In memory of Aijaz Ahmad

Aijaz Ahmad

Aijaz Ahmad (1941-2022) who passed away on March 9 at Irvine, California earlier this year, was a truly original Marxist thinker, who applied Marxist concepts to interpret various events of the contemporary world. He underlined the importance of those concepts while rejecting all attempts to weaken or replace them through eclectic combinations formed by introducing post-modernist concepts into Marxism. He defended Marxist theory from reactionary or post-modernist tendencies and from self -proclaimed Marxists who deviated towards such tendencies.

His classic work In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures was a slap in the face to post-structuralism and post-Marxism. Combating post-structuralism and post-Marxism, Aijaz, though acutely aware of the incompleteness of Marxism in the original form in which the pioneers had left it, re-ingnited the fundamentals of revolutionary praxis that the pioneers had neglected Marxism differed from every other tendency in giving centrality to revolutionary praxis. Aijaz ressurected the power of the original Marxist concepts while rejecting all attempts to weaken or replace them through eclectic combinations formed by introducing post-modernist concepts into Marxism.

What was remarkable is that in upholding Marxism, Aijaz did not fall into trap of over-dependence on economic determinism that is so typical of all such efforts at defending Marxism. This would have been a natural phenomena  since the structuralist Marxism that the French philosopher Louis Althusser had ushered , which often was the breeding ground  for many of these alternative tendencies, had eradicated  economic determinations from the centre-stage of Marxism.

Aijaz was never an armchair academic. He always flung into the heart movements against imperialism, national oppression and racism. In Pakistan, as a student and thereafter, he participated in Left organisations and worked for a period in areas where the Marxist forces were organising the peasantry. In the early seventies, he visited the camps in Palestine and got involved with radical nationalist and Left circles in Lebanon and other centres of the Middle East.

In India, however, unlike in the West, the Marxist teaching had been dominated, by economists and economic historians. Aijaz, notwithstanding his thorough knowledge of political economy, transformed this.. He achieve this not by denying by the significance of economic determinations, but by rarely reverting to them in his analysis of issues. Instead, what he introduced was a historical depth: a total unwillingness to club 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 attitude to Marxism, this refusal to revert upon readily available economic determinations, and to disclose instead the historical roots of each phenomenon, comprised the essence of the Aijaz’s Marxism. It was in this sense that he was a truly original Marxist thinker.

He attracted the fresh young minds of students, who had been somewhat tired of being bombarded with economics in the name of Marxism, to the exclusion of all the intellectual fascination 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 confronting against actually gave to these young minds. By extricating Marxism out of the dominant influence 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.

His significance as a Marxist theoretician came to prominence in the period after the retreat of socialism in the late 1980s and which led to the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991.

His erudition and talents were wide-ranging. He began his work as an Urdu writer and literary critic. He taught literary studies and cultural criticism at various universities in the west.  He studied and wrote on philosophy, political economy and current world affairs.

Coming to India

. 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 received a jolt. This discussion had been instigated by the progressive, notably the communist, movement, and the subsiding of that movement, in the face initially of the “social justice” movement and later of the communal-fascist onslaught, was a major cause of it’s stagnation.. Aijaz’s coming revived this discussion; interested audiences could now witness a knowledgeable person and re-probe issues that had been eclipsed for a considerable time. He was much in demand as a speaker. The lucidity with which he projected 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 determining Aijaz’s life. Displaced  at a young age from his ancestral home in Uttar Pradesh, brought up in an environment that must have been alien  to the young boy, he once more migrated abroad after his early education in Pakistan. He led a life of cat on hot bricks, teaching in many universities in the United States and Canada but unable to settle down in any one place. 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 is a testimony  not only to Aijaz’s commitment to a fair division of work within marriage, but also to his somewhat unorthodox approach  towards his own career.

In Pakistan to which Aijaz’s family had migrated after Partition, the communists were suppressed to the limit, soon after Independence, so that communist concepts, discourses and history became alienated fairly early, preventing access to young and radical-minded students such as Aijaz from having any access to that legacy. But thirst for that legacy was garnered within Aijaz and must have remained with him always which he could quench only upon coming back to India and making this country his home towards the end of the 1980s.

It is only when Aijaz returned to India that he found a place he could call and would give him the sensation of 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.

‘Every country gets the fascism it deserves’, is a sentence that can be found in Aijaz’s writings from this period, when his reading of Gramsci helped him to illuminate the rise of Hindutva in the period just before and after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. An entire generation in India, bewildered by the rapid acceleration of the twin phenomena of liberalisation and by the growth of Hindutva, took refuge in Aijaz’s clear prose that identified the character of the rise of the Indian hard right.

But he could not settle down even here, not, this time, because of any inner restlessness, but because of bureaucratic disturbances. Even though by this time he had relinquished his Pakistani citizenship, the mere fact that at one stage he had been a Pakistani citizen was enough to label 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 threatened by repeated demands for visa renewal. Even so he coped with the problem bravely 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 claim as own.

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.

Theoretical contribution

The basic character of Aijaz’s Marxism, of being non-Comintern-based and yet being communist, is an important reason for the originality of its appeal, and also a creature of his intellectual background. In his writings on Hindutva and on India’s recent turn towards fascism, there is barely any referral 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 conventional communist, or a Marxist belonging to that genre, would have infused a dose of Dimitrov for analysing whether India was heading in a fascist direction, but not Aijaz. His analysis is rich, not confined to the boundaries of traditional Comintern-inspired Marxism. It is the product of a mind that is shaped essentially in the Western intellectual tradition, and therefore free of several dogmatic characteristics of Comintern Marxism, but loyal nevertheless to communism.

Aijaz’s Marxism had its roots in the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist movements for national liberation. This was substantiated and blended with the Marxist thought germinating from the metropolitan centres in the sixties and seventies. Thus, Aijaz was uniquely placed to defend and nurture Marxist theory when many western intellectuals abandoned Marxism in the post-Soviet era. He challenged head on the series of post-Marxist, post-modern and post-colonial theories which vitiated the academia in the west .His book `In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures’, was first published in 1992.  This work became a classic as it provided a scathing and lucid critique of the philosophical and ideological positions of the various “post” ideologies from the Marxist standpoint. The introduction in the book is a fulcrum which provides the global historical context for the present situation and the contradictions which are still crystallising   in the world. This is a book that armed the Left-oriented students and the younger generation amongst the intelligentsia to confront post-modernism head on and other similar tendencies.

The twin win processes of liberalisation leading to neo-liberal policies and the rise of the Hindutva forces in India .inspired  Aijaz to endeavour into  meticulous study on it’s phenomena. . His essays and lectures on the ascendancy of the Hindutva forces locating  it in the background of the rise of the far-right worldwide and his lucid analysis of the nature of the RSS project to reshape the Indian State contributed a most profound analysis for  progressive forces.

At the global level, Aijaz embarked on evaluating nature of imperialism in the post-Cold War era.  The war in Iraq and other wars of aggression by the United States and NATO forces were analysed to show how they were part of the imperialist goal of world hegemony. Here again, he effectively combated the views of many western Left scholars who argued that imperialism is now irrelevant in the globalised capitalist world.

For Aijaz, Marxist theory was never plateaued and always had to be linked to praxis. As to his own method, he said: “Whether it is the complete text of Marx or the very complex projects of Hindutva, there is no such thing as a final understanding beyond which one needs to go. One must always return to think afresh to obtain a deeper understanding.

One flaw he reflected is that he did not perceive the manner the CPI (M), had succumbed to revisionism in the ideological battle to defend Marxism. He showed admiration for the way the Party retained its Communist identity and mass base failing to comprehend how it even formed alliances with communal parties being part of ruling class electoral politics and had an active hand of even suppressing movements of workers and peasants. To me it is regrettable that he did not link or identify with the Communist revolutionary forces of India, which extricated from parliamentary path. Aijaz would not rebuke the traditional communist parties firmly believed in establishing common ground with them.

Personally I would have loved to have read an analysis of Aijaz on the progressive aspects of Islam, the appropriate strategy to combat Islamaphobia, On Current China and on Maoism, particularly in the third world.

Harsh Thakor is freelance journalist who has covered mass movements  around the country.

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