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Home > Announcements > India: The life of a great marxist: Aijaz Ahmad (1941-2022)

India: The life of a great marxist: Aijaz Ahmad (1941-2022)

Monday 14 March 2022, by siawi3


The life of a great marxist: Aijaz Ahmad (1941-2022)

Aijaz Ahmad (1941-2022) died at home on March 9, surrounded by his books and papers, and by the warmth of his children and his friends.

March 10, 2022

by Vijay Prashad

Born in Muzaffarnagar, in British India, Aijaz read extensively from an early age and allowed his mind to drift out of the qasba of his childhood. His father shared some radical books with him, which helped him to understand the world outside the doab region of the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the world beyond the confines of the capitalist system. From an early age, Aijaz Ahmad began to dream of internationalism and socialism. He studied in Lahore, Pakistan, where his family had migrated after the Partition in 1947-48, but these studies took place as much in the college classrooms as they did in the cafés and in the cells of political organizations. In the cafés, Aijaz met the finest minds of Urdu literature, who schooled him in both lyric and politics; in the cells of the political parties, he encountered the depth of Marxism, a boundless view of the world that gripped him for the rest of his life. Fully immersed in the left political unrest in Pakistan, Aijaz came to the attention of the authorities, which is why he skipped the country for New York City (United States).

The two passions of Aijaz Ahmad – poetry and politics – flowered in New York. He took his immense love for Urdu poetry to the most renowned poets of his time (such as Adrienne Rich, William Stafford and W.S. Merwin), reciting Ghalib to them, feeding them wine, watching them recover from Ghalib’s language and Aijaz’s explanation, the meaning of the poems. This innovative work resulted in Aijaz’s first book, Ghazals of Ghalib (1971). At the same time, Aijaz got involved with Feroz Ahmed to produce Pakistan Forum, a hard-hitting journal that documented the atrocities in South Asia, with a special focus on the military dictatorship of Yahya Khan (1969-1971) as well as on the civilian possibilities of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1971-1977); on Pakistan, Aijaz mainly wrote about the insurgencies in East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in 1972) and in Balochistan. It was in this period that Aijaz began to write about South Asian politics for such socialist journals as Monthly Review, with whom he had a close collaboration for the next several decades.

In the 1980s, Aijaz Ahmad returned to India, taking up residence in Delhi and teaching at various colleges in the city (including at Jawaharlal Nehru University). In this period, Aijaz settled into a rhythm of critique that produced substantial work on three different areas of inquiry: on postmodern and postcolonialism, on Hindutva and liberalization, and on the new world order centered around the United States and US-driven globalization.

Based on his great appreciation for culture and literature, Aijaz developed a powerful analysis of the casual way in which the cultures of the Third World were being assessed by metropolitan universities. This work widened outwards to a strong negative assessment of postmodernism and postcolonialism, including with close readings of the work of the leading Marxist literary critic Fred Jameson and the main critic of Orientalism, Edward Said. At the heart of Aijaz’s reading of postmodernism and postcolonialism was their disavowal of Marxism. ‘Post-Marxism’, he told me, ‘is nothing other than pre-Marxism, a return to the idealism that Marx went beyond’. For this comment, Aijaz had in mind the highly influential book by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 1985, that read the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci as a postmodern thinker. It is in this context that Aijaz began his close reading of Gramsci’s work. These writings were published in Aijaz’s classic book, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (Verso and Tulika, 1992). It is difficult to say in a few sentences the impact this book had on scholars across the world. When Marxism was under attack, Aijaz was one of the few thinkers who produced a sophisticated account not of its relevance, but of its necessity. ‘Postcoloniality is also, like most things, a matter of class’, he wrote with the kind of sharpness that defined his prose. In Theory, was a book that taught an entire generation about how to think about and write theory. It was from this book, and in essays published by Monthly Review, that Aijaz mounted an important defense of the Marxist tradition. ‘Marx is boundless’, Samir Amin wrote, a line that Aijaz discussed with me when we produced a book of Samir’s later writings with a foreword from Aijaz. That boundless is the case because the critique of capitalism is also incomplete until capitalism is overcome. To reject Marx, therefore, is to reject the most powerful set of tools that have been produced to explore the capitalist system and its grip on humanity

‘Every country gets the fascism it deserves’, is a sentence that can be found in Aijaz’s writings from this period, when his reading of Gramsci helped him to illuminate the rise of Hindutva in the period just before and after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. An entire generation in India, bewildered by the rapid acceleration of the twin phenomena of liberalization and by the growth of Hindutva, took refuge in Aijaz’s clear prose that identified the character of the rise of the Indian hard right. These writings, many of them collected in Lineages of the Present: Political Essays (Tulika, 1996), described in precise theoretical and historical language the growth of the hard right. These considerations would never leave Aijaz. In the last decade of his life, he read with great carefulness the oeuvre of the hard right. These readings became the Wellek Lectures, which he delivered at the University of California (Irvine) in 2017, and which will be collected and published by LeftWord Books. One of Aijaz’s contributions in these writings has been the way he insisted upon the hardness inside our culture – rooted in the wretchedness of the caste system and in the hierarchy of patriarchy. That’s what he meant by that aphorism about every country getting the fascism it deserves. To understand the roots of Hindutva, one had to grasp the taproot of hard culture, understand the way in which the privatization agenda brutalized labor even more, and created the conditions for the rise of the political Hindu right. These writings, many of them delivered as lectures across India during a time of great political bewilderment, remain classics, necessary to read and re-read as we continue to face an assault on human dignity from these fascistic forces. Aijaz gave us confidence when the eclipse of hope seemed almost complete.

Those were rough years. India liberalized in 1991. The United States opened up a cruel assault on Iraq in that same year. The next year, 1992, the forces of the hard right destroyed a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya. Two years later, in 1994, the World Trade Organization was established. The resources of socialism were much depleted. During this decade, Aijaz’s writings and speeches – often published in small magazines and in party publications – were widely circulated. Those of us in Delhi had the good fortune to listen to him regularly, not only in these public venues, but at such places as Kutty’s tea house at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library – where he was a Senior Fellow – and in the many Students’ Federation of India events that he attended as a speaker.

In 1997, when Arundhati Roy published her novel The God of Small Things, Aijaz read it with great care and enthusiasm. I was at a meeting with N. Ram and Aijaz around that time, when they spoke of the book, and Ram asked Aijaz to write about it for Frontline. That essay – Reading Arundhati Roy Politically – is a gem of literary criticism and one that was, oddly, not anthologized in either Aijaz’s collections or in books on Arundhati’s work. That essay began a long relationship with Frontline that went till the very end. Aijaz would write long articles to orient the readers to the conjunctural events in the world, in particular the devastating turn of events after 9/11, the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, the wars in Syria and Libya, but then also the growth of the left in Latin America led by a man that we all admired, Hugo Chávez. These essays, once more circulated widely, became the basis for Aijaz’s book, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Imperialism of Our Time (LeftWord, 2004).

In the mid-1990s, after the fall of the USSR, it became evident that Marxism was suffering in the battle of ideas, as neo-liberalism entered not only the vocabulary of popular culture (with individualism and greed at the center) but as neo-liberalism through postmodernism entered the intellectual world. The lack of a serious left publishing project dismayed us all. It was in this period – in 1999 – that LeftWord Books was set up in Delhi. Aijaz was one of the first authors for the publishing house – writing a sizzling essay on the Communist Manifesto in the book edited by Prakash Karat, A World to Win. Aijaz was on the editorial board of LeftWord Books and encouraged us right through the past decades with the direction of our work. Towards the end of his life, Sudhanva Deshpande, Mala Hashmi, and I spent some days with Aijaz to hold a long interview about his life and his work. This interview was eventually published as Nothing Human is Alien to Me (LeftWord, 2020). During his last two years, Aijaz planned to do a series of introductions to Marx’s political writings. ‘Marx is thought of too narrowly for his economic work, which is important’, he would say, ‘but his political writings are key to understanding his revolutionary vision’. We did a series of interviews about some of these texts (Communist Manifesto, the first section of the German Ideology, The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune); we will convert these texts into the introductions he imagined as well as collect a book of his writings on Marx.

In 2009, Prabir Purkayastha and others started Newsclick, a web-based news portal to discuss the important issues of our times. Aijaz was one of the early guests and continued to be a regular voice on the Newsclick channel. He would explain with precise detail the wars in West Asia and North Africa as well as the political developments in the United States and China, South America and Europe. These conversations are an archive of those times. They also bring out Aijaz’s wit, his smile to alert one to a sharp comment. Between those Frontline columns and the Newsclick interviews, a generation of people learned not only about this or that event but also how to think of the world as a structured whole, how to understand events in relation to the great processes of our time. Each of these interventions was like a seminar, a gathering to learn how to think as much as to learn about what was happening.

Aijaz taught at universities in India, Canada, and the United States, as well as lectured from the Philippines to Mexico. Towards the end of his life, he became a Senior Fellow at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, where he advised a new generation of intellectuals on the boundlessness of Marxism. He was eager to spend some time on popular education, on building up the confidence of new intellectuals in our long-term battle of ideas.

When a person such as Aijaz leaves us, his voice remains in our ears. It will be with us for a long time yet.



Mainstream, VOL LX No 12, New Delhi, March 12, 2022

Tribute to Professor Aijaz Ahmad

Prabhat Patnaik

Friday 11 March 2022

Professor Aijaz Ahmad who passed away on March 9, 2022, was a truly outstanding Marxist thinker of our time. He was what can only be described as a classical Marxist who strongly resisted efforts to import what he considered to be alien and incompatible concepts into Marxism, in the name of making it more realistic, thereby creating eclectic admixtures. His celebrated work In Theory: Classes, Nations and Literatures contained a critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism that sought above all to establish the primacy of the classical Marxist tradition. As a true Marxist intellectual, his scholarship encompassed several disciplines: literature, literary criticism, history, philosophy, politics and political economy; and in his political commentaries, he brought to bear on every particular quotidian incident, his understanding of the totality of our times.

Aijaz was born into a prosperous landed family of Uttar Pradesh in 1941 that migrated to Pakistan at the time of partition. In later life he had the occasion to visit his ancestral village only once and was overwhelmed by the warmth that the common people showed towards him. They had never before set eyes on him, and yet they took him as one of their own. He taught for years at various universities in the United States and Canada, including at York University, Toronto, that has for long been a centre of creative heterodox thinking, before returning to India which became his home for more than two decades. He became a Professorial Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a Visiting Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and held the Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan Chair at Jamia Milia Islamia. He became a regular contributor to the fortnightly Frontline and to journals on the Left like Social Scientist and The Marxist. He was also associated with the publishing venture Leftword Books from its very inception. In fact many of his later books were published by Leftword.

Aijaz’s presence in India was a source of extraordinary stimulus for the intellectual and political life on the Left in this country. He gave numerous public lectures, never said no to invitations from Left student groups and Left literary circles, and never shied away from taking strong positions on political issues of the day, no matter how controversial within the Left these positions might have been. He brought to all such issues the rigour of his intellect. One had to reckon with this rigour if one happened to be on the opposite side in such debates, and of course one always learned from him even when disagreeing with him.

His wisdom, his sense of humour, his joie de vivre, his easy sociability, and his wonderful gift of being a good raconteur, endeared him to all who came across him. And he had the typical Awadhi trait of fondness for good food and good music. He also loved old Hindustani films of which he had dozens of video cassettes.

India was where Aijaz felt completely at home; he was more Indian than most Indians of a comparable social background that I have come across. After all, he had decided to return to India despite having been all over the advanced capitalist world and after holding the most prestigious academic positions. And yet, ironically, the fact that he was for a while a citizen of Pakistan always came in the way of his formally making this country his permanent home. This peculiar position, of not being able to settle down in a country that one considers one’s home, was a perennial source of tension for him. It ultimately made him accept the offer of the Chair in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, that had been held at one time by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. But his leaving India where he had legions of friends and comrades, and that too at a time of life when one wishes no longer to be peripatetic, was a source great pain and anguish for him.

I cannot resist narrating a remark of Maulana Azad about which Aijaz had told me when the issue of partition had come up. When some Muslim League persons of pre-partition days had asked Maulana Azad to give his assent to the idea of partition and ended their plea by warning that if partition did not occur then there would be continuous strife for the next one hundred days, Maulana Azad had replied that if partition did occur then there would be continuous strife for the next one hundred years. We are alas still in the midst of those one hundred years and to lose a sagacious and revolutionary intellectual like Aijaz at this time constitutes an irreparable loss. For his friends, among whom I am fortunate to count myself, it is a deep personal loss.