Microanalysis goes to the other extreme. Alternatively, one might note from the vantage point of a middle level analysis, the enormous communal upsurges in the 1940s precisely in Calcutta and Bihar were precipitating factors underlying the Partition. So what then determined the politics of the drawing of the Partition line in West Bengal? Micro-accidents? This is unlikely. If West Bengal was the center of Indian nation-building, as most historians would have it, would half the region have been handed over to Pakistan? Again, unlikely. Isn’t it more likely the case that the local Bengali ruling class, becoming somewhat refeudalized, split West Bengal, fearing otherwise they would drown among the poor Bengalis flooding in from the North Eastern peripheries of Bangladesh? Finally, how can the dominant historiography-with its ideas of progress retarded by the Rajexplain the continuing stagnation of the region after Independence? The British left but still no development plans seemed to work there. Rather, what one researcher noticed was the unusually rapid growth of the police in Bihar after Independence in relation to the growth of the population.[9] Bihar was not to be a beneficiary of the new industrial capitalist alliance which had taken over.

In turning to a consideration of Calcutta’s cultural production in the last half century of the Raj and thereafter, the evidence suggests to the researcher the utility of staying on a middle level analysis, interpreting for example Calcutta’s culture a la “Naples.” During this period, as Calcutta underwent over a generation a gradual decline and involution, it began to produce a metaphysical culture, one reminiscent of a Croce in Naples. In fact, during this period, the metaphysical philosopher and poet Tagore-Tagore and Croce knew each other-opened a school in Calcutta which in due course evolved into a university. As this was taking place, Madras, the traditional University Center for metaphysics, Hindu philosophy and the like, began to emphasize positivism and existentialism as it started to join the “North.” Finally, as noted before, Calcutta began to produce a left of a new kind. This left began to think in terms of worker-peasant alliances In place of a worker vanguardist movement. In the 1960s, this “Maoist” trend in Calcutta captured the reins of local government.

As various observers have noted, the victory of the Maoist trend in Calcutta brought about the well-known crises of the Indian state reflected in the defeats faced by the ruling Congress Party in a series of elections from the late 1960s onward. Another consequence of the victory of the Communists was the end of any forward movement of social change in Calcutta itself. Politicians once ensconced in power literally simply aged in office and achieved little. Why this was the case could be debated. The government’s success in blocking land reform certainly was one factor. The success of the government-sponsored Backward Caste legislation in maintaining a semi-feudalist provincial power structure, must be included as another. Still, one might point rather critically to the Party’s rather economistic interpretation of politics. Do peasants and workers or anybody else vote according to their objective conditions?

Another problem for the Party was its unconscious elitism, a result of having higher caste and upper class leaders. By the 1970s, when the fight between left and right was raging, the more middle class, middle caste communalist challengers clearly had the advantage. Let us make this a country of Hindus, said the, communalists seizing the mantle of populism: no more privileges for Muslims, or for corrupt secular politicians, such as the communists, or for decadent educated, i.e. rich, upper caste Hindu women. In short, in a period of twenty years, the 1960s-1980s, if one understands the history of Calcutta in this way, one finds that the transformative possibilities in the Southern Question were lost by the Left and were taken over by the Fascist communalists as finance capitalism reasserted itself in the 1970s and 1980s.

For our purposes, the most important point is that it is this context of the historic setback to the left in Calcutta that sees the birth of Subaltern Studies. Following the breakdown of actual worker-peasant alliances as early as the 1960s, Calcutta was filled with self-criticism. What moves peasants and workers must not be their objective oppression but subjective factors, some came to think, introducing for themselves or others, as critics pointed out, a career line as folklorist and anthropologist of the oppressed, to replace that of partner in struggle. At this fateful juncture emerges the idea of subalternity, the name of Gramsci and much else as well. It is this same context of a left-to-right swing which witnessed the fairly large-scale and often quite painful migration of secularly-minded Bengalis and Biharis out of the “South” to the wider English-speaking world, including the U.S. From such vantage points as the U.S. research libraries, it was the fate of these individuals to look back and see the fascist communalists reaping the benefits of a superior political strategy to the one the left had come up with earlier. From the vantage point of the mid-1990s, it is now clear that what would work in India was not an approach to the peasants as subalterns but rather an alliance a la Gramsci of the “Southern” peasant and the “Northern” worker. Defeat on both a political level and a personal level thus explains the availability of a number of secular intellectuals “for use” by other countries, for example, by the United States.

Subaltern Studies in the U.S.

Subaltern Studies arrived in the U.S. in a period of finance capitalism; it is being widely embraced. The state may be involved but there is clearly something else going on. That something else is the response in civil society to Subaltern Studies. To explain that response requires a more elaborate discussion of political economy than that attempted heretofore.

On an elite level, with the Compromise of 1877, political and cultural issues appear to be resolved so that the U.S. could emerge as a typical capitalist nation-state of a democratic sort. On the level of civil society, 1877 saw the routinization of the modern racial contradiction experienced by both Blacks and Whites until this day. In law, as for example in the Constitution, Blacks were citizens and thus equal to Whites, but in practice, this was not and is not the case to this day. In practice, on the local level, equality is the exception more than the rule. Discrimination is all pervasive; some use the term “structural” to describe it, but it is also a matter of logic and philosophy. It includes practices of violence against Blacks, of physical segregation and of economic exploitation; it equally involves the use of language and religion. To the ordinary white American, all this is explained in so far as contradictions ever are in the following way. Law is the ideal but people still have their failings. Some Blacks and Whites, who follow the Garvey line and even some who don’t. take a more structuralist approach likening the situation of Blacks to that of a colony.

Indeed, the theory of colonialism or internal colonialism can not be easily ruled out as an alternative to the idea of democracy as rule by race, meaning racial undercaste. There are certainly some similarities to the situation of Blacks in the U.S. and of colonized peoples in the colonial world. In both instances, the dominant group exploits every opportunity to fragment the subordinate group. From the beginning of this century, one such practice was to siphon off the “talented tenth,” a segment allowed to develop and to emerge within certain boundaries into the larger white-dominated civil society. Other devices to fragment the Black society are in use as well, both in the past and up to the present. Under consideration at the moment (Summer 1996) is the idea of adding the racial category of multicultural to the existing repertoire of Black and White. Already, commentators note that the main effect of doing this would be to siphon off Blacks from Black society as few would be drawn to it away from White society. For this reason, it is not surprising to see the birth of a counter terminology of biraciality on the part of critics. Biracial people could be depended upon to capitalize on their strategic location. Rather than running away from Black identity by turning to multiculturalism, biracial identity might become the grounds for initiating cross-racial alliances. But why is this elaborate racial hierarchy necessary? In confronting this aspect of the question, doubts arise about the adequacy of the internal colonialist paradigm. Experience in the U.S. would suggest that the subjugation of Blacks is not reducible simply to assuring cheap labor nor to validating an ideology built on difference, the two elements visible in a typical colonial situation, but on the contrary, in the U.S., the priority is the maintaining of the loyalty of the white working-class. The state’s interest in racial hierarchy comes from this. There may be all kinds of free-floating racism but that is a different matter. The official concern is that the white working class might gain a consciousness of itself as a class and abandon its identity in terms of race. Under such conditions, it might well also ally itself with the generally working-class Black society. Such fears drive the state to uphold the racial hierarchy. And this it does by vigorously upholding practices reinforcing White privilege.

The utility of Black oppression to the U.S. ruling class thus is one of socializing the white working-class in terms of its color privilege and away from its class consciousness. Where the internal colonialism model posits that Blacks are important for their labor, i.e., because they can be superexploited like Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico or Filipinos in the Philippines, the racial undercaste hypothesis, on the other hand, argues that it is not so much their labor as their role as a negative identity for the White workforce which explains why the system needs them. A white working class man may become rich or famous or president, as Horatio Alger wrote in his “rags to riches” books. Such a working class, if it believes this sort-of thing, can from the point of view of capital be easily and cheaply controlled.

But how in the face of class oppression can the presence of Blacks serve to bolster an idea of privilege among white workers? The answer to this is that the white worker can be shown-and shown repeatedly-that Blacks are frequently arrested, lynched, drugged, jailed, have their churches burned, their families ripped apart. And such spectacles witnessed often enough induces him to cling to his racial as opposed to his class identity despite his own oppression. Recall the spectacle of convict labor. One normally thinks of convicts as working, but recall the recent shackling episodes of Black convicts in Alabama. Work is obviously secondary.

Gender analysis tends to offer more justification as well for a racial undercaste theory than it does for an internal colonialism or a melting pot one. As the Million Man March showed, the state needs Black patriarchy even if it fears Black masculinity. Thus one notes the difference between the American Farrakhan and Africans, such as Kenyatta, Mandela or Ben Bella. The historic struggle against internal colonialism of the latter does not divide men and women, as the Million-Man March of the former did

Yet another argument on behalf of the racial undercaste/buffer race hypothesis over against the internal colonialism model appears if one recalls the actual use of ethnicity made by the state in the two contexts. Where in colonial Algeria, one found a number of minority communities, but their presence had little impact on the French relationship to the Algerians, the libretto of Verdi’s opera, “the Italian Girl in Algiers,” notwithstanding. By way of contrast, in the United States, buffer groups play a clearly more organic role in the reproduction of the system. One example should suffice. Black and white males are often abusive in domestic settings and law courts naturally find this reprehensible. By way of contrast, such practices are not only accepted but actually imputed to certain immigrants, especially from groups which I have been categorizing as “buffer races.” Imagine the abusive Asian husband in court telling the judge that what he is doing is the norm where he comes from and that it accords with his religion. Imagine, in addition, he has as a witness an American anthropologist, who is white or Black, who will testify that in such and such a country, his behavior is indeed the norm. This seems often enough to work as judges, following public opinion, do not want to be seen as intolerant, even of wife-beating. The inability or unwillingness of the generality of white and Black American women and men to grasp how illogical such a defense is in its American context at least suggests that the racial hierarchy-buffer race culture included-remains so embedded that it is hard to interrogate.

Of course, the maintenance of any hierarchy depends on the power of the state. The maintenance of a racial undercaste may appear to be the will of the mass white citizen population, but to stop there in one’s explanation leaves unexplained how in a very powerdivided society-this will was created and what sustains it. It also passes over in the process how other possibilities were either crushed in their infancy like those represented by the old Knights of Labor and the Wobblies or how they encountered fierce opposition, such as befell the CIO, CORE and the NAACP, their histories thereafter becoming quite twisted. Again, one must return to the subject of state power. A strong state, such as the U.S., is one that is able to control or channel thought so that internal divisions reinforce the impression of diversity and freedom without their permitting change. In a strong state, at the risk here of tautology, the power differential between ruler and ruled is fairly great; what the official media and public school present is taken to be substantially true by most people. If TV and school teach that Blacks are an ethnicity as opposed to a race and that the country is a melting pot of ethnicities, this becomes common sense. Blacks are not Black because Whites are not White; rather Blacks are Afro-American, a part of the Rainbow. In such a situation, the skeptic might ask why then there are so few Blacks in positions of power.

Maintaining a hegemony requires not just strength but skill, luck and the continuing acquiescence of the governed. In the case of the U.S., a number of presidents have made obvious miscalculations but the hegemony continued to survive, thanks to initiatives emanating from civil society. One example in recent years is particularly germane to this discussion as it shows self-regulatory features functioning within the system. Over the past ten years, perhaps beguiled by the liberalism of more secure regions. dominant groups appear to have sanctioned “too many” Blacks becoming too prominent. In the past two years, as if from nowhere, throughout the South, the West, and the Rustbelt-where the vast bulk of the poor whites are-emerged white supremacist organizations. And, quickly they spread nation-wide. The state was caught by surprise; it retreated, but it was not the least bit daunted. Prudently, General Powell, the Black hero, decided to end his political career with his book-signing tour.

What maintains white supremacism in the U.S. in modern history, I now want to argue, is not just the state but civil society as well. Thus, white supremacist attitudes are not something which can be easily correlated with levels of education, their being something rooted in the heritage of the society. Let us then consider this heritage. Reflecting on heritage takes the American back to the tales of the founding fathers and of the pioneers. These founding fathers and pioneers are our collective ancestors; these are the authors of our Declaration of Independence and of our Constitution. On some level, we Americans know that these people condoned the massacre of the indigenous population. Are these ancestors then mass murderers? If so, who are we? No people could endure this ambiguity; the American solution up to this point has been to emphasize the Puritan myth. Our ancestors were the Chosen People of God. Like the followers of Moses, our forefathers too may have killed many people on their “errand” but this was not truly intentional and thus can be condoned. What happened to Indians and Blacks in this country is part and parcel of this errand. To become American means to assimilate this myth and inherit this identity. When one does this-as millions have-the rest of the world becomes foreign, meaning not chosen.

Assimilation in America has not surprisingly served as a bellwether of politics. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, large numbers of unassimilated, poor Irish Catholics, occupied much of the attention of reformers in America. What became apparent to nineteenth century employers as the middle decades rolled toward the fateful year of 1877 was that the Irish were more hostile to Blacks than were most other Whites. In addition, they were willing to work hard, being anxious to be accepted as White. Equally important from a hegemonic perspective, the Irish siphoned off a portion of the sympathy and attention “Whites” paid to Black issues; for, with the arrival of the Irish, the liberal White came to conclude that more than one group needed help. Blacks were only one among others. What emerged in the minds of the ruling class was that the Irish could be used as a buffer race if and until they were “whitened,” i.e., until they became assimilated, and this is what happened, whiteness of course all the while being in the eye of the beholder.

The Irish were objectively the first of what I would term the buffer race phenomenon, although the state did not have an immigration strategy of this sort so very early. To find a strategy, it appears more precise to look to the period of the immigration of Jews and Italians in the twentieth century, to the Act of 1924 referred to above.[10]

Finally, immigrant strategies vis-a-vis assimilation need to be considered. If the state and the wider civil society favor or disfavor such groups in different ways, the praxis developed by these groups has also been quite variable and this has affected their situation. What is noticeable in gross terms is that as a group strives to move upward in the eyes of the ruling class, the notion of ethnicity, meaning culture and thus choice, grows stronger as a way to characterize its identity. Put another way, the attribute of race (meaning genetic determination) appears to weaken. For some groups and individuals, not surprisingly, affiliation with the idea of culture and choice have in fact been a stepping stone to assimilation. For others, however, especially those coming in the age of American decline, groups who could withstand Americanization, much was to be gained by holding onto the idea of ethnicity for its own sake and by moving toward the idea of a nationality like an Israel or an Armenia, as well as toward assimilation; others adopted still different strategies. As a community, Bengalis in the U.S. appear to be seeking assimilation as individuals. There is no urge to recuperate a lost Bengal.

Modernism as a Cultural Strategy of the Buffer Races

To be placed in between and therefore to have to make sense of the world through the experience of others has induced many talented and thoughtful people to turn to religion, literature, and the arts away from the positivism of traditional national history, sometimes to modernism. Traditional national history, it would seem, demanded of Indians, Chinese, Arabs, and other immigrants that they abandon their own experience in favor of someone else’s which was more relevant. Offered such terms, many came to believe that national history was an enemy or at least a dead end; it became something to attack and deconstruct more than simply to rewrite. On the other hand, literature, religion and the arts held out the possibility of greater freedom to express authentic feelings and experience. As was noted before, this point seems confirmed by a consideration of modern literature and literary criticism. Themes, such as exile, alienation, visibility in real life or in a book as opposed to invisibility, language over content, in fact many of the themes of modernism have emerged out of this context.

Postcolonialist discourse, much of it Indian, is an important current expression of this older, longer trend of buffer race frustration with the prevailing positivist rationality. It has elicited much comment. One study links the older Jewish to this newer Indian writing.[11] In both, the author claims, visibility is a preoccupation. Anglo-American culture made Indians invisible, Jews virtually so. Both felt it corrupted them Jews, for example, built walls around their culture with religious studies to protect it. To critics from within these communities, even such movements of regeneration as, e.g., nationalism, wind up corrupting. These points can all be found in American Jewish literature and among Indian Americans.

Let us now consider Subaltern Studies along with writers one could characterize as engaged in similar ventures and see if the type of structural analysis outlined in the foregoing sections can contribute to understanding its American reception. In reading Subaltern Studies’ interpretation of Sati or widow immolation, the American reader finds him or herself concentrating on strange and interesting details which, however, never appear to threaten anything or anyone outside of India. A case of Sati reported, misreported or not reported emphasizes merely the peripheral nature of some exotic victim. It fits perfectly well with the existing dominant paradigm, which grew out of Katherine Mayo’s American “classic,” Mother India. Contrast such an approach with the Marxist-feminist one of Maria Mies. Mies finds wife-burning to be part of plunder and of primitive accumulation in capitalism. In Mies’ account, there is reflexivity, as plunder and primitive accumulation exist right here in the U.S. up to now, it is not simply in India.[12] From Mies’ account, one can not rule out that the burning widow and the inexpensively made shirt one is wearing are part of the same problematic.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, author of Rethinking Working Class History Bengal 1890-1946 (Princeton, 1989) and a leading contributor to Subaltern Studies, is an interpreter of the rise and decline of the jute industry around Calcutta from within the U.S. His book is well-written and has already several imitators. In the years following the Great Depression, the author finds that trade unionists failed to organize the workers. The author argues that it was not the nature of these workers to take up trade unionism as Western workers did because Indian workers retain their religious and cultural traditions. Historians must therefore rethink working class history. One could well agree with this. What stands out, however, in this particular application of the idea of difference is that the dialectic has been thrown out; that in effect, rethinking the workers means that the workers will no longer be a particularly significant part of history. For the sake of giving it subjectivity, a huge traditional part of the Indian working class goes from being a part of the dialectic as in earlier trade union histories to simply being a part of subalternity here.

Yet, the information presented by this well-informed author might easily have led him in a different direction. Prior to the Depression, the jute industry is shown to have had a very high rate of return. The trade union movement had an opportunity that was simply not there in later years. It did not take this opportunity. Thus, as the book shows, jute workers remained among the poorest segments of the working class, militant but unorganized. By indirection, such a tableau suggests that the government and trade union had different priorities. A slightly closer look suggests that their priority was to favor workers in the “North” over those in the “South.” Following the line of the text, then, something in my opinion is missing. One encounters a self-folklorizing Southern worker, successful managerialism of the Scots, who are able to ward off unionization, failed “BabuCoolie” relation of the union and communist organizers.[13] Why these relations, these outcomes? Something is indeed missing. Is what is missing facts about India? Perhaps, the broader labor history context would clarify the situation of the jute workers. Or is what is missing a reflection on the susceptibilities of the American reader? Following the line of inquiry proposed here, I would hypothesize that if a book was written for an American audience, such an audience could be presumed to be receptive to the idea of an inferior underclass and this might explain the choice of contours, Chakrabarty following roughly the same strategy as Salman Rushdie, Naipaul, and various others in presenting Third World realities.

In Middle Eastern Studies, Nawal Saadawi, the Egyptian feminist author, is immensely influential in this country; she too, in my now rather general use of the term, is also a “Subalternist.” Coming from the “North” of Egypt, she briefly mentions Western imperialism; this noted, the main effect of reading her books for an American audience, however, is one of the shock of learning about the impact of “native” customs, such as clitoridectomy. Again, as with Lata Mani’s work on Sati referred to above, the outrage of her “Northern” background seems to give way to the purveying of a mystery rooted in something timeless, in this case, Nilotic (read “Southern”) culture. By way of contrast, when Barbara Ehrenreich, another Marxist-feminist writer, presents clitoridectomy as a feature of American history, she offers an explanation for why it was done in terms of the fear produced in women of the sex urge and of their attempts to overpower this sex urge, a fear induced by the American power structure of a certain period. As this does not fit the consensus view of American cultural history of the nineteenth century, one might hypothesize that Barbara Ehrenreich and her examples are passed over in favor of Nawal Saadawi and hers, Subaltern Studies here serving to properly nativize a disagreeable subject. The history of the treatment of widows-Indian or American-could no doubt be taken up in a similar variety of ways.[14]

Edward Said’s writings offer a different approach to struggle in the U.S. from a buffer race position. Said began his career writing about Joseph Conrad. In the late 1970’s, he wrote Orientalism, calling into question Western knowledge as essentially colonial discourse. With the Intifada, he, like most other Palestinians, was forced to come to grips with the historical agency of what had seemed to Western public opinion to be a subalternized and submerged mass population. In the Question of Palestine and in other later works, Said successfully defended the nationalism of his people against the defenders of the Israeli occupation. His success was, I believe, a result of the fact that he could write in such a way as to conform to consensus history and thus make the voices of the Intifada heard. For the first time, the American middle class could understand Palestinian nationalism. This was achieved by making the Palestinian leadership into a small group of non-threatening rather likeable people not too unlike Americans and by subalternizing the rest. The majority of the participants in the Intifada remain “children.” While Said’s work has not had the impact that Exodus did for the Zionist movement with its link to the Mayflower, it is a competitor. What stands out in both these well-known books is the skillful choreography; either a Zionist or a Palestinian appeal could have begun quite justifiably by linking the struggle to that of the American Indians or to that of Blacks, but neither did so.

Quite different from the above is the writing of E. San Juan, Jr., a literary critic, who introduces us to the tradition of struggle in the Philippines, interlarding it with a critical take on the American racial hierarchy.[15] Quite different as well is the writing of Rifaaat Abou-el-Haj on Ottoman history.[16]

In light of this range of productions, how then should one evaluate the Bengali Subalternists in America. Is their work strictly assimilationist, as this paper has been implying? My conclusion is more provisional. In reading a much-quoted essay Gayatri Spivak wrote entitled “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, one finds an attack on the eurocentrism of such fashionable writers as Foucault and Deleuze and an unexpected reconstruction of the suicide of an Indian woman, a suicide linked to the nationalist struggle and not as one would expect, to native tradition.[17] The writings of Partha Chatterjee would not fit either. Chatterjee’s early writing took him into Bihari land history and in this early period, he produced a work of scholarship far exceeding in depth and detail any needs the Party would likely have had; from this fact, one reads critique. His international reputation emerged with the publication by Zed Press of Nationalist Thouaht and the Colonial World-A Derivative Discourse (London, 1986). In this work and in a series of subsequent essays, Chatterjee showed the various ways in which the colonial state with the complicity of the early nationalist movement set up the social institutions, including those affecting the relations of males and females, institutions and practices, which, in fact, remain to the present day. In one recent essay, Chatterjee pointed out that if colonialism has deceived the left, it has deceived the right too, communalists taking-many things of nineteenth century vintage to have been eternal.[18]

Spivak, Chatterjee and others are no doubt something of an exception in terms of what they have’ succeeded in doing both in their scholarship and in how they have communicated it. Can others learn from them? Can Indians in the U.S. play a role in the struggle with hegemony or will they simply remain assimilationist and passive`? In India, is there any hope that subaltern scholarship put back into that political context could help in the reconstruction of alliances to set back the communalist challenge?

This paper began from the premise that social history throughout the world is in an awkward situation. It is sophisticated, it is developing rapidly, and yet it is still expected to conform to the parameters created by older fields, such as political history. Conflicts have arisen. Subaltern Studies represents a possible way to diminish conflicts by making the area of subalternity reserved for social history so that it would not challenge the more traditional history. One could study people on the assumption one would not be interacting with them. The paper turned to the cases of India and the U.S. and inquired, who would likely be subalternized, and what would be the consequences of subalternizing such people?

The approach to answering these questions took the form of a structural analysis; some of the strengths and weaknesses of the paper come from this approach. India was construed to be an example of an Italian Road country and the U.S. to be an example of a Bourgeois democracy. In each case the sociological location of the project seemed to be important, be it as part of the Southern Question of the one or of the culture of the Buffer races of the other Subalternity in the one context, I predicted pessimistically, had the potentiality of reinforcing regionalism in one, racialism in the other.

The concrete findings forced some modifications. First, while there are influential examples of Subaltern Studies in India and now in the U.S. which do what was predicted, producing what in effect seems like anthropology or folklore, still one also finds examples of writings which use subalternity as a position to directly interrogate or attack the oppressor culture. Given the importance of the Subaltern Studies experiment to fields such as social history, a further attempt to map out and interpret the evolution of the project seems called for.


* This paper was originally published in 1999 in the Working Papers Series in Cultural Studies, Ethnicity and Race Relations, edited by E. San Juan, Jr. (Published by the Department of Comparative American Cultures, Washington State University). Thanks for suggestions from: Ms. Pamela J. Austin, Vinay Bahl, Arif Dirlik, Rifaat Abou el-Haj, Thomas C. Patterson, Epifanio San Juan Jr.

[1] Arif Dirlik, “The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism,” Critical Inquiry v.20 (Winter 1994). The aptness of Dirlik’s line struck me while reading the recent special issue of the American Historical Review devoted to Subaltern Studies.

[2] The model on which this paper is based is drawn from P. Gran, Beyond Eurocentrism: A New View of Modern World History (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996). The idea of “Italian Road” hegemony is developed in the book to characterize and distinguish a number of countries, including Italy and India, in which the dominant classes try to split the mass population and thereby deflect class conflict by appealing to regional sentiments, playing north against south. On the origins of these ideas, see Pasquale Verdicchio (ed.) Antonio Gramsci: The Southern Question (West Lafayette, In.: Bordighera Inc., 1995).

[3] What is lacking, thus making this quite provisional, is information on the sources and conditions of its funding, a relevant point, as Subaltern Studies appears to be a fairly high cost operation. The 30 year rule for foundation archives remains. What is known is that Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie were involved in India in the 1950’s and 1960-s and knew the academic scene at that-time.

[4] For an overview by one its American protagonists, Gyan Prakash,”Subaltern Studies as Post-Colonial Criticism,” American Historical Review December 1994 (v.99) 1475-1490. The changing nature of the master concept of subalternity is noted on pp. 1478ff.; The link between Gramsci and the Subaltern Studies group in so far as it can be made appears in David Arnold, “Gramsci and Peasant Subalternity,” The Journal of Peasant Studies V.11 (July 1984) 155-177. For the de-linking from Gramsci of a number of Indian Subalternists, see the series of articles on Gramsci in Economic and Political Weekly (Bombay) of January 30, 1988, Partha Chatterjee dissenting.

[5] Karen Sacks, “How did Jews Become White Folks?” in Race edited by Steven Gregory and Roger Sanjek (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994) 78-102; Thomas C. Patterson and Frank Spencer, “Racial Hierarchies and Buffer Races: Race, Racism, and the History of U.S. Anthropology,” in Transforming Anthropology v.5/1-2 (1994) 20-27; Gran, “Race and Racism in the Modern World: How it Works in Different Hegemonies,” ibid., 8-14.

[6] For the tendency of the new Egyptian immigrants to prefer Whites to Blacks, Soheir A. Morsy, “Beyond the Honorary `White’ Classification of Egyptians: Societal Identity in Historical Context,” ibid., 175-198; for the overview on Indians in America, Joan M- Jensen, Passage From India: Asian Indian Immigrants in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

[7] Roy Beck, The Case Against Immigration (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996) pp. 40-42

[8] 8. Manimanjari Mitra, Calcutta in the, 20th Century-An Urban Disaster (Calcutta, 1990) pp. 222ff, stresses that even after independence, the decline of the regional economy became more pronounced as development money was put into other parts of India; Rajat Ray, Urban Roots of Indian Nationalism: Pressure Groups and Conflicts of Interests in Calcutta City Politics, 1875-1939 (New Delhi, 1979), reveals how communalism at this point started to overwhelm nationalism, this being a part of the southernization.” Another general feature about “southern” labor is that it is underunionized by national standards, be it the jute workers, the tea workers of Assam, or the colliery workers in Bihar. See Nirban Basu, The Working Class Movement: A Study of the Jute Mills of Bengal 1937-1947 (Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi, 1994) 259-260. In his conclusion, Basu criticizes Chakrabarty’s study noted in the text for its excessive “culturalism.” Everyone is entitled to their opinions, mine is that whatever the academic problems in emphasizing culture may be, the real effect of the book is to subalternize the people of an oppressed region, the work strongly reminding one of a long series of such books going back to E. Banfield’s, Amoral Society. A work emphasizing worker choice, and also arguing specifically against the culturalist approach of Chakrabarty, is Arjan de Haan, Unsettled Settlers: Migrant workers and Industrial Capitalism in Calcutta (Hilversum: Verloren Publ., 1994). More recently, Chakrabarty, “Marx after Marxism,” Economic and Political Weekly May 29 (1993) 1094-1096 attempts to find a rationale for his politics in Marx.

[9] Stephen Henningham, “The Agrarian Question and Peasant Movements in Twentieth-Century India: A Review of Some Studies of Bihar,” Journal of Peasant Studies v.11 (1983-4) 22, 230-231.

[10] This is a necessary shortcut. A wider discussion would have to sort out groups which were being brought in to be “negroized,” such as the Chinese in California and the Mexicans in the South West in contrast to the Slavic and Balkan workers brought in to take jobs from Blacks and be buffers. My argument is that only the Blacks and Amerindians are really type-cast, for the rest the system can be flexible. There is no melting pot, as I will also argue; but if groups keep getting added there is the possibility that change for some is mobility. Most Jews today are “white folk”; many Chinese have moved up to buffer race position. For an example of Black frustration at buffer race power, bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston: South End Press, 1990) Ch. 10.

[11] Carole Stone, “The Short Fictions of Bernard Malamud and Bharati Mukherjee,” in Bharati Mukheriee: Critical Perspectives edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993) 213-226.

[12] Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (London: Zed Press, 1986) 146-162.

[13] Vinay Bahl, “Class Consciousness and Primordial Values in the Shaping of the Indian Working Class,” South Asia Bulletin v.13/12 (1993) 152-172. Before the “New South” Bengalis came, there was an “Old South” Indian presence in the U.K. Their focus was the predictable specialties of the classical high culture.

[14] Lata Mani, “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India,” Cultural Critique (Fall, 1987); Nawal Saadawi, The Hidden Face of Eve (Boston: Beacon, 1981); Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, For Her Own Good: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Experts Advice to Women (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1979) p.123.

[15] See especially, E. San Juan, Jr., Racial Formations/Critical Transformations: Articulations of Power in Ethnic and Racial Studies in the United States (Highland Park: Humanities Press, 1992); “Multiculturalism and the Challenge of World Cultural Studies,” in Hegemony and Strategies of Transgression (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995) Ch. 10.

[16] Rifaat Abou-el-Haj, Origins of the State (Albany: State University of New York, 199?) found that the Ottoman state, one of the icons of otherness in orientalism actually developed in ways broadly similar to Europe.

[17] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture edited by C. Nelson and L. Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988) 271-316. Spivak, an-American-based specialist on Derrida, stands at some distance from the more metaphysically-inclined Guha, e.g., “Discipline and Mobilize,” in Subaltern Studies VII (Delhi, 1992) edited by Partha Chatterjee and Gyanendra Pandey, 69-120. For her defense of Subaltern Studies for avoiding vulgar positivism, “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography,” in her In Other Worlds - Essays in Cultural Politics (New York: Methuen, 1987) Ch. 12.

[18] Partha Chatterjee, “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question,” in Recasting Women - Essays in Indian Colonial History edited by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990) 233-253; “Claims on the Past: The Genealogy of Modern Historiography in Bengal,” in Subaltern Studies VIII - Essays in Honour of Ranajit Guha edited by David Arnold and David Hardiman (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995) Ch. 1.

Peter Gran is Professor of History at Temple University. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago. At present he teaches courses in world and comparative history as well as modern Middle Eastern history. He is best-known for his two books, Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt 1760-1840 (Texas, 1979, Syracuse 1998) and Beyond Eurocentrism: A New View of Modern World History (Syracuse, 1996). He is currently working on a brief sequel to his highly innovative and provocative second book.   ^ return to top ^