Aijaz Ahmad: Upholder of Marxism

Aijaz Ahmad (1941-2022) was a truly original Marxist thinker who used Marxist concepts to analyse various events of the contemporary world. He emphasised the power of those concepts while rejecting all attempts to dilute or substitute them through eclectic admixtures formed by importing alien concepts into Marxism.

Published : Mar 20, 2022 06:00 IST

HYDERABAD : ASSOCIATION FOR COMMONWEALTH LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE STUDIES  : Writer Aijaz Ahmed at the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies --ACLALS 2004  in Hyderabad on Friday . --- PHOTO: P_V_Sivakumar / 06-08-2004

HYDERABAD : ASSOCIATION FOR COMMONWEALTH LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE STUDIES : Writer Aijaz Ahmed at the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies --ACLALS 2004 in Hyderabad on Friday . --- PHOTO: P_V_Sivakumar / 06-08-2004

Aijaz Ahmad, who passed away on March 9 at Irvine, California, was an outstanding Marxist intellectual, not just in the sense that he analysed acutely with the help of Marxist concepts the various events of the contemporary world, but also in the sense that he defended Marxist theory against appropriation, assault and encroachment from some apparently kindred tendencies and occasionally even from persons who professed to be Marxists but were influenced by these tendencies. His classic work In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures was a critique of post-structuralism and post-Marxism, tendencies which were rapidly becoming fashionable at that time in Western academia at the expense of Marxism and indeed at the expense of any agenda involving praxis. The fact that Marx had little to say in his opus on many of the issues that agitate people today, such as gender, race, imperialism and the environment, facilitated this attempt to supplant Marxism.

Against post-structuralism and post-Marxism, Aijaz, though deeply conscious of the incompleteness of Marxism in the original form in which the pioneers had left it, re-emphasised the centrality of revolutionary praxis that the pioneers had underscored. Marxism differed from every other tendency in giving centrality to revolutionary praxis. Likewise, Aijaz brought out the power of the original Marxist concepts while rejecting all attempts to dilute or substitute them through eclectic admixtures formed by importing alien concepts into Marxism in the name of making it more “complete” or more “realistic”.

What is remarkable, however, is that in upholding Marxism, Aijaz did not slide into an over-reliance on economic determinations that is so typical of all such efforts at defending Marxism. This indeed would have been quite natural since the structuralist Marxism that the French philosopher Louis Althusser had pioneered, which often formed the starting point for many of these alternative tendencies, had banished economic determinations from the centre-stage of Marxism. (Apropos Engels’ remark that the “economic” is determinant in the “last instance”, Althusser had said that “from the first to the last, the loneliness of the last instance never comes”).

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Besides, there is nothing wrong with the idea of economic determinations per se ; on the contrary it constitutes the essence of the discourse shift that Marxism had brought about, and breaks the unproductive stasis into which social and political analysis runs in its absence. I remember the Marxist leader B.T. Ranadive’s deliberately provocative, deliberately exaggerated remark with a twinkle in his eyes (though with a strong core of truth) that “the partition of India would have been avoided if the business house of Ibrahim-Rahimtullah had not collapsed during the Great Depression”; this remark, though it appears “reductionist” at first sight, introduces a whole new perspective to the discussion on Partition that is usually totally lacking in the liberal discourse (such as the big bourgeoisie’s desire for a large, unified market; the absence of any Muslim representation among the pre-Independence big bourgeoisie because of the collapse of the only large Muslim owned house in the country; and so on).

Historical depth in discussions

In India, however, unlike in the West, the Marxist discourse had been dominated, at least in the more recent period, by economists and economic historians. Aijaz, notwithstanding his thorough knowledge of political economy, rectified that. He did so not by disputing the significance of economic determinations, but by rarely falling back upon them in his analysis of issues. Instead, what he brought into the discussion was a historical depth : a total unwillingness to lump together phenomena that are only broadly similar; an insistence upon distinctions being drawn between them; and a tracing back of each phenomenon to its complex historical roots. This approach to Marxism, this reluctance to fall back upon readily available economic determinations, and to untangle painstakingly instead the historical roots of each phenomenon, constituted the sui generis character of Aijaz’s Marxism. It was in this sense that he was a truly original Marxist thinker.

This trait no doubt had its cons alongside its pros. It appealed to the fresh young minds of students, who had been somewhat tired of being badgered with economics in the name of Marxism, to the exclusion of all the intellectual excitement that the application of Marxism in other spheres such as philosophy, literature, culture theory and aesthetics promised, and which these alien tendencies that Aijaz was fighting against actually brought to these young minds. By taking Marxism out of the dominant purview of economics, Aijaz’s work made it once again exciting for the young. On the other hand, however, it had a fastidiousness arising from its tendency to draw distinctions that precluded a broad categorisation for purposes of praxis of similar social and political phenomena (similar in the sense of having common economic roots); differences in detail tended to come in the way of grouping kindred phenomena.

On India’s turn towards fascism

This sui generis character of Aijaz’s Marxism, of being non-Comintern-inspired and yet being communist, which is an important reason for the freshness of its appeal, was also a product of his intellectual formation. Consider, for instance, his writings on Hindutva and on India’s recent turn towards fascism. In the entire corpus of his writings on this issue, there is scarcely any mention of Georgi Dimitrov, the renowned communist leader who was the chief accused in the Reichstag fire trial, and later became president of the Communist International and developed the basic communist theory about fascism at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern. Any traditional communist, or a Marxist belonging to that genre, would have invoked Dimitrov for analysing whether India was heading in a fascist direction, but not Aijaz. His analysis is rich, whether one agrees with it or not, but not confined to the four corners of traditional Comintern-inspired Marxism. This is why it is so fresh and not arcane, and appeals to students and young readers of today. It is the output of a mind that is trained essentially in the West, steeped in the Western intellectual tradition, and therefore free of several unappealing traits of Comintern Marxism, but loyal nonetheless to communism.

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Aijaz, unlike many of the New Left in the West, would not turn his nose up at the traditional communist parties; on the contrary, he firmly believed in making common cause with the traditional Left for pursuing any meaningful praxis that according to him constituted the essence of Marxism.

He was far from being an armchair or academic Marxist. In this sense he was very Indian: India remains one of the few countries in the world where young people are still attracted to the traditional Left; in Pakistan to which Aijaz’s family had migrated after Partition, the communists were suppressed soon after Independence, so that communist concepts, discourses and history became marginalised fairly early, preventing young and radical-minded students such as Aijaz from having any access to that legacy. But a theoretically-informed longing for that legacy must have got generated within Aijaz and must have remained with him all along which he could fulfil only upon coming back to India and making this country his home towards the end of the 1980s.


His “homecoming” was significant for another reason. Since the early days of the Progressive Writers’ Association, the vivacity of discussion on literary theory, culture and aesthetics in the country had greatly diminished. No doubt, Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra were pockets where such discussion continued, but over much of north India it had suffered. This discussion had been spurred by the progressive, notably the communist, movement, and the weakening of that movement, in the face initially of the “social justice” movement and later of the communal-fascist onslaught, was a major factor behind its languishing. Aijaz’s coming revitalised this discussion; interested audiences could now turn once again to a really knowledgeable person and re-enter issues that had been forgotten for quite some time. He was much in demand as a speaker. The clarity with which he presented his insights into complex problems was much appreciated by audiences everywhere.

The Partition, as in the case of countless Muslim emigres, played a major role in Aijaz’s life. Uprooted at a young age from his ancestral home in Uttar Pradesh, brought up in an environment that must have appeared utterly strange to the young boy, he once more migrated abroad after his early education in Pakistan. He led a peripatetic life, teaching in many universities in the United States and Canada but unable to settle down in any one place. An American friend of mine, who is a well-known Marxist economist, recollects meeting Aijaz regularly over a certain period in a park in New York where Aijaz used to come wheeling his child’s pram; he was looking after the child during the time that his wife went out to work. My economist friend, too, was on an exactly identical mission. This reversal of the usual gender roles where the husband looks after the child while the wife goes out to work testifies not only to Aijaz’s commitment to a fair division of work within marriage, but also to his somewhat unconventional attitude towards his own career, his somewhat lackadaisical attitude towards “landing” a job (and holding on to it for dear life).

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It is only when Aijaz returned to India that he found a place he could call home; the fact that he spent the longest part of his life, well over two decades, in this country, speaks of the sense of belonging he must have experienced here. He became a Fellow of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and a Visiting Professor at the Centre for Political Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University; later he occupied the Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan Chair at Jamia Millia Islamia. He attended sessions of the Indian History Congress, wrote for Left journals such as The Marxist and Social Scientist and contributed frequently to Frontline. He regularly participated in events organised by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat) . He published through Tulika Books , and was also associated with a new publishing venture, LeftWord Books.

But he could not settle down even here, not, this time, because of any inner restlessness, but because of bureaucratic hassles. Even though by this time he had given up his Pakistani citizenship, the mere fact that at one stage he had been a Pakistani citizen was enough to mark him for life in the eyes of the Indian government. Not only could he not get Indian citizenship because of this, but his stay in India was punctuated by repeated demands for visa renewal. Even so he coped with the problem manfully until the Narendra Modi government came to power, at which point he decided to accept an invitation from the University of California, Irvine, to take up the Chair in Comparative Literature that had been occupied earlier by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. It was a sad moment for Aijaz to leave the country that he had finally decided to call his own and to move out to the lonely environs of California, and that too at a time of life when one no longer relishes travel; but such was the legacy of Partition that there was no help for it.

That was to be the last time that he was in India; he never came back. Aijaz was a unique personality, a remarkable blend of communism and “Western Marxism” (with Gramsci as a major influence), of Awadhi culture and Marxist bluntness that would not suffer fools gladly, of a love for good food and old Hindustani films with the asceticism of a revolutionary intellectual willing to accept long periods of loneliness for the sake of work. His passing away leaves an irreparable void in the country’s political and intellectual life; for his many friends among whom I am fortunate enough to count myself, it is a tragic loss.

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