How do you tell the history of the world? Not long ago this question would have seemed naive. The only people enthusiastic about universal history were complacent idiots who thought that history had ended with the cold war and the twin triumphs of democracy and globalization, or that it was moving toward an ever fuller manifestation of the glory of the Western way of life. Raining on their parade felt like a civic duty.
Those days are gone. Even the idiots are no longer complacent. Now they worry about the decline of American power and the rise of China; they scramble for a techno-fix for global warming and other looming resource-related catastrophes. Few Whig interpretations of history are left afloat. Sinking them no longer seems the most productive way to spend your time. Meanwhile, urgent reasons have made themselves felt (see above) for trying to make sense of history on a planetary scale. And it seems quite possible to do so without being Whiggish about it.
This planet is home to a large number of nations, societies, regions, cultures, communities, and other variably sized human collectivities. Each is, of course, unique. Each has a legitimate claim to a history of its own. Do these claims mean that no single overarching history is possible? The somewhat obscure impulse behind Vivek Chibber’s polemical and much-debated book is to establish that such a history is both possible and desirable. His motive, stated somewhere in the middle of his book, is “to tie together the political struggles of laboring classes in East and West as part of one—dare I say it—universal history.” Whatever doubts I have about the peculiar version of universal history he comes up with, and I have several, I’m glad he dared.
The target of Chibber’s polemic is not postcolonial theory as a whole, about which he says almost nothing. (Verso should have asked him to drop the portentously inaccurate title.) His target is Subaltern Studies, the field created by a group of left-wing historians of South Asia who began publishing in the early 1980s. The Subalterns—represented in Chibber’s book by Ranajit Guha, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Partha Chatterjee, and who also include David Arnold, Gyanendra Pandey, and Shahid Amin, among others (Gayatri Spivak is a sort of fellow traveler)—wrote from within Marxism but against what Chakrabarty called the “deep-seated, crude materialism of the ‘matter over mind’ variety” implicitly attributed to orthodox Marxism. Crude materialism, these historians argued, did not give enough credit to the culture, consciousness, or experience of India’s poorest. There was also an immediate political context that spurred the historiographic question. In the late 1960s and ’70s, India’s most oppressed had risen up in what came to be known as the Naxalite insurgency, and received less than full-throated support from the established Marxist parties. When Guha and Chatterjee researched peasant revolts against colonial officials and landlords or strikes in Calcutta’s jute mills, they were calling attention to a resistant agency for which even the anticolonial left seemed unable or unwilling to find a proper place.