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Aijaz Ahmad

Nationalism, Post-colonialism,
RP: Could we begin by asking you to tell us something about your background?

Ahmad: I was born in India towards the end of colonial rule, so I was very much a child of
nationalism. I came from a rather traditional rural family, but my father was a left-of-centre
nationalist. I cut my teeth on nationalism, Communism – that whole world. The Communist Party
of India was a close presence. The son of one of my father’s closest friends was a member of the
CPI and I used to regard him as something of an older brother. When I was
found reading novels at the age of eight or nine, my father brought me into
his room and said: ‘Why do you read such trash?’ He gave me three books,
Aijaz Ahmad is Professorial Fellow
one of which was a biography of Lenin, in Urdu, from Progress Publishers
at the Centre of Contemporary
in Moscow. Another was by M.N. Roy, the famous Indian Communist, on
Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum
Islam. The third was a very fat book, which I have never been able to trace,
and Library, New Delhi. His
on the East India Company.

controversial collection In Theory:

The very fact of the Partition in 1947 was a deeply politicizing
Classes, Nations, Literatures
experience. I grew up opposing that whole ideology and felt very displaced
(reviewed in RP 67) was published
by it. Later on, when the family moved to Pakistan, I was in college when
by Verso in 1992.

Ayub Khan installed the first military dictatorship, in 1958. So there were
radicalizing events in my life. I remained a Pakistani for a long time, and
then went back to India. Or rather, I have been trying to settle back in
India. The social, political and cultural worlds in India are very hospitable for someone like me
who is Indian by birth, and wants to come back; but the legal situation is very forbidding for
anyone who has held Pakistani citizenship. This too is part of the legacy of the Partition of 1947.

RP: What did you study in college?

Ahmad: I took a degree in English literature.

RP: What was the relationship between your study of English literature and your
political interests? Were they separate or connected parts of your life?



Ahmad: They were very separate, but not contradictory. My real interest was in writing in
Urdu, but if literature was what you were interested in, you took an English degree. And typically
what you did then was go and teach English. There used to be a time when it was quite common
for people to read this literature, teach it, but not feel compelled to write about it. Often, they
would be activists in the nationalist or the Communist movements. There was never seen to be
any sort of contradiction between the two activities. That ambiance was still there when I was
growing up. It had not dawned on many of us that English literature was purely and simply
imperialist. When that idea was developed systematically, one began to think of it in quite different

RP: When would you date that, in your case?

Ahmad: The systematic awareness of the role of literature in imperialist ideology came in the
1960s, after the anti-war movements began such interrogations within Europe and the United

Radical Philosophy 76 (March/April 1996)


RP: It wasn’t part of the received Communist tradition?

Ahmad: No, not at all. Not the way this question got posed in the West after the publication of
Edward Said’s Orientalism. The ‘received Communist tradition’ gave much credence to the fact
of political conflicts inside Britain and thought of literature itself as a conflicted field. So when I
read Conrad and Forster and Eliot as part of my syllabus, I had very different kinds of response.

Conrad struck me as both conservative and a great imperialist, but Forster not nearly so much.

There are a great many things I disliked about A Passage to India, but I didn’t think of Forster
simply as an imperialist. It was quite clear that he disliked the Empire and that whatever he had to
say about India got refracted through his own brand of liberalism. In Eliot’s case, I was outraged
by the way a handful of words stand in The Waste Land for an Orientalized idea of Indian
spirituality, but I disliked Eliot much more for being such a Tory and a monarchist.

To give you another example, when Kiernan translated Faiz, the great Urdu poet, I was still in
college and I didn’t like the translations at all. But I knew that he was a close personal friend of
Faiz and numerous other Communists in the subcontinent. In fact, I have been told – this may not
be true, but I was told – that when Kiernan first came to India, well before Independence, he
occasionally served as an emissary between the CPI and the CPGB. As I said, this may not be true,
but within that kind of history one couldn’t treat Kiernan’s writings on, say, Tennyson or
Words worth as simply imperialist. In the present climate, that sort of complexity ofthe ‘received
Communist tradition’ is, of course, charged with being soft on colonialism. I’m quite aware of

RP: One of the unmistakable impressions left by In Theory is your insistence on a
sociology of cultural production. In your Introduction, you write: ‘It would be hard to
think of a Marxism which would not foreground, in any discussion of theory, the issue of
the institutional sites from which that theory emanates; the actual class practices and
concrete social locations in systems of power and powerlessness, of the agents who
produce it; the circuits through which it circulates and the class fractions who endow it
with whatever power it gains; hence the objective determination of the theory itself by
these material co-ordinates of its production, regardless of the individual agent’s personal
stance towards these locations and co-ordinates.’ What are the material co-ordinates of
your own work?

Ahmad: It’s always easier to talk about other people! For some ten or fifteen years, I had a very
difficult relationship with the Pakistan state, which meant that for long periods of time I lived and
taught abroad. By an odd combination of circumstances, I ended up in the United States, rather
than Britain. I held an academic job in the United States while trying to go back to Pakistan
whenever I could, for as long as I could. So for me the whole period from 1970 to the early 1980s
was one of criss-crossing. When I finally quit my job in the US, I found that I had held it for just
over twenty years, and almost exactly half of that time had been taken as leave of absence, back
in Pakistan. It was also a period of formal involvement in practical work. So, if I were to talk about
the range of institutions that had an effect on me, those would be the first two: the US academy
and the organized Left. However, I had no professional investment in formal academic writing. I
published a great deal, much in Urdu and also in dissident Left journals, but I have no record of
any professional publication in the field of English literature during the twenty years I periodically
taught it. There is that tension with the institution of English, as it were. It was a very strange
location for me. I was in it, but not of it. The only faculty meetings I ever attended were the ones
that decided on tenure for people – I considered that a matter of trade-union commitment. Part of
the point of In Theory was to settle my accounts with my erstwhile professional conscience.

RP: Unlike The German Ideology, however, it wasn’t abandoned to the gnawing
criticism of the mice. It was published and has enjoyed something of a succes de scandale.

How did the institutional sites from which it was written inform its critique?


Ahmad: The research institute in which I am located at present allows one the political space to
do work which would be at variance with the ambience of the metropolitan university. It also
provides a certain distance from the metropolitan institutions that I talk about in the book.

However, given the increasing integration of the circuits of academic knowledge, it’s not quite as
simple as that. It’s not a question of the metropolis being over there and the periphery over here,
with me sitting in India writing about something that happens in the metropolis. There are broad
intellectual pressures that are very keenly felt in the Indian institutions. Except for the ‘national
allegory’ piece, virtually the whole of In Theory is based on lectures I gave in India. For example,
the chapter on Edward Said was a response to Orientalism being taught in seminars on
methodology in Delhi University. It was the influence of the book in India that I was responding
to. If I had written that critique while living in New York or London, some of the emphases would
have been quite different. I am more acutely aware of the book’s double address than my critics
have been.


RP: How much autonomy does a contemporary Indian Communist intellectual enjoy
vis-a-vis the party institution?

Ahmad: Let me begin with an example. I am associated with a journal, Social Scientist, in
which intellectuals of the CPI-M have historically played the key role. This is well known; but
that the journal does not speak for the CPI-M is also well known. Indeed, most people who get
published in it are not members of the CPI-M. Let me say some things about our history that are
not well understood outside India.

Having been very much a part of the anti-colonial movement, the main formations of Indian
Communism accepted full responsibility for working within the constitutional structure of Indian
democracy, as far back as the early 1950s, with the theses that came to be associated with the
name of Ajoy Ghosh. Those theses make interesting reading alongside what Togliatti and others
were saying in Italy at the time. The first elected Communist state government dates from 1957,
in Kerala. Jyoti Basu, of West Bengal, is the longest serving chief minister in the history of
independent India and possibly the most respected political figure in the country since Nehru,
who was himself a sort of Fabian socialist. The Communist Left thus enjoys a much wider political
influence than is indicated by the fact that only about sixty Communist MPs sit in the national
parliament. Anti-Communism has not been much of an ideology in India, beyond the extreme

All this gives Communist intellectuals a very broad role in the culture at large. As something
of a fascist threat increases from the Right, and the the historic role of the Congress Party as the
main centrist force crumbles, it is recognized that no regeneration of democratic, progressive
politics in India is possible without the CPI-M playing a key role. There’s much political energy
in India these days going into trying to organize what is called a ‘Third Force’ , in opposition to the
extreme Right as well as the ruling party. None of it will get off the ground unless the CPI-M
either leads it or endorses it. In this situation Communist intellectuals play very complex roles,
nationally but mostly locally. These roles rely heavily on immediate initiatives, although on the
whole such initiatives correspond to something of a ‘common sense’ which wouldn’t be there
without the institutions. This imparts a very wide margin of independence to the work one does,
as well as giving it a stake in the collective politics from within which one speaks and is seen as
speaking. In terms of a European comparison, it’s much more like Italy than Britain.

RP: Perhaps we could move on to some questions about nationalism. One of the
structuring theses of your book is opposition to the ‘three worlds’ theory. Part of your
case is that it assimilates an undifferentiated Third World exclusively to a colonial and
anti-colonial experience for which the only gloss is nationalism. Class struggle on a world


scale is evacuated from the so-called Third World. On the other hand, you say: ‘There
are hundreds of nationalisms in Asia and Africa today; some are progressive, others are
not. Whether or not a nationalism will produce a progressive cultural practice depends,
to put it in Gramscian terms, on the political character of the power bloc which takes
hold of it and utilizes it, as a material force, in the process of constituting its own
hegemony.’ Do you really think that there are still progressive nationalisms in Asia and
Africa today?

Ahmad: There are so many kinds of nationalism around, it is difficult to know what one means
when one uses the word ‘nationalism’. We are dealing with a world of sovereign states – national
states, multinational states, whatever – whose own legitimacy is very often challenged by
groupings, large or small, which consider themselves nations. So that is one kind of thing:

separatist nationalisms. Then there are supra-national nationalisms – very real ones, such as the
Islamic one – which claim that the existing nation-states, with their divisions into various Muslim
communities, for example, are the products of secular modernity and as such are non-Islamic.

Thirdly, we have a contest in the field of politics, which is also articulated in areas of culture,
about the very essence of the existing nation-state. What is it, the Indian nation-state? What is the
Indian state? Is it a multinational state, as secular forces would argue? Or is it the state of a people
with a distinct culture, ultimately rooted in a religion, which is indigenous to India and observed
by a majority of Indians, in which others may live as minorities, on the sufferance of the Hindu
majority? Now I would place the latter position – and it’s represented by a very powerful
movement in India today – within the range of fascism.

My argument is that in a country like India nationalism is not something which you can concede
to the Right. India is a country born of a powerful national movement, of an anti-colonial kind,
which defined certain parameters for this nationstate. Secularism, democracy and certain
collectivist forms of economy are part of its
heritage. The Left needs to occupy that space and
extend it. The globalization of capital has
destroyed large parts of the collective resources
of the people of India. Resistance to it needs to be
articulated with the progressive aspects of the
heritage of the anti-colonial movement. So you
can’t concede the territory, but you don’t have to
become a nationalist in the narrow sense. You
have to say that India is the country for Indians,
but there is no such thing as a singular Indian
identity. Indian nationalism is not about
identities. It’s about the kind of society India is to
be. It is about denying the Right the opportunity
to define what this nation is. After all, Gandhi was
shot by a far-right nationalist – precisely the kind
of person who is now leading the Hindu
nationalist movement – for not being Hindu

The current far-right discourse is not a new
one. In fact, I would argue that one thing that
impelled Gandhi – this great student of Tolstoy
and Ruskin – to become a Hindu reformer was
that he saw that if he did not occupy the terrain of
Hindu reform, India had the potential to go
Hindu-fascist. Fascism has been fought and
contained in Indian by secular nationalism –


nationalism of the Left, among other things. On the other hand, India is also a country born in a
partition. So this very nationalism, which I was lauding a moment ago, failed even to protect its
own territory – what it claimed to be its composite cultural territory – with enduring consequences,
such as the problem of Kashmir. On what basis can you continue to say to people in a democratic
society that they are a part of a particular country, if they don’t wish to be so?

RP: One can appreciate the strength of the empirical arguments you have made in
support of your theoretical generalization about nationalism. But what about its downside? You cite Gramsci, but the other reference that comes to mind is someone who is
criticized elsewhere in the very same chapter of your book – namely, Ernesto Laclau.

Laclau has argued that nationalism has no class belonging; that this affirmative discourse
of the nation is more or less indeterminately malleable, depending upon the conformation
of social forces that appropriates it. Now, while the class profile of nationalism can be
very variable, doesn’t the discourse of the nation subordinate or displace class
antagonisms, along with sex, gender and other inequalities, by virtue of what it is, so that
‘nation’ is the dissolving term? Not a uniting, but a dissolving term, which declares other
social antagonisms secondary. And is that not the point at which, as a Communist, you
have to say that there are limits to the positive relationship one can have not only with
nationalism, but with the discourse of the nation?

Ahmad: Let me return to the politics in which I am engaged. From the Communists to the
fascists, everyone could be a part of the Congress, but, at the end of the day, Indian nationalism
was a nationalism which was led by the bourgeoisie and established a state of the bourgeoisie. The
Gandhis and N ehrus of this world created a bourgeois hegemony, of so subtle a kind it was quite
extraordinary. However, bourgeois hegemony over this kind of national compact has exhausted
its resources. That nationalism cannot be defended in India today, under the leadership of that
particular power structure. So while I continue to believe that nationalism as such does not have
a specific class character, I don’t believe it in the sense in which Laclau believes it, since it can be
identified with a particular class character at any given moment. The difference be~ween Laclau
and Gramsci is that Gramsci believed that a progressive national class bloc should be formed by
the Communist Party.

The predominant characteristic of nationalist ideology is, of course, to deny and contain intranational social contradictions and antagonisms. Nevertheless, given the fact that actually existing
capitalism functions through nation-states, it is within the structure of the nation-state that these
relations have to be addressed. The concrete form of class struggle in India is among classes
constituted in India on the national soil of India. That is the horizon – the limiting horizon within which you contest the bourgeois definition of the nation. This is not a tension that can very
easily be resolved. At one level, you are dealing with an ideology which is extraordinarily subtle;
at another, you are dealing with a structure of a very concrete and elaborate kind, the nation-state.

In India, it is an extraordinarily elaborately developed structure for a backward capitalist country
to exhibit.

RP: Does this argument about the continuing possibility of progressive nationalisms also
apply to the metropolitan world? Or are you just thinking of discourses on the nation in
more recently independent states?

Ahmad: In the metropolitan formations of advanced capitalism, the discourse of the nation is
closely tied up with imperial definitions of the interests of the metropolitan working class. The
burden of the colonial past which now exists in virtually every major metropolitan formation, in
the form of immigrants, structures the discourse of the nation, generating imperial and racist
definitions of it. So my sense is that in metropolitan countries nationalisms tend to be almost
uniformly regressive. You are also dealing with a very different situation with respect to the
functioning of capital. In Europe, for example, you are talking about the terms of a union: how is
the European Union going to restrict these clashing national economic interests? Restricting the
imperatives of the nation-state and creating a supra-national European nationalism might actually


be a fairly good thing for Europe, but it is a super-European nationalism vis-a-vis the rest of the
world. From outside Europe, it looks like an iron curtain.

Then there’s the issue of ‘non-Europe’ stranded within Europe: immigrants from the former
colonies who are the object of racist nationalisms in all the main constituent nations of this supranational Europe. I have often wondered what it is like being Black British, wedged so precariously
between the fascist and even Thatcherite Right within Britain and the largely indifferent Brussels

RP: How do you respond to the claim that the new international organizations which
have accompanied the globalization of capital increasingly undertake development
policies in ways that deliberately bypass the structures of the ex-colonial states? If this is
so, then presumably the nation-state should no longer be allowed to define the horizon of
political struggle in those countries. New forms of struggle will have to develop to address
the new terrains of transnational capital, which is forging a new language and a new
territorialization of power.

Ahmad: There has been a tremendous sensitivity about the Non-Governmental Organizations
(NGOs) on the Left. In one reading, they have been seen as an arm of the Second Internationalsending out aid to small groups of people not claiming to belong to any politics, to work in the
precise areas where the Communists work without money. These people go in with a lot of money
and they’re able to achieve results where the Communist peasant committees could not. We have
seen the extent to which the NGO network is deeply connected with the bureaucracy of the
nation-state. Not a single NGO can operate without all kinds of relationships with the local
bureaucracy from top to bottom – even the ones which do not wish to become implicated in this
way. A number of people who were dissatisfied with the historic forms of Communist organization
tried to create NGOs from the left of the Communist parties.

RP: That’s my point. If the nation was at one strategic moment the domain of ideological
struggle, which was to be endowed with a different class content, might it not be argued
now that the NGOs are the terrain of a new struggle; that they need to be occupied and
ideologically contested? Might one not see this as a change in the terrain of struggle,
rather than a war between the ideas of the Second and Third Internationals?

Ahmad: The experience in south Asia is that in some rare cases you may have an NGO which
remains independent of the national bureaucracy for a number of years – a notable case was the
very large mobilization against a World Bank funded dam which would have flooded enormous
amounts of land used by the tribals. So there are instances, but only very rare ones. The vast
majority of NGOs become machines for petty-bourgeois corruption beholden to foreign capital
and the bureaucracy of the Indian nation-state. Moreover, their idea is ultimately connected with
a dissolution of struggle into ever smaller units. If Gramsci used the word ‘molecular’ for forms
of struggle that would be waged over a long period of time by the collective intellectual of the
working class, as he conceived the Communist Party, what you’ve got here are molecular struggles
without any organizational form connecting them together. It is in fundamental contradiction
with the old Leninist idea that the struggle is for state power. You can’t bypass the state.

RP: But wasn’t Leninism premissed on a certain relationship between nation-states and
capital, a notion of national capitals, which is increasingly problematic?

Ahmad: Having abandoned the colonial form, advanced capital cannot operate on the global
scene except through the mechanisms of nation-states or regional conglomerations of entities that
continue to be nation-states. They are an absolutely essential link in the chain. How is metropolitan
capital going to operate in a terrain as large as India? Through what institutional machinery?

RP: I’m not suggesting that nation-states are becoming redundant as political
instruments, but that their relation to capital has been transformed, so that to speak of
national capitals in the old way is too simple.


Ahmad: I use the term ‘national bourgeoisie’ to mean the bourgeoisie of indigenous origin:

capitalists who carry Indian passports. That’s all I mean by the national bourgeoisie. If you look
at the chain of economic production and reproduction, then yes, there is a very substantial and
increasing integration of world capitals. But what articulates Indian and foreign capital? What
makes it possible for them to function in conjunction with each other? The machinery of the
nation-state is absolutely crucial. People talk about the retreat of the state, but the reality is a weak
state in relation to capital and a strong state in relation to labour.

The idea that the nation-state as a structural unit for the organization of capital is on the decline
has been overstated in relation to the advanced capitalist countries, not to speak of eastern Europe
or the former Yugoslavia. Japanese capital is ferociously nationalist. I read somewhere that
something like 95 per cent of US savings are invested within the national territory. Within the EU,
the largest and most powerful of the European states has just achieved its expanded national
consolidation. The historical tendency of capital to exceed its national boundaries ought not to be
construed as the nation-state becoming a thing of the past. Finance capital exceeds national
confines faster than industrial capital, but the most powerful banks in the world are really very

RP: In a recent essay, ‘Post-colonialism: What’s in a Name?, in the book Late Imperial
Culture, you contrast the very precise questions that were posed in the 1970s under the
heading of ‘the post-colonial state’ with the new wave of discussion of post-colonialism as
a condition which is ever more historically non-specific. In fact, it’s acquiring a kind of
anthropological pathos, where post-coloniality is becoming the gloss on what we used to
call human existence. I find this reading quite convincing, but I wanted to ask: is there no
rational kernel in the attempt to think about the cultural experience of the formerly
colonized countries, and also the cultural experience of the formerly colonizing countries,
under some such rubric?

Ahmad: It is very difficult, though by no means impossible and perhaps quite desirable, to
retrieve a concept from its institutionally dominant definition – a definition which is dominant at
the very site of intellectual production where the retrieval of that concept must itself take place. So
while it is perfectly possible for an individual scholar to produce good work about the cultural
residue of the colonial experience, on either side of the colonial divide, the pressure to assimilate
the dominant terminologies and paradigms into their discourse is very great. And the point is that
they’re ephemeral: they have an unplanned obsolescence whereby they become dominant for five
years and disappear in ten. five years ago, it was ‘colonial discourse’. Robert Young’s very up-tothe-minute book White Mythologies, from 1990, doesn’t have any entries in its index for ‘postcolonialism’ or ‘post-coloniality’, but it has twelve for ‘Third World’ and twenty-two for ‘colonial
discourse’. That’s a sign of how quickly things come and go these days.

Certain crucial distinctions need to be made about the colonial period itself. For a start, a very
considerable part of the world was not colonized, for which Lenin used the term semi -colonial, in
a very specific sense (China, for example). Colonialism itself took several quite different forms,
and the cultural consequences of each were significantly different. The experience of language in
the Caribbean countries and in south Asia, for example, stands in marked contrast. The moment
of independence is of central importance. Latin America became independent very soon after the
United States – at a very different moment in the history of capital from the one at which the
countries of south Asia became independent.

first of all, then, we need an accurate knowledge of the essential typologies of the colonial
period. Once you have established that, the next thing to do is to establish typologies of cultural
forms that arise out of that experience at the moment of independence, decolonization, the creation
of a post-colonial state. finally, I think that the term ‘post-colonial’ has a diminishing relevance as
the moment of decolonization recedes into the past, especially in the case of the colonized


countries. In the decolonizing countries, the burden of colonialism is now actually increasing as
a result of the number of immigrants these societies imported in the moment of economic
expansion. In a period of recession, or stagnation, you have a very different relationship between
this post -colonial labour and the indigenous labour force.

RP: There are quite striking parallels between your analysis of the post-colonialist
intelligentsia, as a cultural formation, and Raymond Williams’s analysis of modernism.

Both centre on specific kinds of intellectual mobility and relocation within altered
borders. Williams was thinking of the old colonial empires, but the same sort of
co-ordinates are being mobilized – in the one case to describe modernism, in the other
what becomes projected as post-coloniality. Now, in Towards 2000, Williams goes on to
make the point that modernism was so successful that it has become the ontological
ground of something that is taken to be its opposite: namely, ordinary mass culture. Is it
possible to conjecture that in the metropolitan world, at least, the motifs of postcoloniality might enjoy a similar success as a cultural tendency, becoming associated with
themes like multiculturalism, which are clearly going to be an important part of the
political contentions in countries like Britain and France. You talked about the wheels of
fashion, but perhaps the future awaiting the theme of post-coloniality is the opposite. It
could become a property of the bien-pensant metropolitan culture, with an equivalent
moral status to the enviroment – something that everybody suddenly cares about.

Ahmad: Any such diffusion requires a systematic misrecognition of the process which it is
naming. I have argued that post-colonial theory is largely a North American cultural style, arising
out of the cosmopolitanism ofthe elite English literary academy. But the object that it is constantly
having to misrecognize and misrepresent is, in fact, a whole variety of integrations of consumption
patterns, habits of living, that are getting diffused. I foresee far greater integration of North
American capital with East Asian capital, as the American way of competing with the European
Community. Both consumption patterns and the very texture of human relationships, the mobility
of certain kinds of work between East Asia and the United States, are going to shift very drastically.

On the other hand, the levels of surplus capital floating around East Asia are remarkable. Under
post-colonial eyes, the combination of this particular circulation of cheap goods and financial
concentration is going to be misrecognized and misnamed as multiculturalism.

RP: One of the avowed concerns of In Theory is to reinstate the ‘Second World’ among
the signs, for good or ill, of our times. Your overall perspective might be characterized as
‘anti-anti-Sovietism’. Now, you write of the events of 1989-91: ‘In most sections of the
Left in Britain and North America – with a few worthy exceptions of course – this entire
upheaval has been greeted as the collapse of an evil empire, the outbreak of the spirit of
liberty, and the salutary reassertion of social movements based on identity.’ With the
benefit of such hindsight as we possess, what is the significance of the collapse of historical
Communism for the socialist project?

Ahmad: Those lines were written in late 1991. That was not a moment in which people living
at great distance from such great events could understand much of what was going on. So in some
ways I was writing out of a political instinct – although I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. In
fact, I would not substantially alter the view that I took then. I’m rather surprised about the extent
to which my sense that it was going to lead to reactionary forms of states throughout that region
has been confirmed.

I had several concerns. One was that there would be a tremendous compulsion to bury the
memory of all that was ever good about any of those countries, about any of the Communist
movements, about Communism as a historical phenomenon, in fact; and that a very large part of
the Left which is not grounded in any organization, and very many who are affiliated to the


organized Left, would be complicit with that reaction. So I would basically accept your phrase,
‘anti-anti-Sovietism’. I was also worried that the memory of a very large body of critical Marxist
work, often in the Trotskyist tradition, would be buried too. So that even what went wrong would
be understood in very facile ways, in terms established by American Cold War narratives, and
now reinstated in fancy postmodernist vocabulary. That is the wisdom which will now prevail. So
we are in danger of two very great losses. I would argue to this day that Marxists were the only
ones who gave an explanation of what went wrong, and they started giving it virtually as soon as
it started going wrong. There is a very long tradition of that and the memory needs to be retained.

RP: What was positive about formerly existing socialism?

Ahmad: Many things. We might still be living in a colonial world had there not been a Bolshevik
Revolution. I can’t conceive the shape of the world if you subtract the fact of the Bolshevik
Revolution. To the extent that the peasantry has been emancipated in this century, in any Asian
country, it was generally because of either a Communist revolution or Communist pressure. One
often forgets what that experience meant for an immensely large number of
women in the so-called Muslim world. If you compare the lives of Muslim
women in the Asian republics of the Soviet Union – social and cultural rights,
professional rights, etc. – with the most advanced of the Muslim bourgeois
countries – Turkey or Iran – there’s a qualitative difference. Think of the kind
of legislation that was enacted in the Soviet Union, on a whole range of social
and cultural issues, in the very early years. Its memory became the model for
much later legislation. These are simple facts; but in their absence, the sort of
secular state established in India after Independence would be inconceivablein a society in which Communists as such had no power at all. I amjust giving
you some examples.


RP: How do you view the possibilities for the continuation of the Marxist

Ahmad: One needs to think about it on several quite different planes, this
problem of how revolutionary legacies become a part of cumulative experience
in the long term – both the victorious ones and the defeated ones. Gramsci
makes the point that only after the Paris Commune was the potential released
by the French Revolution fully exhausted. What we are looking back at is a period of tremendous
capitalist consolidation – in fact, qualitative change in the nature of the capitalist mode of
production and its global expansion, and the shifting of the geographical locale in ways that
Marxism had not predicted – permitting a new revolutionary form to emerge.

One tantalizing question, for which I don’t have a ready answer, is whether 1989 signifies the
exhaustion of the political form set afoot by the Bolshevik Revolution, in the sense that Gramsci
gives to his formulation that it was only with the initiatives for revolutionary transformation
passing to the industrial proletariat that the potentials released by the French Revolution were
exhausted. I don’t think this will be clarified until one of two things happens. Either Communism
itself will re-emerge, having learnt the lessons of the century; or altogether new revolutionary
forms will arise. Contemporary fascination with ‘new social movements’ is a transitional

There were a great many changes in the world that historical Communism could not assimilate,
either because its resources were too limited, or because of capitalist pressure, or whatever. What
has happened, especially after decolonization – partly because of decolonization and partly
because of other changes in the character of capitalist production – is that you have now got a
global logic in which you need more and more concentration of economic resources and their
planned utilization. The logic of democratic possibility unleashed by that level of accumulation
requires greater and greater democratization of political, social and cultural life. This particular
dynamic – centralization of economic power and increasing democratization of social-politicalcultural spheres, in ways that the historic forms of parliamentary representation cannot address 37

is something that the revolutionary project will have to think through. This is at least one problem
which will have to be dealt with in terms that supersede both the central planning discourse of the
Bolshevik Revolution and the Rights of Man discourse initiated by the French Revolution.

My sense is that, in moments of great defeat of the sort which we have sustained, only a real
shift in the political sphere will begin to make any fundamental change in people’s sense of
history. This actually takes us back to the first question we were talking about: how much the
know ledges which become a part of our knowledge-world are determined by the way in which we
live, socially and politically.

RP: What does it mean to be a Communist in India today?

Ahmad: After the events of 1989, the then general secretary of the CPI-M was asked what it
was going to mean to them, as a party, in India. He said: ‘Nothing. Since the inception of our party
we have always been at a considerable distance from the Soviet party. We have always recognized
the international character of the Communist movement, but we have also had our own path’ and so on. Now, given that we have witnessed the rise of the extreme Right in India and the
disintegration of the centre of the Congress Party, the national position of the organized Left has,
in fact, slightly improved. But at the same time, of course, with the collapse of the international
Communist movement, the dilemma is acute: what is the Communist answer to marketization and

There have been excellent critiques of what is wrong with them, but what is to be done? In
other words, the victory of capital on the world scale is such that it has not been possible to devise
an anti-capitalist policy at the level of a state within the republic of the bourgeoisie. It is not only
the collapse of historical Communism in the Soviet Union and allied states that has produced this
result, but the global victory of capital that has been its consequence or complement. Being able
to envision an alternative at the level of the individual nation-states within which one works, in
this very unfavourable situation – that is the challenge.

How does it feel? Well, as usual, paradoxical. On the one hand, one feels very fortunate to be
living in a political world in which being a Communist is still a normal thing to be. On the 9ther
hand, to be living in a world in which the terms of contestation are so unfavourable that you can’t
even say, ‘Well, at least there is an international Communist movement’ – that is a deeply
frustrating experience.

Interviewed by Gregory Elliott, Francis Mulhern and Peter Osborne
June 1995, London

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