With dialectics, the mob comes to the top.

—Friedrich Nietzschefootnote1

Frantz Fanon, or at least his American translators, famously wrote of a dying colonialism.footnote If today we hear of a dying postcolonialism, it is because no amount of parsing can rid the term of its many ironies. Alongside the ‘post’ of a supposed aftermath lies the metallic reality of a penetrating, if at times indirect, imperialism—still deepening in Puerto Rico and Palestine, and recently expanding into significant new territory in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ukraine, replete with their pro-Western juntas and complicit local satrapies. Colonialism, it seems, is not altogether dead. The immiseration wrought by capital continues to express itself in broadly cultural, not only military or financial, ways, displaying all the hallmarks of that older system of resettlement and re-education. Quite apart from the Western dominance of global news, entertainment and trends in higher education, a massive diaspora of semi-permanent legions of Western tourists, expatriate fun-seekers, missionaries, mercenaries, academic theorists, real estate speculators, and diplomatic ensembles, all make the late-nineteenth-century era of the Berlin Treaty look comparatively underdeveloped.

The term ‘postcolonial’ is constitutively troubled, then, since it carries with it the strategic temporizing of its inception—the incongruity of its discursive tones and themes, in contrast with a rather blunter reality of imperial propaganda, foreign torture chambers and the stealing of others’ lands. Against this stark backdrop, the debates prompted by Vivek Chibber’s magisterial Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital seem a little narrow.footnote2 To lay bare the inner workings of the influential academic field known as ‘postcolonial theory’, as he sets out to do, would first require clarity about this catachresis at the core of its idea—some account of how the earlier traditions of anti-colonial thought suddenly, and violently, became postcolonial in a hostile takeover in the metropolitan academy of the mid-1980s.

Postcolonial studies emerged uncertainly, without even a settled name, primarily within academic departments of literature. In retrospect, certain signature events appear now to have helped call it into life: the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978, the conference on ‘Europe and its Others’ at Essex University in 1984, and the special issue on ‘Race, Writing, and Difference’ from Critical Inquiry (1985), the most prestigious American journal in the humanities. As the postcolonial began to coalesce around a number of related themes, its brief acquired consistency: to expand university curricula in order to include non-Western sources, to uncover and promote historical acts of native resistance, and to challenge the misrepresentations of imperial history, forging a new vocabulary to contest Eurocentrism. On all of these grounds, the initiative proved very successful and its effects—not only in scholarship but in mainstream publishing and the arts—have, over the years, been largely positive.

Although the creation of English departments, postcolonial inquiry was far from only literary. Already by the early 1970s, disciplinary revolutions prompted by the unsettlings of Franco-German ‘theory’ had yielded mixed kinds of writing in the literary field itself—works of philosophy, really, that combined the techniques of ethnography and history in a language speckled with Marxist and anarchist terms and attitudes. To most in the humanities at the time, postcolonial studies simply was cultural theory in one of its specialized institutional forms—that is, predominantly continental, and largely psychoanalytic, semiotic, and phenomenological. These particular strands of the philosophical past were now wedded, as though they possessed a genetic compatibility, to a critique of Eurocentrism. ‘Postcolonial theory’, then, was the name that came to be affixed to an unlikely marriage—an othering of Europe articulating itself in the concepts of a specialized group of European philosophers and their various late twentieth-century disciples in an ambiguous rejection of ‘Western Man’. The content of this theoretical amalgam in all of its variants—drawn primarily from Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger by way of postwar interpreters such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault—stitched together a number of plausible, but not obviously related, themes: scepticism towards the emancipatory potential of the Enlightenment, the idea of ‘otherness’ as an ontological fact (in the form of being or alterity), and the death of the historical subject as a willed or active self. With unfeigned militancy, theory set about codifying forms of resistance that explicitly precluded Marxist contributions to anti-colonial independence, not simply as the by-product of its search for fresh paradigms, but as a central and self-defining telos.

Postcolonial studies gained momentum in an environment marked by the end of the postwar economic boom (1972), the media rhetoric of what Fred Halliday at the time called the ‘Second Cold War’ (1983), and the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). Under these pressures, the thematic emphasis tended to shift away from wars of manoeuvre to the mutual complicity of colonizer and colonized, from class antagonisms to migrancy and ‘sly civility’, from a struggle over political sovereignty to a rejection of the so-called oppressiveness of modernity, on the one hand, and the ‘productivist’ bias of political economy, on the other. This volatile ensemble, militant in tone but resonating with more conventional attitudes in the general culture, swept victoriously through the humanities and into the arts, anthropology, history, geography, and political science. As the laboratories of theory, literature departments found themselves in the vanguard. No field was left untouched by their initiatives under the sign of ‘the subject’, ‘difference’, and the ‘interstices’. The irrepressible élan of the larger movement made proclamations of a ‘Copernican break’ seem reasonable. New journals came into being to give the new agenda a voice—Interventions, Postcolonial Studies, Transition, Public Culture—and older venerated journals were retooled to fit the new dispensation. A pantheon was born, whose principal figures are now widely known—Edward Said, whose Orientalism was supposed to be the field’s founding document, but with elaborations later provided—in a very different vein—by scholars like Gayatri Spivak, Peter Hulme, Abdul JanMohamed, Homi Bhabha, and many others.

Subaltern studies, by contrast, had a very different aetiology. It was developed by mostly Indian social historians rather than cultural critics, and before 1988 remained influential, but only relatively so, and within a small orbit. Launched in 1982 by Ranajit Guha in a three-volume series on colonial India—it would later grow to more than ten volumes—this was above all a rebellion against the elite historiography of the Indian freedom movement. By reading between the lines of official documents, or extrapolating from new archival discoveries, they sought to provide a portrait of the intelligence and improvisational skill of peasant insurgents. If their Marxism was somewhat unorthodox, they nevertheless drew their inspiration from Antonio Gramsci’s supple theories of hegemony, the state, ‘common sense’, and, of course, the ‘subaltern’ itself, one of his major coinages in the Prison Notebooks.footnote3 Guha’s teacher had been instrumental in bringing Gramsci to the attention of intellectuals in West Bengal, where his writings had been enthusiastically discussed since the 1950s—in the translations of the us edition of 1957. The movement also took some of its impetus from important precedents in the antinomian histories from below produced by veterans of the Communist Party Historians Group in Britain, especially perhaps Eric Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels, Rodney Hilton’s The English Rising of 1381 and Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.