Postcolonialism and Marxism

Karl Marx
Cover of Karl Marx

I must declare at the outset that I do not see these two concepts in a binaristic fashion as both these conepcts, at least in my field of study, have more of a dynamic and dialectical relationship rather than an agonistic one.

Postcolonial theory is often blamed for its esoteric content and for its reliance on poststructuralism. The critics can thus posit that by abjuring Marxism, postcolonial theory has, somehow, given up on any hope of a revolutionary politics and has fallen prey to the impractical assertions of some high fluting armchair philosophers and critics invested deeply in a form of depoliticized culturalism. These claims are certainly absurd and fallacious as they are based on a simplistic understanding of psotcolonialism and postcolonial theory.

In fact, one main strength of postcolonial theory happens to be its hybrid and non-foudationalist approach to study of literatures and cultures. I believe that in certain ways postcolonial theory has maintained its deeply Marxist core, but has also facilitated the evolution and development of Marxism from a party-central, vanguardist Marxism to that of structural Marxism that goes beyond the oversimplified readings of Marx. Quite a few scholars in the field, including my mentor Dr. Robin Goodman, have clearly articulated that in this phase of capital our purpose is not the end of the state but rather a reassertion of state as the last remaining bulwark against the forces of neoliberal capital. This is where postcolonial theory takes its lessons beyond the usual understanding of Marx to a level where theory informs a more nuanced and liberatory politics. But, to state simply, psotcolonialism does get a wide variety of criticisms from both ends of the global division of labor and not the elast of this criticism is directed at the opacity of the arguments offered by its leading theorists.

In order  to challenge the pseudo-oppositionality of postcolonialism and Marxism, I would like to briefly discuss one of the most important articles by, one of the most astutely poststructuralist, feminist, deconstructionist critic: Gaytari Spivak.

What I want to assert is that despite its reliance on high theory, psotcolonialism never really abdicates its responsibility to highlight certain important aspects of colonizer/colonized relationship in terms of history but also in the light of current phase of neoliberal capital. I have chosen Spivak as my scholar of use simply because she is often blamed for being too esoteric and incomprehensible, a claim that is completely unjust and can only be mobilized if one had not had a chance to really read and contemplate on her intellectual as well activist work in the world. What I want to posit is that even the so-called most opaque and esoteric postcolonial theorist relies heavily on her understanding of Marx and Marxism to posit a theory of subaltern subjectivity.

Her highly anthologized essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak[1]” is, in its very essence, a Marxist argument against certain claims of poststructuralist theory. The essay was written in response to some claims made by Foucault and Deleuze in a 1972 interview[2].

During the course of the interview, both Foucault and Deleuze make certain specific assertions. I will only deal with one of them, as that happens to be Spivak’s point of entry into this debate. At one point in the interview, while suggesting that theory is inevitably connected to praxis, Deleuze suggests that there is no representation and that people can speak for themselves, or have come to voice. Of course, this assertion immediately eliminates any vanguardist approach to the question of revolution, but it also suggests that, somehow, since people can now speak for themselves, the role of the intellectual has therefore been reduced to that of a relay, thus rendering, in Spivak’s words, the intellectual transparent.

Spivak challenges this assertion by invoking and discussing the global division of labor of which, of course, Euro-America happens to be the center and the Third World the periphery. The question for Spivak, as far as I can tell, is simply this: can we declare that the subaltern subject has come to speech without taking into account the global division of labor and its attendant class hierarchies? Her point is that both these intellectuals, while speaking “with” the subaltern still remain deeply Eurocentric. But to assume that the subaltern can speak, and thus render the intellectual transparent, is a dangerous assumption especially since it disavows representation. Spivak then provides two specific forms of representation: Datstellen (representation as speckinf for in politics) and Vertreten (representation as in art and philosophy)

It is representation as Datstellen, substitution, speaking for, the one so aptly discussed by Marx in the “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaprte[3]” that Spivak attempts to foreground. This is strictly linked with Marx’s theorization of class and also Marx’s answer to the question of class status for those who cannot claim it on the ground of common interests or geographic contiguity or contingency. In explaining the class status of the rural peasants, Marx, (The famous quote, misquoted even by Edward Said: “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented”) suggests that they can be represented by the figure of the father, Napoleon himself. They come to speech, thus, through an act of representation and thus gain the status of class. Representation, therefore, is crucial to political empowerment of those who do not automatically constitute a class.

With the global division of Labor, Spivak suggests, the postcolonial sub proletariat has not come to speech and there is a need for not only representation but also a certain kind of didactics that will enable those at the other end of the global divide to learn of their own exploitation and then to forge alliances to counter the nefarious impact of policies made elsewhere for the interest of metropolitan corporation.

This, I must assert, is not classical Marxist vanguardist approach to the issues of revolution or class solidarity. This is rather the role of the intellectual and critic as the organic intellectual that Antonio Gramsci had so articulately expressed in his The Prison Notebooks. What Spivak asserts at a certain point in her argument is that one cannot abjure representation without accounting for the global division of labor and without articulating a general ideology of this moment in history.

Of course, when we invoke ideology, we also need to go beyond the epistemological model offered by Marx and must keep in mind the srtucturalist rearticulating of ideology by Althusser. In Marx, at least early Marx, ideology is a kind of false consciousness that makes the workers see the world from the point of view of the capitalists. The revolutionary act is aimed at lifting the veil so that the workers can see their real conditions of existence. In its structuralist model, since there is no real, everything is ideological and all we do is shift from one ideology to another.Postcolonial theory, in my humble opinion, does just that: it gives us the tools to choose the right ideology and liberatory philosophy without buying into the reductive explanations of classical Marxian take on ideology.

There is no outside to capital: we must therefore fight it from within but not to create a non-capitalistic utopia but to create a more humane world. Marx can be helpful there but Marx cannot give us all the answers especially since theory has moved beyond the basic assumptions of party politics and class solidarity. Didactics is a major part of this new phase of Marxist-leaning work. The critic, as Spivak asserts at the end of her essay, must not give up on representation. Furthermore, the critic and activist must also acknowledge that in the absence of a grand narrative of Marxian revolution and a centralized party, one must learn to rely more on Gramsci rather than parroting the hackneyed formulas offered by Lenin and others.

A great example of this symbiotic relationship between the intellectual and a people is that of the Zapatista movement. In the jungles of Mexico, Marcos, probably a former professor, has learned from the people but has also taught them to represent themselves in the language that the world understands. Built around the solidarity of a people, Marcos can thus learn of their desires, needs, and demands, and then as an organic intellectual render them into a language that the world understands. In such a relationship, the intellectual is not rendered transparent but is rather more palpable as he/ she not only works with the people, but also learns from them and teaches them at the same time.

If Marxism has to mean anything in today’s world, it will have to move beyond the party politics or its claims to end the state. It will have to reconfigure a mode of operation that accounts for the multiplicity of voices in the world and then articulate a vision that enables a kind of didactic relationship in which the intellectuals work with the people, share their knowledge, and defend the role and function of a redemptive and socialistic state, for the end of the state is no longer the rise of the people but rather, the ultimate rise of multinational corporations.

(Also published in Viewpoint Online)

[1] Original publication:  Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press,1988)

[2] A full transcript of interview is available here:

[3] Full text available here:

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