The Intersection of Marxism and Postcolonialism

Darren Kinkead '03, Northwestern University

[This essay was originally written for English 365, Postcolonial Theory and Literature, by one of Jillana Enteen's students in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University.]

It is a revolutionary ideology that has been hailed as possessing a predictive genius while simultaneously being bemoaned as a proven failure. It provokes passion and fear across the capitalist world yet it is also a discourse deeply rooted in the problematic Western production of knowledge. What relevancy, then, does Marxist discourse have within a dialogue of deconstruction? Two significant theorists, Robert Young and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, find its use to be inhibiting and informative, respectively. This paper will seek to examine their arguments, along with a troubling of Marxism itself, in order to better understand the nature of these two perspectives. The intersection of Marxism and poststructural theory presents an opportunity for an instructive examination of the fallacies of the former, its limits in informing the latter, and ultimately its prescriptive and analytical efficacy for future projects of deconstruction. Ultimately we may seek to understand what relevancy this intersection specifically has as regards postcolonial theory.

Marxism is a radical critique of Western capitalism and the severe inequalities with which groups are stratified in their relationship to the means of production. The prescriptive overtones of Marxism lie in the reasoning that this stratification, the theory posits, will ultimately lead to a global revolution in which the bourgeoisie are deposed by the proletariat. This theoretical conclusion is rendered powerful in the context of Marx's examination of History. If this global process consists, as Marxist Theory claims it does, of a dialectical conflict between those with access to the benefits of modernity and those who find themselves powerless at the hands of the excesses of those who control their access to these rewards, then Marxist Theory's insistence that the natural progression of this relationship will result in a positive outcome relies on the fact that History is uni-linear. Marxism's reliance on the workings of History demonstrates a reliance on the forced categorization of the unknown into that dialectic: otherwise the efficacy of the prescriptive nature of Marxist Theory is threatened. As Robert Young notes in White Mythologies: Writing, History and the West, in problematizing the positivist inscription of History according to Marx "[t[he question about history then becomes the more interesting one of the relationship between different significations, and the ways in which such differences can, or cannot, be articulated and unified under the same horizon of totalization to produce a single meaning. . . history will inevitably continue as a representation and interpretation of the past -- rather than Marxist truth and the false or limited interpretation of all other historians" (1990: 22). Marxism, according to the critiques of poststructuralists like Young, necessarily engages in a violent suppression of difference when it encounters the Other.

This is to be taken both literally and figuratively. We may see the latter in the violent way the history of the non-West is marginalized and essentialized to fit within the neat boundaries of Marxist dialecticism; we may see the former in the act of colonization itself. Marxist uncertainty with exactly what role the non-West would play in the coming global revolution may be evidenced in the theoretical hesitation with which Marx approached his controversial Asiatic Mode of Production, a project with which he engaged, as Gayatri Spivak notes is the standard explanation, to answer the question, "why did the normative logic of Capital not determine itself in the same way everywhere?. . . why is Europe not the only self-identified Œsame?'" (72). To understand why Marx searched rigorously for an answer to these questions we must first understand that colonialism's implications in the Marxist dialectic of progress were considered to be, through the expansion of the capitalist world economy beyond Europe, "a means through which the bourgeoisie could avoid socialist revolution at home. Its function thus became crucial. . . since in global terms the bourgeoisie revolution is still occurring" (Young 2001: 105-6). If colonialism did not fit within the Marxist dialectic then it can be concluded that the efficacy of Marxist prescriptive was in question. It was due to such concerns as these that Marx found himself with a vested interest in explaining, as mentioned previously, why non-Europe was non-Europe: "Marx's own ostensible project. . . seems to be to establish self-identity through access to a self-determination that will annul the differences established by history" (Spivak 78). As a result of these problems regarding the formulation and realization of History, Marx sought to define the Asiatic Mode of Production to explain the mode of production he encountered in such large, state-based societies as China and India, thus casting himself "in search of a system that will remove difference after taking it into account" (Spivak 79). Once defined and explained the Asiatic Mode of Production could be reconciled with History: since this was a necessary prerequisite for the realization of a socialist revolution it was through this categorization that Marx was able to take into account difference. How, then, to go about removing it? We may consider Marxism's violent thrust in the literal sense insofar as it regards capitalism as the "pharmakon" of Marxism, or a "poison that is medicinal when knowingly administered. . . It produces the possibility of the operation of the dialectic that will produce socialism, but left to its own resources it is also that which blocks that operation" (Spivak 83). Thus capitalism, while despicable, was simultaneously quite useful, especially in the colonial framework. Marx considered "the moral and humanitarian argument against colonialism. . . ultimately less important than the benefits of it effects -- the world historical movement toward socialism" (Young 2001:108). Insofar as the Asiatic Mode of Production was concerned Marx felt that the "violent introduction of capitalist modes of production. . . broke down the archaic Œbarbarian' systems of ŒOriental despotism' which only reinforced a brutalization and degradation of human beings subjugated to external circumstances" (Young 2001:109). Marx theorized that capitalism, after accounting for difference, had the power to remove it and thus render undamaged the Marxist dialectic.

The immediate fallacy of Marxism, then, becomes clear: its focus on a dialectic History into which all other experiences were to be violently compressed in order to effect the desired outcome underscores its position firmly inside Western thought. Its History, then, was also a product of Western thought and therefore there was nothing universal about its dialectic nature; rather, as we have seen, it would experience a forced encounter with the Other that challenged the trajectory of Marxist prescription. Marx's resolve, of course, once acquainted with this difference, was to remove that which stood to derail the prescriptive lens through which he ordered the world. This led to some of Marx's more controversial statements, among them his dismissal of the possibility of India having any history before the coming of the colonizer and his insistence on the overarching desirability that the modernity with which capitalism's arrival outside of Europe, via colonization, inevitably would bring. Yet the trouble with Marx goes deeper: "a mere burial" of his problematic statements "will not take care of the problem. . " Spivak notes (79). Young posits, in fact, that "Marxism, insofar as it inherits the system of the Hegelian dialectic, is also implicated in the link between the structures of knowledge and the forms of oppression of the last two hundred years: a phenomenon that has become known as Eurocentrism" (1990: 2). This is an important statement: rather than simply a product of its position in Western Europe Marxism can be thought of as "a negative form of the history of European imperialism" (Young 1990: 2). If, as Young continues, "deconstruction involves the decentralization and decolonization of European thought -- insofar as it is Œincapable of respecting the Being and meaning of the other', and to the extent that its philosophical tradition makes common cause with oppression and with the totalitarianism of the same'Š" (1990: 18) then Marxism, being of the same deplorable philosophical tradition, suddenly takes on a more sinister air. Upon reflection this makes sense: Marx, after all, treated colonialism as yet another "pharmakon" by which the Other might be taught modernity as a consequence of the original "pharmakon," capitalism. This impetus was how a socialist utopia might be realized.

What are the implications, then, for interaction between Marxist and postcolonial theory? How does one inform the other? In order to understand that relationship we must first investigate the relationship between Marxism and poststructuralism. Robert Young relates that resistance to poststructuralism, of which postcolonial theory is a part, was formed in its early stages by such Marxist intellectuals as Frank Lentricchia and Terry Eagleton, the latter of whom "claimed first that poststructuralism represented a Œhedonist withdrawal from history' (aestheticism) and, a year later, that it amounted to a more menacing holocaust-like Œliquidation of history'" Perry Anderson, Young continues, has "dismissed all poststructuralism on the grounds that it represents Œthe randomization of history'. . .", a concern with the inherent suggestion contained within poststructuralism that "suggests that any such view of history must have no end, and therefore no teleology" (Young 1990:21). Teleology, as it informs Marxist Theory, is a highly problematic yet necessary factor. The construction of a teleological History involved, for Marx, the violent suppression of difference: first in accounting for it and then in destroying it. Even so the containment of difference was not enough: "it quickly becomes clear that history has been, and continues to be, a deeply problematic concept, particularly for Marxism. It has never succeeded in achieving a Œconcrete' existence outside theory, where it can lie in wait, ready to be invoked against it" (Young 1990:vi). Young asks us to consider the case of Stalinism as an example of the realization of the Marxist socialist revolution: was this the desired outcome of History or was there some mistake in Marx's conceptualization? How could History produce Stalinism? However there is a more fundamental disagreement between poststructuralism and Marxism that Young seeks to question. If "ŒHistory' as a metahistorical category achieves its single meaning by subsuming a range of ethico-political concepts, such as Œprogress', Œhuman freedom', Œnecessity' and the like, which then form the basis of the regulation and authorization of historical interpretationŠ" (Young 1990:22) then to frame any argumentation within a theory which necessarily invokes such a conceptualization of History is to stand in the way of any process that seeks to tear apart this very construct. Young posits, therefore, that as a result of the impossibility of reconciling Marxist History's with a deconstructivist agenda the two thrusts are incompatible.

Gayatri Spivak, on the other hand, does not find Marxist Theory to be impossibly misaligned with the project of deconstruction, a task for which her innovative methods of analysis have proved to be provocatively useful. It would be remiss to suggest that Spivak fails to acknowledge the fallacies of Marxist Theory, however, for she clearly states that Marxism's "contradiction -- between a critique of the intending subject in every presupposition, and a telos based on the intending subject. . . drives Marxism apart from the inside. . ." (78). Her acknowledgement of this relationship, however, does not preclude her from using Marxism as a valuable tool in her projects of deconstruction. Spivak works within the realms of Marxism and feminism, as well as other philosophical discourses, seeking to employ a strategic essentialism by which she might enact her deconstructive project. Deconstruction, she warns, is a challenge: one who carries it out must be careful "not to excuse, but to suspend accusation to examine with painstaking care if the protocols of the text contains a moment that can produce something that will generate a new and useful meaning" (98). In order to carry out a deconstructive reading of a philosophical entity such as Marx, Spivak informs, we must look for a lever, from Derrida, "Œin order to maintain a grasp on the previous organization, which is to be transformed effectively,' for new uses, as it were" (98). These levers must be scrupulously manipulated in order to avoid effecting either a tainted or violent product: an outcome that is complicit in the very acts it seeks to deconstruct. In considering Marx Spivak chooses to focus on the Asiatic Mode of Production as a lever. Here, she explains, the "concept-metaphor of the AMP makes visible the site-specific limits of Modes of Production as an explanatory category" (93). Certainly the Asiatic Mode of Production, in its violent creation, belies the naturalness of the Modes of Production and the dialectic natures that Marxism assumes. But Spivak warns that while "we cannot excuse Marx's tremendous shifting of paradigms from the violent consequences of the first wave of global marxisms. . . It does not, on the other hand, call for academic accusations against Marxism as such. . . I am making an attempt here to work at the deconstructive Œnew politics of reading,' which involves an effort to enter the protocols of Marx's text in order to re-inscribe it for use" (91) In order to do so, Spivak introduces three "easily available secondary texts [that] confront the wider-ranging issues involved in Marx's proposal of an ŒAsiatic' mode. . . (85). A close reading of these texts in the context of examining the Asiatic Mode of Production, Spivak informs, will emphasize that "the ŒAsiatic Mode of production' as a Œreal' description of Œactual practices' is not an issue in its ostensibly appropriate place and time. It will come to be needed as the crucial theoretical fiction to set the machinery of the emancipatory transformation of Hegelianism presenting itself as a general system. . . And, when it performs that function, its very invocation is therefore its foreclosure" (88). Given these assumptions Spivak is able to reach within the problematic implications of the Asiatic Mode of Production and its inherent flaws to reach provocative conclusions from the interpretation and schematizing works based on Marx's blemished theory that call into question the development of Capitalism in Europe: for instance, she argues, a "bold re-inscription. . . [of reading Marx suggests that] Capitalism developed as a Œdangerous supplement' to the Œweak' moment in European feudalism because the conquerors could not establish a resilient state" (90). This is not to suggest that there is a Œcorrect' narrative of history which Spivak is now privileging; rather her project is to use Marxism as a tool to displace the theory's own traditional narratives. Indeed she displays in her work the efficacy of such a project. In previous work Spivak has highlighted the similarities between Marx's commodity fetish and the worlding of the Third World, each of which obscure problematic histories of production. In so doing Spivak presents a re-centered and yet still unstable observation. Spivak, above all else, refuses to be positioned within any single discipline: she uses projects of deconstruction to take away instructive moments from a wide variety of philosophical ventures, including Marxism.

Young acknowledges the radial transformations that Spivak is able to effect in her deconstructive work yet he remains skeptical of the overarching value of her project. His respect for her abilities to work within so many disciplines notwithstanding, Young calls into question Spivak's capacity to completely remove herself from the violent implications of Marxist theory. He specifically problematizes her use of "residual classical Marxism [which] is invoked for the use of its political effect from an outside that disavows and apparently escapes the strictures that the rest of her work establishes. . ." when she speaks of international divisions of labor, for example (1990:173). Young upbraids Spivak for what he considers to be a slip that she cannot avoid: Her Marxism, he suggests, "functions as an overall syncretic frame. It works. . . as a transcendentalizing gesture to produce closure. Spivak's supplemental history must itself be supplemented" (1990:173).

It should be clear that Spivak's project attempts to undertake radical reevaluations of Western thoughts and the legacy of Western production of knowledge. However, an integral component of her project is the manner in which her projects of deconstruction must be constantly performed in new ways. A single subversive reading will not, she maintains, invert the power structures that have become endemic within academic thought. Therefore Spivak relies on the constant realignment of ideas that her deconstructive projects produce. Spivak might be said to work outside of the academy but she also must acknowledge her place within it. Young's admonition against Spivak assumes that her projects do not suggest, much less demand, further reevaluation; furthermore he assumes that Spivak fails to account for her own position within the academy and within the very structures she seeks to reconsider. Young also ignores her stated preference for a strategic essentialism that she argues enhances her ability to further her deconstruction. As Spivak informs, "No possible reading is a mis-reading" (97-8). Her point is that while Marxism can be, and has been, used in a wide variety of violent ways that directly circumvent her projects of realignment, to unilaterally declare that it has no place in contemporary poststructural discourse would be a violent negation analogous to Marxism's own structural violence insofar as the Other is concerned. That Spivak's radical re-reading of Marxism has produced an important understanding of the interaction between Western knowledge and the Other cannot be denied. What, then, would Young have us do with this deconstructive product since, in order to arrive at it, one must necessarily use the violent tools of Marxist discourse? One cannot selectively disregard what has already been produced. Young's final critique of Spivak insists that she ultimately has produced an alternative glimpse of history that, even so, demands further supplementation. Spivak would most likely agree. Her project, of course, insists on such destabilizing strategies for to state, without question, that her production of knowledge is unilaterally True would violate the very spirit of her work. Spivak, indeed, accounts for this. Her perspective allows her a wide array of philosophical disciplines from which she might choose her tools of deconstruction. To eliminate Marxism from that kit, even if in so doing she would eliminate its inherent problems from her project, would be counterproductive: the efficacy of her work would suffer as a result. Indeed even Young's project, which is ostensibly to reveal the means by which the West is constructed as the valued norm, would benefit from a borrowing from Spivak's findings and methods: to debunk Marxism and then to turn around and use it might seem to be paradoxical but as Spivak has shown it is in practice a very powerful impetus. The solution to the violence of Western unilateral production of knowledge is not to suppress it in an equally violent manner but to use it to subversively re-read and re-inform.

Postcolonial theory certainly may benefit from the application of such a project. The vaguely defined discipline that has begun to play an increasingly informative role in the production of knowledge that is alternative to the Western academy finds itself situated immediately with the ongoing issue of postcolonial politics. Any discussion of postcolonial theory, however, must involve a consideration of colonialism itself. This is important for several reasons. First it is necessary to understand what came before in order to understand what has occurred and is still occurring as a result. Secondly, however, it is not certain for many who dapple in postcolonial theory that indeed the structures that effected the colonial project indeed ended when so many imperial projects were derailed in the second half of the twentieth century. This is a powerful suggestion for the work of both Young and Spivak implies that structural realities have not been significantly revamped or even reevaluated since the collapse of Europe's colonial administrations. This is not to insinuate that there have been no important changes, however. The emergence of postcolonial theory in the Western academy itself speaks to an impetus to reevaluate these structural realities and the emergence of powerful voices from the postcolonial world who are actively engaging in similar reexaminations. The challenge of deconstructing these pervasive configurations that still shape our production of knowledge even in the ostensibly named postcolonial era benefits immeasurably from the use of projects such as Spivak's, especially when one considers that in most cases these projects are undertaken by scholars who are undeniably implicit in the very perspectives they seek to reexamine. Spivak's project will benefit such considerations by providing the guidance by which scholars might look for levers within the textual productions of colonial and postcolonial societies to tear apart the implications of such productions and to reposition them in their relationships to these same texts. Furthermore her project, especially in its constantly unstable nature, provides an important warning to those who would seek to deconstruct only to reconstruct the "right" way. Postcolonial theory, in that it involves the examination of cultural products that have been created and are being created by structures that still remain as efficacious as ever, will benefit greatly from the application of Spivak's knowledge.

It is generally beyond dispute that Marxism suffers from several crippling fallacies that belie its usefulness as a strategy by which to learn History. Where Marxist thought intersects with poststructural theory a wide range of arguments are produced, represented here by the projects of Robert Young and Gayatri Spivak. Insofar as she skillfully uses Marxism to advance her deconstructive projects Spivak's engagement with the exonerated discourse seems to produce the most advantageous and provocative reassessment of Western knowledge. Thus it is her project, too, that is in the best position to radically reconsider the issues raised by the provocative developing field of postcolonial theory.

Works Cited

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Young, Robert. White Mythologies: Writing, History and the West. London: Routledge, 1990.

_____. Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak