Writing a decade ago, Nissim Mannathukkaren observed that the most progressive outcome of the communist engagement in Kerala was its ability to convert “culture” into a “cog in the movement towards a material understanding and transformation of society”. This cultural intervention, he argued, succeeded in democratising both the political and cultural spheres. His new book, Communism, Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial Theory: The Left in South India, builds on his work that explores what he calls Keralan “exceptionalism” and ties it with his critical engagements with theory—specifically postcolonialism, subaltern studies, and Marxism. One of the consequences of this “exceptionalism” is that it defies theoretical attempts to “understand” Keralan society through ideological silos and -isms.
This book is Mannathukkaren’s meticulous and empirically rich response to attempts at studying Kerala using ideological blinders by suggesting, instead, a “political economy analysis” with social relations of production and reproduction at its core (p.409). The book reminds readers that a complex society cannot be understood by either cultural reductionism (that he accuses postcolonial and subaltern schools of suffering from), or material reduction (of Marxism) alone (p.13).
Communism, Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial Theory: The Left in South India
The history of the communist movement in Kerala, Mannathukkaren argues, shows us that only by bringing together economic, political and cultural history can one understand socio-political developments in the region over the last century.
The book begins with a detailed engagement with postcolonial and subaltern theories (Chapter 1) before turning specifically to the early decades of the communist movement in Kerala (Chapters 2 and 3), arguing that the creation of a national-popular drew from communism while simultaneously building on the anti-caste movements that preceded the communist wave. This, to Mannathukkaren, makes the Keralan case different from communist movements in other regions and explains why it does not fit the subaltern and postmodern “ideal types”. The main engagement with social and political interventions of the communist movement in Kerala takes up the remaining portion of the monograph.
Chapters 4 and 5 engage specifically with the “cultural project” of the communists in Kerala that involved conscious interventions in the literary and theatre movements. These interventions created possibilities for the subaltern and elite spheres to interact constructively on many occasions, and thereby overcome—to a substantial extent—“the exclusion and marginalisation suffered by the former for centuries” (p.173). Developments in the postcolonial state—specifically the institution of land reforms and workers’ rights through legislation, and the democratic decentralisation project of the 1990s—are discussed in Chapters 6 and 7, respectively, before the final chapter delves into the experiences of the marginalised communities who, despite early promises from the communist movement, were never fully included in Kerala’s developmental story.
Despite the all-encompassing influence of the communist movement on Kerala society in the twentieth century, the national-popular that emerged was “incomplete” because it failed to include marginalised communities. Even though progressive literature and theatre movements often saw the emergence of the “marginalised and oppressed figure in popular culture” (238), the movement failed to challenge questions of caste like they did class, mostly because the sections of society that “used” the literary and cultural spheres to spread communism came from upper castes. Despite being let down by the political front, marginalised communities continue to find strength in challenging hegemonic political and social structures in society from within a space of left-leaning politics.
In the post-1990s, this happened by “the combination of striving for material interests and cultural recognition, critical appropriation of modernity and tradition and the breaking of binary of political society and civil society” (p.378). The author contends that such subversive movements can only be completely studied if we step outside cultural reductionism on the one hand and a purely material reading of political economy on the other. Instead, as he demonstrates with great detail, the experience in Kerala suggests that material and cultural spheres remain closely intertwined in shaping social and economic relations.
Communism, Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial Theory is an important monograph for two reasons. Firstly, it embarks on a theoretical critique of the postcolonial and subaltern studies schools which Mannathukkaren accuses of having “accentuated [the] division between the material and the cultural” (251), while the Malayali experience proves that material struggle for redistribution was always “aided by the struggle for [cultural] recognition” (278). In doing this, he also questions the many binaries that plague these theories—traditional/modern, universal/particular and civil/political society. While much has been written about the experience of modernity in Kerala from individual disciplines like political science and economics, a work that collectively engages with the material and cultural history of the region has much to offer to the emerging conversations on revisiting critical questions on Kerala.
Secondly, and importantly, Mannathukkaren does this while also acknowledging the complexities of the communist movement in the post-Independence period. The fact that successive governments in Kerala were able to pass laws on land and workers’ rights challenges the postcolonial and subaltern studies’ narrative that the postcolonial state is a continuation of the colonial one. On the contrary, the very “alien” institution of the state was “appropriated and moulded by the disadvantaged groups and classes to their benefit” in Kerala, leading to a “substantial subversion of the modern forms of governmentality” (p.267). Yet, Mannathukkaren reminds us that such successes cannot be overstated, since they are also shadowed by the failure of the (electoral) Left to address questions of caste—and arguably, gender. Such nuanced readings of the modern history of Kerala add to exciting scholarship in recent years that have engaged with reimagining contemporary history in South Asia and beyond.
The last decade has seen a wave of academic rereadings of modernity that focus, for instance, on the lived experiences of caste-oppressed communities and women, the politics of space and environment, and political participation. These works have been pivotal in exposing the contradictions that have straddled the “progressive” image of Malayali society and people and the once-celebrated Kerala model. By engaging at length with three relevant schools of theory, Mannathukkaren provides these emerging works with a theoretical mooring.
Specifically, the book introduces perspectives on contemporary Kerala politics and society that will undoubtedly be of interest to future researchers. For instance, while there has been much interest in the “success story” of the People’s Plan in Kerala in recent decades, and the strengths and weaknesses of the decentralisation experience in Kerala have been discussed both within academia and the public sphere at large, Mannathukkaren’s reading of the People’s Plan to challenge postcolonial readings of modernity is a fresh take. The case of decentralisation in Kerala does not fit the postcolonial argument that it was a “world-bank-like” decentralisation that is usually seen as a part of revisionist neoliberalism (p.299). Here, the People’s Plan was the Left’s response—after much deliberation—to changing political and economic factors, and a realisation that in Kerala, the communist movement had “generally put questions of economic development on the back burner and had failed” (303).
Significantly, the book makes a distinction between the electoral Left’s failure to address the caste question in Kerala and the possibilities that opened up within the communist ideology to continue the struggles for social justice. Kerala offers an important case study on questions of democratic dependability under the present conditions. Despite the limits of the once-coveted Kerala model and the increased capitulation of the communist movement to the pressures of capital and discourse of the nation-state (423), the Kerala case also offers a “unique welfarism”, and an important empirical case of both hegemony and resistance that draws on the same ideology.
The mammoth task of bringing together such (apparently) disparate threads of theory and praxis of Malayali society is indeed commendable, and Mannathukkaren’s 400-odd pages do justice to this endeavour. Curiously, less space is dedicated to discussions of the many, albeit small, movements that formed the “counter-culture” for much of the twentieth century in Kerala. Even when the communist movement in Kerala was engaged in the ideological tussle that Mannathukkaren discusses at length in Chapters four and five, there existed simultaneous counter-publics, led notably by figures such as M. Govindan and others, centred around informal gatherings, film and literary clubs, and little-magazines.
Similarly, a study of the communist movement in Kerala can only be complete when there is a serious engagement with not just the cultural and social interventions, but also the spatiality of the movement. This is important because physical proximity challenges caste hierarchies in a way literary and cultural spheres cannot. That the communist movement did not address caste despite bandwagoning on the most important spatial transformations of early modernity—teashops and reading rooms that mushroomed across the region—deserves serious consideration.
A project of the scale undertaken here cannot encompass all aspects of politics and culture, but Mannathukkaren’s book—a fitting closure to his decade-long project to study the political economy of Kerala—opens up the possibilities for newer readings of both Kerala modernity and the communist movement increasingly enveloped by global capitalism.
S. Harikrishnan is a postdoctoral researcher at Dublin City University, who works on modernity, political culture, and social geography. He is also a founding editor of Ala, a blog on Kerala.