“Most things are a matter of class…” Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad

Check out this long quote from an interview with Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad:

Aijaz Ahmad

Aijaz Ahmad

Q: In the same article, you remark that “postcoloniality is also like most things a matter of class.” This kind of emphasis on class is, of course, deeply unfashionable. Without dwelling on the notion of “postcoloniality” (if it isn’t too frivolous to ask for an answer in such a limited space), would you care to justify the sweeping proposition that “most things” are a matter of class?

Ahmad: Let me first make explicit a rather memorable reference there. In her biography of Chu Teh, the great commander of the People’s Army during the Revolution in China, Agnes Smedley recalls a moment when she had asked him about his having been a bandit and a thief in his youth. As Smedley tells it, Chu Teh fell silent for a while and then said something like, “Theft, you know, is also a matter of class.” I read that book when I was a very young boy but the truth of that simple statement has stayed with me all these years, and in paraphrasing those words I just wanted to record my admiration for both Smedley and Chu Teh.

But you have asked me to justify those words. I’m not sure how one justifies words so obviously true. India is said to have a population between 900 and 1,000 million. Roughly half of them are illiterate; but no bourgeois is illiterate anywhere in the world and those who constantly speak of “the pleasure of the text” are never poor. Roughly half of the world’s blind people live in India; but blindness too is a matter of class, in the sense that blindness is overwhelmingly a disease of the poor and in the sense that such high incidence of blindness has a lot to do with living in conditions that produce blindness, with number and quality of hospitals, with the ability to pay for cure and care. What needs to justify itself is that other kind of blindness, which refuses to see that most things area matter of class. That refusal is itself very intimately a matter of class.

The real question, then, is: why does one need to reiterate a truth so obvious? I think that the institutionalizing of certain kinds of radicalism has gone hand in hand with a certain sanitization of vocabulary, which is ultimately quite devastating for thought itself. One begins with the idea that there is some economic determination in social life but also that, as Althusser famously put it, “the lonely hour” of that final determination “never comes.” In the next step, one forgoes the idea of economic determination altogether. Then, the critique of capitalism is sundered from any forthright affirmation of what might replace it. So, the more anti-bourgeois, and anti-colonial etc. one becomes, the less one talks about socialism as a determinate horizon. In the process, critiques of capitalism are also sundered from any necessity of working class politics. Indeed, one may use the word “bourgeois,” in a cultural sort of sense, but the word “proletariat” makes one distinctly uncomfortable, as if using such words is some kind of anti-social activity. One may speak of any number of disorientations and even oppressions but one cultivates all kinds of politeness and indirection about the structure of capitalist class relations in which those oppressions are embedded. To speak of any of that directly and simply is to be “vulgar.” In this climate of Aesopian languages it is absolutely essential to reiterate that most things are a matter of class. That kind of statement is I think surprising only in a culture like that of the North American university in which radicalism has not had a powerful connection with movements of the working class in a long time. But it is precisely in that kind of culture that people need to hear such obvious truths.

8 responses to ““Most things are a matter of class…” Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad

  1. Aijaz Ahmad’s theory on postcolonialist theory is something worthwhile to discuss in and of itself alone, its a pretty interesting discussion that is based on the reappraisal of people like Edward Said (I ultimately am more found of Said).

    This interview shows he has a lot of depth and grasp on the political situation globally, and that he is still a good Marxist. As an on looker of the situation in India, it puzzles me how he can unite with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which has been at the centre of the program of neo-liberalism in Western Bengal, the suppression of the Naxalite organizations, and has infamously tried to toss peasants of their land in Nandigram leading to a bloody struggle where cadre and thugs associated with thugs have committed the most outrageous crimes.

    Since this is labeled under the tag of India, I wonder what Advance the Struggle thinks about the struggle in India altogether and why they think it was important to hi-light Ahmad Aijaz especially considering his support of the CPI(M)?

    • shinethepath’s question, “I wonder what Advance the Struggle thinks about the struggle in India altogether and why they think it was important to hi-light Ahmad Aijaz especially considering his support of the CPI(M)?” aside from being a tangent, skips all too easily a very clear and basic argument that aijaz is making. in a nutshell that argument is a call for the left to renew the centrality in its various analyses of the fact that the proletariat is the primary historical agent in bringing about world socialism.

      ahmad: “Indeed, one may use the word “bourgeois,” in a cultural sort of sense, but the word “proletariat” makes one distinctly uncomfortable, as if using such words is some kind of anti-social activity.”

      although the topic shinethepath brings up (whats advance the struggle’s analysis of left indian politics?) is tangential to the topic of the post itself, it is helpful to mention in passing that this guy is a scumbag stalinist kautskyist who does deals (as one should expect) in parliament and behind the scenes with big capital to the betrayal of his professed commitment to the proletariat. this should not surprise anyone, since such betrayal is built into stalinism with its abandonment of world revolution and repressive bureaucracy. all along the way, stalinists in russia and elsewhere were writing books that contributed to the intellectual marxist conversation, yet were politically committed to what in practice were anti-working class organizations (althuser’s membership in the french CP might be one such example).

      aijaz is perfectly capable of stressing the existence of and the centrality of the proletariat, but is wrong about how they can exercise their agency, or even if they can be trusted to control their own agency. he shares the view that proletarian agency can be dislocated to the existing state and insturmentally controlled from above in bureaucratic unions (and presumably NGO’s and the like as well) with the vast majority of the left, including most of the maoist groups, be they the CPN(M) or Freedom Road,and the “best of the troskyists” like Solidarity. ultimately organizations like these act in defense of the liberal state and are not revolutionary. whatever aijaz’s faults with regard to indian politics, they stem from a deeper theoretical and strategic pitfall shared by the left in general: robbing the working class of its independence and power which would flow from structures that are as directly democratic as possible and the engagement in strike activity as frequently as possible. and of course the political aim of both would be to smash – not integrate into – the existing state structures and replace it with the dictatorship of the proletariat. what i just described is a cursory summary of leninism, a theory of revolution to which i basically subscribe. as i believe aijaz does in this article, the first step to valuing the revolutionary potential of the proletariat is to recognize it; the second is to organize it. this cant be done through abstention or by skipping the actual proletarian layer to hobnob with their various “leaders” be they in trade union bureaucracies, the democratic party, non-profit organizations and workers centers. all these seek to identify themselves with the the proletariat, but are actually (to varying degrees) parasitic growths upon it. these institutionalized moldy growths accumulate where action stagnates, hence their inherent conservatism.

      although he isn’t referencing at all the problem in the same way i am, this quote from ahmad i think illustrates well how a lack of struggle, which union bureaucrats and non-profit boards of directors are in large part responsible for maintaining, has given poverty to our theory: “I think that the institutionalizing of certain kinds of radicalism has gone hand in hand with a certain sanitization of vocabulary, which is ultimately quite devastating for thought itself.” its a shame that in practice, ahmad is part of the problem and not the solution.

      • above i wrote : “this guy is a scumbag stalinist”

        thats not a reference to shinethepath. im talking about ahmad who is an active member of the indian communist party which invites big capitalist development and represses independent worker movements.

      • Wow.

        So where should I begin – I guess I would like Esteban to point out how Freedom Road, Solidarity, the Maoists in Nepal and elsewhere “protects” capitalism? What absolute Bullshit. Just name a few examples of how this is done.

        This is just sectarianism and opportunism – the opportunism stemming from the fact you uphold the MAOIST LRBW and the STALINIST CPUSA’s Trade Union Unity League without any significant clarification of why they should be distinguished from the general milieu of other Maoists and Stalinists that protect liberalism.

        On all this language of “Stalinism,” Esteban merely repeats the standard Trotskyist critique of bureaucracy. This critique not a Marxist critique, since bureaucracy is not in itself in any sort of way self-perpetuating or beholden to a political character; the real question is what is the political character of any formation, what are their fractures, etc. The Trotskyist critique of bureaucracy, especially of the Tony Cliff – Max Schatmant, variant just wholly replaces a Marxist understanding of the state with a liberal one, more akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil than a Marxist understanding.

        Secondly it doesn’t even ring true historically. Even Zizek has pointed out, with all the disaster and terror of Stalinism in USSR, it being a bureaucracy was far from the case. During most of the early Stalin period the bureaucracy was in constant flux and turmoil to the point of absurdity because of the purges and “proletarianization” campaigns of the CPSU. There was no stable nomenclature to speak of.

        Third, the line of “socialism in one country” has been terribly distorted by Trotskyists. In the very early period of the CPSU, that question was settled before Stalin took nearly absolute control over the politburo. That line itself was articulated most prominently by Nikolai Buhkarin, and the essence of that line was to carry forward social transformation of the Soviet Union in lieu of the fact that revolutions outside of the Soviet Union had crumbled and been crushed. Trotsky’s line, on the other hand, followed the vulgar Theory of Productive Forces account for historical development – it was argued by himself that the Soviet Union’s salvation was only in the hands of the European proletariat – in the meantime, Soviet Union would need to become a militarized state-capitalist power (he doesn’t object to the development of capitalism in the Soviet Union and accepts NEP, just socialism!).

        History has show that revolution is more favorable in semi-colonial, semi-feudal, unevenly developed peripheries of global capital, i.e. the global south or third world. There is no logic or reason that says tat revolution can’t be consolidated there and begin to transform their societies. The Theory of Productive Forces is essentially a line that objectively promotes euro-centrism and national chauvinism amongst Marxists.

        On a final point about Bureaucracy, it remains a secondary contradiction and character within socialism and a necessary one. Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky all shared the same common thread of understanding – economy must be in the hands of state and it must be centrally planned, this of course doesn’t preclude various forms of workers’ self management in factories, etc. But workers’ self management alone can’t deal with questions of commodity exchange, accumulation of capital, and to centrally plan production according to the needs of the whole people.

        The fundamental question is however, and the main contradiction in socialism, is whether such a process is done under the political line of the proletariat or the bourgeoisie.

  2. “I wonder what Advance the Struggle thinks about the struggle in India altogether and why they think it was important to hi-light Ahmad Aijaz especially considering his support of the CPI(M)?”

    Bro, what do you think of what he’ says? I’m interested in what you bring up about his support of a ruling class party in India, but you don’t even post relevant links to support your assertion?

    I suggested this article be posted after I read an interview with dude in an old back issue of Monthly Review (’95 issue on Marxism & Postmodernism) then I found out about his book “In Theory” which is published by Verso (New Left Review’s publishing branch) and found his analysis of postmodernism interesting, along with his commitment, in theory, to a class analysis which incorporates aspects of what are usually atomized under the paradigm of culture.

    Plus he’s associated with Amy Goodman, Howard Zinn, and others as a Senior News Analyst for the Real News Network (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aijaz_Ahmad)

    I really dig that you comment, and it’d be dope if you backed up your various assertions with concrete articles and resources for folk to dig into.

    On that note, what do you think of the quote? Or the rest of the interview?

    • Big L,

      I was just noting that while I agree with the quote and have largely found Aijaz Ahmad a good Marxist intellectual, In Theory being a really good challenge of cultural post-structuralist Marxists and third worldists, like Fredric Jameson and Edward Said (though I’ve come to think he didn’t really understand Said).

      On this quote particularly, I think he is alluding to the various themes in new left theory which leaves itself in a maze of traps where its logic can only support the ideology or logic of oppression – say “sex positivist” feminists talking about the ‘contingency’ of sex workers but forgetting the conditions of how they came to do this work or various shades of post-modernists that assert that Islamism is an equally valid politics and the expression of the people of the middle east’s need to resist the culture of the West.

      But I was noting its really way too ridiculous that he is so radically a thorough-going Marxist, yet terribly supportive of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – you can see the link here http://vote.cpim.org/node/1404

      Of course this should be put into the context of the politics of India – supporting an organization like CPM isn’t like just voting for the PSL or WWP anti-candidates, these guys have power in West Bengal. They’ve actively used that power to push forward neo-liberalism and toss people from their land with thugs. CPM has pretty much tried to strong arm to peasants of Nanidgram to leave their land, and their cadre and thugs associated with them have murdered people and committed rape in that area.

      I would recommend checking out http://www.stuffedandstarved.org/drupal/node/259 about even how this issue has embarrassed some left-wing intellectuals like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.

  3. Seems like much of this argument is moving toward the question: “what is the proletariat going to be the dictator of?” 2 corollaries: “what is ‘development'”? and “what is revolution?”

    Both bourgeoisie and bureaucracy rationalize themselves by their contribution to “development” (call it capitalist, state communist, whatever). Got to return to the wage/class relationship, and not worry so much about how we proletarians are going to inherit the apparatus. We all know we are going to have to re-create everything from the bottom, so lets not stress about the correctness of “doing deals,” which seem to me like bad shortcuts that will later bite us on the ass.

  4. gerard: Seems like much of this argument is moving toward the question: “what is the proletariat going to be the dictator of?” 2 corollaries: “what is ‘development’”? and “what is revolution?”

    i agree. i would say that the goal of the revolution is to put the proletariat in charge of development, and that to do this, they must be in charge of the state. the goal of revolution is not, as some seem to believe, to get hold of state power merely for the sake of it. there is no point to slapping the proletarian label on the the state if the a) proletariat isnt in direct control of the state through soviet-type structures (not bureaucracy), and b) the proletariat isnt using the state power to create new more egalitarian relationship to each other and the means of production.

    the proletariat will have to create for itself, a democratic means by which to debate the best ways to “develop” society, and to what extent technology factors into that development. my guess is that the people will always want to use the highest technology available to them. there is very little historical evidence of the proletariat being in direct control of the state, although there are plenty of examples of leaders/chairmen and the bureaucratic structures below them claiming to head up the state and economic development “under the political line of the proletariat.” usually this was another way of managing production to create a privately expropriated surplus which was distributed amongst the ruling clique and bureaucracy, with little left for the workers themselves.

    even under these conditions, the workers and peasants of the usually third world countries that so-called socialist revolutions occurred in, generally benefited – even from the little surplus that reached them. usually the surplus reached them in the form of medical and educational services and improved roads, access to electricity, medicine, etc. So the merits of a centrally planned economy that relies on the acceptance (which is different from dictatorship) of the masses who have the historical memory of their own revolutionary self-activity fresh in their minds is remarkable evidence of the great things the working class could achieve if it actually had direct political power AND a more advanced economic base at its disposal.

    also, to relate this comment a little more to what ahmad says in his article… although every socialist ive ever met is anti-racist and anti-sexist, there is usually a difficult time convincing the working class which is disproportionately non-white and non-male that socialist revolution should be a major goal of theirs. this points to the need for socialists to present in a better way, all the benefits of socialism not just in terms of productive forces and stuff, but also in terms of ending all forms of oppression.

    mostly white and probably mostly middle class, socialists have been learning to talk about race and sex more, but have had a harder time intervening in and/or leading race and sex struggles. Despite the charges of class reductionism that race justice activists or feminists hurl at marxists, ironically it is actually a more thorough examination of class that i believe can make marxists more and more relevant to women and people of color. especially in times of crisis like this, the work of marx in exposing the capitalist economy’s inner dynamics provides many answers and gives people the tools which they can apply in creative ways, to formulate their own demands, organizations, movements. the class basis provides a mechanism for unity across all divides within the proletariat, be they racial, gender, sexual preference, nationality, whatever.

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