Four Essays by Aijaz Ahmad: A Survey


Aijaz Ahmad


Aijaz Ahmad is one of the preeminent Marxist political and literary theorists in the world today. Most famous for his In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (Verso, 1992), Ahmad has been a poignant and prolific voice on  the left for many decades, cultivating an expertise in the politics of the third world, the theoretical debates surrounding imperialism, and the Marxist critique of post-colonialism in the world of comparative literature. Since 2016, he has been Chancellor’s Professor of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine, where he has been a critical (in both senses of the word) voice on a markedly conservative (though very diverse) campus.

The purpose of this survey is to provide a succinct, accessible introduction to Ahmad’s work for budding scholars at UC Irvine (and beyond) interested in the third world, Marxism, and/or comparative literature. It will be circulated through the radical reading collective at UC Irvine, and will be published online for viewers around the world. Moreover, this survey aims to humbly recognize the efforts and work of a man who has dedicated his life to the historicalproject of emancipation and provided inspiration to countless people along the way.

We begin by summarizing the articles under review. First, inThe Communist Manifesto: In its own Time and in Ours (1999), Ahmad provides his reading of this pillar of Marx’s corpus, and in so doing, provides the reader with a taste of his uniquelyideological Marxism.Ahmad characterizes the Manifesto as a ‘text of transition’ that ties together the major elements of what would later encompass Marx’s corpus – i) the scientific study of the capitalist system, ii) an engagement with the politics of the day, and iii) an engagement with the working-class movements of the day. Ahmad also responds to two criticisms frequently lobbed at the Manifesto – its supposed historical determinism, and its under-emphasis of the revolutionary potential of the bourgeoisie – convincingly refuting both. In addition, Ahmad identifies the principal strength of the Manifesto as its conceptualization of capitalism’s tendency to globalize proletarianization, polarization, and primitive accumulation long before any of these processes appeared to be at work in Asia or Africa. And finally, Ahmad posits that the continuation of Marx’s project as consisting in (to a large extent) the deepening of Marx’s theorization on the ideological dimension of capitalist globalization.

Second, in Imperialism of our Time (2009), Ahmad delineates five specificities of contemporary imperialism – i) the absence of inter-imperialist rivalry, ii) its post-coloniality, iii) the unique mixing of national and international finance capitals, iv) the overwhelming dominance of finance capital over productive capital, and v) the necessity for militarized control of the planet given the propensity for contemporary imperialism (in the form of neoliberal globalization) to spark violent ruptures throughout the world on a more or less constant basis. Ahmad explores in depth why ‘inter-imperialist rivalry’ is no longer a tenable thesis (refuting the US-EU rivalry and US-China rivalry theses in the process). In addition, he argues that rehabilitating the discourse on colonialism, constitutes a much more productive endeavor than re-hashing ‘inter-imperialist rivalry debates’, a position that Prabhat Patnaik has expressed solidarity with. Ahmad identifies the agrarian question as central to the failure of the Bandung era sovereign projects, echoing comments made recently by Samir Amin on the centrality of the Agrarian questions in the contemporary era. And finally, Ahmad argues that the ideological dimension of imperialism, in particular the role of the US ‘knowledge industry’ has been thoroughly underemphasized in the contemporary discourse on imperialism, much to the determinant of the field as a whole.

In Islam, Islamicisms, and the West (2009), Ahmad poses two major critiques of the contemporary discourse on political Islam – i) that it is overgeneralized and ii) that it is overdetermined. The very existence of a process of islamization Ahmad argues, indicates the erroneousness of “ascrib[ing] to some inherent Islamic-ness…political destiny” (2). Just as political Islam is manufactured in the south via. CIA funding of Islamic fundamentalist organizations, the US media’s valorization of Islamic fundamentalists to the status of ‘war-wagers’, and the import, not of democracy, but of sectarianism and absolute immiseration (the chief ingredients of political Islam’s membership growth), political Islam is manufactured in the north by “immigrant strata [who] forge a fictive collective identity” for defensive purposes. Ahmad argues that the ideological homogenization of Islam– the erasing of the varieties of Islam (parliamentary vs. paramilitary, leftist vs. conservative, modernist vs. traditionalist) – facilitates the propagation of the ‘clash of civilizations’ discourse that in turn, justifies a policy of permanent war to defend rationalist Christianity against despotic Islam, an absurd vindication of modern day imperialism!

Finally, in India: Liberal Democracy and the Extreme Right (2016), Ahmad illustrates the unique organizational resolution of the “historic dilemma regarding the possibility of revolution in the liberal age” (173), employed to frightening effect by the RSS and BJP in India. Ahmad argues that by combining frequent, small doses of communal violence to create a permanent state of anxiety that effectively ensures voting ‘within caste’, the RSS has managed a dialectical synthesis of reform and revolution from the right. Unlike the Maoists who have taken up the gun and politically marginalized themselves, and unlike the parliamentary communist parties who have imprisoned themselves within the confines of bourgeois democracy – a playing field where they neither have the social capital nor the financial-material resources to complete–the RSS has undertaken a ‘long march through institutions’ utilizing a combination of fronts, communal violence, and parliamentary participation to climb from a political whimper on the fringes of Indian democracy at the time of decolonization, to the hellish roar of irrationality and immiseration that it constitutes today.


We now turn to a discussion of two major themes running through this sample of Ahmad’s work. The first and most obvious, is the emphasis on ideology. Being a literary theorist in the main, gives Ahmad a unique appreciation of the subjuective-superstructural component of whatever topic he happens to be addressing. For instance, in The Communist Manifesto: In Its Time and in Ours, Ahmad notes that, while Marx was largely correct in his political-economic predictions about globalization (universalized proletarianization, polarization, primitive accumulation), the ‘world literature’ and ‘homogenous world culture’ he espoused, has not manifested. Rather than homogenization in fact, Ahmad notes that we see the emergence of an ever-growing diffusion of hierarchies. Therefore, Ahmad reminds us that “the more diverse the populations that get proletarianized, the more diverse will have to be the forms designed to bring about their unity” (46). It is on this basis that he recommends, quite poignantly, a deeper theorization of the “ideological forms in which [people] become conscious of their [class] conflict” (47).

Similarly, in India: Liberal Democracy and the Extreme Right, Ahmad argues that Hindu nationalism’s “ambivalence…toward colonialism and imperialism” (181), has facilitated the corporate backing of Modi. Unlike the situation in the global north where anti-globalization is being carried by the right (Trump, LePen, Brexit etc.), the Indian right is staunchly pro-globalization. Therefore, financial backing from the Indian corporate community has been readily forthcoming, an advent that has allowed Modi to spend on his campaign “roughly as much as Obama spent on his” (176), cementing the BJP’s advantage over both Congress and the left. Without this ideological specificity, the political outcome might well have been different.

Again, in Imperialism in Our Time, Ahmad shows how ideology lubricates political outcomes. The US “knowledge industry” he notes, has been instrumental in facilitating US super-imperialism. The “state institutions in Third World dependencies were taken over simply through intellectual takeover of many of their key personnel” (55). And not only that, with the Harvard business school graduates migrated American “literary and artistic taste…patterns of consumption…forms [of] entertainment” (55) and so on. This is not to say a ‘universal culture was born’ for it was precisely in the juxtaposition of this American culture against the indigenous that a new hierarchy separating US educated elites, beholden to US super-imperialism, and the indigenous population ingrained in local culture and subjugated by US super-imperialism, emerged.

And finally, once again, in Islam, Islamisms and the West, Ahmad argues that the ideological association of Christianity and the Greek ‘logos’, in opposition to an “Islam [that] posits a transcendent God who has no integral relationship with Reason” (17), was fundamental to the political viability of the Iraqi invasion(s). Without the ‘clash of civilizations discourse’ there could be no “geopolitical [policy] of permanent conflict in the name of [civilization]” (22), and without the homogenization of varied strands of Islam into an anti-rational, anti-humanist, anti-western bloc, there could be no ‘clash of civilizationsdiscourse’. Without ideology, there is no politics.

Yet, Ahmad is no Hegelian idealist. He is a Marxist, and always maintains that the direction of causality flows from the political-economic base, to the ideological superstructure, although, he does leave room for a two-way dialectic between the two. For example, in India: Liberal Democracy and the Extreme Right, Ahmad points out that colonialism prevented nationalist leaders from participating in mainstream politics, forcing them to do much of their organizing in the realm of civil society. It was this that sowed the seeds of the RSS’s viciously successful ‘dual strategy’ of communal violence meted out through civil society organizations, to inculcate parliamentary hegemony in the political sphere.

Similarly, as he compares the Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban, against the quite distinct Khomennian fundamentalism, in Islam, Islamisms and the West, Ahmad notes that it was very much the result fo the “continuing semi-literacy”, the impoverished nomadic way of life, and the “tribalist ancestry” (28), that bred the particularly, “puritanical, illiterate, rigid, medievalist” variant of Islamic fundamentalism among the Taliban. Thus, the political-economic base of underdevelopment, shaped the ideological form of Islamic fundamentalism.

And we see this once again in Imperialism of Our Time, where Ahmad notes that the “full blown ideological crisis across the globe” in which ethno-religious communalisms are everywhere promoting bouts of irrational, sectarian violence, dismantling of democratic institutions, and shifts toward social regressivity, is directly linked to the “defeat of…communism, socialism, national liberation movements, [and] the radical wings of social democracy” (47). As Ahmad poignantly puts it, “a politics of infinite difference has arisen on the ruins of the politics of equality” (47). The exhaustion of the national sovereign projects of the Bandung era, shaped the ideological forms that would take hold in the later twentieth and twenty first centuries, which would in turn, lubricate the emergence of a particularly communalist form of neoliberal globalization.


Combining prescient insight and powerful prose, Ahmad demonstrates the continued utility of Marxist analysis in the increasingly postmodern field of literary criticism. He has moreover, leveraged his extremely sensitive analysis of ideology to produce sharp commentary on some of the most pressing political issues relating to the third world decade after decade. The sheer breadth of his work and its consistent quality, from early theoretical treatises on Marxism, to up-to-the-minute commentary of current political events, will keep critically minded readers engaged and intellectually nourished for many years to come. The young generation of critical thinkers, activists, and scholars would do well to heed Ahmad’s call for a deeper, Marxist informed theorization of ideology, and the diversity of peoples proletarianized by the expansion of neoliberal capitalism increases, and the destructive politics of difference, replaces the emancipatory project of equality.


Ahmad, A. (2016). India: Liberal democracy and the extreme right. Socialist Register, 52(52).

Ahmad, A. (2009). Imperialism of our time. Socialist Register, 40(40).

Ahmad, A. (2009). Islam, Islamisms and the West. Socialist Register, 44(44).

Ahmad, A. (1999). The Communist Manifesto: In Its Own Time, and in Ours. A World To Win. New Delhi: LeftWord books.

Theo V. Kenji is an aspiring agrarian sociologist and co-founder of the Radical Reading Collective at UC Irvine.


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