Tag Archives: Caste

“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.