When the Russian forces entered Ukraine in late February, I wanted to call Aijaz Ahmad to ask him what he thought about the conflict. By then, Aijaz was already in hospital and was not able to talk.
So, I went to the Newsclick channel and rewatched again and again his conversation with Prabir Purkayastha on the terrible violence in eastern Ukraine in 2014-2015 that led to the Minsk Agreements. In these conversations, the lessons of Aijaz Ahmad emerge. Aijaz explained the nature of the 2014 coup d’etat in Kiev and the intensified ultranationalist government that was placed in power by the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies. This ultranationalist government egged on a conflict in the largely Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine (Donetsk and Lugansk). The Minsk Agreement signed in Belarus, he said, was necessary but would not be honoured by the neo-Nazi forces, the Kiev government, or the NATO powers. They wanted to use the violence in eastern Ukraine to poke at Russia.
Here is Aijaz’s assessment of the ceasefire produced by the Minsk Agreement:
“The Kiev regime has accepted the ceasefire because they were defeated on the ground and the economic situation is beginning to pinch. That could be the additional reason, but they were defeated on the ground. Reorganisation yes, but they also know, in order to reorganise, in a way that they can again pretend to be able to win, they have to be resupplied; they have to receive a lot more weapons. Now they have a very demoralised army, and very angry new narcissist militia. So, this combination, they have to manage. The problem is that they are so much into the pockets of the United States, their policies are so much determined by the United States, and that they are not free agents. They cannot pursue ceasefire, peace agreements and so on unless they get a go-ahead from the United States, which I don’t believe they will. So, I think, likely it’s a pause, there will be another outbreak of war.”
There was another outbreak of war. This is what happened eight years later in February 2022. Aijaz’s precise analysis is confirmed by what followed not because he was a prophet but because of his Marxism, his ability to see the whole and not the parts, his assessment of the great processes and not the small events, his understanding of the world system and its uneven structure due to the forces of imperialism, and because he saw the world not from the perspective of the tanks and the elites but of the working class. This is the enduring lesson of Aijaz Ahmad.
I’ve spent so many hours with Aijaz, from the 1980s—when I was a student and he was a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library—until just a few days before he died, when I called him to see how he was doing after an accident. During these hours, I came to appreciate three aspects of Aijaz: his erudition, his wisdom and his immense compassion. He seemed to know everything, the secret to this being a combination of his vast reading of the empirical realities of the world—histories and sociologies—but also the Marxist training that allowed him to develop a theory from those materials.
Also read: Upholder of Marxism
Marxism, he would say, is boundless because it has to retain its edge as the critical science of our times, and so, for each development, Marxism must itself push its boundaries. There was no sense in being formulaic in one’s assessment of the world since it was more important to use enhance the Marxist concepts with the actual movement of history. His erudition came from the reading, his wisdom came from that theory. His compassion was evident in the way he put people at the centre of his analysis of the world system and in the way he communicated his ideas, as clearly as possible, in his lectures and his writings.
Understanding our times
Of the four major outlets that became important venues for Aijaz to communicate his idea, two are rooted in India. Socialist Register and Monthly Review are both published from North America, and both carried Aijaz’s most substantial essays on our times as well as his powerful defence of Marxism. But his more conjunctural work was published on a regular basis in Frontline , where he first wrote in 1997, and was shown on Newsclick, where he was a punctual guest from its founding in 2009 to his last month.
These appearances—in Frontline and Newsclick—provided a generation or more of readers and viewers with a lesson in how to do a Marxist analysis of the moment, how to read the complexity of our times and to provide a theoretical sense of the whole. Few writers tracked the movements of imperialism with as much care for detail from the ruins of the War of Terror (2001) to the new cold war heating up at the edges of Eurasia.
The long essays in Frontline were like a graduate seminar in international politics, while the 20-minute episodes on Newsclick helped take those longer texts and make them even more approachable as Aijaz clearly explained world events.
It was a pleasure to interview Aijaz for Newsclick. He would come into the studio, sit down in the chair and jokingly ask, ‘What are we going to talk about today?’, although there were days when we would select the topic there and then, and then when the cameras rolled it was as if he had been reading all his life for that moment. It has been mesmerising to go back and watch some of these episodes, as it has been to go back and read his long, wondrous essays for Frontline that introduced us to developments from South America to South-East Asia.
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Yes, indeed, Aijaz was an academic, a political theorist, a literary critic, a poet, a teller of stories and, in fact, a journalist. He was these and more. As a student in the period when the Soviet Union collapsed, his work provided a lifeline out of the cadaverous thinking of neoliberalism and postmodernism to a livelier encounter with a world in perilous motion.
Even in the most desolate times, when it appeared as if there was no horizon before us, Aijaz counselled patience and asked us to hold fast to our commitments. One of those key moments was in 1996, when a fractious political landscape called upon Jyoti Basu of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to become the Prime Minister of a threadbare coalition. There was a fierce debate in Left circles at that time, with many people making the case that Jyoti Basu could save India from the dual menace of liberalisation and Hindutva. Others argued that this would be a catastrophe, since Jyoti Basu would be a weak Prime Minister of a terribly weak government, and that he would have to adopt policies that were antithetical to the Left agenda.
When Aijaz weighed in on this debate in Economic and Political Review (‘In the Eye of the Storm: The Left Chooses’), where he provided the most thorough and careful assessment of the difficult choices faced by the Left, where the terrain of struggle was being defined in terms that were either of the hard Right or of a kind of liberalism. These terms were frozen between, on the one side, the intimacy between imperialism, liberalisation and Hindutva and, on the other side, liberalisation and secularism; but this was an inadequate space of manoeuvre for the Left, which needed to change the terms to a contest between, on the one side imperialism, liberalisation, and Hindutva, and on the other side secularism, yes, but decidedly socialism. That second option had to be produced in struggle, and not imposed from the Prime Minister’s Office. Reading Aijaz’s extraordinary essay, written in the heat of a debate, taught many of us how to think about politics and not just about that political moment.
I suppose that is the legacy of Aijaz Ahmad. It is not going to be in this or that assessment he made of this or that political dynamic, the war in Ukraine that is now going on or the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. His legacy is that he showed us what it meant to think and act as Marxists, which really means to think and act as critics of a world disorder that threatens us with extinction each and every day.
Vijay Prashad is an editor at LeftWord Books, which published Nothing Human Is Alien to Me , based on a long conversation he had with Aijaz Ahmad.