Postcolonial theory has become enormously influential as a framework for understanding the Global South. It is also a school of thought popular because of its rejection of the supposedly universalizing categories of the Enlightenment. In this devastating critique, mounted on behalf of the radical Enlightenment tradition, Vivek Chibber offers the most comprehensive response yet to postcolonial theory. Focusing on the hugely popular Subaltern Studies project, Chibber shows that its foundational arguments are based on a series of analytical and historical misapprehensions. He demonstrates that it is possible to affirm a universalizing theory without succumbing to Eurocentrism or reductionism.
Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital promises to be a historical milestone in contemporary social theory.
Following the Historical Materialism annual conference in April 2013, a number of scholars and writers have weighed in on the discussion that Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital ignited.
Some articles shed different light on Subaltern studies, putting Chibber’s argument into wider perspective. That Faint Light published an analysis of the historical contextualization of Subaltern Studies, while Marxist Marginalia examined the contending interpretations of Ranajit Guha’s work that Chibber and Chatterjee developed at the Historical Materialism New York conference.
In April 2013, at the annual Historical Materialism conference held in New York, Vivek Chibber appeared alongside Partha Chatterjee in a much-anticipated critical debate on the legacy of postcolonial studies and Marxism. At the time this appeared as the critical peak of the fierce critical discussions that Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital ignited. Yet, with Vivek Chibber’s response to Partha Chatterjee, which we publish below, the debate will certainly be rekindled. (a pdf version of the response is available on Vivek Chibber's webpage)
My intention in Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (hereafter PTSC) was to assess the theoretical framework generated by the Subaltern Studies collective. To do so involved three distinct tasks – first, to distill from the key writings what the projects’ essential arguments were; since these arguments were in large measure a critique of Enlightenment and especially Marxist theories, it required, as a second task, to assess the validity of their critique on empirical and conceptual grounds; and lastly, I suggested that their own theoretical innovations were a failure, both as theory and as normative critique. To be sure, my verdict was not kind to the project. But I tried, in the book, to reconstruct the Subalternists’ arguments as clearly and generously as possible, and to base my own alternative formulations on logic and evidence, not by appeals to authority.
Ever since it was published in March 2013, Vivek Chibber’s devastating challenge to postcolonial theory in the guise of Subaltern Studies, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, has been the subject of fierce controversies. In a very recent review published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Thomas Thiel synthesizes the book’s numerous achievements as well as the questions it opens up.