New Imperialisms, New Imperatives
Taking Stock of Postcolonial Studies

Nagesh Rao
The College of New Jersey

It has become commonplace to say that "the world changed after 9/11." The precise contours of this change, the nature and extent of the rupture from the past that the attacks of 9/11 and the ensuing "war on terrorism" are supposed to have initiated are, of course, still being debated. In the West, many of these debates are being registered in the pages of left-wing publications such as Monthly Review, International Socialist Review, and Socialist Register, which published a special issue titled The New Imperial Challenge. In the last year alone, numerous books by well-known critics of empire sought to unravel the meaning of the new imperialism; among them were Immanuel Wallerstein's The Decline of American Power, Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival, Rahul Mahajan's Full Spectrum Dominance, Ellen Meiksins Wood's Empire of Capital, and Aijaz Ahmad's Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Imperialism of Our Time, to name just a few.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire (2000) might be said to have set the stage for this flurry of activity on the question of empire and imperialism. While the debates being waged within the pages of these publications are too numerous and too complex to sketch out in this paper, it can safely be asserted that one of the common threads of these discussions has been the question of the relevance of classical Marxist theories of imperialism today. Where the editors of Socialist Register are quite explicit in their rejection of the paradigm established by Lenin's Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism and by Nikolai Bukharin's Imperialism and the World Economy, they nevertheless ground their analyses within a Marxist-derived framework, as does Ellen Wood. On the other hand, Hardt and Negri's Empire represented a self-conscious break from Marxian categories, attempting as it did an ambitious and novel analysis of Empire. Regardless of where one stands on these questions, one can hardly deny the pivotal role that such debates will play (and are playing) in shaping our understanding of imperialism, anti-imperialist struggle, and postcolonial politics today.

Interestingly enough, the key journals of postcolonial studies have been relatively quiet on this question. One would have expected a flurry of intellectual activity, of statements and declarations, analyses and polemics, about the newly resurgent American empire, especially from a field that lays claim to expertise about all things (post)colonial. The British-based journal Interventions, edited by Robert Young, did put out a special issue on "Empire and imperialism" in 2003. However, most other journals of postcolonial studies, such as Jouvert and the Australian-based Postcolonial Studies, carried little more than perhaps one or two articles on the new imperialism. Instead, just as the U.S. was winding up phase one of its war on terrorism by declaring victory against one of the poorest countries in the world, Postcolonial Studies treated us to a particularly illuminating and urgently relevant special issue on toilets and plumbing, with an editorial titled "Plumbing the Depths: Toilets, Transparency and Modernity," and with articles on "bucket latrines in Ghana" and "the supermodern Japanese toilet in a changing domestic culture."[1]

Is this symptomatic of a perverse insistence on maintaining our irrelevance, or does it have deeper roots? Given the nature of this forum, of course, it behooves me to favor the latter explanation. I want to suggest today that postcolonial studies is at somewhat of a crossroads. The call for papers for the conference at which this paper was first presented, for instance, rightly referred to a "stalemate" in the field, calling attention to the sometimes debilitating, and now almost banal debates about location, aesthetics vs. politics, textuality vs. materiality, etc. I want to suggest that postcolonialism is in a cul-de-sac of its own making, and its continuing relevance as an academic and extra-academic discipline depends on our willingness to break through this cul-de-sac, not so much into newer, greener pastures, but into spaces and territories that many in the field have long considered barren and unattractive. But such a breakthrough would necessarily involve a look back to the past of postcolonial studies, a task that the next section of this paper takes up.

Looking back: The development of postcolonial studies

The impasse of postcolonial studies can best be understood historically. Looking back at the debates and the conflicts that have marked the field since its emergence in the mid-1970s, we find that postcolonial studies is itself a product of changing social conditions. Both postcolonialism and its terrible twin, postmodernism, achieved prominence during the 1980s, and postcolonial studies can be said to have achieved the status of a settled, "respectable" field of academic inquiry through the 1990s. Taking my cue from Aijaz Ahmad's argument in In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures, I would like to suggest that the field's early focus on discourse and textuality was symptomatic of the relative decline of Left political practice in this period and the emergence of what Ahmad referred to as "the mystique of Left professionalism" (55). Of course, this focus on discourse and textuality was not altogether a bad thing. Highlighting as it did the gaps, fissures and contradictions in both colonial discourse and in contemporary academic discourse, it radically transformed our understanding of the texts of empire, not to mention the curricula of English departments around the world, and particularly in the West.

The 1980s and 1990s were, however, witness to a series of shifts in the world system, both at the structural and at the ideological levels. Structurally, the collapse of the USSR and the much-trumpeted "triumph of capitalism" went hand-in-hand with a restructuring of capitalist relations on a global scale. State-led developmental policies rapidly disintegrated under the assault of a now-ascendant neo-liberal regime, variously referred to as "globalization," "the Washington consensus," or quite simply, neoliberalism. Concomitantly, one saw the abject failure of the promises of decolonization across large swaths of the "third world." The precise origins of this process continue to be a subject of debate, as many of these policies were implemented unevenly in different parts of the world, but it is safe to say that by the end of the 1980s the world seemed set to be refashioned in the image of American neoliberalism. This is not to suggest, of course, that the contours of the "new world order" can be derived merely from a reading of U.S. imperialism; nevertheless, it is undeniable that the post-Cold War world has increasingly been shaped by the sole remaining superpower, with all the attendant conflicts and contradictions that such a restructuring necessarily entails. I will return to these questions in the conclusion.

Ideologically, the twin assault of TINA (there is no alternative) that characterized the reign of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the U.S., plus the perceived failure of "actually existing socialism" meant that radical intellectual practice found itself in a crisis. Various "post-al" theories, from postcolonialism to postmodernism to postmarxism, tried to maintain some commitment to a radical re-shaping of the world in theory, while being unable to envision the process of transformation in practice. Thus, lacking a referent for its radical, anti-imperialist theorizing in the real world, the discourse of postcolonial studies occupied a progressively narrow and exclusive realm of textuality.

This development did not, however, go unchallenged, as numerous theorists began to question and critique the idealist and ahistorical assumptions of the field. By the end of the 1990s, two rather distinct strands had emerged within postcolonial studies. In the inaugural issue of the journal Postcolonial Studies, Simon During drew a distinction between what he calls "reconciliatory postcolonialism" and "critical postcolonialism." Both forms of postcolonialism, he argued, share the basic premise that "western cultural history since at least the sixteenth century is unanalysable without reference to colonialism" (31). Furthermore, they both want to show how postcolonial societies as we know them today have been "built by both sides," neither completely dominated by the West nor fully free of the legacy of imperialism. Beyond these commonalities, however, it is the differences between reconciliatory and critical postcolonialisms that have become increasingly significant and constitutive of the field. Whereas reconciliatory postcolonial thought finds its intellectual/political origins and allegiances within a broadly defined "postmodern Left," critical postcolonialism maintains in various ways a commitment to materialist, realist and Marxist analyses.

Crucially, even the theorists most critical of the field, such as Aijaz Ahmad, E. San Juan, and Arif Dirlik find themselves uneasily occupying the same shelf-space as those whose attitude towards postcolonialism has been nothing short of celebratory, such as Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak. If, in the heyday of deconstruction, one could say "there is no outside-the-text," today it seems increasingly true that "there is no outside the postcolonial." The field is characterized, in other words, by a remarkable ability to assimilate even its most trenchant critics. From diaspora studies to theories of globalization; from colonial discourse analysis to the third cinema; from critiques of the nation to ecofeminism; postcolonial studies gradually finds its ambit spiraling beyond traditional boundaries of disciplinarity.

In itself, this is not a bad thing. After all, disciplinarity is about disciplining: disciplining both the production of, and the access to, knowledge about society and the world at large. In this regard, the growing interdisciplinarity of postcolonial studies can only be welcomed. As I have argued elsewhere, the purported interdisciplinarity of postcolonial studies, however, has produced a certain eclecticism in its theoretical formulations and a certain sweep-of-the-hand approach to what are now perceived as outdated or outmoded approaches to questions of empire, class and culture, particularly those that find their origins in political economy, sociology and anthropology (Rao 166). Within a few years of its emergence as an academic field of study, postcolonial studies had begun to reveal its biases and assumptions and the inadequacies of its politics. The marginalization of the colonized subaltern subject theorized by Gayatri Spivak gradually came to be replaced by talk of the "marginality" of the "third world" intellectual in the metropolitan academy. The ahistorical underpinnings of The Empire Writes Back led to a lack of specificity when it came to defining postcolonial theory's object of study. In this formulation of "postcolonialism," the so-called third world countries found themselves lumped together with Canada, Australia, and even the USA. In the work of other theorists, particularly that of Homi Bhabha, the textualist impulse led to a singularly reconciliatory attitude, as was evidenced in his appropriation of a theorist like Franz Fanon for a poststructuralist project. As Neil Lazarus points out, "Bhabha's ‘re-membering' of Fanon inverts the historical trajectory of Fanon's thought in order to propose a vision of him as preeminently a theorist of ‘the colonial condition,' of the interpellative effectivity of colonial discourse" (80).

While the Derridean streak in Bhabha forced a cleansing of militancy from Fanon, in Spivak it resulted in a paradoxical silencing of subaltern resistance. Thus, as early as 1987, Benita Parry wrote:

Where military conquest, institutional compulsion and ideological interpellation was, epistemic violence and devious discursive negotiations requiring of the native that he rewrite his position as object of imperialism, is; and in place of recalcitrance and refusal enacted in movements of resistance and articulated in oppositional discourses, a tale is told of the self-consolidating other and the disarticulated subaltern ("Problems" 36).

The significant differences in the critical practices of Spivak and Bhabha are submerged in a shared programme marked by the exorbitation of discourse and a related incuriosity about the enabling socio-economic and political institutions and other forms of social praxis. (43)

If this was the necessary critique of the dominant trends within postcolonial studies a decade ago, it continues to be so today.

The rejection of Marxism

Politically, the field is currently dominated, as I have indicated above, by two strands which come together in sometimes unpredictable ways. The first is by far the most popular. This trend carries on the work of Edward Said, Spivak and Bhabha and creates a clearer link than they do with poststructuralist and postmodernist theory. Characterized by a rejection of Marxism and nationalism as so much Eurocentrism, it drags its subaltern subject with it into the abyss of incommensurable language games. I'm referring to the work of such theorists as Carol Breckenridge, Diana Brydon, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Partha Chatterjee, Gyan Prakash, R. Radhakrishnan, Sangeeta Ray, Stephen Slemon and others, whose theoretical and critical project is predicated on an unquestioned and unquestioning rejection of Marxism as a theoretical analytic. Any graduate student in the Anglo-American academy knows by now the stock phrases that can be invoked to dismiss Marxism tout court; Marxism is said to be crude and reductionist, universalist and totalizing (totalitarian), Eurocentric and elitist, and when all else fails, outmoded and utopian.

It might be argued that between the two poles of postmodernism, on the one hand, and Marxism on the other, there exists a range of theoretical possibilities, such that a simple "either-or" demarcation as the one that I have employed here is reductive. My intention is not to imply that these two discourses exhaust the range of options open to postcolonialists. However, I would insist that this particular cleavage is in many ways constitutive of the debates that have shaped the field. The implications of this cleavage must therefore be central to any consideration of the the development as well as the current state of postcolonial studies.

Despite the apparent diversity of voices in the field, there is a sense in which theories of the "postcolonial" and theories of the "postmodern" are closely linked. This is in their continued "incredulity towards grand narratives" (to use Lyotard's phrase). Let me hasten to add that many, if not most, theorists who consider themselves "postcolonialists" would resist any such easy identification with this central tenet of postmodernism, and there certainly has been a trend in recent literature away from the more overtly poststructuralist forms of postcolonial theory.[2] As Kumkum Sangari puts it, "the postmodern preoccupation with the crisis of meaning is not everyone's crisis" (qtd in Bahri 69). Nevertheless, for critics like Deepika Bahri, Stephen Slemon and Linda Hutcheon, among others, postcolonialism utilizes, in Bahri's words, a "strategic mobilization of some of [postmodernism's] principles and a conscious abjuration of others" (Bahri 69).[3] Postcolonialists do not generally disavow the possibility of making "truth-claims," nor do they suggest that history is as such fundamentally unknowable (Slemon 9).

What is indisputable, however, is their "incredulity" towards at least two so-called "grand narratives": Marxism and nationalism. The fundamental premise behind postcolonialists' antipathy towards the discourses of Marxism and nationalism is that they are both driven by Eurocentric assumptions. So for instance, Carol Breckenridge and Peter van der Weer claim that "[n]ationalism is thus not the answer to orientalism … Rather[,] nationalism is the avatar of orientalism in the later colonial and postcolonial periods…" (2). Similarly, Gyan Prakash argues that

both of these [nationalism and Marxism] operated with master-narratives that put Europe at its center … [W]hen marxists pilloried colonialism, their criticism was framed by a universalist mode-of-production narrative. Recent postcolonial criticism, on the other hand, seeks to undo the Eurocentrism produced by the institution of the west's trajectory, its appropriation of the other as History. (8)

Gareth Griffiths and David Moody have written that to "apply the same Marxist theoretical discourse to a materialist discussion of Nigerian literature is to repeat the ‘Eurocentric' crimes of the metropolitan critics themselves" (81) for "[d]espite recent advances in Marxist anthropology, the discourse remains profoundly Eurocentric, still locked into universalist assumptions" (79). Or, to take one last example, this time from The Empire Writes Back: "Marxist theory has been limited, until recently, in its dealings with [post-colonial] societies by its own unconscious Eurocentricity" (173).[4]

Although a number of the theorists in question import Marxist terminology into their writing, and at times even seem to speak "for" a Marxist analytic (Spivak is a good example), there is nevertheless the taken-for-granted-ness of the obsolescence of what is now (pejoratively) termed "classical Marxism." Partly, in the less vigilant writers, this is due to the (mis)identification of Marxism with Stalinism or totalitarianism. It also has to do with the argument that classical Marxism is epistemologically "crude" or "reductionist." Further, the call to revise or update Marxism is made without serious attention being paid to the primary texts of Marxist theory. Thus the same critics who are perfectly at home invoking Althusser and Gramsci, Fanon and Cabral, or Laclau and Mouffe in their tokenist gestures towards Marxism, are completely neglectful, sometimes ignorant, of the theoretical rigor of classical Marxism.[5]

Seen in this light, as Timothy Brennan points out, postcolonialism's rejection of Marxism is not so much a dismissal as willful rejection of its own historical precursor. While postcolonialists often point in the direction of theorists like Cabral, Fanon, C. L. R. James and Walter Rodney,

we are given no sense of the traditions that made them, as though their contributions were divorced from this same unnameable lineage, or as though they were products of colonial insight … erupting of themselves in what is now commonly thought of as an "epistemic break." On the contrary, each of these theorists and activists was the direct product of interwar Marxism as a matter of sentiment, impulse, and conscious intellectual alliance. (190)

Brennan concludes his discussion by suggesting that "[i]n this sense at least, theory's apotheosis of the present deranged from its enabling past leaves postcolonial studies an orphan" (201).

Often, the claim that Marxism is reductionist is brought to bear on a simplified, caricatured version of Marxism, one that can easily be dismissed out of hand for its "obvious" crudeness. A good example of this occurs in an essay by Sangeeta Ray and Henry Schwarz that offers a critique of Arif Dirlik's article "The Postcolonial Aura." They begin, of course, by bemoaning the "[u]nreflexive denunciations of Marxism … on both the Left and Right" which have "become de rigueur expressions of a trendy new ‘post'-ness within the profession" (149), but they go on to establish their own trendiness with equally unreflexive claims about "the postmodern world economy" (148). But more on this later. When Dirlik argues, rightly, to my mind, that postcolonialism must "generate a thoroughgoing criticism of its own ideology and formulate practices of resistance against the system of which it is a product," (356), Ray and Schwarz respond:

The System [note the capitalization]! If, as postcolonial intellectuals more often assert, they are not merely products of a single system but are complexly overdetermined by a variety of overlapping systems (imperialism, nationalism, localism, etc.[6]), how can this difference be taken seriously and not be subsumed under the unifying rubric of a full and final determination of identity by the inexorable logic of capitalism in the last instance? Of course, it cannot. (154)

It is not possible to go into a lengthy refutation of these allegations against Marxist theory in this paper. Nevertheless, suffice it to say that it is not only in Althusser but in Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky that one can find the understanding that "determination" is never a simple, "full and final" process of "billiard-ball causality"; that the logic of capitalism, far from being "inexorable," is in fact highly contradictory[7]; that the task of the theorist is precisely to maintain the distinction between various phenomena such as imperialism and nationalism while at the same time analyzing their complex interrelationships.[8]

Marxism, for many of the theorists being described here, is Eurocentric not only because of its European origins but for its supposed economic determinism. A syllogistic fallacy presents itself as a critique: capitalism developed in Europe; Marxism reduces everything to economics; Marx suggests that the rest of the world must inevitably follow the course of European history; colonialism was the agent of capitalist expansion; capitalist expansion represents "progress" within post-Enlightenment thinking, and particularly within nineteenth-century liberalism; Marx belongs squarely and unproblematically in the tradition of post-Enlightment thought and politics; so Marx necessarily viewed colonialism as a good thing.

So Marxism is Eurocentric because of its economic reductionism and determinism as well. Certainly, within the Marxist tradition, broadly conceived, and from the pages of some of its most famous adherents, one comes across such patently deterministic and reductionist passages as this:

[Socialism is] necessary, unavoidable in the sense that inventors improve technic [sic] and the capitalists in their desire for profit revolutionize the whole economic life, as it is also inevitable that workers aim for shorter hours of labour and higher wages, and that they organize themselves, that they fight the captialist class and its state, as it is inevitable that they aim for the conquest of political power and the overthrow of capitalist rule. Socialism is inevitable because the class struggle and the victory of the proletariat is inevitable. (qtd. in Rees 137-8)

As John Rees writes of this passage, "The only sense in which this is not ‘fatalism' is that it does not require the existence of a supernatural being" (138). The author of this passage is none other than Karl Kautsky, leading intellectual of the very party that Engels had helped build, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). And yet, a critique that holds up such passages as examples of Marxism's reductionism, determinism and teleology, commits an error that in any other circumstance would be considered egregious: it ignores and obfuscates the debates within Marxism that have produced not merely ideological cleavages within the Marxist tradition, but deep political rifts as well, with world-historic consequences. Crystal Bartolovich rightly points out that "[n]ot only has the ‘reductionistic' version of Marxism … had critics within Marxism all along, but Marxists have been working in a number of ways from the start on the very issues and concerns — such as imperialism, nationalism, racism, subalternity, and so on — which have become central to postcolonial studies, though you would be hard pressed to find such acknowledgement of this in the work of many scholars active in the field" (3).

For one cannot assume a seamless continuity between Marx and Engels, on the one hand, and Kautsky on the other, let alone Stalin or Mao. Compare the passage above, for instance, with the following statement put forward by Rosa Luxemburg:

Historic development moves in contradictions, and for every necessity puts its opposite into the world as well. The capitalist state of society is doubtless a historic necessity, but so also is the revolt of the working class against it. Capital is a historic necessity, but in the same measure is its gravedigger, the socialist proletariat. The world rule of imperialism is a historic necessity, but likewise its overthrow by the proletarian international. Side by side two historic necessities exist in constant conflict with each other. (qtd. in Rees 160)

Luxemburg's dialectical conception of the process of historical change retains a crucial element of Marxism that is missing from Kautsky's declaration of faith in the inevitability of socialism: human agency. It is human agency that produces, transforms, revolutionizes, or destroys societies: we are active agents in this process. As Marx argued, we may not always act under conditions of our own choosing; nevertheless, human agency plays the key role in transforming those conditions. Far from being mechanical, reductionist, or deterministic, Marxism is thus a richly dialectical theory, which has, unfortunately, been twisted, distorted and manipulated to justify the practices of revolutionaries-turned-reformists like Kautsky, and party-bureaucrats-turned-dictators like Stalin.

Engels, in an oft-quoted letter to Joseph Bloch, complained about the vulgarization of Marx, and it is worth quoting here at length to undo some of the damage that has been done:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after successful battle, etc, judicial forms and then even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. (760, emphasis added)

To be sure, Ray and Schwarz are responding not to Marx or Engels but to Dirlik, who they claim is coming from a reductionist understanding of the relationship between ideologies and the economic mode of production. But note that Ray and Schwarz do not limit their critique to Dirlik's particular text. They locate his supposed reductionism in what they call his "faith in an unreconstructed Marxism" (149, emphasis added) and effectively use him as the (pre)text for a proxy war on classical ("unreconstructed") Marxism. If what Dirlik is offering is indeed a crude, reductionist argument, in what sense can one call him an "unreconstructed" Marxist?[9] After all, it was precisely an economistic, mechanistic, reductionist political outlook and practice that earned Karl Kautsky, one of the leading Marxists in the Second International, the infamous title of "renegade" at the hands of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

When one gets to the core of the argument, it is clear what kind of "reconstructed" Marxism Ray and Schwarz are looking for. Tucked away in footnote 7, we receive a short list of the emerging canon of "reconstructed Marxism." Althusser, predictably, has already been invoked in the main text (7). The reconstructed Marxist canon should include "Laclau and Mouffe; Surin; and the ‘anti-foundational Marxism' promulgated during the last several years by the US journal Rethinking Marxism. Jacques Derrida's new work, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International … addresses many of these issues from a perspective germane to postcolonial criticism" (165, f.n. 7). The "trendy new ‘post'-ness" of our "reconstructed Marxists" now reveals itself — it is that of the not-so-new field of post-marxism. This is the "new true socialism" that Ellen Meiksins Wood so brilliantly critiqued in her book The Retreat from Class. This "reconstructed Marxism," in fact, seeks to undermine or render theoretically impossible the revolutionary transformation of society that is classical Marxism's legitimizing goal. Wood lays out the terms of this "anti-foundational Marxism":

The most distinctive feature of this current is the autonomization of ideology and politics from any social basis, and more specifically, from any class foundation. Against the assumption, which it attributes to Marxism, that economic conditions automatically give rise to political forces … the NTS [‘new true socialism'] proposes that, because there is no necessary correspondence between economics and politics, the working class can have no privileged position in the struggle for socialism. (2)

As she points out, "there is a great deal in it which is hardly new. To a large extent, it is just another repetition of banal and hoary right-wing social-democratic nostrums" (7).[10] What post-Marxism has in common with postmodernism is the categorical dismissal of any theory with universalist claims. Postcolonialists then yoke together the critique of Enlightenment universalism and that of Orientalist or Eurocentric universalism and use this to reject not only Marxism but nationalism as well.

Certainly, just as one can cull passages from Kautsky and Stalin that reflect a deterministic, teleological approach to history, one can likewise find Orientalist and Eurocentric assumptions in the work of some Marxists. Again, a sufficiently nuanced approach to the question would need to take into account the numerous critiques of Eurocentrism that have emerged from within the Marxist tradition. Furthermore, a number of Marxists have developed sophisticated and rigorous refutations of the claim that Marx and Engels were themselves irredeemably sullied by a Eurocentric bias.[11]

The case for a grounded, foundational, and universalist Marxism has been made a number of times by others, and I will not go into it here.[12] Suffice it to say that in a rare moment of lucidity, Gayatri Spivak points out that "our support of culture and/or race identity and our distrust of general narratives stand in the way of … holistic perception … [I]f we dismiss general systemic critical perception as necessarily totalizing or centralizing, we merely prove once again that the subject of Capital can inhabit its ostensible critique as well" (Outside 256). Concrete systemic analyses of the structures of capitalism and imperialism today, however, are rarely to be found. Thus when Gareth Griffiths and David Moody claim that "the real threat to post-colonial societies at large resides in a broad-scale internationalist incorporation which erases difference in the name of some new universalist imperative" (82), one could be forgiven for thinking that they are referring here to the workings of international capitalism, but they are in fact referring to Marxist theory! And this is not really surprising, given postcolonial theorists' antipathy to universalist or totalizing theories (read: Marxism) as a form of "discursive colonialism."

Why, as Spivak seems to have argued in the passage just quoted, do we need critical systemic, i.e. universalist, analyses of the world? As Samir Amin has pointed out,

In imposing itself on a worldwide scale, capitalism has created a twofold demand for universalism: first, at the level of the scientific analysis of society, that is to say, at the level of the discovery of universal laws that govern all societies; and second, at the level of the elaboration of a universal human project allowing the supercession of the historical limits of capitalism itself. (Eurocentrism 9)

The very universalism of capitalism thus demands a universalist theory to understand and to challenge it.

Having rejected universalism, what is postcolonial theory left with? How does this affect its understanding of imperialism and capitalism today? What, after all, is the multiply-determined, de-centered, non-reductionist analytic that postcolonial theory offers? Characteristic, particularly of ‘diaspora-oriented' postcolonial theory, is this formulation by the pope of postcolonial theory himself, Homi K Bhabha:

This locality [of the postcolonial] is more around temporality than about historicity; a form of living that is more complex than "community"; more symbolic than "society"; more connotative than "country"; less patriotic than patrie; more rhetorical than the reason of state; more mythological than ideology; less homogenous than hegemony; less centered than the citizen; more collective than "the subject"; more psychic than civility; more hybrid in the articulation of cultural differences and identifications — gender, race or class — than can be represented in any hierarchical or binary structuring of social antagonism. (292)

In the attempt to break away from what they see as an "economistic" tendency in Marxism, we get an abstruse, quasi-mystical non-analytic which has little more than a certain alliterative charm. The key question that is elided by such formulations, of course, is that of what needs to be done to change the world (I refrain from using the word "system"!). Given their preoccupations with the discursive and rhetorical aspects of oppression and exploitation - to the obfuscation of their historical and material causes and effects - what we receive in terms of pedagogical and political praxis often borders on an individualistic moralism. We are encouraged, therefore, to follow Bhabha and Spivak in their "attempt to re-envision these relations in order to produce a practice for present and future work that is not merely [!] the reflection of a determined subjectivity, however schizophrenic, but one that can anticipate ways of living this condition as something perhaps we do not yet recognize" (Ray and Schwarz 164, added emphasis). Spivak herself, in fact, accuses the "liberal Euro-U.S. academic" of being "increasingly complicitous with the text of exploitation, [of] possibly endorsing child slavery every time s/he drinks a cup of tea, [and of] paying taxes to destroy survival ecobiomes of the world's poor" ("Responsibility" 35). Setting aside the moralism inherent in such accusations, what is apparent is that extra-academic political practice, as a consequence, is reduced to "lifestyle choices" centered around a liberal consumer politics.[13]

Despite the indispensable nature of the work of Edward Said, it must be said that his critique of Marx in Orientalism had a debilitating impact on future scholars' ability to fashion a usable Marxism within postcolonial studies. As the Indian historian Sumit Sarkar pointed out, "What began as a legitimate turning-away from the crude determinisms of ‘official' Marxism has degenerated in academic commonsense into a suspicion-cum-contempt for anything ‘economic' — as if reductionism cannot be ‘cultural' or ‘political,' too" (209).

Contesting anti-Marxism

Another strand of postcolonial studies today, somewhat more beleaguered but with considerable academic purchase nevertheless, is more materialist, more militant, and more historical than the first. Taking its inspiration from anti-colonial struggles, and from the theorists of those struggles — Fanon, Cabral, Nkrumah, to name a few — and inflected by a third-worldist Marxism, this tendency has critiqued the first for its idealism and anti-nationalism. From Barbara Harlow to Ella Shohat to E. San Juan, the third-worldists have questioned the very use of the term "postcolonial" for its occlusion of neocolonial realities. Against Bhabha's denial of the possibility — or even desirability — of an unequivocally anti-colonial counter-discourse, Abdul JanMohamed's Manichean Aesthetics (1983) argued against collapsing the distinctions between colonial and native discourse, and called for reading African anti-colonial texts in terms of "manichean allegory." Barbara Harlow's Resistance Literature (1987) attempted — in an internationalizing gesture that ran counter to the dominance granted by mainstream postcolonial studies to nineteenth-century Bengal — to reshape literary studies along the lines of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's distinction between the literature "of oppression and that of the struggle for liberation" (9).

But the third-worldists are to be critiqued precisely on the basis of their politico-economic grounding in what Aijaz Ahmad calls "Three Worlds Theory." Where the poststructuralists divided the world into a monolithic, homogenized binary of East and West, the third-worldists replicate this methodology with their own, equally homogenizing view of the world as divided between the imperialist North and exploited South. What remains common to both tendencies, it seems to me, is an identification of the so-called "Second World" — the former Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam — as socialist or at least somehow "post-capitalist" societies. For the Foucauldians these countries are seen as providing a confirmation of the futility of socialist revolution. In the work of the third-worldists, we see an uncritical celebration of the revolutions in these countries. In explaining the failures of these revolutions, the third-worldists elide class-based analyses of national liberation movements, and end up mystifying not only the origins, strategies, and weaknesses of these movements, but the workings of the capitalism itself.

The question here is not simply one of the "correct" label to be given to the post-revolutionary regimes in various "third world" countries — I prefer the term "state capitalist" — but of the very fundamentals of a Marxist analysis.[14] It seems to me that certain questions that the third-worldists fail to ask are crucial to Marxist theory and practice: What class(es) exercised ideological and programmatic hegemony in these revolutions? What role was played by the organized working class? Was there an organized working class that could assume leadership in these movements? Can the peasantry as a class lead and achieve a socialist revolution? Can socialism exist in one country? For how long? In the post-revolutionary states that were set up, who exercises effective control of the means of production? What is the impact on the internal class structure and on the economic organization and priorities in the post-revolutionary societies of a world system of competing private and state capitals? By not asking these questions, third-worldism runs into the danger of idealizing and mystifying anti-colonial revolutions.

In recent years, however, a minority current within the field of postcolonial studies has emerged that seeks to differentiate itself from both of the above tendencies. Polemicizing against the occlusion of class-based analyses of capitalism and imperialism, against the valorization of the role of the postcolonial intellectual, against the anti-foundationalism of postmodernist and post-Marxist theories, against the glorification of the elitist tropes of migrancy, hybridity, and exile, theorists like Anthony Arnove, Crystal Bartolovich, Timothy Brennan, Neil Lazarus, Pranav Jani and Helen Scott have tried to recuperate Marxism and anti-colonial nationalism from the charge of Eurocentrism. They have argued for the continuing relevance of classical Marxism, while at the same time asserting the need for a genuinely universalist theorization of exploitation and oppression.

The publication in 1992 of Aijaz Ahmad's polemical critique, In Theory, might be said to have marked a turning point, for since then postcolonial theorists and scholars have been forced to account for — one way or another — the question of class, and to approach the question of nationalism in a more nuanced way. Marxism, from being merely another "grand narrative" that could be dismissed out of hand in the manner of much postmodern theorizing, became a body of work with which scholars had to contend. But the momentum had been building for a few years before Ahmad's book hit the scene. Ranajit Guha and other scholars in the Subaltern Studies circle had begun to argue for a "view from below" that could recuperate the history of anti-colonial struggle from the point of view of the masses — peasants, workers, the underprivileged. Based initially on a broadly Marxist understanding of class struggle, Subaltern Studies challenged the prevailing view of nationalism as a purely elite phenomenon. In a similar vein, in the mid-1980s, anthropologist Benedict Anderson published a broadly materialist Imagined Communities, which would soon become a staple of postcolonial studies courses. These developments, among others, served to re-inject materialist and class-based analyses into postcolonial studies.

As Neil Lazarus suggests, since the publication of In Theory, "Ahmad has come to stand for Marxism in the field of postcolonial studies" (Nationalism 14).[15] As such, for many Marxists in the field — at least, for those of us who were graduate students or junior scholars with little intellectual clout — In Theory represented a mixed blessing. The controversy surrounding it was too intense to ignore. The cultural studies journal Public Culture devoted an entire issue to it, and looking back at that volume one cannot escape a feeling of revulsion at the ad hominem character of most of its contributors, with the singular exception of Michael Sprinker. But despite the number of big guns who trained their sights on this book and loosed off volleys of rather vituperative criticism, one had the feeling that at a fundamental level, In Theory was saying something that needed to be said. Most critics of Ahmad's work focused on his unfortunate emphasis on the politics of location — the fact that postcolonial critics and theorists largely reside in and operate from American and British universities and colleges. By suggesting that postcolonial theory was suspect because of its metropolitan origins, Ahmad had indeed opened the door for similar charges to be directed against his own work. The ensuing debates about the politics of location were, it seems to me, particularly debilitating, because in the process, his more insightful critiques of the discursive idealism and ahistoricism of postcolonial theory were conveniently ignored.

The idealist ahistoricism of mainstream postcolonial studies mystifies both imperialism and nationalism and de-links theory from practice, resulting in a lack of political and practical solutions to the continuing problems confronting millions of people around the globe. The lack of historical and material specificity when dealing with the "subaltern"[16] is matched by an occlusion of questions of political economy. The category of "exploitation" disappears behind that of "marginality," "imperialism" ducks behind "globalization," "class struggle" vanishes in the face of "hegemony," and notions of struggle and emancipation are safely hidden away behind "ambivalence" and "diasporic hybridity."

The current conjuncture

By the early 1990s, a new buzzword had begun to make itself heard in the academy, and postcolonial studies rushed to embrace it. I am referring, of course, to "globalization." In some ways, "globalization" provided a safe haven for those who wished to avoid the sticky questions of national liberation, class, and capitalism. Where postmodernism had proclaimed the obsolescence of Marxism, "globalization" promised to lend credence to those who proclaimed the end of the nation-state. Soon, "globalization" went from being a buzzword to becoming commonsense. But "globalization," because of its disciplinary origins, demanded at the very least a nod in the direction of political economy and international relations, and even there it was challenged very early on by scholars like Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson. This is not to say, of course, that postcolonial theory has now fully assimilated the insights of political economy. Some theorists, like Bart Moore-Gilbert, argue that this is not necessarily a deficit in postcolonial studies. Responding to the article by During mentioned earlier, he writes: "[I]t also seems to me important that postcolonial critics not too assiduously attempt to become political economists … [I]t does not seem to me entirely appropriate for a literary critic to be engaging in such work, unless it is brought to bear on the analysis of specific instances of cultural production" (64). Fair enough; however, is it really the case that postcolonial critics are being "too assiduous" in their pursuit of political economy? Isn't it more accurate to say that it has simply become routine to invoke the IMF and World Bank every so often, as though imperialism begins and ends with these two institutions?

Over the past few years, we have seen the emergence of anti-corporate activist movements that view globalization not in the fatalistic terms of a now bankrupt postmodernism, but as a force that can be challenged, fought, and defeated, in the form of the struggles against the Seattle round of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in November 1999, against the World Bank and the IMF on April 16 of 2000, and more recently, the protests in Miami against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). These movements have shown a remarkable resilience in the face of the neoliberal onslaught, and have begun to manifest themselves at all the major gatherings of the world's ruling elites. Organizationally somewhat amorphous, they have nevertheless found some structural solidity in the form of the World Social Forums, of which the most recent one in January 2004 drew nearly 100,000 activists to the dusty NESCO grounds of Mumbai. Although it remains to be seen how far the current process of radicalization in the student, labor, and green movements will go, it is surely no exaggeration to say that the climate around questions of imperialism, globalization, and capitalism itself is shifting rapidly. Ironically enough, an article by Chris Hedges in the New York Times attributed the new student radicalism to the growth of postcolonial studies as a field of academic inquiry.

The cumulative impact of these developments within the academy and without, has been, from a Marxist's point of view, encouraging. Perhaps, as Lazarus suggests, "it has today become possible … for Marxist scholars to oblige the field [of postcolonial studies] to tilt in the direction they favor" (15). Whether this prognosis is premature remains to be seen. What is becoming increasingly indisputable, I would argue, is that without such a conscious re-orientation towards a Marxist analytic, postcolonial studies will become increasingly cut off from the world that it claims to want to change. This is no more obvious than in the context of the current U.S. drive towards global imperial dominance.

However, along with Marxism and nationalism, "imperialism" too seems to have disappeared from the vocabulary of postcolonial theory, consigned to the same ashcan of history that Marxism found itself in. This was the subject of a brief polemic by the Indian Marxist Prabhat Patnaik that appeared in the pages of Monthly Review more than a decade ago. Writing in 1990, at the end of a decade that saw the rise to prominence of postcolonial studies in the academy, Patnaik, in an article titled "Whatever Happened to Imperialism?" remarked on the conspicuous absence of theories of imperialism in contemporary left- and progressive-leaning thought. He noted particularly the virtual disappearance of the category of "imperialism" from contemporary Marxist literature in the West, and I would argue that the same holds true of postcolonial theory too. To quote Patnaik, "Curiously, this is not because anyone has theorized against the concept. The silence over imperialism is not the aftermath of some intense debate where the scales tilted decisively in favor of one side; it is not a theoretically self-conscious silence. Nor can it be held that the world has so changed in the last decade and a half that talk of imperialism has become an obvious anachronism" (103). Patnaik speculated that "The reason ... lies precisely in the very strengthening and consolidation of imperialism" (105). Pointing to the various covert and proxy wars that U.S. imperialism engaged in since its defeat in Vietnam — from the overthrow of the Shah of Iran to the funding of the contras in Nicaragua, to the invasions of Panama and Grenada — he wrote that "Imperialism has learned that half a million troops do not have to be dispatched everywhere, and unless there are half a million troops dispatched somewhere, moral indignation is not widespread, and the reality of imperialism goes unrecognized" (106).

Patnaik's recognition of the "deafening silence about imperialism" was no doubt accurate, although we might take issue with his reading of the cause of this silence. What is important for my purposes here is the curious paradox that at the time of Patnaik's writing, more than a decade after the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, which might be said to have inaugurated the advent of postcolonialism as an academic field, imperialism remained relatively under-utilized within postcolonial and even Marxist theory.

What has this triple elision — of Marxism, nationalism and imperialism — left us with? Typical of contemporary theoretical discourse, I would argue, are the views expressed by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their book Empire, first published in the year 2000. Hardt and Negri, following on the heels of a decade of globalization theory, defend a proposition in their book that today seems quite indefensible. The age of imperialism, they suggest, has ended, and in place of imperialism we now have an age of empire.

In contrast to imperialism, Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers.... The distinct national colors of the imperialist map of the world have merged and blended in the imperial global rainbow. (xii-xiii)

"[The] United States does not, and indeed no nation-state can today, form the center of an imperialist project. Imperialism is over. No nation will be world leader in the way modern European states were." (xiii-xiv)

This was published, as I mentioned earlier, in 2000. What a difference a year made. Following the attacks on the World Trade Center, the U.S. military embarked on an adventure that has been every bit as "old-school" as the imperialism of the past, except for the absence of jodhpurs and pith helmets.

The new imperialism comes equipped with the most advanced military technology combined with an equally aggressive and refashioned imperialist ideology. Two well-known documents in particular outline the contours of the new imperial project: the Project for a New American Century and the so-called Bush Doctrine, or the National Security Strategy released by the White House last year. Both PNAC and the NSS utilize the time-worn clichés of imperial discourse, with the usual references to the "forces of freedom" vs. "the forces of evil" etc. What is significant, however, is the open-ended implications of the new imperialist ideology. No longer needing any recourse to the rhetoric of "humanitarianism" which the Clinton administration invoked in its imperialist projects, the Bush Doctrine asserts, as is well known by now, the right to intervene militarily anywhere and at any time that the U.S. feels its interests might be threatened. The threats too are nebulous: the introduction to the NSS speaks of "shadowy networks of individuals" who can undermine national security. It speaks of the right to intervene pre-emptively against any possible future threat from "weak" or "failed" states: "The events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states." And finally, it brings together the military and economic arms of imperialism by stating that the U.S. will "ignite a new era of global economic growth through free markets and free trade."

Imperialism, of course, does not begin and end with the United States. The consolidation of the European Union (EU), with its attendant visions of a "fortress Europe"; the expansion of NATO; the resurgence of sub-imperialist conflicts such as the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan; the on-again, off-again tensions between the U.S., France and Russia; the trade disputes over steel between Japan and the U.S., and between the U.S. and the EU over bananas and beef: these and much more are the symptoms of the instability and volatility that imperialism generates.

The nation-state, it appears, is not quite dead, and imperialism has resurrected itself. Postcolonial studies, in this changed geopolitical climate, must necessarily, I believe, rethink its wholesale rejection of Marxist and more broadly materialist theory. The current occupation — we must say colonization — of Iraq will be of lasting consequence. Among the many ramifications of the new colonialism, we might include: the resurgence of nationalism, both in the U.S. and in Iraq; the destabilizing of the Middle East, with the possible enactment of a "final solution" in Palestine by a newly belligerent and confident Israeli state; the ripples of instability — and the attendant possibility of future wars to (re)impose stability — extending from Iran, through the Indian subcontinent, to the Korean peninsula; the strengthening of virulently masculinist and revivalist fundamentalisms in various sub-imperialist states, such as India; and perhaps most ominously, signs of the emergence of a trans-atlantic rift in international relations for the first time since World War II.

All of this, of course, is occurring in the context of a deeper structural crisis in the regime of capital accumulation. Neoliberalism itself was a response to the economic crisis of the early seventies, and has been promoted as the means to restore capital profitability. Certainly, the economic recovery of the 1990s saw increases in productivity and accumulation; nevertheless, a return to the growth rates of the "golden age" of the post-war years seems out of the question today. Furthermore, neoliberalism has exacerbated the contradictions and crises of capitalism, such as the crisis of overproduction and over-capacity, which in turn make for a more unstable and volatile world economy. These twin crises, of imperialism on the one hand and economic instability on the other, also have the potential of opening up new possibilities for the Left and for radical political practice, as the neoliberal regimes begin to implode under the weight of their own contradictions. Witness for instance, the sharp swing to the Left in various countries in South America, from Argentina to Brazil to Peru, and most recently, Bolivia. From the 1999 "Battle in Seattle" to the enormous outpouring of international outrage at the U.S. war on Iraq, to the waves of protest and revolt in Latin America, we have seen a fairly rapid development of precisely those ideas and practices that postmodernists and many postcolonialists claimed were outmoded. A resistance movement in Iraq that might evolve into a National Liberation Front in the not too distant future, thereby forcing us to rethink our knee-jerk antipathy to nationalism; mass collective actions in South and Central America which brush aside the micro-politics of a now-irrelevant intelligentsia; and the forging of solidaristic alliances reminiscent of — dare I say — international class struggles of a now-forgotten era. These are, I believe, the conditions that we labor under today. For postcolonial studies to continue to maintain its relevance, it would need to redirect itself to these issues with an urgency that is commensurate to the gravity of our age. Much against the grain of mainstream postcolonial theory, I would suggest that our best guide to practice in this respect continues to be that "outdated" and yet so relevant body of work that we refer to as Marxism.



Postcolonial Studies 5.2 (July 2002).


See, for instance, Loomba and Kaul and Revathi Krishnaswamy for this attempt to break from poststructuralism.


This relationship between postmodernism and postcolonialism has been extensively written about. See in particular, Linda Hutcheon; Stephen Slemon; Kwame Anthony Appiah; and Aijaz Ahmad, 43-94.


To their credit, the authors of Empire Writes Back do acknowledge the role of Stalinist and Eurocommunist distortion of Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. However, they do not seem to take this seriously enough. The call for revising Marxism assumes that such distortions had an insignificant impact on its reception in the Western academy.


"Marx may need to be strongly supplemented, if not supplanted, by Fanon as our principal theorist" (Griffiths and Moody 83).


I ignore, for the time being, the lack of theoretical specificity of this formulation. For instance, in what sense is nationalism a system? The nation-state might conceivably be labeled a ‘system,' although it is best described as an historically peculiar apparatus of political and ideological institutions of coercion and control, but nationalism? Further, what is ‘localism,' and what kind of ‘system' is this?


To take just one example, Marx states in the third volume of Capital that "In theory, we assume that the laws of the capitalist mode of production develop in their pure form. In reality, this is only an approximation…" (275). He then devotes the whole of Chapter 14 to what he calls "counteracting factors." The objective, in all of Marx's methodology, is not to provide an abstract theory that is then uniformly applied to reality, but to deduce, from a scientific observation of that reality, and close attention to its historical specificity, the abstractions that best explain it, and to then test this theory by putting it into practice.


For detailed explanations of the nuances of classical Marxism on this subject, see Harman and Löwy.


Arif Dirlik, in my reading, comes across as heavily influenced by Maoism and to call him an "unreconstructed" Marxist seems wrong on this count as well. In fact, Dirlik can hardly be called a Marxist at all — he himself rejects the label. In his After the Revolution, for instance, he explicitly disavows any allegiance to classical Marxism.


I must point here to the recent emergence of a sort of "post-post-Marxism" that claims to reject or "thoroughly deconstruct" the "reform vs. revolution binary." Robert Miklitsch has recently argued that "The binary of reform and revolution … ultimately proves… counterproductive … I submit that a rather different, if less radical, counterhegemonic strategy is called for" (188). This alternative, he claims, is to "reclaim the ‘culture of capitalism'" and to seek change through the institutions of civil society (189). For a thoroughgoing critique of the new "market socialism," see Wood; Mandel; and Harman, "The Myth of Market Socialism."


Aijaz Ahmad ably defended Marx against charges of Eurocentrism in his chapter on "Marx on India" in In Theory. A more recent article by Pranav Jani, "Karl Marx, Eurocentrism, and the 1857 Revolt in British India" offers a closer look at Marx's writings on India, and urges us to recognize the development of Marx's own ideas. See also August Nimtz, "The Eurocentric Marx and Engels and Other Related Myths.".


See for instance, Alex Callinicos, 165-79. Also see Lazarus, "Doubting the New World Order"; and Lazarus et al, "The Necessity of Universalism."


For all their guilt-ridden concern for the plight of the subaltern, and their elitist dismissals of the "cappuccino drinking worker" (Spivak's phrase) in the metropolitan countries, these critics fail to recognize the elitism of consumer-oriented lifestyle politics. Such a politics is an option only for those who have the means to make such choices. Unfortunately, even in the West, that luxury is limited to a very small fraction of the population. Spivak, in fact, can be quite flippant in dismissing "extra-institutional" political work; i.e. involvement in political activity outside the academy. See Spivak, "Transnationality" 87-8.


The term "state capitalism" was first used by Lenin himself when describing the impact of the New Economic Policy. It was Tony Cliff who developed a fully-fledged analysis of state capitalism as the defining feature of Stalinist and Maoist regimes. See for instance his State Capitalism in Russia (London: Bookmarks, 1990).


He continues, "But precisely this seems to me to intensify the problem of Marxism in this field … I find the mode of his position-taking deeply troubling, which means that — to the degree that Ahmad is held to represent Marxism in the field — I find not only the marginality but also the objective registration of Marxism there unsatisfactory" (Nationalism 14).


There is, I believe, a vast gulf that separates Ranajit Guha's — not to mention Gramsci's — use of the term and subsequent appropriations of it by postcolonial theorists. The "subaltern" has today become a catch-all term to describe the "wretched of the earth," so to speak. More importantly, the "subaltern" in postcolonial studies is little more than a trope that is mobilized selectively to refer to a subjectivity or an identity that lies beyond the reach of theory. This is quite far afield from the materialist and class-based discussions of the subaltern that one sees in Gramsci and Guha. A fuller analysis of this issue is beyond the scope of this paper.

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