Aijaz Ahmed: a Marxist for our time


Professor Aijaz Ahmad, who died last week in Irvine, California, was one of the greatest Marxist intellectuals of our time. His importance as a Marxist theorist grew in importance in the period following the decline of socialism in the late 1980s, which led to the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991.

His scholarship and talents were varied. He started his work as an Urdu writer and literary critic. He has taught literary studies and cultural criticism at various Western universities. He has studied and written on philosophy, political economy and world affairs.

Aijaz Marxism grew out of the tradition of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist national liberation movements. This was enriched and synthesized with Marxist thought emanating from the metropolitan centers of the world in the sixties and seventies. Thus, Aijaz was in a unique position to champion and nurture Marxist theory when many Western intellectuals abandoned Marxism in the post-Soviet era. He picked up the series of post-Marxist, post-modern, and post-colonial theories that permeated academia in the West and quickly became influential in society.

His book In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures was first published in 1992. This work became a classic because it provided an effective and devastating critique of the philosophical and ideological positions of various “post” ideologies from the point of view Marxist. The introduction to the book is a tour de force that provides the overall historical context of the current conjuncture and the contradictions still unfolding in the world. It is a book that has equipped students on the left and the younger generation of the intelligentsia to confront post-modernism and other similar so-called radical narratives.

In the mid-1980s, Aijaz came to India, his native land, and lived there for three decades. He was a long time member of the Nehru Memorial Museum in Delhi. It was during this time that he wrote In Theory and began to reflect and write on the country’s political and social developments. Internationally, the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War had resulted in the hegemonic influence of the United States in all spheres, including culture and ideology.

In India, the dual process of liberalization leading to neoliberal policies and the rise of Hindutva forces had begun. Aijaz was deeply committed to the study and analysis of these characteristics. His essays and lectures on the rise of Hindutva, placing it in the context of the rise of the far right around the world and his brilliant ongoing analysis of the nature of the RSS project to recast the Indian state through a long march to through its institutions, have contributed to a better understanding of the Indian left about these forces and what they portend.

Globally, Aijaz is committed to examining imperialism in the post-Cold War era. The Iraq War and other wars of aggression by US and NATO forces have been analyzed to show how they were part of the imperialist project for global hegemony. Again, he effectively challenged the views of many Western Marxist scholars who held that imperialism was no longer a relevant category in the globalized capitalist world.
Aijaz was not a parlor academic. It has always been linked to movements against imperialism, national oppression and racism. During his years in India, he spent a lot of time lecturing to students and activist groups to help them understand revolutionary theory.

For Aijaz, Marxist theory has never been static. It always had to be linked to praxis. As for his own method, he says: “Whether it is the complete text of Marx or the very complex projects of Hindutva, there is no final understanding beyond which one must go. You always have to come back to take another look, to think anew and to come to a deeper understanding.

Aijaz had a warm and endearing personality. He had the sensibility of a poet with a razor-sharp intellect. He was always eager to forge new friendships and learn new things about India’s varied culture. I was lucky to have him as a friend for over two decades. The regular conversations we had were intellectually stimulating and it opened doors for me to new books and ideas.

His final years were poignant due to his unfulfilled desire to live and die in his homeland. After living in precarious visa after visa, when it became clear that he would never obtain Indian citizenship due to his time in Pakistan as a young man, he left to take up the chair of comparative literature at the University of California at Irvine. Despite the prestigious chair he held, he longed to be back in India. The last eight years of his life were, according to him, a life of “exile”.

For his many friends and comrades in India, his works and his contributions to the intellectual resources of the leftist movement will remain a lasting legacy.

The writer is former Secretary General, CPM


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