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Subaltern Politics and the Question of Being– An Interview with Ranajit Guha

Phenomenology and Existentialism
jhiblog
2022-07-18
https://jhiblog.org/2022/07/18/subaltern-politics-and-the-question-of-being-an-interview-with-ranajit-guha/

By Milinda Banerjee

Ranajit Guha, founder of the Subaltern Studies collective, celebrated his hundredth birthday on 23 May 2022. On behalf of the South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University, I had interviewed Guha in 2010 at his home in the outskirts of Vienna. I am grateful to the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog for giving me the opportunity to re-publish and recontextualize this piece.

The original insight of Subaltern Studies – that subaltern community offers the most potent means to resist the empire of capital – is perhaps more relevant now than ever. We live not only in the midst of a climate crisis, in the age of the sixth mass extinction, but also in an epoch of ascendant subaltern rebellion – Black Lives Matter, Dalit and Adivasi movements, Indigenous struggles, feminist strikes, queer and trans activism, protests against global warming and extinction. In the era of the Anthropocene/Capitalocene, subaltern self-organization offers the most hopeful pathways towards a better world.

In this interview, Guha focuses on Being and Becoming – on the ways in which Indian and European thought roots itself in the quest for uttaran, transcendence. Guha draws an arc from Aristotle and Abhinavagupta through Hegel, Tagore, and Heidegger, to situate his own position. This is a philosophical aspect of Guha’s thinking, evident especially in his Bengali-language writings, that remains unfamiliar to many Anglophone historians, who see him principally as a chronicler of colonial dominance and peasant insurgency.

This interview invites us therefore to ground the revolutionary stakes of subalternity in the millennia-old question of Being that has long haunted philosophy. We are compelled to ask – how shall we reimagine Being in an age when species are dying out, when planetary life is at stake, in the era of the Necrocene? Subaltern Studies had shown how subaltern revolt challenged and dismantled European colonialism, in India and beyond. But racial capitalism remains alive. Imperial states and profit-accumulating companies collude to extract value from human and nonhuman beings across the globe. Decolonization remains incomplete.

Hence, Subaltern Studies 2.0 must ask – how shall we concretize solidarities between human and nonhuman beings to erode this necropolitical condominium of state and capital? How shall we draw upon ancient traditions of spiritual egalitarianism to nourish this quest? Where Subaltern Studies 1.0 had focused on the human, Subaltern Studies 2.0 must think with Indigenous politics about nonhuman Being. Where Guha focuses on human justice in this interview, we now know that many nonhuman animals also have conceptions of fair and unfair behaviour, impelling us to think about more-than-human justice.

Hence, we ask – how shall these beings unite in care and community, realize their interdependence, forge Being-in-common? Can collective Being offer us a standpoint to overcome the abstract monetized value form of capitalism, reaffirm life-making over profit-making? Ultimately, how shall we forge multispecies democracy?

Guha’s meditations on Being and Becoming will stimulate our thoughts here.

Milinda Banerjee: Could you explain the reason for your recent turn away from writing in English to writing in Bengali, and for the shift towards a very explicit philosophy-oriented approach in these Bengali works?

Ranajit Guha: I have always loved the Bengali language, and the poet Rabindranath Tagore has been an enormous influence on me, not only because of his genius, which everyone would admit, but also because of his worldview. I therefore felt the need to write in Bengali, and engage with Bengali language and literature.

MB: Have you always been so ideologically churned by Tagore and by Bengali literary culture, or is it something which has become important in your mature years?

RG: I had engaged with these in my youth as well, though these issues then were not so apparently visible. Rather, what I felt more explicitly was my passion for social justice for the poor, and Marxism was therefore attractive. Coming from a khas taluqdar[i] family of Barisal in East Bengal, I had witnessed the structure of zamindar-praja[ii] relations in rural society, which left a profound impression on me. In my student days at Presidency College, Calcutta, I became a Marxist, and a member of the Communist Party. In the late 1940s, I spent a considerable part of time in Europe involved in Communist Party work. However, I also gradually started getting alienated from doctrinaire Communist Party Marxism. Experiences of the USSR’s handling of the political situation in Eastern Europe, disenchantment with the Communist Party of India’s internal factional squabbles for power, and finally the Soviet invasion of Hungary, made me decide to leave the Communist Party. Later, I became something of a Naxal intellectual. I still consider myself to have been inspired by Charu Mazumdar’s[iii] ideas which, I think, contain a lot of validity. But Charu Mazumdar and his followers were weak in organizational capability, which resulted in the movement being crushed. I have elsewhere condemned the role of some intellectuals in Indira Gandhi’s period who supported her moves to crush the revolt and praised many of her activities, for instance, the running of trains on time during the Emergency.

The doctrinaire Marxism of the Indian Communist Party was poor in appreciation of real Marxist philosophy. They had a very simplistic understanding of Marxism and most of them had not read the original books. The disenchantment with this doctrinaire Marxism provoked me to explore the philosophical complexities of Marx, which in turn led me to Hegel. Hegel has tremendously inspired me.

MB: But you have critiqued Hegel in your History at the Limit of World-History?

RG: I have critiqued certain specific elements in the Hegelian worldview, and specifically the Eurocentric elements which were common to others of his age. But Hegel’s notion of the Geist, and the theme of uttaran[iv] embedded in that, remains crucial. The ability to create a better self, a better social self, is very important.

MB: Is, or was, this concern shared by others in the Subaltern Studies Collective, or mainly by you, since the theme of transcendence or uplift would be negatively viewed from the poststructural or “postmodern” perspectives of your younger contemporaries, especially due to the present-day suspicion about all grand narratives?

RG: I think I am somewhat unique in having faith in the theme of uttaran or transcendence. It would be wrong to view, as some scholars have done, the Hegelian transcendence or movement of the Geist as something which operates narrowly and in a deterministic manner through immanent human history. Rather, the stages Hegel describes in the movement of the Geist should be seen as ideal types, exemplars, not narrowly in the form of actual human societies. In a related manner, Heidegger’s phenomenological approach has also left a deep impression on me. I consider both Being and Becoming to be important. Kant and Nietzsche have also deeply influenced me. Through Heidegger I have also approached Thomas Aquinas. Among the Greeks, I consider Aristotle to be more important than Plato in showing this appreciation of the phenomenological totality.

Image by Pema Gyeltshen, for Subaltern Studies 2.0, reproduced with permission from Prickly Paradigm Press

For me, intellectual history, the history of ideas, is very important. My first work was on the intellectual origins of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal, something to which I have returned in a recent Bengali book. My Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India also worked on these ideas from archival sources. I emphasize philosophy, but a philosophy which is worked out through the primary sources by the historian such as through the archival records which help us trace peasant mentality. What animates my earlier as well as later works is concern for the philosophical implications of the search for perfection. Man is imperfect, but he searches always for perfection. Sometimes he does this by trying to conquer and destroy and take away things from nature and from others. Sometimes, he tries to achieve perfection by creating new things. So when he sees that birds can fly, and fish can live under water, but he himself cannot do these things, he feels inspired to create planes and submarines. This search for perfection also animates man’s desire for justice. For me, this has been a prime object of study, to study the norms of transcendental justice embedded in human beings, which manifests in peasant insurgency, in popular religion, and so on. The notion of justice present in popular religion has always moved me immensely. This theme of perfection again animates the quest for upliftment, uttaran, for going beyond one’s self.

MB: Is this ambiguity about the search for perfection, which both tries to destroy the Other and to reach out and embrace the Other, related to your understanding of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic?

RG: Yes, and the quest to understand this dialectic has always moved me. I was delighted to find a quotation from a Buddhist text which frames this dialectic, and which I used as the opening quotation for Elementary Aspects.

MB: Do you believe in God, since recognition of such a figure seems important if one believes in the possibility of transcendence?

RG: More important than the question whether I believe in the existence of God or not, is the question whether I believe in the concept of God. I do believe in the concept, and I think that this belief is essential because it prompts man to go beyond himself and search for justice and perfection, to seek and to create what he does not find in this world.

It is to study this quest that I have also engaged with Indian philosophy, with thinkers like Bhartrihari, Abhinavagupta and Shankaracharya. Indian philosophy has always dwelt on this theme. Modern Indians, however, to their detriment, have neglected this extremely rich heritage of Indian philosophy. In my recent works, writing in Bengali, and using Indian philosophy, I want to remind people of the need to go back to these concepts. Specifically, the theme of self-other relations has become very important, and explicitly articulated, in these works. The going beyond one’s self, the ability to take on new selves, to reach the Other, to transcend: these are issues which, I think, are particularly visible in the realm of literature, whether in Tagore or in later Bengali poets. Literature offers insights, and modern Indian writers have been able to achieve new directions, which have neither been so articulated by the discipline of history nor by historians. By going into Indian literature and philosophy, these insights can be recovered, and also be made ready for use by new generations of scholars with eyes less jaded than those of their predecessors. The German idealist philosophy of Kant and Hegel also articulate these concerns which were earlier expressed in Indian philosophy. Talking about these things might require the usage of a certain conceptual language which may appear difficult to some. But I have always written to express myself, to satisfy myself, and not with an immediate audience in mind for whom I must dilute things.

I have formally signed a contract to donate, after my death, all my private papers and books to the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. These contain materials, including letters exchanged between me and other Subaltern Studies scholars, which are absolutely essential for the writing of a history of the Subaltern Studies Collective, a school which, I think, has made the most original contribution to historiography on India in recent years. If scholars from Heidelberg University come and work on these in future, that would be very good.


[i] A class of landlords who were technically not zamindars, but who, like zamindars, paid revenue directly to the State in colonial Bengal.

[ii] The Permanent Settlement of 1793 bestowed property rights on land in Bengal to a class of people termed the zamindars. Below the zamindars were their ‘prajas’ or ‘subjects’ who cultivated their land and paid them rent.

[iii] The foremost intellectual and political leader of the ‘ultra-left’ Naxalite movement which erupted in West Bengal in the late 1960s, spread to the rest of the India, and continues to be the founding moment of the Maoist peasant insurgency of the present day.

[iv] A Bengali word meaning going beyond, with emphasis on the notion of transcendence rather than improvement or betterment.


Dr Milinda Banerjee is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, United Kingdom. He specializes in History of Modern Political Thought and Political Theory, and is Programme Director for the MLitt in Global Social and Political Thought. He is the author of The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India (Cambridge University Press, 2018), and co-author (with Jelle Wouters) of Subaltern Studies 2.0: Being against the Capitalocene (Prickly Paradigm, 2022). He has co-edited the volume, Transnational Histories of the ‘Royal Nation’ (Palgrave, 2017); the forum ‘Law, Empire, and Global Intellectual History’, in the journal Modern Intellectual History (Cambridge University Press, 2020); the special issue ‘The Modern Invention of ‘Dynasty’: A Global Intellectual History, 1500-2000’, in the journal Global Intellectual History (Routledge, 2020); and the special issue ‘Forced Migration and Refugee Resettlement in the Long 1940s: A Connected and Global History’, in the journal Itinerario: Journal of Imperial and Global Interactions (Cambridge University Press, 2022). Banerjee has published two other monographs and several articles on the intersections of Indian and global intellectual history and political theory. He is a founder-editor of a new series ‘South Asian Intellectual History’ with Cambridge University Press, a founder-editor of two series with De Gruyter, ‘Critical Readings in Global Intellectual History’, and ‘Transregional Practices of Power’, and Special Projects Editor of the journal Political Theology (Routledge). He is Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and Member of the Editorial Board of the Royal Historical Society’s book series ‘New Historical Perspectives’.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Image by Senganglu Thaimei, for Subaltern Studies 2.0, reproduced with permission from Prickly Paradigm Press.

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