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Faculty Seminar | Marxism and Postcolonialism: A Reparative Reading through Walter Benjamin’s Historical Materialism


 Conference Hall, Ground Floor, Training Centre, NLSIU 


Wednesday, January 18, 2023, 4:15 pm


The central problem tackled within this project is the conflict between postcolonial theory and Marxism. This debate is approached through the subaltern scholars and Marxists such as Vivek Chibber who argue against this form of postcolonial theory, arguing in favor of a universalizing force of capital instead. Identifying the congruence of the two schools as forms of theory that seek to aid emancipatory politics, the thesis attempts to do a reparative reading of the two schools, in order to allow for a newer manner of thinking about these modes of resistance. Centrally, the thesis attempts to do this by locating the conflict between the two schools as being rooted in the problem of how history is viewed. Classical Marxism views history through dialectical and historical materialism which is teleological and universalizing, while subaltern historiography is rooted in attempting to write bottom-up histories (histories of the people) which causes, according to the critique, an inability to conceptualize universal emancipatory politics.
Walter Benjamin’s theory offers a unique way to approach the problem of classical dialectics by allowing for a shift away from its teleology and universalizing impulse. This is done by viewing dialectical contradictions of history as already present and using the idea of messianic time to offer a way in which the present is disrupted when the past is brought into the present in its fullness.This is read alongside Dipesh Chakraborty’s critique of linear (Eurocentric) time from a postcolonial perspective, and the idea of multiplicity in Hardt and Negri. This reading allows a newer understanding of dialectics to emerge, which acknowledges postcolonial specificities (in the conditions in which contradictions emerge), while retaining the dialectical progression of history as a process.

The thesis then illustrates that such contradictions are already seen in moments of the Global South’s artwork and movements, specifically looking at the ghazal ‘Hum Dekhenge’ and the movement of ‘Naxalbari’. Hum Dekhenge uses religion in a unique manner and embodies a contradiction which is made possible by the material conditions in which it was written, as well as the history of the ghazal form itself. Naxalbari, on the other hand, does not embody a similar effective strategy of mobilization owing to its failure to make religious appeals as Birsa Munda did. Drawing from these two examples, it is argued that an effective strategy for emancipatory politics must account for the material conditions in which contradictions emerge in specific ways.