Over the academic year 2020-21, with the world in a state of limbo owing to the COVID-19 crisis, a group of Marxist scholars and activists at the University of Toronto came together to set up a reading group. The initiative may not seem like an unusual or a remarkable occurrence. After all, the isolation caused by the pandemic forced many of us to conjure new modes of comradeship, of thinking and working together. With our usual avenues for scholarly exchange restricted, it became necessary to envisage what was to be done next.
The urgency of thinking with a Marxist worldview was intensified in this case by the repression of the Left by the state and state-adjacent actors in South Asia in the preceding years. The stream of arrests and torture of Leftist activists in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, to name a few instances, clarified the importance of this task. Driven by the belief that Marxism as an intellectual project allows the possibility to continuously stretch out its frames of knowledge, our group began to explore a healthy collaboration for scholars who either come from or work in South Asia. As a collective, we urged each other to think of scholarly contributions that would not only emerge from the reading of popular Marxist texts in South Asia but push it beyond the existing realms. To not merely repeat invocations of the canon, but to loosen the binds of Marxist theory so that fresh air could seep through.
In fact, three major themes animated the readings and discussions between the group’s participants. (1) South Asian Marxists’ approach to thinking about questions of capitalism, colonialism and imperialism, (2) The treatment of agrarian and feudal continuities in Marxist theories of South Asia, and (3) The unique South Asian contributions to theorising caste from a Marxist perspective. A brief exploration of South Asian Marxisms is in order.
Why South Asia?
On the theoretical front, South Asians Marxists are distinguished by their original assessments of the nature of class struggles and alliances in the projected transition of the subcontinent from feudalism to socialism, mediated as it was by forms of capitalist development and underdevelopment installed by European colonialism and imperialism, not without support from indigenous ruling classes profoundly invested in preserving caste privileges. The gravity of such political inquiry into real and possible transitions from one mode of production to another is reflected in the depth of subcontinental Marxist theorizations on modes of production and social formations. These involved vigorous debate on peripheral and semi-peripheral spaces in world economies, their mutations under colonial and imperialist rule and the prospects of their transition to socialism. Indeed, few ‘transition debates’ in the world can match the nuance and insight of the South Asian Marxist deliberation on class relations and modes of production (Thorner, 1982).
South Asian Marxisms, which grew out of late colonial labour struggles before organizing themselves into various mass political parties, cannot be understood in isolation from the subcontinent’s history of colonialism and anti-colonial struggles followed by projects of national development and neoliberal globalization in the post-colonial era. In both colonial and post-colonial times, the persistence of imperialism in the world economy too remained a constant and immediate reference point for South Asian Marxists, which cannot be said for all varieties of post-colonial theory emerging from that part of the world or elsewhere. South Asian Marxists’ contribution to a global revolutionary political tradition, therefore, bears the marks of their confrontation with imperialism and colonialism in addition to capitalism, which also sets them apart from their Europeans comrades as well as kindred spirits in settler colonial societies.
Negotiating the relationship between national liberation and socialist revolution, in other words, was a formative theoretical and practical task for Marxists of South Asia, and the experience of undertaking it was constitutive of their political being. It was one which inserted them, moreover, into the heart of political debates among leading international Marxists and the revolutionary movements they represented, as exemplified in M. N. Roy’s famous Comintern exchanges with Lenin on ‘national liberation movements in the East’. Of course, not all Marxists – South Asian or not – agreed on the key issues debated in the Comintern and beyond, especially on revolutionary strategy in the colonies. The long-standing divisions between the various Marxist political parties of the subcontinent emerged precisely on the basis of such strategic disagreements on revolutionary politics as much as their theoretical implications.
Although South Asia as a category of research must not be taken at face value. After all, the study of this region was bequeathed to us by the emergence of the discipline of Area Studies at premier American universities that were deeply linked with the wider American hegemonic project. So, while we think with South Asia, we also dispute its exceptional boundedness that is characteristic of scholarship in Area Studies. It is imperative to think within and beyond borders.
The historical context of South Asian Marxisms brought forth an acknowledgment among the group participants of the rich tapestry of Marxist scholarship produced in and from the region. To amplify this appreciation, we sought to stretch the boundaries by bringing our own research interests to the conversations. The vivid interests harboured by the contributors strike through in the special issue, Marxist Thought in South Asia, that was published in December 2023. Our scholarly contributions found a capacious home at Political Power and Social Theory. The 40th volume of the journal features nine pieces that range from research papers, essays, poetry, and an interview with Professor Himani Bannerji. The subject matter of the papers range from Dalit articulations of Marxism and anti-colonialism (Kristin Plys), Marxist-feminism in Pakistan through the reading of jail diaries (Umaima Miraj), poems of resistance (Salman Haider), an examination of the recent popular uprising in Sri Lanka (Devaka Gunawardena & Ahilan Kadirgamar), and even the relationship between cricket and Marxist aesthetics (Priyansh).
Although the world may have moved a few steps ahead of the bleak days of lockdown during 2020-21, the political crises that engaged the minds of Marxist scholars and activists in that time not only endure but challenge us to continue this project. We offer the special issue as an attempt to revitalise a conversation that remains urgent and necessary.
Priyansh is a doctoral candidate in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Toronto. His current project is a historical sociology of sports mega-events in India, with a special focus on theorising the role of the capitalist state in organising the games.
Image: “A Child from Kerala holding Communist Party of India (Marxist) Flag” Erfanebrahimsait, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.