Ideology, Anti-Colonialism and Marxism

Himani Bannerji interviewed by Mahdi Ganjavi

Himani Bannerji is a professor in the Department of Sociology at York University, Toronto. Her research and writing life extends between Canada and India. Her interests encompass anti-racist feminism, Marxism, critical cultural theories, and historical sociology. Her publications include Demography and Democracy: Essays on Nationalism, Gender and Ideology (2011), Of Property and Propriety: The Role of Gender and Class in Imperialism and Nationalism (edited and co-authored with S. Mojab and J. Whitehead, 2001), Inventing Subjects: Studies in Hegemony, Patriarchy and Colonialism (2001), and The Dark Side of the Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Racism (2000).

Mahdi Ganjavi is a Ph.D. student at the department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education, OISE/University of Toronto. A prolific essayist and author, Ganjavi’s criticisms, translations, a book review, and essays have been published in journals/websites such as the International Journal of Lifelong Education,
Encyclopedia Irannica, the Global Voices, the Bullet, and Ajam Media Collective.

Mahdi Ganjavi (MG): You are among the philosophers and social critics who have written extensively on the concept of ideology. In your article “Ideology”,[1] by means of a close reading of Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology, you argue that while all ideology is a form of thought, not all forms of thought are ideological. You assert that any “true” social inquiry should start from the concrete reality of people’s lives and their society, i.e. life activities of conscious socio-historical subjects as they produce and reproduce themselves. Furthermore, you argue against the assertion that knowledge can be “objective” or “autonomous.” Similar to Dorothy Smith in her piece “Reinterpretation of Marx’s Epistemology,”[2] you maintain that any knowledge is by nature a situated one.

How an argument in favour of situated knowledge can distance itself from necessarily resulting in spatializing epistemologies? Theoretically speaking, can we think of any true social inquiry that has not situated itself in terms of the class struggle?

Himani Bannerji (HB): I should begin by saying that I am not a philosopher, but a historical materialist sociologist who is interested in actual social organizations, their forms of relations, and modes of inquiry into them. Unlike philosophers, I do not offer universal metaphysical speculations between subject and object – the nature of Reality and the nature of universal categories, such as that of ‘absolute being’, ‘man’, ‘nature’ and so on. Historical materialist sociology, which can also be called historical sociology, is less concerned with the content, and certainly the eternal validity of any social content articulated for the purpose of understanding a specific social problem, but rather is a method of inquiry which examines a set of procedures which claim to arrive at an objective truth. In this, I am a practitioner of ‘social organization of knowledge’ and ‘critical ethnography’ as well as inquiries into the nature of ruling institutions – all of which are developments of the Marxist feminist methods of Dorothy E. Smith. To assess my work it is not only important to refer back to Marx, but also to a feminist application of his critique of ideology as found in Smith’s The Conceptual Practices of Power[3] and Writing the Social.[4]

This distinction I make between philosophy and critical sociology is crucial for understanding the distinction Marx makes between a transformative ‘science’ of society and metaphysics/ideology produced by philosophers (see The German Ideology).

In my work a critique of ideology provides the central principle through which I inquire into the rise of social phenomena and their experience by individuals. The notion of ‘the social’ involves an interconstitutive relationship between lived social relations and forms of consciousness centered mainly on relations of power and oppression, which provide for the rise of property and concomitant relations of propriety or morality. The feminist anti-racist critique that I provide is at its basic level a critique of ideology. You are right to point out the distinction I make between ideology and different forms of thought, such as use of concepts and categories, empirical research, etc., which are not always already ideological in nature.

As Marx says, practical consciousness, empirical consciousness, scientific social analysis and production of ideology are not to be confused with each other. Though they are permeable forms of thought with possibilities of influence from each other, their distinctions/specificities must be maintained. Thus all ideology is a form of thought, but not all forms of thought are ideological. This is the point missed by Louis Althusser in his article on ideological apparatuses of the state,[5] and it continues to bedevil much critical social analysis of our time. Furthermore, my use of the notion ‘social’ is a materialist version, with all the contradictions, complexities and dynamism involved in all modes of production and their social formations and cultures. This is an attempt to eschew the use of the philosophical notion of ‘totality’ put forward by Lukaśc, Frederick Jameson and others. My interest is on an internal set of relations necessary for pressing on with a revolutionary project rather than a seamless, unbroken circle or totality. The social, therefore, is constantly changing constitutive relations between different social moments, such as social, economic, cultural and so on. Seen from this point of view, capital is an evolving and fracturing social reality, and cannot be understood as being wholly determined by one of its moments, such as the economic.

The issues you raise regarding subjective and objective forms of knowledge need to be further scrutinized. When a piece of knowledge is seen as starting from any situated locale, in an individually inhabited social space, the endpoint of that knowledge production is not that of another contiguous, restricted knowledge space. Situated knowledge signifies a connection between local and extra-local possible spaces of knowledge. To give an example, a racist slur is both a concrete immediate phenomenon and one that needs to be traced back to historical and current social relations and cultural practices. Thus a political movement such as Black Lives Matter, arising out of racist police killing of African Americans in the U.S., has to be referred back to the days of slavery as well as systemic and social racism that mark the lives of African Americans today. This is what I mean by situating knowledge, not simply a narrow particular standpoint of an individual unregistered in any social map. This knowledge is not ‘subjective’ in the sense of being an immediate state of feeling, a kind of opinion, as held by one isolated individual or a restricted social group. If it is so, then it is an experience that itself needs to be understood through a historical, sociological analysis. This analysis is not a matter of opinion, a random set of claims, but rather a method of inquiry that breaks up the unity and immediacy of that experience, for example of racism, sexism or homophobia, into a social inquiry of socio-economic organization and relations and historical-cultural setting. This form of ‘objectivity’ makes a truth claim regarding what is actually happening (Smith) and permits no relativism regarding the reality we inhabit. Racist patriarchal capitalism can thus be shown as actually existing, rather than as my personal opinion that it does so. The kind of partisanship that this knowledge holds is not a subjective one but a social one based on the unequal relations of power and property that we seek to understand.

This may seem like an unnecessarily long beginning, but I cannot even begin to answer the rest of your questions without this clarity regarding what I am actually trying to do.

MG: Language plays a crucial rule in the creation of forms of thought. According to Dorothy Smith, categories are the forms of thought in which the social relations come to consciousness. However, language is also very powerful in terms of masking the actual social existence that has created its materiality. Thus, in many cases an ideological inquiry would take shape, simply by means of a referential practice of reading from category to phenomenon. This is developed historically and theoretically in your article “the Tradition of Sociology and the Sociology of Tradition.”[6]

It can be argued that the sensuous experience of living an alienated life has resulted in an alienated relation to language itself. You are a poet and literary critic as well. In what sense can poetry assist us in our struggle against ideological forms of expression?

HB: Yes, language, by which I mean forms of common signification and expression, not just words, is the most vital element of being human. From written and spoken words to musical notations, conventions of art, scientific research to learning and transmission of practical skills, all fall within the general definition of language. They are all modes of communication involving experiences, social relations, the activation of all our capacities, what Marx calls ‘sensuous, human practice’. In this sense we can speak of structures and conventions and denotative functions of language as much as associative and connotative uses of language. As such, though the structural aspects of language which are generally available to all are individualized and socialized by popular usage, we could say that languages do not speak us, but we speak them, in a manner which Mikhail Bakhtin calls ‘dialogical’. Categories, to speak of them especially, which are used by us to code and transmit knowledges, are contexted by and referential to the reasons for their usage as well
as to the relations between the speaker and the listener in the broadest sense of these terms. Thus categories are embedded codes of knowledge which are part of and create social spaces of knowledge and expression. The particular usages and the general structures of language are both socially determined and determining. The sociality of human ‘being’ is expressed in language, and begins with what Marx calls forms of ‘practical consciousness’. To define and refine these usages forms and genres are created, developed over a historic period of complex and contradictory social relations and individual experiences. This process has been and is always at work, something without which being human would not be possible.

Uses of language are varied and range from poetic, to ideological and scientific. So the occluding use of language that Marx calls ideology and Dorothy Smith defines as the way ideology works to hide reality from us, is itself a social phenomenon. It would not be possible for us to create ideology if the social possibilities for doing that were not present. Mental and manual division of labour at their highest point of separation, which can deny social origins of ideological thought, depends wholly on social organization in which production of practical objects and thought objects actually took two different paths of production relations. This point of bifurcation is reliant upon and reproduces class relations. The intelligentsia, who are producers of thought objects, become an elite group which is an extension of the bourgeoisie, while the manual or practical workers form another class, their interests at odds with the elite. Ideological uses of terms and expressions prevent us from seeing this connection and erase the fundamental connection between forms of art, knowledge, etc. and everyday life and work of others whose production of surplus is used to maintain the elite. Thus ideology’s claim to absolute sovereignty of ideas is in reality absurd and impossible, as is the disconnection it asserts between philosophy, art and society.

This brings us to the consideration of poetry in its social origin and role. However much we may call art, including poetry, a realm independent of the social, we see that communication itself is impossible outside of the social, dialogical mode. Poetry or art in general achieve their character as such because they share a common space of meaning between the speaker/writer and the listener/reader. But of course poetry can be an ideological practice if it signals its interlocutor away from its content and only toward its structural form. But ultimately such formalization still abides by certain usages of shared understanding. Ultra-modernist art forms in cryptic poetry or completely abstract painting still depend on sense making, and therefore on the evocation of some feelings and experiences within the audience or the onlookers. The effectiveness of poetry depends on evoking resonances that are uncountable, and connation of words and images is also without boundaries. This does not mean any contradiction between socialized and individualized practices and reception of poetry/art. Poetry can serve an anti-ideological purpose through these evocations which connect us to the image or the poem and all that it draws from within ourselves and the world that we inhabit. The anti-ideological role that poetry plays is evident in the fact that it is poetry, meaning that it is not a private, non-intelligible utterance. Reliant upon this dialogic imagination, which is practically experienced without words by both the creator and those who enjoy the creation, poetry is born in a social habitat, and good critics point out the connections and resonances between individual experiences of art as content and the established genres of form which have accumulated historically. The death of ideology is caused by our practical consciousness itself lying at the foundation of language of any kind.

“It is a matter of not just writing proclamative poetry which urges us on to take up activities of resistance, but also understanding the very nature of any experience which cannot be possible outside of our social existence.”

However distancing and distorted our existence may be in a world of commodity fetishism, in the end there is nothing ‘alien’ about anything that is social. It is a matter of not just writing proclamative poetry which urges us on to take up activities of resistance, but also understanding the very nature of any experience which cannot be possible outside of our social existence. Just as in other forms of critical awareness and struggle, we have to trace our way back to the very social relations that produce alienation. So in reading literature and looking at art, etc., we must perform the same act of unraveling. This unraveling is not only at the level of consciousness, and we must notice the direct experiential element that lies at the bottom of our mind – our feelings and perceptions – which ultimately makes it possible to dis-alienate ourselves. At all cost we must avoid thinking about social life and culture as two separate realities, or culture as a mere reflection of what is really real, namely our socio-economic existence. This division apparent in certain kinds of Marxist art and cultural theories, that conceives the social whole as being qualitatively differentiated and ranks them
in terms of their reality content, is itself an ideological/alienating way of thinking. The perception of a separation between art and life must be rejected.

MG: You argue against the Eurocentric assertion that enlightenment values such as reason, secularism, etc. were Western, but instead call for a move beyond the essentialized binary of West and rest in order to also historically inquire the development of enlightenment ideas in both modern and medieval Eastern cultures. You have simultaneously devoted your scholarly life to Marx and Tagore. In “Marx’s and Tagore’s Ideas on Human Capacities and Alienation,[7] you have argued that bringing together the philosophic, social and political thought of these two can assist us in examining and renewing our understanding of socialism, a much needed scholarship in the current crisis of socialism. In what sense, other than the particularities of Indian society, the ideal radicalism of Tagore – a man believing in a highly sophisticated Hindu spirituality – can contribute to the historical material understanding of the social?

HB: Your question has several parts to it. To answer your assertion that I conflate European enlightenment with simple Eurocentrism and use the
discourse of the West and the East or West and the rest, I consider that type of discourse to be a-sociological and a-historical. The notion of reason and its various applications, in my opinion, is not only to be found in Europe, but in India, China, the Middle East, in the Perso-Arabic and Moorish traditions. The notion of enlightenment is not applied to them, nor do we find secular social/materialist standpoint or universal abstraction in them. In this way philosophy/metaphysics become the property of Europe – ‘the west’ – while non-European spaces are essentially invested with notions such as religion and tradition. It is this that I find problematic and a derivative of Eurocentrism/colonial discourse. So what is enlightenment? The intellectual constellation that we call ‘enlightenment’ comprises worldviews and conceptions that arose in parts of Western Europe with the rise of capitalism within the Hellenist/humanist background of the Renaissance. Its authors were anti-feudal and pro-bourgeois development, and enlightenment was the notion that they offered in contrast to the ‘dark ages’ of centuries of medieval Europe. This ‘enlightenment’ then was turned into a hegemonic justification in the historical context of capitalist colonialism and transformed into a legitimation device for the purpose of expansion of capitalism in all its brutalities. This is the ‘white man’s burden’ that Rudyard Kipling talks about in his poetry and his novels, such as Kim. Rationalist thought is therefore not a monopoly of bourgeois appropriation of the discourse of universalism and secular social thought. This is what I had in mind when I critiqued the colonial and bourgeois aspect of European critical thought. Scientific developments and rudimentary forms of demands from below existed both in Europe and in other countries of the world, as depicted in the
history of uprisings by the peasants, farmers and landholders exemplified in the Magna Carta. Enlightenment in relation to its contribution to democracy appropriated the social thought produced by rebellions of lower social classes, evidenced again in the Thirty Years War in Europe. The rise and fall depicted in the history of empires are as dependent on the Spartacus‘s of this world as on the elite philosophical abstract thinking found in stages and spaces prior to the European enlightenment. The problem for me, then, is the occidentalism imputed to my views. Neither ‘orientalism’ nor ‘occidentalism’ serve the interest of the critique of ideology. They need to be deconstructed through the method of historical materialism.

In reply to statements and questions regarding my studies in Marx and Tagore, I have the following to say. To begin with, I make no artificial effort to bring these two authors together, in the sense of conflating one with the other. What interests me in both is their critique of dehumanization brought about by capitalism’s greed and colonization as much as techno-mechanical rationality/mentality, which the critical theorists have called ‘instrumental reason’. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment[8] or Herbert Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution,[9] or Bertel Ollman’s work on alienation,[10] or even István Mészáros book Marx’s Theory of Alienation,[11] all point out the creative, imaginative, wholly social dimension of labour and production that can be read into Marx’s critique of alienation in the Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

Marx’s concept of labour, written large, emphasizes the transformative relations that human capacities bring to people, nature and sense of beauty. In the section on consumption and production in the Grundrisse Marx talks about the beauty and refinement that highly evolved human capacities in social, technical, aesthetic and formal modifications can achieve over a period of time. Crude needs are succeeded by the need for beauty, as for example he offers in the same section, in the contrast between eating raw meat, bloody and torn to pieces, and a beautifully laid out dinner table in an elite European household of his time, laid out with well-cooked and well-garnished meat with silver forks and knives. The ideas of creativity or imagination are perfectly coherent with the act of production and modes of consumption enjoyed by a society at any given stage. In this sense Tagore would stand to Marx in the relation of Schiller and Goethe to Marx, both authors whom Marx admired.

Whereas Tagore is not a systematic thinker who at all points knows how to connect capitalism with forms of consciousness, yet as his novels, such as Gora
or Home and the World, and his innumerable poems, essays and letters show, he was a social critic of considerable depth engaged with the question of decolonization as social transformation. The reputation of Tagore as a ‘spiritual’ writer is an invention of his readers, particularly in the European world, where he is racialized through the concept of ‘the oriental’, a man of the East. Whereas a larger dimension of human capacity to feel wholeness and the principle of joy in being in the world cannot be measured in positivist terms, it can nonetheless be rooted in the profound relationships between the self and others, between self and nature, and in the relationship between the different parts of one’s own self. A recognition of this fact and of lives of people lived under relations of private property of people’s labour and its products enjoyed by the few, are what Marx talks about in his critique of alienation. When Marx compares the worst human architect with the best of bees in designing their hive and finds the former superior, it is to this creative, reflective aspect of the human mind that he signals. There is no danger of contamination from Tagore’s creativity, social critique and love for the other to those engaged in the task of furthering the development of historical materialism. Marx’s own love for literature, ranging from Aeschylus and other Greek dramatists to the Romantic poets of his own time, and his own attempts of writing poetry, fueled his socialism. So I think we are safe.

MG: Gandhi is increasingly discussed in media and by numerous authors as an anti-violence political leader. In such de-grounded articulations of Gandhi, the notion of class struggle in the Indian independence movement is eliminated in favor of emphasizing on its anti-violence characteristics. What are your thoughts on such articulations of the history of Indian anti-colonial movement?

HB: The Indian freedom struggle contained different political tendencies. There were some attempts at armed struggle with no particular discernible class consciousness. Colonialism and poverty, forced underdevelopment and hegemonic influences of the English colonial power were evident for all to see. But the country was too large and broken into different provinces, linguistic groups, and regional economic practices to have provided a strong unifying base for sustained armed struggles that could challenge the organized army of the British authorities. The Communist Party of India, which was established in 1924 and remained at a rudimentary stage, yet suffering repression by the British-Indian state, manifested itself in great trade union struggles in the textile and jute factories. Its presence was dispersed in the main industrial centres, in the port areas and relatively small industrial enterprises. Whereas some anti-colonial groups were influenced by communist principles or class struggle, they were unable to exert a very large influence and create the necessary huge mass base needed for freeing India from colonial capitalism. The dominant particular party that emerged from the late 19th century was the Indian National Congress (INC). The influence of the INC in the early 20th century, until the arrival of M.K. Gandhi, was largely middle class and urban. A strand of economic nationalism, also developed in the late 19th century, did not expand and take deep roots.

Gandhi’s arrival in 1915 from South Africa was a major turning point for the beginning of the development of a mass base in small towns and rural areas. It was not the charisma of Gandhi alone, but actually the theoretical principles of his political organization that helped the Congress to develop a hugely powerful organization which accommodated all the different classes. This class cohesion created against the British was both a gift and a problem for development of class struggle. The INC accommodated varieties of nationalism in a complex set of political ideologies which at once had place for economic nationalism (supporting a growing national bourgeoisie), landlords, peasants and the middle class. Significantly, the interests of the working class, the notion of proletarian leadership, was completely absent from the Congress platform. The tactics of the INC included mass boycotts of British goods, rejecting the colonial education system, civil disobedience performed by hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and principled courting of arrest which overflowed the British jails. With a great constitutional knowledge, a strategy of supporting the nascent Indian bourgeoisie, promoting an alternative form of textile production through mass use of spinning wheels, creation of cooperatives in the agricultural sector, and a general refusal to comply with British administrative needs and demands, the INC became the largest mass based political movement of the world at that time. Its social and moral character held a strong hegemonic sway and equally appealed to tradition and modernity. In terms of tradition it created a paradoxical situation in rejecting caste divides and communal hatred between Hindus and Muslims. Yet its very validation of religion as a viable part of political subjectivity left the door open for a Hindu cultural nationalism to become one of the strands of the Congress. Equally important was its aspiration to a liberal democratic state which would separate the church and the state, create a citizenship on the ground of individual personhood and embrace secularism not on the ground of rejecting religion but of the constitutional right of coexistence among all the religions.

Gandhi guided the INC through all these tactics with the strategic goal of winning Indian independence. The moral appeal of his doctrine of non-violence was strong, as it relied on notions of compassion and sympathy. However, simultaneously with non-violence, such massive situations of boycott, the great scope of the Quit India movement, road and railway line blocks by masses of people, were hardly free from violent practices of the colonial state and powerful responses from Indians themselves. Two books, Modern India by Sumit Sarkar[12] and The Ascendency of the Congress in U.P. by Gyan Pandey,[13] among others, give a good idea of the complex development of the time and the different voices in which Gandhi and the INC spoke to different sections of the Indian population. The moral tenets of Gandhi, compelling as they are, were only an element of the huge organizational capacity for the creation of a mass base across the country. It is not surprising that the practices of civil disobedience, including currently those of the Palestinian movement for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), straddle both non-military operations on the one hand, and on the other may hit a point where armed struggle would become a necessity. A proper understanding of Gandhi’s moral and political philosophy must be supported by a knowledge of the actual workings of the Indian National Congress in undivided India. Congress’s competence in creating innumerable cell organizations became the vector for Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, coded in the notion of satyagraha, which means “a quest for the truth.”

One important idea that Gandhian Indian National Congress held up for all to see can also be found in the works of Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci’s insistence on the necessity of vitalizing the civil society and creating a historic bloc of protest through the creation of ‘passive revolution’ signals to Gandhi’s idea of politicizing. What Gramsci calls the necessary work of the organizer, which is to sift through popular commonsense, or what we might call the political unconscious, is also to be found in Gandhi’s writings, though they came from different political positions, and Gandhi certainly was not aware of the work of Antonio Gramsci. The news of the Indian freedom struggle was so prominent in the European media that Gramsci might have been aware of Gandhi’s ideas. The interest in Gandhi is not new. He has been researched and used by political theorists of many parts of the world.

MG: Tagore is famous for his arguments against the pitfalls of nationalism. You too, in “Cultural Nationalism and Woman as the Subject of the Nation[14] support a non-nationalist feminist liberation, which is simultaneously anti-capitalist, anti-feudal as well as anti-imperialist. The same line of argument can be seen in your critique of subaltern studies in “Pygmalion nation.”[15] Can you elaborate on such a project of liberation? In what sense can Tagore assist us in developing our understanding of a non-nationalist anti-colonial/imperial struggle?

“Social relations and ideologies of patriarchy, caste and racialization must be seen as integral to class relations and state formation.”

HB: Taking your cue from Frantz Fanon’s statement regarding “the pitfalls of nationalism” (The Wretched of the Earth),[16] you seem to be asking me to suggest how Tagore may be useful for putting forward a project of not only a non-nationalist but an anti-nationalist form of decolonization. Before I proceed to directly comment upon Tagore, I would like to pause on the topic of the relationship between social movements and class struggle. In responding to the previous question I indicated Gandhi’s idea of using popular political consciousness and integrating it with an
anti-colonial struggle, and Gramsci’s idea of war of position to be moved to the notion of war of manoeuvre led by a communist party (“The Modern Prince”), quite different from that of Gandhi. We need to move on to a way of bringing class struggle and social movements together. This is a proposal which is more in keeping with Gramsci’s political direction than with Gandhi’s. Within Gramsci’s theoretical framework speculated upon during his prison years we can find a far more complex and nuanced version of communism/socialism which would create the kind of national liberation whose emergence I would like to see. Such a communism would match social and economic transformation with a polity and a state based on a participatory as opposed to a bourgeois democracy. This would allow us to move away from a reactive type of politics which simply reverses the terms of power, and changes the ruling classes from foreign to native. A real decolonization needs a concrete notion of the social, which cannot be taken up piecemeal and only changed partially. Thus social relations and ideologies of patriarchy, caste and racialization must be seen as integral to class relations and state formation. Lenin, for example, raised questions regarding such a necessity in State and Revolution when he prompted us to ask whether a wholly new state formation is necessary for creating a communist society, polity and economy. This question has not yet been answered, especially in practice, anywhere yet. Brief glimpses of a truly popular participatory democracy have been sighted in the interstices of political formation, such as very briefly in the organization of the Paris Commune, in the earliest phases of the Bolshevik and Cuban Revolutions, for a brief period in liberated Nicaragua and the abruptly truncated socialist programme of Hugo Chaves’s Bolivarianism. One might see in these moments the
possibilities and concrete practices of what we could call truly communism – they are all elaborated upon a deep faith in and an actual exposition of human capacities.

It is here that Tagore’s contribution should be appreciated, both in revealing deformations and dangers of societies saturated with violence, greed, military and capitalist industrial complexes, and in moving toward the notion of universal humanism which is socially and historically grounded. Here the idea of the ‘human’, a core of oneness, loses its trans-historical status and becomes a socially experienced, sensuous, practical human activity which Marx talked about. In asserting creativity, beauty and mutual human compassion Tagore offers us a worldview wholly compatible with a communist project.

MG: De-linking the questions of race, gender and ethnicity from the question of
capitalism, most contemporary social movements are detached from anti-capitalist movements and also from each other, not only in terms
of historical analysis, but also structure, political aspirations, and methods of resistance. How can an emancipatory theory emerge in
contemporary world, which results in the structural incorporation of these movements?

HB: This question is largely answered by what I have said so far. What I would stress is the need for a convergence of all social movements against oppression, with a clear view of forming a socio-political reality which preserves the ideal of participatory democracy. Though my ideas are widely shared, I have not seen a stable form of such a convergence, which would not erase the specificity of particular experiences of oppression and yet be able to create a politics in
which the political and the social would be seen as interconstituting each other.

MG: Would you elaborate on your contribution on a critique of intersectionality? In your view, how do class, race and gender constitute each other under the condition of capitalist imperialism?

HB: I can see the convenience of using the concept of intersectionality in talking about social oppressions, such as gender, race and class. As
this formulation brings together three themes which have been generally left as discrete social issues. It allows us to introduce the two other issues while talking about each one of them. But as I will show later there is a problem in the very concept of intersectionality while describing or analyzing social phenomena or experiences. Before I move on to pointing out the difficulties, I would like to give a brief context to the rise of the concept of intersectionality.

Until the 1980s or so, the notion of intersectionality was more or less limited to the field of mathematics such as intersection of two lines, overlapping intersections by two spheres or in description of topography such as a place where two or more roads cut across each other. But in the 80s an attempt on the part of Afro-American women in particular to be critical of what passed as feminist thought led to the application of “intersectionality” for describing multiple oppressions or the convergence of multiple oppressions. This is in particular strong response to the fact that black or African women suffered not only from patriarchy but also racism. In this account the patriarchal experiences of black women could not be isolatedly feminist or isolatedly racist. Two particular Afro-American feminist theorists Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins both in the very last years of the 1980s coined and circulated this notion. It became the most prized conceptual devise in the feminist theory signaling to single subjects under multiple dominations. In the area of theory as much as in every day life contestations in feminist theory between what is called white and feminist theorizations of black women and women of colour found the notion of intersectionality indispensable.[17]

However, while I do not have any particular or any principle rejection of this term as I understand its intention of capturing different aspects of domination within a single subjective identity, I still find this term somewhat misleading. It is not misleading in that it asserts the complexities of domination that we experience in a racialized society, but it still speaks to categories or discourses about something rather than the social relation that are coded under the terms or categories such as gender, race or class. The intersectionality approach does not address the social relations which are foundationally present in any mode of production, it rather begins with the codes and applies them to the social relations that are their points of origin.

The intersectional approach in my view is still an aggregative one because it assumes or does not speak to any social ground which each category seems to represent. Thus three discursive systems named as gender, race and class arise it seems on three separate grounds and then are brought together to signify the simultaneity of their presence. In other words, they take an approach that is issue based while at the same time struggling to give them a systemic appearance. While intersectionality signals expansion and inclusion and introduces in liberal feminism of the previous era a plurality, it still functions within a liberal plural scheme in which instead of running parallel, gender, race and class systems cut across each other. The liberal paradigm within which Crenshaw and others seek to address the oppression of women on a ground of negative differences do not still tell us why and how the social relations and forms of consciousness that arise happen at all. Adding to the notion of intersectionality another one of co-constitution does not help matters. An intersectionality approach leads us to better laws, removing injustice in terms of the liberal democracy but not to a socialist revolution which challenges the very organization of racialized and patriarchal capital and class.

What then is my suggestion? The point of departure of my critique? Simply speaking I think that any social explanation must begin from the actualities of social organizations, social relations and their attendant forms of consciousness. We must therefore speak to an entire complex of social whole, which are constituted in and through a diversity and contradictions of social relations, and their verbal articulations. The idea of the social provides us with an existential productive and reproductive base, forms of acquisition and production of surplus, their justifications and conceptual transmissions, the division of labour in various types all must be prior to the categories through which we name them. As the social relations constitute each other, so do their forms of thought, their moral regulations and hierarchy. This way of thinking about society gives us a concreteness which cannot be found in aggregating different categories and using aspects of reality as their illustrations. Therefore, it is my belief that one must begin from actual social relations and their lived concrete experiences and conceptions to arrive at some understanding of what is actually happening. The methodological approach described above is that of historical materialism. In such an approach, reality is always created and mediated through practical consciousness represented in various articulations and intellectual systems. It is not a matter of discursivity alone. To adopt such a discursive position would be what Marx calls ideological, that is when categories produced in the context of separation of mental and manual labour serve to conceal rather than reveal social processes and the differentiated topography inhabited by people who are producing the surplus and those who have the right to their accumulation and actual possession. Any Marxist feminist treatment of race, gender and class therefore must take into account the historical social relations within which the dominant and the dominated inhabit. •


Bannerji, H. (2015). “Ideology,” in S. Mojab (Ed.), Marxism and feminism, (pp. 163-180). London: Zed Books.

Smith, D. E. (2011). “Ideology, science, and social relations: A reinterpretation of Marx’s epistemology,” in S. Carpenter & S. Mojab (Eds.), Educating from Marx: Race, Gender, and Learning (pp.19-40). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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Bannerji, H. (2011). Pygmalion nation: Towards a critique of subaltern studies and the ‘Resolution of the women’s question’. In H. Bannerji, S. Mojab & J. Whitehead (Eds.), Of property and propriety: The role of gender and class in imperialism and nationalism (pp. 34-85). Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

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Interviewer note: To read more on intersectionality see: Aguilar, D. D. (2015) “Intersectionality,” in S. Mojab (Ed.), Marxism and Feminism (pp. 203-221) London: Zed Books.

Mahdi Ganjavi is a Ph.D. student at the department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education, OISE/University of Toronto. A prolific essayist and author in Farsi, Ganjavi is one of the leading members of the online publication movement in Iran. His criticisms, translations, a book review, and essays have been published in journals/websites such as the International Journal of Lifelong Education, BBC Persian, Radio-Zamaneh, and will soon be published in Encyclopedia Irannica.

Himani Bannerji is a Bengali-Canadian writer, sociologist, and philosopher from Kolkata, West Bengal, India. She recently retired from teaching at York University, Toronto. Her works include Dark Side of the Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Racism (2000), and Demography and Democracy: Essays on Nationalism, Gender and Ideology (2011).