Aijaz Ahmad: A robust public intellectual

Aijaz Ahmad’s political analysis was by no means restricted to events in India. He was naturally internationalist by temperament and wrote with just as much insight and sensitivity about West Asia and the domestic politics of the U.S. and European nations.

Published : Mar 21, 2022 06:00 IST

Aijaz Ahmad, right, with Hamid Ansari, Vice President, N. Ram, former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, and Digvijaya Singh, Congress leader, at the relaunch function of Frontline in New Delhi on September 20, 2012. His writing on India contains perhaps the most intellectually powerful and insightful analysis on Indian politics.

Aijaz Ahmad, right, with Hamid Ansari, Vice President, N. Ram, former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, and Digvijaya Singh, Congress leader, at the relaunch function of Frontline in New Delhi on September 20, 2012. His writing on India contains perhaps the most intellectually powerful and insightful analysis on Indian politics.

One of the most striking as well as appealing things about Aijaz Ahmad was his love of India and his great desire to live and work here. He could have taken the comfortable career path of a tremendously successful conventional academic in an American university. But Aijaz was one of the least careerist persons I have known. He chose instead a domicile in Delhi, at relatively unstable academic stations, and that is where he produced his best work, the work that made him a leading Marxist literary theorist as well as a prominent Marxist public intellectual, inspiring those who still think that the cause of human justice is not wholly lost.

But I don’t want to give the impression by my way of putting things (‘his love of India’), accurate though it is as a description of his feelings, to make it seem as if this decision to settle in India was merely a personal and sentimental one. It was equally an expression of his increasing conviction at the time he made it that the universities in the United States, and in particular their literary departments, were in thrall to a set of what he thought were catchpenny intellectual fashions, which had blurred the visible line between political radicalism and political reaction. He was too shrewd, of course, to think that fashions of this kind would not travel to India and affect the academies there as well, but he nevertheless felt that there were real pockets of intellectual resistance still possible in a climate where one could use the term ‘communism’ to name not just political parties, but one’s own political stances, without abject fear or wholesale derision.

Exposing claims to radicalism

Derision did not pass him by, however, in the academic literary circles from which he had withdrawn, when he published his book of forthright essays entitled In Theory , criticising those fashionable tendencies from a point of view that he openly declared to be Marxist. The book gained instant notoriety not because it was attacking political and intellectual positions that were openly right-wing and reactionary, nor because it was so insistent in its Marxism (many books have been both these things without invoking much ire or derision), but because it argued that theoretical positions in the literary field claiming to be left and radical were in fact in deep complicity with an increasingly right and reactionary tendency that was on the rise. When those who claim to be radical are told by someone in their midst that they are anything but radical, that there is something fraudulent in their claim to be radical, it prompts more bitterness and anger than any criticism that comes from other more routine conservative sources.

No such argument, as Aijaz had made in those essays, can be made in purely impersonal terms. He could not just speak of post-modernism or post-structuralism and describe these doctrines in blandly abstract terms. He had to name particular literary theorists and writers who appealed to those abstract terms to construct their claims to a radicalism and expose them as false. In successive chapters, he named the most celebrated theorists and writers in his field (Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, and Salman Rushdie), and much of the notoriety of his book came because their legions reacted with high indignation since they too saw themselves as accused of being in, some rarefied sense, impostors. It was a bruising battle and the debris was not a pretty sight. There were hurt feelings on all sides. But it did reveal something attractive—that intellectuals in the academic study of literature still cared for ideas and saw in them an uncloistered significance that must be given passionate political expression. That is to say, literature cannot be said to offer merely self-standing pleasures.

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This is not the place to expound in detail the specific criticisms he makes of these three gentlemen, nor to assess their plausibility. I don’t doubt that some of those criticisms were overstated in the robust tradition of Marxist polemic to which Aijaz avowedly belonged, but no one should doubt that even when that was so, and even if some of the criticisms are assessed as misjudgments, they unfailingly raised questions of a fundamental nature both about theoretical matters regarding literature and culture and about the politics in which they are embedded.

The one way I can pay tribute to him is to explore one or two of these questions briefly.

Objection to ‘third world’

Jameson’s essay, written in the 1980s, was prompted by a rather specific concern about curricular matters in Departments of Literature: How to devise an illuminating framework within which to introduce into the research and pedagogy of literary studies in the metropole, the writing in distant parts of the world, in particular of Asia and Africa and Latin America? Jameson was obviously moved by the whole legacy of Bandung and saw it as significant to the authorial sensibilities and motivations underlying what he—following many others—called ‘Third World’ literature of the previous decades. As we all know, colonialism, through a wide range of governmental practices and treaties and mandates, had succeeded in dividing up the whole globe into actual and potential sovereignties that took the form of what had first emerged in Europe (‘nation-states’) some centuries earlier. The Bandung Conference was the assertive moment of decolonisation in the South where such sovereignties were declared and pridefully characterised in a spirit of aspiration and by way of presenting their own self-understanding. Jameson read that into the literary productions of the southern nations and he invoked the name of a very specific genre to convey it, arguing that—even when the literature seemed to be remote from such an aspiration and self-understanding—it should be read ‘ allegorically’ as frameworked by it. Here are his words: “Third-world texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic, necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory….”

Aijaz repudiated this on various counts. He objected to the very idea of three worlds; he denied that allegory was, in any case, the right category for such literature and suggested instead that ‘critical realism’ would be a more accurate term for it; and he dismissed the very project of such a generalising framework because it sweepingly homogenises a diverse literature and, in particular, sought to demonstrate that it was unfaithful to the Urdu literary corpus that he knew best. Many who responded to the article fussed over these points in paltering dialectical disputation, typical of academic exercises. But my own view is that Aijaz’s criticism was motivated by something deeper than what surfaces in his essay on Jameson, and one can only infer it from reading his many other writings, indeed by reading many other writings in the general Marxist corpus on the so-called ‘national question’, a corpus curiously neglected by Jameson, who was a well-known Marxist. It is precisely this neglect that Aijaz was claiming, reflected the great distance between the radicals occupying what he came to regard as metropolitan academic perches and the radicalism of a long Marxist tradition that they had deliberately abandoned or overlooked.

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What Aijaz was really saying, I think, was that the Bandung ideal that underlies Jameson’s proposed framework for illuminating ‘third world’ literature in the context of its study in an academic space that seeks a global reach should be seen not just as an assertion of newly emerging nation-states in a global family of nations; it should be seen rather as a very particular understanding that linked these new nations and states to a democratic grounding in the will of the people of those nations and, more particularly, their will to create societies with governments that emerged from and reflected the ‘revolutionary’ aspirations of the people. By the very nature of the case, this is not something that could be captured in the far too broadly conceived idea of the ‘nation’ that is intended by Jameson’s term, ‘ national allegory’ to characterise a diverse literature. To construct a framework that did justice to the Bandung moment one would have to have a much more theoretical and historical grip (where by historical, I think he has in mind not just history but intellectual history as well) on the ideal of the nation, and this is not something one could even approximate, he thought, if one ignored the long-standing Marxist discussion of ‘the national question’.

Criticism of Edward Said

The critique of Said also raises some fundamental questions of great intellectual and political interest.

Aijaz says that for Said European writing is ‘ontologically’ incapable of producing ‘true knowledge about non-Europe’. This remarkable charge is made on the clever observation that Said does not merely claim that imperialism with its material domination of other lands has given the European commentator a distorting lens of condescension in the civilisation perspectives it adopts on those lands. Since Said sees orientalist distortion going as far back as Ancient Greece, the point cannot just be about the deformations caused by the links between knowledge and power that imperialism wrought. Rather, it must owe to something more epistemologically entrenched about the European mind’s perspective on the orient, something more essentialistically conceived (that is what Aijaz meant by ‘ontological’). Said is, thus, seen as an essentialiser, setting up a rigid binary of Europe and its Other.

Now, on the face of it, I think this is not a properly sympathetic reading of Said. Said certainly did trace the fault line of orientalism as far back as Ancient Greece, as Aijaz rightly observes, but one can, even so, argue on Said’s behalf along roughly the following lines: This does not imply anything ‘ontological’ or ‘essentialist’ since Said can also claim that our very understanding of the literature and philosophy of Ancient Greece is something we have constructed through much later dominant perspectives on it, most particularly perspectives inherited from the European Enlightenment . And even those who admire the European Enlightenment must admit that the Enlightenment did not register much conflict between its own great ideals (of liberty and equality) and its imperial domination of distant lands, indeed that it often invoked its own high ideals of ‘rationality’ as the very ground on which to undertake the pedagogical project that it sought to bring to the infantile and (until the pedagogy is effective) irrational natives of those lands. It is not surprising then that the very idea of Ancient Greece—which is understood through these later perspectives on it—and its literary and philosophical productions and outlooks, should be inflected by the orientalism that Said finds in them. If this is right, Said is not bypassing or forgoing the connection between empire and orientalist knowledge by tracing orientalism to a much earlier fault line. Rather, the connections are to be more subtly elaborated than Said himself had explicitly done, so that he is not vulnerable to Aijaz’s startling indictment of an ‘ontological’ and essentialist conception of Europe’s cognitive distortions of the orient.

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What I have said so far does not in any way show Aijaz’s critique to be wrong. Rather it shows that the critique exposes some of the gaps in Said’s elaboration of the links between culture and imperialism. If Aijaz had been right in his critique and there was no defence available of Said of the kind that I am suggesting, then Aijaz would surely have also been right to say what he does also go on to say—that Said is an ‘idealist’ in the sense that he thinks an intrinsic cognitive deformation of the European mind is what is primary and that (to put it in his own words) ‘modern imperialism itself appears [in Said’s work] to be an effect that arises, as if naturally, from the necessary practice of discourse’. But even if, as I’ve suggested, Said is rescuable from such an extravagant charge, what this entire line of questioning that Aijaz presents brings out quite vividly is this. The focus of the sum of Said’s scholarly critical output on imperialism is, what I can only describe as, a ‘higher-order’ focus that has made it hostage to the doctrinal stances of post-modernism. By a higher order focus I mean this. What Said’s scholarly writings on imperialism really thematised was Europe’s (or the West’s) conception of the Orient. The question that most concerned him was ‘What is wrong with the West’s representation of its colonised lands’. But, unlike others in the anti-imperialist tradition of Marxism, like Lenin, or even anti-imperialists outside of the Marxist tradition, like Gandhi for instance (just think of Hind Swaraj ), Said never asked the question, to put it rudely and crudely, ‘What is wrong with the West ?’ When such a basic ground floor question is ushered out of the horizon of discourse, then—whether or not Said is the idealist that Aijaz says he is—there is something ungrounded about the discourse itself. This is just what the post-modernist applauds and welcomes, and what Aijaz laments, in Said’s work.

Writings on India

I cannot write a tribute to the memory of Aijaz Ahmad without also saying something about his acute writings, not so much as an academic scholar, but as a critic of the political events of the world around him, especially India. I, like many others, eagerly looked out for his many dispatches, not least to this magazine, which remains one of the only serious locations for intellectually serious journalism in the country. Let me close, then, by saying something very brief in the space I have left about his writing on India, which contains perhaps the most intellectually powerful and insightful analysis that I have seen on Indian politics.

I will cite just one superb passage in order to draw attention to his casually creative and eloquent capacity to raise questions of the most fundamental significance. It is from a piece he wrote at the time of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule almost two decades ago. In it, he goes beyond the particular topic of Hindu nationalism to something even more fundamental—India’s failures in the matter of ‘the state’. Here is what he says, after praising the Indian Constitution as one of the finest documents of its kind in history:

“I don’t want to at all minimize the great value of this collective possession of ours. But I would submit to you that if we really want to understand the actual character of the Indian state we should equally examine the actual practices of the police, the provincial constabularies, the other agencies of state as they operate on the ground. That is where the limits of our democracy and our secularism are the most palpable. These routinised violences of the state agencies… are not epiphenomenal. So substantial a part of the daily conduct of agencies of the state can never be epiphenomenal. One cannot take comfort in supposing that all this is a consequence of the degeneration of the political elite and the professional politicians…”

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Part of his point is, of course, that it is we, the people of India, who sanction state violence. But the question he raises is so fundamental that I don’t believe that anyone can even begin to answer it without going back to the greatest failure of the Indian national movement, even greater than the failure to prevent Partition. This is our failure to translate Gandhi’s non-violence as a form of resistance to non-violence as providing a wholly reconfigured alternative conception of the state . Gandhi himself intended non-violence to be much more than a form of resistance, he intended it to be the basis of such an alternative conception of the state, so in a sense it is his failure too. I even raised the matter with Aijaz when I first read his inspiring essay, but we then got mired in very general talk about anarchism and Marx’s own eventual utopian ideal of the state, and never managed to pursue it in the specificity of the Indian historical context in which the question occurred to me as a result of reading his marvelous words that I have cited, words that point to the intrinsic violence of the state, even despite the state being constrained by what he describes as one of the noblest documents in history.


Aijaz’s political analysis was by no means restricted to events in India. He was naturally internationalist by temperament and wrote with just as much insight and sensitivity about West Asia and the domestic politics of the U.S. and European nations. This internationalism was more than temperamental, of course. It was the heart of his overall leftist political position. Here is a passage from his writing, which he once sent me, and with which I remember registering disagreement:

“I think the metropolitan intellectuals who are such enthusiasts of globalisation should organise a movement for the abolition of passports, so that we may actually have movements of labor almost as free as the movements of capital itself. Let all the U.S. capital come to India and all the Indian workers go to the U.S. to earn U.S. wages. Here I am not asking for socialism, only that the bourgeoisie be true to its word: free movements of people. The struggle for socialism shall be facilitated in a world turned so upside down.”

I remember saying to him that this was not only not a path to any kind of struggle for socialism, it was actually inhuman. I am sure his leftist internationalism found my own leftist stances too provincial owing to my interest in Gandhi.

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But we did not disagree on very much in politics (perhaps more in our literary taste), though on one matter we did get very heated once and I think he felt I crossed a line, which perhaps I had. It was over the Communist Party of India (Marxist) central committee disallowing Jyoti Basu to become the Prime Minister. When he was defending the decision, I registered strong, I would now say, impertinent, words of demurral: “What business had a left-wing party to allow people who sit around in party offices or who write literary theory to dictate to a mass politician of seasoned experience what he can and cannot do?” He got very cross and said quite savagely, “When you leave your lofty location on Morningside Heights and come and settle in Delhi, only then will you have the right to make such criticisms of our politics here.” I was offended by this de-licensing and snapped back angrily, “Well if it really is a ‘Himalyan blunder’, it is quite easily visible even from Morningside Heights, ten thousand miles away.” He was not amused and it was the only time when we were briefly politically estranged.

Though I only saw him over my annual winter visits to India and his less frequent visits to New York, I loved Aijaz as if he was my elder brother, and this is not surprising since we had similar backgrounds of being brought up in educated, secular Muslim families and households. I think he too treated me a bit like a younger brother and scolded me as such—for being insufficiently Marxist, for being insufficiently careful of my health (as if he was in any position to scold me about this!), for being insufficiently deserving of my wife, Carol,… and so forth. To lose someone like that is a personal loss, for which there is no comfort. But the loss that his death signifies for the Indian left and for the wide humanity that the Indian left stands for, and that he stood for, is a loss without measure.

Akeel Bilgrami is Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy, and Professor, Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University, New York.


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