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Subaltern Historiography, the Working Class, and Social Theory for the Global South

Kristin Plys ( teaches at the Department of Sociology, University of Toronto, Canada.

The Indian Freedom Movement (1857–1947) was a significant period which had a politically important impact on the Indian state’s subsequent formation. The historiography of the movement was until recently much more monochromatic than the movement itself, highlighting the contributions of “great men.” The Subaltern Studies Collective (1980s–present) rejected this approach, taking a broader and more productive approach to telling the story of the movement via the bottom-up contributions to Indian history. Surprisingly, however, what became known as Subaltern Studies has downplayed the empirical role of the working class. One reason for this underemphasis is a specific and culturally essentialist mode of appropriating the work of E P Thompson, Carlo Ginzburg, and Hayden White, who are declared influences on Subaltern Studies. Why that was so remains an important question.

The author thanks Chitra Joshi, Mukul Mangalik, Avijit Pathak, Edward Rodrigues, Prabhu Mohapatra, Julia Adams, Charles Lemert, Shameel Ahmad, Yasushi Tanaka-Gutiez, and Marc Petersdorff for their comments. The author also thanks the Center for Historical Enquiry and the Social Sciences (CHESS) at Yale University for inviting the author to share a draft of this article.

In the late 1970s, in the throes of the Emergency, the Subaltern Studies scholars looked to the formation of independent India to understand how democracy could have been so easily taken away. Not only was state formation in 1947 a defining factor in explaining this crisis of the Indian state, but an important factor was also how the many social movements that fought for an independent India played an important role in shaping postcolonial society. Disillusioned with Indian nationalism and its associated historiography, Subaltern Studies historians wanted to provide an alternate narrative to the great man narratives of Indian freedom in which Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and sometimes Muhammad Ali Jinnah or Subhas Chandra Bose loom disproportionately large. Subaltern Studies endeavoured to tell an alternative story, one of “bottom-up” contributions to Indian history and society. In order to do so, those in the Subaltern Studies mould seized on the work of E P Thompson, Hayden White, and Carlo Ginzburg, for theoretical as well as empirical inspiration. Yet, the curious “cultural essentialist” appropriation of these thinkers issued in a particular reading that

inadequately theorised the transformative historical role of the Indian working class.

Subaltern Studies became critically important within the historical social sciences across the globe as a way to build social theory of the global South. However, these theories that build from a foundation of the original Subaltern Studies Collective, fail to adequately theorise the transformative role of the working class across the global South. I believe that for this reason, in order to devise a better way of theorising workers’ movements in the global South, theoretical inspiration must come from a group of scholars that better incorporate the transformative role of the working classes into their analysis. The moment of independence is central to the current discussion of class in India, and I contend, also a key to understanding the unique position of labour in the postcolonial global South. In this article, I ask, why do we need a new theory of the role of labour in the context of colonial independence? My launching point is a discussion of the New Indian Labour History, as first articulated by Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, and how it articulates the current concerns of Indian working class history. Then, I review Subaltern Studies as an important intellectual movement that brought history from below to the fore of analysis of South Asia. I then detail how the Subaltern Studies reading of key European texts encouraged a reductionist reading of the role of culture in historical change. And, in light of this, I then return to New Indian Labour History as an intellectual movement that takes a different approach from Subaltern Studies. Finally, I propose how the historiographic foundations of New Indian Labour History can help to build a better theory of the working class in the national liberation context given the insights of the Indian case.

Indian Labour History in Global Perspective

Rajnarayan Chandavarkar (1981) began to articulate his vision for Indian labour history in a series of articles in the early 1980s, before Dipesh Chakrabarty published Rethinking Working Class History (1989). These articles culminated in a book entitled The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India (1994) in which Chandavarkar challenges distinctions made by labour history among formal and informal labour, and the industrial working class and the reserve army of labour (Chandavarkar 1994: 72; Chandavarkar 1998: 75).

Imperial Power and Popular Politics (1998), Chandavarkar’s major work, is important because it is among the first Indian labour histories to articulate a world-historical perspective. He rejects Indian exceptionalism and rejects viewing India as a “defective variant of the West” (Chandavarkar 1997: 7). Instead, he places Indian labour resistance in the decades leading up to the Freedom Movement in the context of the world economy. While he claims that it is undeniable that capitalism has adversely affected the development of the Indian economy, Indian society has had some agency in how it received its incorporation into the European world-system (Chandavarkar 1997: 327).1 But, Chandavarkar’s work is important not only for its contributions towards a global analysis of Indian labour, and because it further articulates his scholarly project of showing the interplay between class relations and politics, but also for its fervent critical engagement with Chakrabarty’s Rethinking Working Class History (1989).

His critique of Subaltern Studies labour histories marks a break in the history of Indian labour from more cultural understandings of class to a more political-economy-oriented approach. Chandavarkar argues that problems of working class unity in India stemmed not from communal issues and pre-capitalist culture, as Chakrabarty would contend, but instead, from colonial repression and a historical legacy of uneven development (Chandavarkar 1994: 240; Chandavarkar 1998: 333–35). He also levies a critique of Thompson as appropriated by Subaltern Studies in which he claims that when Subaltern Studies historians borrowed an emphasis on culture from Thompson, “‘inheritance’ turned in Chakrabarty’s hands into a static, timeless, indeed orientalist characterization of a ‘traditional’ Indian, implicitly ‘Hindu’ culture—in Bengal, a predominantly Muslim province. Whereas in India, Chakrabarty argues, ‘hierarchy and the violence that sustains it remain the dominant organising principles of everyday life,’ Britain and the West is, by contrast, characterised by egalitarianism, individualism and democracy” (Chandavarkar 1997: 183). In Chakrabarty’s use of Thompson, Chandavarkar contends, Bengali society (which Chakrabarty conflates with Indian society) is made into England’s proverbial other.

In Chandavarkar’s later work, this debate between him and Chakrabarty continues. In Imperial Power and Popular Politics, Chandavarkar (1998) claims that the traditional Marxist and Modernisation theory teleologies do not fit well outside of the advanced capitalist countries and, therefore, “‘culture,’ especially ‘popular culture’ provided an alternative to ‘class consciousness’ and offered a looser category for the discussion of the ideologies and political actions of workers in the context of economic backwardness” (Chandavarkar 1998: 19). In his attempt to expose the Eurocentricity of Subaltern Studies historiography, Chandavarkar claims that Subaltern Studies historians have generated a new form of Eurocentrism in which the history of Indian society takes a backseat to the intellectual foundations of colonialism. In their concern with how colonial discourse and its hegemonic classes represented colonial subjects, postcolonial historians, “rather like colonial ideologues have increasingly assumed the mantle of representing the native” (Chandavarkar 1998: 21).

Furthermore, this focus on colonial discourse makes India and Indian society appear as simply a product of colonisation, that is, simply a construct and consequence of the hegemonic colonial discourse. Chandavarkar is concerned then, by the implications of discarding human agency, since one cannot change the world unless one acknowledges its materiality. Postcolonial scholars, he argues, discard human agency as “another delusion fostered by the enlightenment” (Chandavarkar 1998: 22). The result is, according to Chandavarkar (1998: 22), that postcolonial scholarship is “deeply conservative” because “if we refuse to acknowledge the materiality of the social world, we could not possibly change it.” Instead, the historian must “create and enter the space between this level of ‘brute reality’ and the discourse which is generated by, and relates to it, whether in India or the West” (Chandavarkar 1998: 22).

Many labour historians working in other geographical contexts might ask, why does the New Indian Labour History react so strongly against Thompson? The answer to this question lies in New Indian Labour History as a reaction against Subaltern Studies. In Subaltern Studies’ appropriation of Thompson’s method of historiography combined with their appropriations of the historiographical methods of White and Ginzburg, Subaltern Studies scholars practised a cultural essentialism. Therefore, Subaltern Studies was unable to adequately theorise the working class, particularly, the working class role in the Indian Freedom Movement; a recurring empirical and theoretical issue in the Subaltern Studies Collective oeuvre.

Subaltern Historiography of Labour

In his influential Dominance without Hegemony, Ranajit Guha (1998) expands upon the theory he originally formulates in Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983), a critique of liberal Indian historiography. Guha draws a sharp contrast between the indigenous and European bourgeoisie, arguing that in the transition to independence, the indigenous bourgeoisie never asserted itself as forcefully as did the European bourgeoisie during its period of ascendancy, which Guha claims, can be dated to 1640–1789. The Indian bourgeoisie was not able to reform or reshape colonial institutions, and maintained its ties to semi-feudalism in India (Guha 1998: 5). Guha’s critique of existing historiography is that historians lionise the bourgeoisie, and thereby, fail to criticise its historical failures.

Guha’s (1998: 23) definition of hegemony, following Antonio Gramsci, is as follows:

Hegemony stands for a condition of Dominance (D), such that in the organic composition of D, Persuasion (P) outweighs Coercion (C). Defined in these terms, hegemony operates as a dynamic concept and keeps even the most persuasive structure of Dominance always and necessarily open to Resistance. At the same time, it avoids the Gramscian juxtaposition of domination and hegemony (a term sometimes used in the Prison Notebooks synonymously with leadership) as antinomies.

While he borrows the concept of hegemony from Gramsci, Guha changes it. For Guha, hegemony is not a fluid combination of coercion and consent. Instead, hegemony is understood as a condition in which the hegemonic class relies far more on consent than coercion to dominate subordinate classes. Guha, however, leaves room for the possibility of collective action by the subordinate classes against the dominant classes. This definition is distinct from the two parallel trajectories that the followers of Gramsci took in the historical social sciences in the latter half of the 20th century. Guha’s hegemony is not the Gramsci of the Prison Notebooks, nor the Gramsci of Arrighian world-systems analysis, nor the Gramsci of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies. While his conceptual originality is certainly no crime, the way he employs his unique concept of hegemony is problematic.

Guha asserts that the failure of an emerging bourgeoisie to eradicate pre-capitalist cultural forms leads to a failure of that bourgeois class to become hegemonic. So, if the Indian bourgeoisie were hegemonic, they would have eradicated traditional Indian culture. He claims that through the analysis of the cultural symbols of the Indian bourgeoisie, one can determine whether or not they achieved hegemony during the Indian Freedom Movement. “Why,” he asks,

did the universal drive of the world’s most advanced capitalist culture, a phenomenon that corresponded to the universalising tendency of the world’s most dynamic capital of the time, fail, in the Indian instance, to match the strength, and fullness of its political dominion by assimilating, if not abolishing the pre-capitalist culture of the subject people? (Guha 1998: 63)

Why, in other words, did Indian culture persist even though British capitalist culture was dominant within the global economy? Guha’s answer is that this persistence is the failure of the Indian bourgeoisie; their inability to eradicate traditional Indian culture.

Guha claims that the bourgeoisie did not attempt to eradicate traditional culture; in fact, they reinforced it. In the Swadeshi Movement (1903–1908), the Hindu caste system played a role in how people were brought into the movement and in arguments for why they should participate (Guha 1998: 120). Likewise, in the Non-Cooperation Movement (1920–1922), those who did not participate were socially ostracised by local leaders of the movement. This social ostracism took the form of “denial of medical care, access to wells and ponds, and of customary services such as those of the village barber and washerman” (Guha 1998: 123). M K Gandhi, the movement’s leader, opposed such ostracism, but found other types of ostracism more acceptable, including, “a person’s right to seek the appropriate marriage connections for his family, host social functions such as marriage feasts, entertain guests on other occasions involving commensality, confer ceremonial gifts, and so forth” (Guha 1998: 125). Guha argues that for the lower castes, nothing would be more severe a punishment than to have their gifts refused by Brahmins, or if members of the Brahmin caste refused to attend their kin’s wedding. In this case, yet again, Guha contends that the dominant classes, through their reinforcement of the Hindu caste system, coerced the lower castes’ participation in the Freedom Movement.

Indian Bourgeoisie

Given his earlier assertion that if a bourgeoisie fails to eradicate pre-capitalist culture they cannot achieve hegemony, he concludes that because the Indian bourgeoisie reinforced traditional Indian culture in waging the struggle for freedom, they could not possibly have been hegemonic. Historically, however, what dominant class has eradicated pre-existing cultural forms? Surely, it is not the British and French, whom Guha upholds as exemplifying hegemony. And, there are countless examples to the contrary. Every hegemonic power has coexisted with the previous powers’ cultural forms (Arrighi 1994).

Again, in Dominance Without Hegemony, Ranajit Guha (1998) claims that the fundamental shortcomings of the Indian state are the Indian bourgeoisie’s failure to speak for the nation because, without being able to speak for the nation, Guha contends that the bourgeoisie was not able to build a lasting democratic state (Guha 1998: xii).2 But, while Guha critiques the great man approach to history for its failure to critique the Indian bourgeoisie for their failed transition to a flawed definition of hegemony, Guha ultimately does not blame the Indian bourgeoisie. The cause of this failure of the Indian bourgeoisie, and the Indian state, Guha asserts, lies in the failures of the Indian working class during the national liberation movement. Guha (1988: 42) writes:

The working class was still not sufficiently mature in the objective conditions of its social being and in its consciousness as a class-for-itself, nor was it firmly allied yet with the peasantry. As a result it could do nothing to take over and complete the mission, which the bourgeoisie had failed to realize. The outcome of it all was that the numerous peasant uprisings of the period, some of them massive in scope and rich in anti-colonialist consciousness, waited in vain for a leadership to raise them above localism and generalize them into a nationwide anti-imperialist campaign. In the event, much of the sectional struggle of workers, peasants, and the urban petty bourgeoisie either got entangled in economism or, wherever politicized, remained, for want of revolutionary leadership, far too fragmented to form effectively into anything like a national liberation movement.

While Guha’s challenge of liberal bourgeois historiography of India is an important critique of the existing literature, Guha’s characterisation of the working class is empirically false. In the present author’s work on labour movements in North India, the Communist Party of India (CPI), and the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), she sees that the working class was aligned with the peasants, labour did have an anti-colonial consciousness, had made nationwide connections, and most importantly, made significant contributions to the independence movement (Plys 2016a: 434–63).3

In his recently published and highly acclaimed, Making of the Madras Working Class, D Veeraraghavan (2013) analyses similar processes in Tamil Nadu, as the present author sees in Delhi, Haryana, and Punjab (Plys 2016a). The only freedom movements that Guha analyses are the mainstream bourgeois movements. These are the same ones that the historians he is critiquing are analysing. In addition to Swadeshi and Non-Cooperation, there were many non-bourgeois movements for Indian independence, including the Mumbai grain workers’ movement, the Indian Coffee House workers’ movement (1946–1948), the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny of 1946, the CPI’s social agitation (1925–1947), along with trade union activism (1917–1934) mostly in Mumbai, Kanpur, Lahore, and Chennai, inspired by the Russian Revolution and in which caste is not a part of the conversation. Religious diversity is often mentioned in workers’, trade unions’ and CPI writings, but it is invoked to claim that workers have overcome communal tensions and see themselves not as Muslims, Hindus, or Sikhs, but as workers. There is a dramatic shift in this conversation after independence, when the state imposes unions for each religious group within a given workplace, and this is enforced particularly in a Punjab that is simultaneously experiencing partition.4

This evidence on workers movements as resistance to colonialism does not support nor refute Guha’s claim that the bourgeoisie failed to eradicate traditional culture, since the bourgeoisie are not present in these workers movements. However, it does lead me to conclude two things. One, the working class was in fact quite “mature,” and two, it did break from traditional Indian culture in the way it expressed its desire for national independence and revolutionary socialism. Therefore, the failures of bourgeois state building, if there were any, cannot be attributed to a lack of working-class consciousness or a lack of involvement in the Freedom Movement.

Theorising Class

However, Guha’s inability to theorise class is not surprising given his limitations on three fronts. One, he is too regionally specific given the conclusions he draws. Two, his conclusions are based on analyses of the bourgeoisie from which he draws conclusions about other classes. And, three, he examines elite culture in order to understand class and class conflict. Guha’s primary mode of analyses is a discursive analysis of the Bengali bourgeoisie. He details how the Bengali bourgeoisie were culturally dominated by the British through the colonial education system, the adoption of British notions of masculinity, the imposition of English as a language of the educated and elite, and it is for those reasons, Guha claims, that Bengali historians and the Bengali bourgeoisie were unable to use Indian history towards a liberation discourse (Guha 1998: 194).

While I do not doubt the oppressive nature of the British imposition of British education, British masculinity, and the English language, this mode of analysis does not allow Guha access to Indian working-class consciousness, let alone Bengali working-class consciousness. The working class was engaged in different discourses, those that looked mostly to the Russian Revolution for inspiration. The discourses of the working class were not simply those that were fed to them by the bourgeoisie, and there was some regional variation in how discourses were employed by the working classes. Therefore, by restricting his discursive analysis to the Bengali bourgeoisie, Guha fails to capture working-class or subaltern discourses, and their relationship to the Indian Freedom Movement. Without the tools to understand the working classes, it is impossible to perform Guha’s praxis of an intellectual critique of the power relationships of colonialism as essential to questioning colonialism, a worthy goal (Guha 1998: 210).

Admittedly, Guha’s discussion of the role of the working class in the Indian Freedom Movement is indirect, but in Chakrabarty’s (1989) Rethinking Working Class History, the working class is at the fore of the analysis. In fact, it is the major work on Indian labour within Subaltern Studies. In Rethinking Working Class History, Chakrabarty analyses the development of working class consciousness in the Calcutta jute mills in the years leading up to Indian independence (Chakrabarty 1989: 4). His method, explicitly following White and Thompson (Chakrabarty 1989: 5), is to show the formation of the Calcutta jute mill workers as “working class.” Calcutta as a city was made by the jute industry, and by 1910, it was the most important jute industry in the world, producing more jute than the rest of the world combined (Chakrabarty 1989: 8). By the late 1930s, Chakrabarty argues, jute mill workers had developed a basic class consciousness through defining themselves as poor (and others as rich), and in making distinctions between mill workers and employers; they also engaged in strikes that displayed working-class solidarity (Chakrabarty 1989: 186). Workers developed what Chakrabarty calls an elementary class consciousness and showed signs of being a “community” (Chakrabarty 1989: 187).

However, this community of workers was easily divided over communal issues (Chakrabarty 1989: 190–191). Chakrabarty claims that while most labour historians would look to “ruling classes,” “employers,” or “reactionary leaders,” as explanations of this, these explanations should be dismissed as they ignore “the place these categories held in the explanation that sometimes the workers themselves gave of their own action” (Chakrabarty 1989: 199). In other words, the workers themselves used the language of communal enmity, and were not incited to do so by politicians, employers, or agents thereof, but because their solidarity was at times affected by communal issues, their class consciousness was, in fact, either more muted or more entwined with other forms of consciousness.

The cause of this communal tension, Chakrabarty argues, was that workers relied upon ties to their place of origin through the mills’ methods of recruitment and control, and were constrained by the oversupply of labour in the labour market (Chakrabarty 1989: 206). Given these social conditions, kinship networks, support from temples or mosques, and support of the labour recruiter were all crucial sources of social and economic support to mill workers in and around Calcutta (Chakrabarty 1989: 206, 208, 210). His argument is reasonable, and the evidence fairly detailed. Chakrabarty then takes a further step, however, concluding that to assume that workers also had material reasons for valuing and reproducing these ties, “is to invest the jute worker with a bourgeois rationality” (Chakrabarty 1989: 212). Instead, he claims, the mill workers did not have an aversion to debt, and were absent of any individualism or individual identities separate from the collective. For the Calcutta jute mill workers, honour and religion, Chakrabarty claims, were far more important values than their individual economic interests (Chakrabarty 1989: 213).

It remains unclear from an empirical standpoint exactly why Chakrabarty dismisses the influence of dominant classes on the jute mill workers in terms of fanning communal tensions. Chakrabarty fails to examine evidence and counter-evidence that the ruling class, employers and politicians did not incite workers to communal tension and violence. He simply claims that this cannot be the explanation for communal conflict, because if so, it would “empty culture of all specific content” (Chakrabarty 1989: 211). It is unclear exactly what Chakrabarty means here, certainly, one could come up with many interpretations of this phrase.5


In this move however, Chakrabarty negates workers’ role in shaping Indian society in the years leaning towards Indian independence. Given a position of cultural essentialism in which he fails to investigate evidence that might lend itself to the conclusion that ruling classes, employers, or others intentionally created tensions among the Calcutta working classes, it is not surprising that he ends up with the orientalist conclusion that traditional Hindu culture prevented the development of working-class consciousness in Calcutta. But, my critique is not so much that there is a failure of logic (as Vivek Chibber points out), but that there is a contradiction in the stated political praxis of the Subaltern Studies collective and their methodology. The result of this contradiction is that Rethinking Working Class History (1989) is conservative in its failure to investigate potential alternative sources of communal tension among workers, and orientalist in that it characterises workers’ motivations as directly derived from their Hindu beliefs rather than investigating alternative motivating factors that would be used to characterise the working classes of other geographies.

In later scholarship of the Subaltern Studies Collective, these concerns only become more salient, as Subaltern Studies eventually abandons the subaltern, and instead, shifts its focus to elite discourse, that is, the elite Bengali discourse, almost exclusively. Partha Chatterjee’s general approach to history epitomises this second phase of Subaltern Studies. While the first phase focuses on third-world cultural nationalism, the second phase is characterised by “postmodernistic valorization of ‘fragments’” (Sarkar 1997: 93, 95). In The Nation and Its Fragments, workers are now completely absent from the narrative of Indian nationalism. Peasants, women within the home, and a very limited version of lower-caste protest6—with no mention of B R Ambedkar—does the work of combating hegemonic bourgeois nationalist mobilisation (Chatterjee 1993: 121, 137, 191).

In his chapter on the Indian peasant, Chatterjee argues that peasants have the greatest potential for radical opposition to the state (Chatterjee 1993: 172). From the colonial perspective, and the Indian nationalist perspective, peasants are seen as simple, ignorant, exploitable, respectful, but also volatile and easily swayed by outside agitators. Chatterjee, following Guha, claims that peasants have their own consciousness, and that consciousness is an insurgent one (Chatterjee 1993: 158, 162). Peasant resistance and rebellion is easily misread by rulers who often conflate peasant unrest with more everyday forms of aberrant behaviour such as crime. But, fundamental to this consciousness, Chatterjee claims, is the principle of community. Peasants view themselves as separate from their rulers not through a process of interest-based solidarity building, but because their primary identity is located in the collective, and then their individual identities are shaped by their membership in that community (Chatterjee 1993: 163). Chatterjee concludes both that the peasant identity is inextricably linked to the history of peasant use of “Brechtian forms of class struggle” (that is, absenteeism, desertion, selective disobedience, sabotage, strikes, slander, feigned ignorance, satire, and abuse), and that peasants were key to the unrest in 1857 and 1942, and that “an Indian history of the peasant struggle is a fundamental part of the real history of our people” (Chatterjee 1993: 170–72).

I will pass over Chatterjee’s mischaracterisation of Indian Marxists as unconcerned with peasants. Countless archival and secondary sources show otherwise,7 and some have even argued that Subaltern Studies’ preference for the peasant over the worker is rooted not in empirical evidence, but in Subaltern Studies’ sympathies to peasant movements in China, Vietnam, and India, most notably the Naxalite Uprising (Sarkar 2004: 287). Indian communists have written about the importance of the Indian peasant in the struggle for revolutionary socialism since the founding of the CPI in Tashkent in 1920 (NMML; PCJ). More significantly, this class, which Chatterjee himself identifies as crucial in the struggle for national independence, is discounted in his later analysis. Despite the questionable nature of his underlying notion of some standard Western transition to bourgeois hegemony, he makes an argument similar to Guha’s: that the Indian state is the product of a failed bourgeois revolution and again, like Guha, the cause of this failure, for Chatterjee, is the bourgeoisie’s inability to eradicate pre-capitalist social forms. In this case, the failure to eliminate pre-capitalist dominant classes limited the power of the bourgeoisie and constructed a “synthetic hegemony” under which state control became a prerequisite for capitalist development because the state was the only actor capable of promoting industrialisation and the expansion of capital (Chatterjee 1993: 212). In explaining the Indian state’s choice to pursue the strategy of state-led industrialisation, he claims that these policies suppressed potential peasant mobilisation through the state’s agricultural development schemes (Chatterjee 1993: 213).

However, these “pre-capitalist” agricultural techniques were already eroded in some regions of India at the turn of the century, as early as 1904, with British plans to retool agricultural production modelled on the German cooperative movement.8 Agricultural cooperatives were implemented across British India in 1904, with the Cooperative Credit Societies Act (No 10 of 1904). This act was modelled after Sir Frederick Nicholson’s reports written between 1895 and 1897 to the Madras Government advocating the introduction of credit societies similar to those found in Germany. By 1912, there were over 8,000 societies across rural India, and by 1920, there were 47,000. The British cooperative societies inspired imitators and soon many different types of cooperatives—credit, insurance, producers, and consumers’ cooperatives—were established. The Bombay Act VII of 1925 legalised housing cooperatives along with general societies, thereby further encouraging the Indian cooperative movement. By 1930, there were nearly 1,00,000 agricultural societies with a total of 30,00,000 members across India employing about ₹35,00,00,000 in working capital. Most of these agricultural cooperatives were located in Punjab and in Travancore (now the southern part of Kerala), where by 1938, more than 15% of the population in these two regions was involved in agricultural cooperatives. There was also a significant number of agricultural cooperatives in Uttar Pradesh, with 6,41,60,000 members of agricultural cooperative societies as of 1951, and in Madras Presidency (which comprised modern day Tamil Nadu, Northern Kerala, and part of coastal Andhra Pradesh), where there were 5,80,50,000 members of agricultural cooperative societies.9

In sum, the relatively narrow focus of Guha and Chakrabarty on Bengal ultimately led them to neglect the key role of workers and peasants in the Indian Freedom Movement. In addition, the method of textual analysis of elite Bengali discourse made understanding the role of the working class even more difficult.

European Historiography in Subaltern Studies

From whence does this spring? According to Chakrabarty, Guha and Chatterjee, they draw their historiographic method from the works of Thompson, White, and Ginzburg (Chakrabarty 1989: 4; Guha 1998: 6; Sarkar 1997: 98). They have at least a particular reading of these thinkers.

As is well known, E P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) marked a dramatic substantive and methodological break with previous ways of doing historiography. Thompson analysed the working-class formation not as an emanation of social structure but as an active process in which workers exhibit a great deal of agency (Thompson 1963: 9). He also relaxed the category of “class” so that many diverse forms of social experience and political conflict were brought under the umbrellas of class struggle, class consciousness, and class formation. Thompson’s innovative approach had far-reaching influence across the historical social sciences. The Making of the English Working Class was also a foundational text for the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, an intellectual movement that through its Marxist exploration of the relationship between culture and political economy contributed to bringing about the cultural turn in social theory that took hold from the late 1970s until the 2000s, and did a particularly good job of theorising class and class struggle (Hall 1980).

But Thompson’s work—and Thompson himself—made an enormous impact on Indian historians and historiography, an effect dramatised in the late 1970s when Thompson was elected president of the Indian History Congress and rode into the Congress on the back of an elephant, eliciting cheers from the crowd of Indian historians (Chandavarkar 1997: 179). Subaltern Studies historians gravitated to Thompson because through his study of the English working-class formation, voice, experience and narration of the marginalised came to the fore, but also because in Thompson’s history, the past is the beginning of the political situation of the present. The past becomes, for Thompson, a long description of the present, and the only way to know about the past is to know the present (Chakrabarty 2012). This way of thinking about the past is fitting for Subaltern Studies given their goal of understanding the Emergency through analysis of the Freedom Movement and postcolonial state formation.

One might be more surprised at the influence of Hayden White, who introduced a special kind of epistemological scepticism to the discipline of history. White resonated with Subaltern Studies historians because in his method, “even in subaltern history or a social justice history, the moral consciousness of the subaltern is just as historically conditioned as a white male slave owner” (Chakrabarty 2012). In “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality” (1987), White pits his method against Braudel, whom White claims rejected narrative. White contends that because history relies upon narrative for meaning, there can be no objective or scientific history. Events cannot tell their own story, for example: they need to be subjectively narrated, and only then does history hold meaning (White 1987: 3–4). Historical events are such because they have been recorded by previous generations, and the historian then takes the events, orders them, and crafts them into an emplotted storyline. This plot imposes a meaning on the historical events, and then reveals a certain outcome to have been immanent all along. In order for scholarship to qualify as history, White claims, the events described must have at least two possible narrations, of which the historian will choose one, thereby giving his or her “true” account. This account becomes reality because the historian gives the story a formal coherence (White 1987: 20). Furthermore, he argues, the ultimate purpose of the historian’s narrativising discourse is to make moral judgments. History as lived lacks a coherent beginning, middle, and end, and the main characters are rarely clearly defined. But, in the storytelling process, the historian makes the narrative full, coherent, closed, and lends it integrity (White 1987: 24).

This method is only possible given White’s epistemological scepticism. In eschewing the scientific method, and questioning how we know what we know, knowledge production, instead of becoming a logically constructed argument, becomes instead a narration to the end of the historian’s moral judgment. This insight into the process of historiography is one that revolutionised the historical social sciences. But, this epistemological intervention, while necessary, is also the influence that makes Subaltern Studies impossible to critique from a political-economy approach, as Chibber (2013) has done. This epistemological intervention, however, opens Subaltern Studies to a critique on moral grounds, since that is the end to which post-structural historiography is constructed.

Finally, the third major influence is Carlo Ginzburg. Subaltern Studies gravitated to Ginzburg because of his spirit of history from below, and in his method, Subaltern Studies historians saw history as a novel, not subject to rigorous definition and one that practised cultural relativism (Chakrabarty 2012). They also heavily relied on his method of analysis of elite cultural discourse, particularly in the second phase of Subaltern Studies. Ginzburg digested the cultural turn differently from White. While White’s method emphasises epistemological scepticism, Ginzburg’s approach embraces “the conjectural paradigm of semiotics” (Ginzburg 2013: 118). Ginzburg developed a micro-historical method that emphasises attention to small details along with the close textual reading of historical documents and objects (Ginzburg 2013: 104). While he argues that textual criticism has “divinatory qualities,” over the course of the 19th century, he claims, textual criticism developed into a rigorous science (Ginzburg 2013: 107). But, for Ginzburg, textual analysis alone is not sufficient. He enjoins the historian to analyse the character or individual properties of how the individual who created a historical document or object created that object or document (Ginzburg 2013: 111). With this strategy, there is bound to be some sacrifice of the knowledge of the general, but what is gained, Ginzburg claims, is a scientific knowledge of the individual who created the historical object in question (Ginzburg 2013: 112). The science of history comes through embracing what he calls conjectural knowledge, which he likens to a clue in a mystery novel. Something, “learned not from books, but from the living voice, from gestures and glances … based on subtleties impossible to formalise, which often could not even be translated into words” (Ginzburg 2013: 114–15). These small insights, as he terms them, are “bound by a subtle relationship: that they all originated in concrete experience” (Ginzburg 2013: 115). But, the small insights that comprise historical scholarship are not just of any sort. The clues that the historian must look to are those that exist within semiotic systems, “a culturally conditioned system of signs” (Ginzburg 2013: 118).

Subaltern Studies adopted White’s method and epistemological intervention because it endows a subject moral consciousness no matter what their position within society. While Subaltern Studies claims that this liberates the subaltern, or at least highlights their struggle vis-à-vis the dominant classes, I do not believe that this is so. Because moral consciousness is equal no matter the subject, White’s method is in fact apolitical. Subaltern Studies ends up portraying the working class as crippled by clinging fervently to belief in traditional Indian culture and, in so doing, the implications of this analysis are essentially the same as orientalist indography Subaltern Studies rightfully sets out to critique. I believe that Subaltern Studies was correct in its aim for a revolutionary leftist praxis, but there is nothing in its historiographic method that would generate this type of analysis.

This abandonment of a revolutionary leftist praxis through historiographical method becomes even more salient in Subaltern Studies’ appropriation of Ginzburg’s method (but not historical practice). By valuing cultural signs, Ginzburg in his writings on method exudes three characteristics. One, his writing is de facto valuing the things that dominant classes leave behind, because working-class culture is often not as well documented. Two, he is valuing western elite culture because non-Western working-class culture is even more poorly documented. Three, by not placing value judgments on particular belief systems, he depoliticises culture. Of course, in practice, this is not how Ginzburg does historiography, but in his writings on method, this is how he claims historiography should be and this is what gets appropriated by Subaltern Studies.

I am not sure why, but these are the methods that Dipesh Chakrabarty, Ranajit Guha, and Partha Chatterjee look to in designing their historiographic method (Chakrabarty 1989: 4; Chakrabarty 2012; Guha 1998: 6; Sarkar 1997: 98). Subaltern Studies marked an important intervention in Indian historiography because it set out to tell history from below in a field where “great man” approaches to history dominated, and it furthered the epistemological intervention in the historical social sciences. But, when it came to theorising the worker, the working class, class struggle, and workers’ movements, there are empirical and theoretical shortcomings that stem from the particular historiographical method these historians practised.

The Dar es Salaam School and Its Methods

Instead of looking to the Subaltern Studies Collective as historical inspiration for a labour-centric social theory of the global South, a historiographic tradition that better places
the historic role of the working class at the centre of a social theory of the global South is the New Indian Labour History. Instead of looking to Thompson, White, and Ginzberg for
historiographic methods, the New Indian Labour History finds methodological inspiration in a particular understanding of global history derived from its reading of world-systems
analysis, particularly the work of Immanuel Wallerstein (Chandavarkar 1998: 329; van der Linden 2008: 290), and the scholars who gathered at the University of Dar es Salaam in the 1960s, particularly, Giovanni Arrighi and John Saul (Bhattacharya 2007: 18; Chandavarkar 1998: 328; Veeraraghavan (2013: 20–21), and Issa Shivji (Bhattacharya 1983: 3, 2007: 16–18; Chandavarkar 1998: 328).

What are the historiographic foundations of such an approach? Chandavarkar argues for regional labour history as a way to gain essential insights into the capitalist world-economy. New Indian Labour History, Chandavarkar argues, should embed India’s regional history within the global to accomplish this goal. “The world economy has impinged upon social relations and economic development in India,” he contends, but regional agency remains important; “it is also important to ask how Indian society shaped and channelled the impact of the West” (Chandavarkar 1998: 327). Because classical Marxist analyses of capitalism in the global South remain “weakly formulated,” historians of capitalism have found that classical Marxist analysis “has proved a difficult method to apply in concrete empirical or historical analysis” (Chandavarkar 1998: 328). Most problematic, particularly when it comes to Indian labour history, claims Chandavarkar, is the “absolutist application” of defining capitalism by free wage labour. Instead, historians of labour and capital in the global South are better served by adopting “the world-systems approach” because it “accept[s] that capitalist exploitation could occur through several forms of labour use,” thereby “facilitat[ing] a broader definition of both labour and capital in South Asian history” (Chandavarkar 1998: 329). In so doing, claims Chandavarkar, Wallerstein’s framework provides not only a method, but more importantly, a “means of recovering the subcontinental context and history of capitalist development” (Chandavarkar 1998: 329).

This historical method is drawn largely from Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Capitalist World-Economy (1979). For the New Indian Labour History, Wallerstein’s contention was that wage labour is a defining feature of capitalism, but capitalist exploitation of labour can take different forms in different places and times: wages in-kind, state assistance, slavery, serfdom and the encomienda system in colonial Latin America (Wallerstein 1979: 17). Regardless of the form that labour exploitation takes, a region is still part of the capitalist world-economy as long as labour is a commodity. Furthermore, this global unit, with a single division of labour, can take multiple cultural forms and still constitute a singular social system (Wallerstein 1979: 5). Through Wallerstein’s method of examining social transformations in the global longue durée (Wallerstein 1979: 3), one can, as is the goal of Subaltern Studies, provide an alternate narrative to liberal bourgeois histories of the global South, but in using Wallerstein’s framework, one can better place the working class at the fore of the historical narrative.

In the late 1960s, Wallerstein was a visiting professor at the University of Dar es Salaam, a key incubator for world-systems analysis (Plys 2016b). Wallerstein first met some of his lifelong collaborators in Dar es Salaam, including Samir Amin, André Gunder Frank, Walter Rodney, and Giovanni Arrighi, who joined the University of Dar es Salaam in 1966 after being deported from Rhodesia for his participation in Rhodesia’s movement for national liberation (Arrighi and Harvey 2009). This group of scholars, which some term, the “Dar es Salaam School of History,” were an important source of historiographic methods for the New Indian Labour History, particularly Walter Rodney (van der Linden 2013: 61), Giovanni Arrighi’s essay, “Labor Supplies in Historical Perspective: A Study of the Proletarianization of the African Peasantry in Rhodesia” (1970) (Bhattacharya 2007: 18; Chandavarkar 1998: 328; Veeraraghavan 2013: 20–21) and Issa Shivji’s Class Struggles in Tanzania (1976) (Bhattacharya 1983: 3, 2007: 16–18; Chandavarkar 1998: 328).

The Dar es Salaam School, claims Bhattacharya, paved the way for postcolonial social science to take up “intellectual decolonization” by practising “history from below” (Bhattacharya 1983: 3). However, the concept of “history from below” comes not from the “Third World,” but from English historians of the early 20th century.10 Therefore, “history from below” is not inherently “Third Worldist” nor even necessarily left (see also Bahl 2003), but through the historiographical methods of the Dar es Salaam School, claimed Bhattacharya (1983: 5), “history from below” could be made left and made “Third Worldist.” To tell a critical history of workers and peasants in the global South, Bhattacharya contends, historical analysis must go beyond simply broadening the scope of history or adding new subjects for analysis (Bhattacharya 1983: 6). One, one must break with nationalist historiography, which Subalternists did. Two, (and more importantly), one must view decolonisation as not a struggle against colonialism for all people, but instead, “one must not ‘render the colonial epoch in the history of the colonial people without class struggles’” (Shivji quoted in Bhattacharya 1983: 8). In other words, historical analysis must not view decolonisation as affecting all colonial subjects equally, but instead, through the lens of class struggle in order to analyse how decolonisation differentially affects different class actors. Making class struggle the central focus of histories of decolonisation, Bhattacharya claims, is an obvious solution, even though it is one that has largely been overlooked by postcolonial historiography in India including that of the Subaltern Studies Collective. Therefore, Bhattacharya looks to the Dar es Salaam School for historiographical methods, who in his view, does a much better job of bringing class struggle to the fore of histories of decolonisation.

While the methods of the Dar es Salaam School share some features in common with the historians Subaltern Studies scholars looked to for methodological inspiration, specifically, rejecting the “great man” narratives of history. However, the Dar es Salaam School has some features that Subaltern Studies does not; a “Third Worldist” critique of classical Marxism, and an emphasis on putting class struggle at the fore of any historical analysis of decolonisation. In relying on the Dar es Salaam School for its historical methodology, New Indian Labour History, therefore, evades many of the empirical and theoretical shortcomings that stem from the particular historiographical methods practised by Subaltern Studies historians.


I have argued that Subaltern Studies makes a critical intervention in Indian historiography through its analysis and rejection of the “great man” approach to Indian history. However, it fails to generate an empirically sustained theory of the working class in the context of the Indian Freedom Movement. The New Indian Labour History takes a dramatic step forward by situating Indian labour in the context of the history of empire and global capitalism. What remains to be done is to more powerfully locate Indian labour in a theory of the working class, particularly as it relates to emancipatory movements such as the Indian Freedom Movement, and perhaps, even more broadly, a reconsideration of the role of the working class in shaping Indian society in the postcolonial period. This shift is already occurring. For example, Rina Agarwala, Vivek Chibber, and other sociologists have emphasised the role of the working class in the scholarly discussion of South Asia (Agarwala 2013, 2008; Agarwala and Herring 2008; Chibber 2006, 2013; Heller 1999), productively pressing class concerns to the foreground of sociological analysis.

The historiographical methods used in these different approaches have implications beyond how we see the Indian Freedom Movement and its influences on postcolonial political development. Because Subaltern Studies remains one of the dominant critical theories for understanding the global South, it is essential that its relative strengths and weaknesses are thoroughly interrogated. One of its key weaknesses, as I have shown, is its inability to adequately anchor a theoretical discussion of the role of the working classes in postcolonial state formation.

However, the broader project of Subaltern Studies—particularly its critique of Eurocentrism and of great man approaches to history—remains salient. For theorists of the global South, classical Marxism and its attendant historiography still largely fails to accurately describe the social processes of the global South from the perspective of the global South. While the Subaltern Studies approach rightfully posited this “Third Wordist” critique of classical Marxism, it strayed in
its methodological approach. However, even though the New Indian Labour History may appear on the surface as just another reiteration of classical Marxism, in its methodology it embodies the “Third Wordist” critique by looking to the Dar es Salaam School for methodological inspiration. Subaltern Studies scholars, on the other hand, perhaps unwittingly, reproduced the very Eurocentrism they sought to dismantle by borrowing from historians who lacked this so-called “Third Worldist” perspective.

Both Subaltern Studies and the New Indian Labour History mark different approaches to addressing the failures of classical Marxism to adequately theorise the political economy of the global South. However, as a result of their different methodological approaches, only the New Indian Labour History provides a foundation for constructing a theory of the working class in the national liberation context. Through a more explicit return to the Dar es Salaam School, one can construct a better critical theory for analysing the historic role of the working class in the global South.


1 Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi have been important theoretical figures in the development of the Indian Global Labour History. But, as I have been told by the historians working in this tradition, the most important influence, particularly in the most recent work in the field, has been Beverly Silver’s Forces of Labor (2003) (Arrighi 1970; Arrighi 1983; Silver 2003; Wallerstein 1979).

2 Despite their many breaks from classical Marxism, Subaltern Studies scholars generally retain the classical Marxist concept of the state as a committee of the bourgeoisie.

3 See also Brar (1989), Chandra (2007), Javed (1988), Josh (1979), Sharma (2010), Singh (1994), and archival sources at the Punjab State Archives, Zentrum Moderner Orient, and Nehru Memorial Museum and Library as cited in Plys (2016a).

4 The evidence in this paragraph comes from my archival research in the P C Joshi Archives at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the Manuscript Room of Teen Murti Bhavan. At the manuscript room at Teen Murti, I looked at two collections, “All India Trade Union Congress, 1925–50” (list number 18), and “The Communist Party of India” papers (list 27). These lists have information about the founding and strategy of the Indian Communist Party from 1925, and information about labour struggles across the subcontinent, but mostly in North India. At the P C Joshi archives, I looked at Communist Party pamphlets, P C Joshi’s personal notes on party strategy, and his notes on Indian independence and labour in light of the Russian Revolution and other struggles across the global South. These documents were found both in the index, “Labour and Trade Unions,” and by my combing of the indices for every year, 1947–74.

5 Vivek Chibber puts forth a compelling critique of Rethinking Working Class History (1989) in Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (2013). He attributes Chakrabarty’s sleight of hand to a metatheoretical injunction meant to dismiss materialism and promote cultural explanation (Chibber 2013: 182–87). By engaging with Subaltern Studies though this scientific Marxist approach, Chibber is initiating a discussion where the methodological and conceptual tools are so disparate that these two approaches cannot talk to each other. While I ultimately agree with Chibber’s critique, I think his lack of engagement with the historical method of Thompson, White, and Ginzburg, is a failure to fight an honest fight in that using a positivist structural Marxist approach to critique a post-structural cultural approach does not allow for a productive conversation. For this reason, I find Aijaz Ahmad’s (1992) critique more compelling.

6 For an excellent critique of the absence of Dalit history in Subaltern Studies, see Das (2015).

7 As a start, one could look to the Communist Party of India (CPI) papers and the Jayaprakash Narayan papers at the NMML, the P C Joshi Archives at JNU and Adhikari (1972), Ahmad (1962), Josh (1979), Masani (1954), Sen (1997), Sen and Ghosh (1991), and Singh (1994).

8 The evidence in this paragraph comes from my archival research in the Central Secretarial Library at Shastri Bhavan, the India House Library at Teen Murti Bhavan, and the Haryana State Archives at Sinchai Bhavan in Panchkula. None of these documents have file or bin numbers. In the India House Library of Teen Murti Bhavan, when after about 15 days of
sitting in the reading room my requests were not being filled, I decided to go into the stacks and retrieve the documents myself. I was not reprimanded, and so, I continued to do so. As a result of having taken this initiative, I was able to find documents about the cooperative movement in British India that have yet to be catalogued. At Central Secretariat, a government documents archive, there are open stacks, and so again, I simply looked down the aisles marked “Delhi,” “Punjab,” “Haryana” and found some pamphlets and reports on the cooperative movements in these states. The Haryana State Archive head archivist gave me permission to look through the stacks and showed me where government documents about the agricultural cooperative movement in Haryana and documents pertaining to labour. Again, there were no file or document numbers, but I can say that most of the documents I looked at were shelved near the only window in the stacks.

9 This history of the cooperative movement illustrates the connection between peasant labour and the workers’ movement. While peasants were participating in collective action, the working class was borrowing this organisational technique and implementing it in urban areas. Furthermore, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M), supported worker and peasant cooperatives, particularly the wing of the party based in Kerala, in which A K Gopalan played a leading role. Gopalan’s strategy of party support for the cooperative movement has a lasting impact on state formation in Kerala (Issac and Franke 2004; Heller 1999). But of course, the cooperative movement in Punjab, and any sort of revolutionary leftist activity, was decimated by partition. Amidst the religious cleansing, leftist and workers’ organisations were also targeted by the police. The impact of this historical legacy on the Punjabi left can be seen today. In just a few years Punjab went from being a centre for leftist radicalism to being one of the more conservative regions in India (Ahmed 2011). Perhaps, Chatterjee’s narrow focus on Bengal leads him to miss this larger picture of agricultural development just before and after 1947, but clearly, across India, peasants were not exactly engaged in “pre-capitalist” agricultural production, and as part of these same processes, peasants influenced state building and workers too played an important role.

10 See Iles and Roberts (2012) for an excellent overview and anti-authoritarian critique of the European origins of “history from below.”

Archival Sources

Central Secretariat Library, Shastri Bhavan, New Delhi, India.

Delhi Archives, New Delhi, India.

Haryana State Archives, Sinchai Bhavan, Panchkula, India.

National Archives of India, New Delhi, India.

Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, India.

P C Joshi Archives on Contemporary History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

Punjab State Archives, Chandigarh, India.

Zentrum Moderner Orient Bibliothek, Berlin, Germany.


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Updated On : 29th Oct, 2019


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