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How Subaltern Studies Changed Our Understanding of Resistance Struggles

We sought to highlight a range of social, political, economic, and cultural forms of oppression that braided together in different ways in different historical situations, and which provided the focus for action by subaltern groups.

Dalit women protesting for their rights (Wikimedia/Thenmozhi Soundararajan), (Wikimedia/Thenmozhi Soundararajan)

David Hardiman was one of the founders of the Subaltern Studies Group in 1982, an editorial and research collective that received worldwide recognition for a book series, conferences and numerous articles. The Subaltern Studies Group was part of a larger post-structural and cultural turn in the humanities and social sciences, which has profoundly changed how we today discuss history, power, consciousness, colonialism and resistance.

Born in 1947, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Hardiman was raised in England, completed his PhD in history at the University of Sussex in 1975 and is now professor emeritus at the University of Warwick, U.K. When he took part in the formation of the Subaltern Studies Group, he worked at the University of Surat in Gujarat and was a visiting fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. At the time of this interview, David was working on his latest book, published in 2021, titled, “Noncooperation in India: Nonviolent Strategy and Protest 1920-22.”

Since you were involved in the Subaltern Studies Group from the very beginning, what are your thoughts on its creation? What factors, ideas and perspectives served as inspiration, and why did you get decide to get involved?

The Subaltern Studies Group was inspired by Ranajit Guha, an intellectually charismatic figure who gathered around him a small group of like-minded younger historians and political scientists. Born in 1923 in a village in Bengal, he had been an activist in the Communist Party of India up until the suppression of the Hungarian rising by the Soviet Union in 1956, when he resigned from the party. In this, he was acting in common with the New Left — a group that included the English Marxist historians. A leading figure in this group, E.P. Thompson, wrote in 1957 that he stood for a “socialist humanism” that was a revolt against Stalinism — a “revolt against inhumanity … against the dogmatism and abstractions of the heart,” and for “the emergence of a warm, personal and humane socialist morality.” Thompson’s approach was epitomized by his notion of the moral economy, with its focus on lived experience rather than purely economic arguments. He focused on the way that so-called “backward” people fought to defend their values in ways that went beyond narrow economic interests. He saw class as a human relationship that was made consciously through lived experience and in struggles with ruling groups.

Guha was influenced by the Naxalite insurrection in India in the late 1960s that — inspired by the Chinese example — sought to base itself amongst the peasantry rather than the urban proletariat. He sought to discover a structure of peasant insurrection, as well as a complex politics of the peasantry that went far beyond the crude economism of most existing explanations for peasant revolt. He argued that this politics had a quite different logic than the elite politics that forms the subject of most histories.

Guha taught history at the University for Sussex, where I was inspired by him as a postgraduate student. I gained my doctorate in 1975, and soon after that became involved in the group of young historians of India that gathered around him — myself, Gyan Pandey, David Arnold and Shahid Amin. We thrashed out our ideas in a series of meetings, coming up with the idea that in colonial India there were two separate domains of politics, that of the elite and the subaltern. The latter term was taken from Gramsci, meaning all those who are subordinated. Gramsci wrote in a situation — Italy in the 1920s and 1930s — in which the industrial working class was comparatively weak and underdeveloped, while the peasantry continued to be the chief subordinate group. A project that called for a socialist revolution could not afford to ignore the peasantry, and hence there was a need to understand the politics of this subordinate group. We were developing our ideas in the 1970s, having before us the examples of the peasant-based revolutions in China and Vietnam, where the peasantry was regarded as a radical force.

We were able to apply Gramsci to India, as under colonial rule and many years after, it was a predominantly peasant society. We argued that almost all existing histories of India focused on elites as the chief movers of politics. We held that this led to a frequent misrepresentation of the subaltern, which operated according to different rules and on different conditions. The project was subjected to strong criticism by many historians of Indian nationalism in India and Britain, and by many orthodox Marxists in India, but embraced with enthusiasm by the New Left, dissident Indian Marxists and numerous historians outside Britain, particularly in the Americas.

While the group’s empirical studies focus on South Asia, do you feel that its core claims about subaltern politics and history are relevant for subaltern struggles outside of India? In other words, do its core claims constitute a more general theory?

The idea that resonated in other parts of the world was the emphasis on the hierarchy of power, with its interplay of domination and subordination, and the analysis of its impact on popular politics and resistance. Political theory of both the bourgeois and Marxian varieties had tended to emphasize economics as the prime driver of popular action, while we sought to highlight a range of social, political, economic, and cultural forms of oppression that braided together in different ways in different historical situations, and which provided the focus for action by subaltern groups. Many groups were subjected to multiple layers of oppression. I think that this broad idea could be applied regardless of the specific cultures of oppression of a given society, and it was this that struck a chord.

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The concept of subaltern is unclear to many people. It is sometimes used to refer to “the most oppressed” in a society, something that seems impossible to determine, at least if we accept the intersections of multiple forms of domination. Others, like Gayatri Spivak, controversially use subaltern as a placeholder for those made mute by imperial hegemony. Could you clarify the meaning of subaltern and how it matters for our understanding of resistance?

The word subaltern has been used in various ways. We used it as: A person or (occasionally) thing of inferior rank or status; a subordinate. This is the way that Gramsci understood the term. The dictionary even notes that this usage is now commonly associated with a member of a marginalized or oppressed group; a person who is not part of the hegemony. In this respect, Subaltern Studies has found a place in the English language, and indeed many other languages. It is, after all, based on the Latin word subalternus [which translates to “under-other,” and thus easily integrated into most European languages).

It is true that the term has been applied very broadly, including to groups that are oppressed or dominated at one level, but who in turn dominate other groups. Thus, white Australians have been depicted as historically subaltern in relationship to the British ruling class, while they in turn have oppressed Australian aboriginals in often genocidal ways. Guha once joked about this tendency of Subaltern Studies to go so far beyond its original remit that everyone except the President of the United States is now being defined as subaltern!

Gayatri Spivak sought to delineate the subaltern in a more exclusive way by arguing that they are those who have no voice — people who are rendered invisible and mute by dominant culture. She argued that all we can hope to do is to examine the ways that the subaltern is rendered in the texts of the dominant classes. She applied poststructuralist methods of textual analysis to this task and enjoined on us to do the same. Although it is true that our knowledge of the subaltern in history is from texts produced almost always by the elites, these texts do reflect a material reality that we can analyze in a way that centers the subaltern. For example, in “The Cheese and the Worms,” Carlo Ginzberg uses the transcripts of the Catholic Inquisition’s interrogation of a “heretic” to uncover the attitudes and beliefs of a 16th century miller, Menochhio. As the Inquisition sought to record objectively the specifics of Menochhio’s beliefs, we have a meaningful glimpse into his mental world. Radical historians such as Ginzberg seek to write about the poor and oppressed to bring out the ways in which they thought and acted. This is what we should try to do to the best of our abilities.

When applied to their resistance to oppression, we find that subaltern groups were often informed by aims, objectives and beliefs that are poles apart from the driving forces in contemporary movements. There are, for example, notions of restoring a kingdom of justice and godliness. There is a frequent belief that a savior or messianic figure is coming to sweep away the old order, and so on. My stance on this is that this reflects merely a different consciousness and that it is valid in its own terms, in that it provides a driving force and inspiration for possible radical change.

As you emphasize in your writings, any subaltern is, per definition, in a relationship with an elite, and there are always moments of temporary alliances based on mutual interests and complex entanglements between the subaltern and elites. How would you describe these entanglements and what consequences do they have for understanding resistance?

It was our task as historians to study the consciousness that informed subaltern politics and action, using tools that were available to us. Yet, at the same time, the resistance occurred in a context in which the subaltern was bound up at many points with the dominant classes. Members of the elite could act as champions or agents of the people. The dominant classes might allow a degree of subaltern resistance to defuse or neutralize the more radical objectives of the subaltern. In these ways the two streams of politics braided together in complex ways.

We sought to promote a mindset that is not patronizing towards subaltern groups. In terms of contemporary relevance, we may say that it allows radical members of dominant classes to be open to the aims, objectives and desires of subaltern groups. In doing this, they may contribute their owns skills, expertise and ability to communicate with a ruling class in a way that facilitates the resistance. This allows for the building of powerful coalitions. To take a recent example, the support of large numbers of sympathetic white people to the Black Lives Matter movement undoubtedly make it a much more potent force.

In what way does it matter whether it is the subaltern doing the resistance? Is the quality of subaltern resistance different from resistance by other groups?

Any movement that hopes to succeed must build alliances of different class groups. By itself, one social group is unlikely to gain much traction. In my opinion, what matters above all is the agenda that is being pursued. One problem found in the original Subaltern Studies was the assumption that subaltern resistance was itself characteristically radical. As we now know from hard experience, the subaltern can often be mobilized in support of the most reactionary and oppressive causes. In India, the xenophobic and fascistic Hindu right has managed to gain mass support by claiming to be the champion of Hinduism. In fact, it supports the most narrow and intolerant form of this religion — one that we associate with the most elite caste of all, the Brahmans. It builds appeal by holding out a promise to the lower Hindu castes that they will gain respectability if they support this agenda. In practice, it involves genocidal attacks on members of the Muslim minority.

As in many other parts of the world today, populist agendas are pursued with appeals to the worst prejudices of the subordinated — xenophobia and racism. Radical activists, by contrast, seek to build coalitions on progressive agendas, such as democratic representation, a rule of law, anti-racism, international solidarity, regulations that protect citizens, the protection of the environment and so on. I would hold, therefore, that it is the agenda that is being pursued that is of primary importance, along with the dialogue between different classes that occurs in the space of such a movement.

You became critical of the Subaltern Studies Group’s view on the role of violence in liberation struggles, as well as its opposition to Gandhi and nonviolence. Could you elaborate on the Group’s concept and role of violence?

The first time I met Ranajit Guha, in 1971, he was carrying out research on Gandhi for a multi-volume biography. I remember him saying that he admired Gandhi far more than those he characterized as vacillating liberals such as Jawaharlal Nehru. By 1971, he had also become engaged with some young Naxalites, and he soon abandoned the project on Gandhi to focus on peasant insurrection. Guha had a deep understanding of Gandhi, but because of his belief in the efficacy of violent insurrection, he was critical of the ways, he argued, it allowed Indian elites to maintain their power without serious challenge. Gandhian methods were described as “passive,” and indeed in South Africa, Gandhi had initially used the term to describe his protest, before later abandoning it for the term Satyagraha, that is, “sticking to truth.”

As I argue in my book “The Nonviolent Struggle for Indian Freedom,” there was a history here that stretched back to the revolutions of 1848. The term “passive” was used in Germany to describe the limited form of the resistance adopted by the Prussian bourgeoisie who sought greater power for themselves while blocking any power to the masses. Karl Marx accordingly described “passive resistance” as a counter-revolutionary tactic used by the bourgeoisie. Marx was however sympathetic to Irish nationalism — which adopted passive resistance in the 1870s — which he saw as progressive and with radical potential. This was ignored by his followers, who continued to depict nonviolent methods as counter-revolutionary. In India, Marxists found it hard to reconcile this with the reality that Gandhian nationalism united a range of classes in the struggle against imperial rule.

The Marxian position failed to grasp the way that nonviolence was being applied in progressive ways with, as Chenoweth and Stephan have shown [in “How Civil Resistance Works”], a much higher success rate than more violent methods. It is notable in this respect that Subaltern Studies was conceived at a moment when violent insurrection appeared to be the way forward, with success in China, Cuba and Vietnam. Subsequently, in the 1980s and 1990s, a range of nonviolent movements brought the downfall of repressive regimes and the creation of functioning democracies. The analysis of this kind of resistance had been central to the project in its early years, but later slipped from the agenda.

How might the Subaltern Studies Group serve as an example, and possibly a warning, for other critical and radical research interventions, such as Queer Studies and Resistance Studies? What is your advice to young academics trying to create counter-hegemonic orientations within mainstream social science and historical fields?

The informing passion of the project was a commitment to the poor and powerless. This commitment is of course just as relevant today, at a time when the subordinated face continuing racism, misogyny, homophobia, religious hatred and other forms of contextual discrimination — or are being forced into exile from wars and environmental collapse. In his book “Postcolonial Resistance,” David Jefferess refers to Ben Okri’s statement that the people must change the “stories” they live by in order to change the world. Jefferess glosses this to understand “stories” as the historical and literary narratives that represent “discourses of identity and power through which subjectivity is constructed and within which action is understood.” I think that this sums up a lot of what Subaltern Studies tried to do.

On a warning note: I learned personally from my observation of politics in India in the 1970s-90s that we overestimated the radical potential of the subaltern. Being so intertwined with elite culture and religion, they were always open to being co-opted by reactionary interests. The lesson is that it generally takes many decades of ideological and cultural struggle to build radical movements. The Indian nationalist movement had in fact done this in the late 19th and early 20th century, to the point at which it became a mass movement under Gandhi’s leadership. The reactionary counter by the Hindu right similarly took decades to become a mainstream force. I think that we can see this now — it has taken a long time to create such a critical mass behind environmental issues, and education in nonviolent strategy that has been continuing for many years has borne dividends over the past decade.

Today there is an almost mythical aura of Subaltern Studies for radical scholars. On the one hand, Subaltern Studies is seen as one of the more radical academic approaches in the world, illustrating how academics can be integrated within and contribute to counter-hegemonic struggles. On the other hand, it has been criticized for romanticizing the subaltern, creating a simplified dichotomy between subaltern/elite, and undermining national coalitions in anti-colonial struggles. What is the remaining legacy of the Subaltern Studies Group today?

Subaltern Studies grew out of the New Left. At that time, historians and social scientists generally understood popular action as being driven by economic need. We stressed that there was a complex politics involved that went well beyond crude economic urges. We argued that the complex mental worlds of the subordinated and their solidarities were created out of a constant process of differentiation from the dominant classes. This all occurred, however, within spaces that were controlled ultimately by the elite, permitting elite politicians to appropriate the subaltern in certain situations.

How this worked out in practice was set out as an agenda for research. We need not claim to provide easy answers or a clear historical formula. In this, we differentiated ourselves from some influential studies of modern India of that period that sought to provide a key to the understanding of this historical process. The openness of the project gave room for diverse contributions, and for its evolution and growth over time. Issues such as the gendered nature of the subaltern or the idea of a unified “subaltern consciousness” were addressed. The valorization of subaltern violence in acts of armed insurgency was not however considered problematic. Indeed, in India many radicals continue to uphold such revolt, as with the Naxalites.

The main legacies of the project were that it challenged old assumptions about the poor and oppressed, providing a space for far more nuanced and detailed studies of their experiences and life histories. For example, I believe we were able to address issues such as the religiosity of the subaltern classes in new and more productive ways. The volumes also provided excellent scholarship that was able to inspire a new generation of radical historians and social scientists. That has, for us, been particularly gratifying.