Ever since the early 1980s when postcolonial studies was initially introduced to academia, the discipline has not ceased to grow. It has moved from its initial literary venture consisting of a “write back” to the Empire, to a much larger body of critical enquiry by making inroads into such diverse fields as urban studies, architecture, medicine, philosophy, anthropology, ethics and law, education, and, more recently, aesthetics and political economy. While the list is obviously not exhaustive, the last two domains seem to be of utmost significance. Postcolonial scholars’ reassessment of economics and aesthetics is part of the discipline’s overall aim to challenge the idea that culture devoid of any intrinsic “value”(1) is the lot of postcolonial societies. Particularly with the transformation of former colonial peripheries, in Asia, Africa, or Latin America, into major players of the new world economy, the need for the theorization of a political economy that is distinctly postcolonial has never been more pressing.
I must and will insist on the political component in this piece, for there is a regrettable tendency in contemporary mainstream economics to ignore the former, or rather, to divorce the political from the economic as two separate spheres. However, with the postcolonial being essentially a political project stretching beyond its metropolitan provenance in the ivory towers of Western academes, there can be no such thing as the delineation of a “purely” economic theory in the same way that when dealing with aesthetic matters, notions like “art for art’s sake” cannot apply to the postcolonial. Instead, contamination, métissage, hybridity, and ambivalence remain hallmarks of the postcolonial. Eiman O. Zein-Elabdin, one scholar amongst others actively engaged in connecting economic questions with the postcolonial, for instance noted (2009, 3) how “Homi Bhabha’s (1985, 1994) idea of hybridity (deep cultural mixing) offers a fruitful analytical tool for better examining economies situated in multiple and dense cross-cultural intersections, and improves our understanding of contemporary economic phenomena at large.”
While taking inspiration from Zein-Elabdin, this short piece, part of a larger and ongoing research project, also departs from Zein-Elabdin on two important points. Marxism, not institutional economics, I argue, constitutes the basis from which a postcolonial political economy can be derived. Flowing from this, issues pertaining to class and revolutionary politics, or even politics tout court, which I found lacking in Zein-Elabdin’s article(2), will occupy a central place here. Leon Trotsky – not Antonio Gramsci, whom academics regularly uphold – is amongst the Marxist revolutionary thinkers the one who, in my view, came closest to an understanding of class dynamics in cultures and economies situated outside the West, through his law of “uneven and combined development”. For Michael Löwy, who has worked extensively on Trotsky’s theoretical legacy, the concept of uneven and combined development “enabled Trotsky to transcend the evolutionist conception of history as a succession of rigidly predetermined stages, and to develop a dialectical view of historical development through sudden leaps and contradictory fusions” (2010, 87).
More importantly, Trotsky’s appeal does not only stem from his analysis of so-called “mixed” economic structures in semi-colonial countries like Russia and China, but also from his life-long experience as a revolutionary practician for whom the goal, to paraphrase Marx, was not only to describe but also change the world. Derived from the law of uneven and combined development, Trotsky’s programmatic political strategy, encapsulated in the phrase “permanent revolution”, was the recognition of the possibility, nay necessity, of an uninterrupted “growing over of the democratic [bourgeois] into the socialist [proletarian] revolution” (Löwy 2010, 43). Written in the temporal mode of “future anteriority”, Trotsky’s theory was based on his belief that, for differential historical reasons, there was to exist no political space available for the implementation of Western-style bourgeois liberal democracy in the colonies, unless supplemented with, that is to say anticipated by, a proletarian-led revolution. As Michael Löwy concedes, Trotsky could not predict the central role peasant movements played from decolonization onwards. Neither could he foresee the growth in the megacities of the “Third World” of what has come to be known for lack of a better name as the “informal sector”.
However, this does not invalidate the core of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, first drawn out as early as 1905: namely, his understanding of a “time-lag” in the colony preventing a nascent indigenous bourgeoisie from playing the same emancipatory role as had been the case in parts of Europe, in particular France and England; as well as his deconstruction, against evolutionist “stagism”, of the line between core and periphery, advanced and backward countries, tradition and modernity, and his prediction that the periphery would become the “vanguard” of the international proletarian movement. This was verified most sharply in the two successive revolutions that took place in Russia in 1917, and most dramatically in the Chinese Revolution of 1927, where under Joseph Stalin’s orders, the Chinese Communist Party entered Chiang Kai-shek’s bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang, only to be decimated quickly afterwards. In fact, the entire history of the twentieth century and of the failures of Communism, from the Third to the Fourth International, can be explained, partly at least, in light of a Stalinist (and Maoist) legacy: in particular, their belief in class collaborationism and party “substitutionism”, or in the possibility of “socialism in one country”.
Such a legacy, combined with the collapse of the Soviet block as well as the emergence of a new hegemon – neoliberalism – has quite logically led in our contemporary era to a de-politicization of social life, and, more generally, to the rejection of party structures amongst broad sections of the Left. Being itself a product of this particular historical context, postcolonial studies has regularly fallen prey to often virulent critiques on the part of scholars(3) who still regard class politics, or the Marxist notion of totality, as relevant in our times, and blame postcolonialism for failing to acknowledge its revolutionary past as expressed in anti-colonial third world liberation struggle. This polemic is not new, and, as I will argue in the remainder of this essay, it is largely fruitless. More productive in my view would be to find possible pathways between postcolonial and Marxist theories by, for instance, translating Bhabha’s “third space” of hybridity into Trotsky’s law of uneven and combined development.
Culture, as Bhabha himself never ceases to stress, requires an act of translation. Too often, the rhetoric of cultural difference that is central to the postcolonial paradigm finds itself pitted against the more economist discourse of dialectical materialism. Even Bhabha can be accused of an over-simplistic, if not mistaken, critique of the Marxist dialectic in his seminal book The Location of Culture, as he hoped to replace the latter with a, “dialectic without the emergence of a teleological or transcendental History” (37). Bhabha here fails to distinguish the Marxist from the Hegelian dialectic, the latter leading to a synthetic unity of opposites onto a higher plane, with the former bringing instead the erasure of opposites(4); in Bhabha’s own terms, “neither the one nor the other”. Bhabha routinely summons Derridean deconstruction as an antidote to the master narratives of history, offering an alternative to the Manichean operations of Marxism. However, it is indeed possible to reinterpret deconstruction from a Marxist perspective. The following passage taken from Gayatri Spivak’s preface to Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology shows how the deconstructionist method bears striking similarities with Marx’s belief that the proletariat only exists as a class in its relation to the bourgeois order and the class system it perpetuates:
To deconstruct the opposition is first to overthrow (renverser) the hierarchy. To fight violence with violence […] But in the next phase of deconstruction, this reversal must be displaced, the winning term put under erasure. The critic must make room for the irruptive emergence of a new concept, a concept that no longer allows itself to be understood in terms of the previous regime (system of oppositions). (1976, lxxvii)
Having clarified what I consider to be the main theoretical divergence between Bhabha and Trotsky, what remains of a difference between The Location of Culture (1993), Results and Prospects (1906) and The Permanent Revolution (1930) is in my view chiefly a matter of discourse, that is to say of rhetoric. Indeed, the messianic tone of a Trotsky sharply contrasts with the postmodern anti-humanism of a Bhabha, yet to cross over the void of metaphoricity that separates these two theorists is to undertake a comparative dialogue of the kind Bhabha himself elicited in his appropriation of Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary ethos. Let me then quote one passage from Bhabha where he works out a “permanentist” (Edward Said would say “contrapuntal”) appreciation of time that does not stop at, and bow before, the historically linear narratives of modernity, but instead cracks open a third space of indeterminacy that will result in an open-ended futurity: “The borderline engagements of cultural difference may as often be consensual as conflictual; they may confound our definitions of tradition and modernity […] and challenge normative expectations of development and progress.” (1993, 3) This disruptive “time-lag” of which Bhabha speaks repeatedly in The Location of Culture is of the same tenor, as when Trotsky writes in his account of the Russian Revolution how proletarian rule “appeared on the scene not after the completion of the agrarian democratic revolution but as the necessary prerequisite for its accomplishment” (2007, 211).
Acknowledging today the uneven and combined character of postcolonial economies, where pre-capitalist remnants happen to fuse with some of the most advanced elements of late capitalism(5), is crucial so as not to repeat those political mistakes of the past. It remains particularly vital in the Arab world, where ongoing failures to resolve basic democratic tasks in the wake of the Arab Revolutions, would tend to confirm Trotsky’s permanentist analysis of revolutionary processes in the colonies: that is, “a revolution whose every successive stage is rooted in the preceding one and which can end only in the complete liquidation of class society” (2007, 117). Needless to say, such “liquidation” may take different forms and content in the post-colony so that the task of the critic, to quote Spivak again, then becomes one of “mak[ing] room for the irruptive emergence of a new concept” and a new language, as the Subaltern Studies groups in India and Latin America for instance attempted to do at the turn of the new millennium.(6)
This short piece is only the premise of a larger re-reading of postcolonial master texts in light of the Marxist tradition – an endeavor which is not only urgent as the world capitalist system is facing its biggest economic crisis since the 1930s – but also, and perhaps for the first time possible, as inequalities of wealth within, rather than in-between nations (not to dismiss entirely persisting divisions between North and South) seem to be the order of the day.
- I refer the reader to Gayatri Spivak’s early essay on Marx’s economic category of “value.”
- The article appeared as part of a collection of essays exploring questions of political economy and the postcolonial. The absence of a systemic political analysis in Eiman. Zein-Elabdin is also reflected in the title of a full-length book the latter co- authored, Postcolonialism Meets Economics (2004).
- We could mention for instance in passing Aijaz Ahmad’s, Arif Dirlik’s, Neil Lazarus’ or Benita Parry’s works.
- What Theodor Adorno would have described as the “negative” dialectics.
- At the start of Harold R. Isaacs’s book on the Chinese Revolution of 1927, for which Trotsky had written an introduction, we find a fine description of China’s unevenness at the time – an unevenness which after almost a century remains one of the central features of Chinese state-capitalism and of the postcolony more generally: “The pattern of Chinese life is jagged, torn, and irregular. Modern forms of production, transport, and finance are superimposed upon, and only partially woven into, the worn and threadbare pattern of the past.” (2010, 1)
- See the recent debate on “Marxism and the Legacy of Subaltern Studies” that took place at the Historical Materialism Conference in New York in April 2013.
Bhabha, H. K. 1993. The Location of Culture. London/New York: Routledge. Isaacs, H. R. 2010. The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Löwy, Michael. 2010. The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Spivak, G. C. 1976. “Translator’s Preface.” In Of Grammatology (Derrida, Jacques), IX-LXXXVII. Baltimore/London: the Johns Hopkins University Press.
Spivak, G. C. 1985. “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value.” Diacritics 15 (4): 73–9.
Trotsky, Leon. 2007. The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects. London: Socialist Resistance Press.
Zein-Elabdin, E. O., and S. Charusheela, eds. 2004. Postcolonialism Meets Economics. New York: Routledge.
Zein-Elabdin, E. O. 2009. “Economics, Postcolonial Theory and the Problem of Culture: Institutional Analysis and Hybridity.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 33 (6): 1153-1167.