Subaltern politics refers to the political activity of subaltern social groups (i.e., the political activity of subordinated and marginalized social groups). The concept originated in the work of the Italian socialist and political theorist, Antonio Gramsci, who developed the concept to describe, categorize, and analyze the activity and conditions of social groups that lack relative political power with respect to ruling social groups. Since the publication of some of Gramsci’s writings on subaltern groups in English in the 1971, there has been growing interest in subaltern themes across the humanities and social sciences. The most notable achievement in this regard is the publication series Subaltern Studies, which has developed subaltern studies into a recognizable mode of analysis and scholarship.
Antonio Gramsci And The Concept Of Subaltern Social Groups
While incarcerated by Mussolini’s fascist regime, Gramsci undertook a massive study of Italian political history, culture, and society, which he recorded in what are known as his prison notebooks. Out of his twenty-nine prison notebooks, Gramsci devoted a single notebook, Notebook 25, to the analysis of subaltern groups, which he titled “On the Margins of History: The History of Subaltern Social Groups.” Gramsci perceived that the history of subaltern groups was largely unwritten or was “on the margins of history.” Gramsci’s notes on subaltern groups mainly address issues specific to Italian history, such as the slaves of ancient Rome, various religious groups, women, different races, the popolani (common people) and popolo (people) of the medieval communes, the bourgeoisie prior to the Italian Risorgimento, and workers and peasants in the early twentieth century.
In Gramsci’s view, spontaneity characterized modern Italian subaltern politics, largely because the subordinate masses engaged in rebellions, revolts, uprisings, and brigandage in response to their unacceptable conditions but were incapable of permanently transforming their circumstances. To overcome their subordination, Gramsci argued that it was necessary for subaltern groups to achieve political autonomy from dominant social groups in a struggle for hegemony (i.e., to struggle for intellectual, moral, and political leadership). In Gramsci’s conception of hegemony, dominant or ruling social groups maintain political power through coercion and accommodation, in which dominant social groups suppress the political ascent of subaltern groups or attempt to incorporate their demands into dominant political formations. A contributing factor, in this regard, is the formation and articulation of dominant ideology and culture. If dominant intellectuals portray subaltern groups as backward, inferior, abnormal, or psychologically mad, and subaltern groups accept those views, the root causes of subalternity become obscured, ignored, or hidden from history. This in turn negatively affects the capacities of subaltern groups to address the core aspects of their subordination. Thus, Gramsci argued that spontaneity was inadequate for subaltern politics and that the struggle for hegemony required organization, planning, and the cultivation of critical consciousness.
The Development Of Subaltern Studies
Prior to the 1980s, subaltern politics received relatively little intellectual focus. The notable exception to this generalization is the work of the British historians Eric Hobsbawm (1965) and Edward P. Thompson (1966). Although they did not directly rely on the concept of subaltern politics, their works examine “history from below” by focusing on the political agency of subordinated social groups. Ranajit Guha and the small group of English and Indian historians who founded the publication series Subaltern Studies are largely responsible for introducing the themes of subaltern politics into current intellectual discussions. In 1982, the Subaltern Studies editorial collective published its first volume of the series, which was devoted to writings on South Asian history and society. Guha acted as the principal editor of the series from 1982 to 1988 and edited the first six volumes, and to date, the editorial collective has published twelve volumes. In addition, Oxford University Press published Selected Subaltern Studies (1988), which includes a selection of the seminal essays from the series and a preface by Edward Said, and Minnesota University Press published A Subaltern Studies Reader, 1986–1995 (1997), which includes some of the most influential essays from the series.
The initial focus of Subaltern Studies drew from Gramsci’s work in attempt to reclaim the politics of the people in South Asian history, which elitist historiography tended to ignore. In the preface to Subaltern Studies I, Guha states that the aim of the series “is to promote a systematic and informed discussion of subaltern themes in the field of South Asian studies, and thus help to rectify the elitist bias characteristic of much research and academic work in this particular area.” According to Guha, “The word ‘subaltern’ in the title stands for the meaning as given in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, that is, ‘of inferior rank,’” and the term is used “as a name for the general attribute of subordination in South Asian society whether this is expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender, and office or in any other way.” However, in contrast to the Gramscian notion, Guha works from the basic assumption that subaltern politics operate in an “autonomous domain” that exists independently from elite politics. This contradiction was pointed out by Suneet Chopra (1982), which prompted a discussion that highlighted the differences between Gramsci’s conception of subaltern politics and the understanding developed by Subaltern Studies. David Arnold, a member of the Subaltern Studies editorial collective, provided further context to the discussion by examining the application of Gramsci’s ideas to the study of the Indian peasantry (1984).
“Can The Subaltern Speak?”
In her article “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak provides one of the most influential essays on subaltern studies published to date. Spivak considers Guha’s approach to rewriting Indian colonial history from a subaltern perspective “essentialist and taxonomic,” because it defines the subaltern “as a difference from the elite” and requires one to not only know the consciousness of subaltern groups but also requires one to represent that consciousness. This is illustrated in the fact that the subalternists rely on British, nationalist, and colonialist records to research and validate their work. Spivak reinforces Gramsci’s position by maintaining that subaltern groups leave little or no traces of their existence within elite, colonial documents, and if the subaltern are represented at all, they are represented as the “other” within dominant, elite ideology. It is in this sense that the subaltern cannot speak, according to Spivak, because representations of the subaltern are embedded within dominant discourse, which does not present the subaltern’s perspective.
Despite its criticisms, Subaltern Studies has largely achieved its goal of reclaiming the “politics of the people” from the confines of elitist and nationalist historiography. The hundreds of books and articles that drew on Subaltern Studies made a significant impact in the 1990s, and its influence reached beyond India and South Asia. Its focus on nonelite, subaltern history encouraged the founding of the Latin America Subaltern Studies Group in 1993 and the analysis of subaltern history in Africa, Ireland, the Middle East, and the United States. Today the term subaltern studies no longer refers exclusively to the publication series launched by Guha but encompasses a recognizable mode of investigation in cultural studies, literature, sociology, anthropology, and history that focuses on marginalized members of society and often is linked closely with postcolonial studies.
- Arnold, David. “Gramsci and Peasant Subalternity in India.” Journal of Peasant Studies 11, no. 4 (1984): 155–177.
- Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial Historiography.” Nepantla: Views from South 1, no. 1 (2000): 9–32.
- Chatterjee, Partha. “Peasant, Politics, and Historiography: A Response.” Social Scientist 120 11, no. 5 (1983): 58–65.
- Chopra, Suneet. “Missing Correct Perspective.” Social Scientist 111 10, no. 8 (1982): 55–63.
- Gramsci, Antonio. Quaderni Del Carcere, edited by Valentino Gerratana. 4 vols. Turin, Itay: G. Einaudi, 1975.
- Selections from the Prison Notebooks, translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey N. Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971.
- Green, Marcus. “Gramsci Cannot Speak: Representations and Interpretations of Gramsci’s Concept of the Subaltern.” Rethinking Marxism 14, no. 3 (2002): 1–24.
- Guha, Ranajit, ed. Subaltern Studies I:Writings on South Asian History and Society. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982.
- A Subaltern Studies Reader, 1986–1995. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
- Guha, Ranajit, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, eds. Selected Subaltern Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
- Hobsbawm, Eric J. Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries. New York: Norton, 1965.
- Prakash, Gyan. “Subaltern Studies as Postcolonial Criticism.” American Historical Review 99, no. 5 (1994): 1475–1490.
- Rodríguez, Ileana, ed. The Latin American Subaltern Studies Reader. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001.
- Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Carey Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 271–314. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
- Thompson, Edward P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1966.
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