Marx and postcolonial thinking

Sudipta Kaviraj speaking at UCLA's Center for India and South Asia on May 12. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)

Marx and postcolonial thinking

On May 12, Sudipta Kaviraj visited UCLA's Center for India and South Asia to deliver a speech on the need to broaden social science theories to include those based on non-western experience.

“We cannot do without western theory, but we cannot do with only western theory any longer."

By Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)


UCLA International Institute, May 26, 2017 — Graduate students from a variety of majors gathered to present their research on India and South Asia at the UCLA Center for India and South Asia’s Second Annual Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference on South Asia on May 12, 2017. The conference was cosponsored by the Program on Central Asia; the UCLA departments of history, world arts & cultures/dance, anthropology, geography and English; the deans of social sciences and humanities; and the Navin and Pratima Doshi Chair in Indian Studies.


Following the student presentations, Sudipta Kaviraj, professor of Indian politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, delivered the keynote address. Entitled “Marx and Postcolonial Thinking,” his speech argued for the need for social science theories that are not solely derived from European experience.


Expanding intellectual thought beyond Europe


“In putting Marx and postcolonialism together, I've deliberately used Marx, not Marxism,” said Kaviraj. He noted that his interpretation of Marx and framing of the philosopher’s work were highly irregular. “I see Marxism as a historical unfolding of structure, which his followers and admirers have elaborated in various contradictions and manifestations,” he explained.


“If you are a Marxist, in any society you live in, you feel compelled to show that it followed the steps of Marxism,” said Kaviraj. This task can be difficult or impossible for non-Europeans, he said, because Marx was influenced by European history and development. It is particularly challenging for Indians and South Asians living within the caste system to reconcile Marx’s conceptions of humanity with their own reality.


According to Kaviraj, Marx’s foundational text, Capital, offers a solution to this issue by analyzing the caste system as a unique social system outside of European history.


“What [Capital] does is something very central and egalitarian,” said Kaviraj. “It doesn't impose empirical characteristics of exclusion.” Marx’s most famous work introduced, he explained, the idea of a non-European trajectory of development, allowing for an expansion of intellectual theories on capitalism. Kaviraj referred to this expansion as “lateral elaboration,” or a process in which room is made for alternate, non-exclusive terminology and ideas within already existing systems of social thought.


“If you say capitalism is bad because it violates human nature, you’re examining it on its own merits and you don't need to think of it as coming before or after any other economic system,” Kaviraj explained. “When you put capitalism in a historical context, you need to think in terms of before and after.”


Similarly, by theorizing that the Indian caste system was sui generis — a unique entity — Marx removed the need to compare and contrast Indian society to European society. This process of lateral elaboration, he said, permits the use of more inclusive terms for social structures and enables discussion of both capitalism and Marx that is not rooted in European history and tradition.


Social science theory needs to broaden beyond the West


“I think that social science today faces a crisis,” said the speaker. “There is an absence in which the structure of concepts of my own thoughts are drawn from western social theory.” The terminology and institutions used by social scientists internationally to discuss history, economics, society and culture are all based on western standards and theories, explained Kaviraj, as opposed to drawing from local or native intellectual traditions.


“We cannot do without western theory, but we cannot do with only western theory any longer,” he argued.


“Under the influence of western lines of thought, it was assumed that the Indian or Islamic tradition was dead or uninventive for centuries,” said Kaviraj. He made it clear that was not the case. In his view, intellectual thought is composed of three “layers.”


“First, we have a primary, or empirical, level of thought, which is specific to a time period, deeply historically indexed and based on observations and experiences,” said Kaviraj. “Then, you have the analytical level of thought, which is more abstract and not as bound to time or as purely empirical. Finally, there is the theoretical level, where statements with a high level of generality, such as Marx’s about the nature of humanity, are made.” The speaker argued that all social science enquiry follows this structure.


“We have mastered a huge amount of empirical understanding of the non-western world, as well as a broader analytical understanding,” remarked Kaviraj. “However, on the theoretical level, the processes and language of intellectualism all still come from western thought. The only way to get out of this is by performing lateral elaboration at the theoretical level, not simply the empirical level or analytical level,” he concluded.


“We can achieve this by doing the kind of work that Marx did and re-examine our own history,” said Kaviraj, insisting adamantly that there was room for Indian and South Asian social theory in intellectual circles worldwide. “Only then can we have social science with a logically balanced, inclusive structure.”

Published: Friday, May 26, 2017

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