Peasants, Politics and Historiography: A Response
THIS is in response to the discussion initiated by Javeed Alam (Social Scientist, No 117, February 1983) following upon Suneet Chopra's review of Subaltern Studies I (Social Scientist, No 111, August 1982). Javeed's discussion raises important questions of substance as well as method. He also comments on several individual articles in the volume. I cannot respond on behalf of all those who have contributed to Subaltern Studies I or of those who will contribute to future volumes in the series. Contrary to what Javeed thinks, there is little by way of a "shared presupposition" among these contributors, except a certain dissatisfaction with the current Ifistoriographical orthodoxies. In the attempt to resolve these difficulties, different approaches are possibly based upon different presuppositions. Several of these are reflected in the contributions to Subaltern Studies. What follows, therefore, is entirely my own response to some of the questions raised by Javeed.
Let me take up first the question of the autonomy of the political domain of the subaltern classes. It seems to me that Javeed's criticism of this concept is based on a considerable misunderstanding. To start with, he suggests that it "is almost axiomatic, a kind of meta-theoretical position". Presumably, this is an accusation, a magisterial finger pointed at a particularly heinous methodological crime. But he then proceeds to criticise the concept in terms of its "empirical location", as a "generalisation" or "inference" from historical facts. He cites several of the articles in Subaltern Studies I to point out that in some "autonomy" is merely "territoriality", in others it is "religion-based community", in others still it expresses itself as "united anti-feudal actions that overcome the initial limitations". This leads him to another accusation: the concept of "autonomy", he says, makes it "a matter of indifference" whether it expresses itself in one or the other form. It does not enable us to make a judgment as to whether it "weakens or strengthens the existing basis of people's unity and the further prospects of the growth of mass and class organisations",
In the first place, Javeed seems to regard "autonomy" as something that precludes domination. Repeatedly he asserts that the