March 20, 2022

Aijaz Ahmad: A Warrior for Marxism

Prakash Karat

PROFESSOR Aijaz Ahmad, who passed away last week in Irvine, California, was one of the foremost Marxist intellectuals of our times.  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.

Aijaz’s Marxism arose out of the tradition of the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist movements for national liberation. This was enriched and synthesized with the Marxist thought emanating from the metropolitan centres in the sixties and seventies. Thus, Aijaz was uniquely positioned to defend and nurture Marxist theory when many western intellectuals abandoned Marxism in the post-Soviet era. He took on the series of post-Marxist, post-modern and post-colonial theories which pervaded the academia in the west and which soon became influential in society.

His book `In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures’, was first published in 1992.  This work became a classic as it provided an effective and devastating critique of the philosophical and ideological positions of the various “post” ideologies from the Marxist standpoint. The introduction in the book is a tour de force which provides the global historical context for the present conjuncture and the contradictions which are still unfolding  in the world. This is a book that equipped the Left-oriented students and the younger generation amongst the intelligentsia to take on post-modernism and other similar so-called radical narratives.

Aijaz Ahmad came to India in the mid-eighties, the land of his birth, and lived here for three decades. He had a long stint at the Nehru Memorial Museum in Delhi as a fellow. It is around this time that he wrote his book, `In Theory’, and also began thinking and writing about political and social developments in the country. Internationally, the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War had brought about the US hegemonic influence in all spheres, including culture and ideologies.

In India, the twin processes of liberalisation leading to neo-liberal policies and the rise of the Hindutva forces had begun.  Aijaz was deeply engaged in studying and analysing these features.  His essays and lectures on the rise of the Hindutva forces situating it in the background of the rise of the far-right worldwide and his continuing brilliant analysis of the nature of the RSS project to recast the Indian State by a long march through its institutions has contributed to a better understanding of the Indian Left about these forces and what they portend. 

At the global level, Aijaz engaged himself in looking at 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 project of world hegemony. Here again, he effectively combatted the views of many western Left scholars who argued that imperialism is no more a relevant category in the globalised capitalist world.

Aijaz was not an armchair academic. He always associated with 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.

For Aijaz, Marxist theory was never static.  It 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 take another look, to think anew, and to reach a deeper understanding”. 

During his long stay in India, he was impressed at the way the Communist movement, and especially the CPI(M), had withstood the ideological onslaught against Marxism and socialism after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He appreciated the way the Party retained its Communist identity and mass base unlike various other Communist parties abroad which either ceased to exist or crossed over to the social democratic side. 

He engaged with the large Left intelligentsia which existed in the country. His writings in small Hindi literary journals had a wide-spread impact. More importantly, he associated with the Party’s various ideological and cultural activities.  He participated in numerous seminars and lectures conducted by Party-related institutions. He spent a lot of time giving talks to students and activist groups to help them to understand revolutionary theory.  In 2010, he gave a lecture on post-modernism to members of the Central Committee of the CPI(M) as part of a three-day educational school for them.  He became one of the founding members of the editorial board of LeftWord Books and wrote a couple of books for the publishing house, beginning with a powerful essay on the Communist Manifesto in the `A World to Win’, the first book published by LeftWord Books.

His last years were poignant due to his unfulfilled desire to live and die in his homeland. After living precariously on visa after visa, when it became clear that he would never get Indian citizenship because of his stint in Pakistan as a young man, he departed to take up the chair of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.  Despite the prestigious chair that he held, he longed to be back in India. The last eight years of his life were, according to him, the life of an `exile’. 

Aijaz Ahmad was uncompromising in his struggle against all alien imports into Marxism, or, efforts to dilute the working class ideology. He maintained that he was an `Orthodox Marxist’, which according to him, meant a Communist. 

All of us who knew him and all his numerous admirers and comrades will cherish and remember his practice of living Marxism.