By the time Aijaz Ahmad published his now classic, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (1992), he was 51 years old. He had already drifted through Lahore, Harlem, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Anatolia and the Palestinian camps in Jordan, before settling in New Delhi. In the book, Ahmad dissected the antinomies of the new theoretical turn in the Anglo-American academy – its schematic conceptions of the third world, its distancing of culture from political economy and activism, its reluctance to highlight its institutional sites, as well as the class locations and practices of its practitioners. I first encountered the book at the University of Delhi. An engineer at the time, I was mesmerized by its feverish blend of a theorist’s insight and a pamphleteer’s loose wit – equal parts revelatory (‘Determination … means the givenness of a circumstance within which individuals make their choices, their lives, their histories’) and rancorous (‘Ranajit Guha … a typical upper-layer bourgeois’). Enrolling in the English department, I soon discovered that this was precisely the kind of writing that is known to sink your academic career. Good thing Ahmad didn’t really have one when he wrote the book.

A year after In Theory was published, the journal Public Culture assembled a set of critical responses. Marjorie Levinson described it as ‘an ugly book’, dismissing it as ‘harangue, jeremiad, flyting, ethnic cleansing: not to make a mystery of it, jihad’. Peter van der Veer started by declaring that the book reminded him of a visit to Calcutta in 1973, where he was shocked to discover a photograph of Stalin in the house of a communist cadre. References to ‘hardline Indian communism’ and Ahmad’s ‘style of inquisition’ duly followed. Talal Asad tersely suggested that the book was influenced by the European teleology of progress. Partha Chatterjee questioned Ahmad’s grasp of Indian Marxism. Nivedita Menon and the book’s commissioning editor Michael Sprinker offered perceptive rejoinders (the only courteous ones) to Ahmad’s portrayal of Edward Said. Andrew Parker wrote that the book failed to achieve an integral unity; it was more a blend of ‘oil and water than political history and literary theory’. And like many other reviewers, Vivek Dhareshwar highlighted the curious disjunction between Ahmad’s focus on the institutional locations of specific scholars and his reluctance to discuss his own involvement in the metropolitan academy. Invoking Ahmad’s criteria, Dhareshwar countered: ‘Does the work/individual have or provide any links with determinate emancipatory movements?’

Ahmad fled Pakistan for the first time in 1966, at the height of Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship. He had recently finished a masters at the Forman Christian College, Lahore. Two years later, he started teaching at the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) Program at the City College of New York. His colleagues there included Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, David Hernandez and Adrienne Rich. Although the college was located in Harlem, the cultural epicentre of the country’s Black community, only 9 percent of its daytime students were Black or Puerto Rican. SEEK was instituted to counteract the college’s racist admissions policy and course design. But radicalized by the Vietnam War and Black Liberation, the students wanted to open more than just the gates to a public college. Screening radical cinema and publishing political pamphlets, they swiftly turned the campus into a site for revolutionary politics. In December 1968, addressing a multiracial assembly of students and activists, Stokely Carmichael offered a thunderous ‘blueprint for armed struggle against American racism and capitalism’ that drew inspiration from the raging anticolonial struggles in the Global South. A decade earlier, this same struggle had thrust Ahmad into the fold of radical politics. When Israel, the UK and France invaded Egypt in 1956, massive anticolonial demonstrations erupted in Lahore. The 15-year-old Ahmad had joined the demonstrators, and in a burst of youthful impudence, climbed onto the veranda of a British consulate official’s house, picked up a chair and smashed it to pieces.

Living under the high noon of ’68 in Harlem, Ahmad translated the Urdu ghazals of Mirza Ghalib, the last Mughal poet, whose career was dramatically transformed by the failed anticolonial rebellion of 1857. In that apocalyptic summer, the Britishers had hanged around 27,000 people in Delhi alone. With his friends either dead or deprived of their patronage and wealth, Ghalib rushed to publish DastAmbooh, a pro-British diary of the revolt. In his private letters, he bitterly censured the reign of colonial terror, and continued writing poems of intense ‘moral loneliness’. Ahmad’s collaborative translations with Adrienne Rich (a close friend), W.S. Merwin and William Stafford first appeared in Mahfil, a mimeographed magazine published at the University of Chicago. Their experiments created a poetic montage, which valued the play of translating over literal translations. Ahmad juxtaposed his ‘prose versions’ with ‘notes’ (explanation and general vocabulary) for each couplet, which were followed by the poets’ own versions of the original ghazal. In this newfound avant-garde collective, Ahmad listened for the echoes of an insurgent humanism: ‘Poetry happens wherever men suffer and posit their humanity against their suffering. Viet Nam, Harlem, the Delhi of 1857. LeRoi and Ghalib. You hold out your hand and you tell another person what you are going through: that is the final poem’.

At SEEK, Ahmad became the Interim Director, but was summarily replaced by a hostile administration in the summer of 1969. He had refused to support the Dean’s decision not to renew the tenures of ten Black faculty members (the charges against one included writing a pamphlet in support of Black workers at a Ford plant). In the fallout of a campus takeover by students, Ahmad was blacklisted from teaching in New York. He crossed the Hudson and started teaching at Rutgers. His translation project, Ghazals of Ghalib, was published the following year by Columbia University Press. By this time, however, Ahmad was occupied by developments in Pakistan, where a militant upsurge of students and urban workers had overthrown Khan’s dictatorship. The Pakistani left was breathing again. A split in the National Awami League had birthed the Mazdoor Kisan Party, a Maoist organization that soon liberated 200 hectares of agrarian land from feudal landlords in Hashtnagar (Northwest Frontier Province). He took a leave of absence from Rutgers, abandoned his PhD at Columbia and returned to Pakistan. In Nothing Human is Alien to Me (2020), a book-length interview with Vijay Prashad (the best source on his life and work), Ahmad reveals that in Pakistan he worked closely with MKP’s leadership ‘at the underground level’. But details of his political activity remain in short supply.

Recently, the anthropologist Shozab Raza told me that, during his fieldwork, he picked up an elusive trace of Ahmad’s presence in South Punjab. Ahmad makes an unexpected appearance in the personal notebook of Sibghatullah Mazari, a poor tenant and member of MKP. Around May 1972, Afzal Bangash, the party’s co-founder, dispatched Ahmad to Bangla Icha, Sibghatullah’s village, where he taught literary and political writing to young students. Raza added that his clandestine presence in the village was ‘likely part of a larger reconnaissance trip, which also included travelling to Hashtnagar’. Ahmad was also a punctual presence in MKP’s official organ, the Circular, where he translated Amílcar Cabral and Lê Duẩn, among many others. Rejecting the stuffy Urdu translations produced in Moscow, he re-translated Lenin in the diction and syntax found on Pakistani streets. If in Harlem, Ahmad grappled with the politics of poetic innovation, now he stressed the poetics of his political interventions. This came naturally to him. During his college years in Lahore, Ahmad had sharpened his convictions on the whetstone of literary style. Novelist Intizar Hussain and the poet Nasir Kasmi had been among his friends. One day he would study Proust, whose ‘sentences ran to five, ten, fifteen, even twenty clauses’, inconceivable in Urdu; the next day, he would translate Joyce’s Dubliners with its ‘short, pithy sentences, hard as diamonds, impossible to cut’. Youthful enthusiasms now bloomed into a desire for new dialectical idioms.

Ahmad was prolific throughout the 1970s, publishing poems, translations, literary criticism and political analyses in various Urdu magazines – not just in Lahore and Karachi, but also across the border, in Allahabad and Hyderabad. His phenomenal critique of Baloch separatism appeared in Pakistan Forum in 1973. The complementary essays, ‘The Agrarian Question of Baluchistan’ and ‘The National Question of Baluchistan’, offered a sweeping account of the tensions between Balochistan’s linguistic and ethnic history, and the contradictions afflicting its severely impoverished economy (founded on inward and outward flows of migrant labour). Though an uncompromising advocate of the liberation of Bangladesh, Ahmad rejected calls for an ethnolinguistic revision of Pakistan’s national borders. A secession, he emphasized, could not resolve the class contradictions of Baloch society. Instead, it would further empower elite landowning Sardars, who would readily become neo-colonial clients of the US or the Soviet Union. As expected, Ahmad’s contentions enraged Baloch nationalists and their sympathizers, including the journal’s editor Feroz Ahmed, who rushed to rebut his friend in a new book. Cracks also developed in Ahmad’s relationship with MKP. The party saluted the Naxalite insurgency smouldering across the border. But Ahmad became increasingly critical of this Maoist adventure, eventually drawing the ire of the party. Writing to the political theorist Noaman G. Ali, Ahmad revealed that ‘a whole session of MKP, with perhaps 60 or 70 members present, was once called in Faisalabad for (him) to be held answerable for this heresy’.

During this period, Ahmad also travelled widely in the Arab world. Defeat by Israel in the Six Day War and the subsequent decline of Nasserism had spurred a wave of Islamist reaction. In Egypt, Anwar Sadat declared Islam the state religion and Shar’ia ‘the main source of state legislation’. Crisscrossing the peri-urban townships surrounding Cairo and the small-town interiors of Anatolia, Ahmad closely studied the unexpected rise of an Islamist bourgeoisie. In Jordan, he discovered that ‘the (Palestinian) camps were just full of Quranic recitations, full of Islamic cassettes of various sorts’. In Lebanon, his comrades in Palestinian liberation organizations painted similar pictures of Birzeit. Ahmad’s analyses were regularly translated and published in Rose Al-Yusef, the Egyptian political weekly, and As-Safir, the leading daily newspaper in Lebanon. He had already experienced similar tensions in Pakistan, where the MKP had tried to meld Marxism and Islam into a revolutionary program. Tariq Ali memorably described it as ‘the party which begins its private and public meetings with recitations from the Koran and whose manifesto is liberally spiced with quotations from the same!’ But this new shift shared little with revolutionary politics. In 1977, Pakistan also fell to the Islamists. General Zia-ul-Haq implemented martial law, disbanded Parliament and ordered the Islamization of the entire country.

Ahmad fled back to the US. A 90-page essay, ‘Political Islam: A Critique,’ soon appeared in three parts in Pakistan Progressive, as well as a ‘balance sheet’ of the rebellion against General Zia’s coup in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Struggling to find a political foothold, by the mid-1980s Ahmad resolved to move to India, the country of his birth and home to a still robust national communist movement. But since laws forbade Pakistani citizens to work in India, he gave up his citizenship and acquired a US passport. It was against the backdrop of these transitions that Ahmad wrote the essay which famously rebutted Fredric Jameson’s claim that ‘all third-world literatures are … national allegories’. Rejecting ‘Jameson’s haste in totalizing historical phenomena in terms of binary oppositions’, Ahmad asserted that capitalism imposed an economic unity on the entire world and that national cultures evolved on a shared, but uneven, political terrain. When Ahmad arrived as a fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a new generation of scholars was starting to scrutinize the explosion of theory in the West. In 1990, Suvir Kaul published ‘The Indian Academic and Resistance to Theory’, a moving essay about his return to the University of Delhi after finishing PhD at Cornell, in which he astutely noted how theorists like Paul De Man and Homi Bhabha ‘co-opt(ed) … the language of resistance into … a purely linguistic, tropological activity,’ and neglected that theories of différance are subject to the “invisible hand” that scripts the global equation of knowledge/power’. Composing In Theory simultaneously, Ahmad explained that this new theoretical turn (which took Marxism as just one critical framework among many) was mediated by the successive eclipse of anticolonial struggles, the New Left and the socialist bloc. Driven by his own itinerant political life, Ahmad decreed that theory must be rigorously held ‘accountable’ by the ‘non-academic political field’.

Just three months after the publication of In Theory, a right-wing Hindu mob demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, sparking a blaze of anti-Muslim pogroms across India. In the early 1950s, the growing threat of the Hindu right had forced Ahmad’s family of farmers to migrate from the present-day Uttar Pradesh to Pakistan (his earliest memories included his uncle hoisting the Indian flag on the morning of independence and imbibing progressive Urdu fiction and poetry in a village that lacked electricity and a school). Four decades later, its rise was complete. As In Theory occasioned fiery debates in the Anglo-American academy, Ahmad’s own career now took a sharp turn. In a series of critical essays, later collected in The Lineages of the Present and On Communalism and Globalization, Ahmad dissected the precipitous decline of Indian democracy. Never afraid of challenging popular consensus, Ahmad resolved that there was no contradiction between liberal institutions and the Hindu right. The BJP had no need to suspend liberal democracy because it had already captured its institutions from the inside – judiciary, universities, media, bureaucracy and military. Legitimized by these same institutions, it could freely orchestrate ‘perpetual low-intensity violence’ against Dalits and Muslims. But the left, Ahmad suggested, could not replicate this strategy. The ‘liberal-democratic state apparatus’ is designed to stabilize the capitalist order. It might allow for limited welfare reforms in individual states like Kerala, but it ‘will never permit the communist Left to implement its programme’ on a national level. ‘Every country gets the fascism it deserves,’ was his grim forecast.

Ahmad’s arrival in India also radically transformed his role as an intellectual. While in Pakistan he had lived underground with MKP and published in small Arabic and Urdu magazines (many of them lost to us), now he became a fellow traveller of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Milia Islamia, and wrote for India’s prominent Anglophone magazines. In Frontline, Ahmad published over 80 essays, including celebrated long-form coverage of the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (collected in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Imperialism of our Times). In Newsclick, he tracked the geopolitical crises of late capitalism: the French bombardment of northern Mali, the fallout of the Crimean referendum, among others. When the BJP came to power in 2014, Ahmad’s visa was not renewed. Aged 75, he was again forced to relocate to the US – now as the Chancellor’s Professor of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine, ironically a wellspring of the same theoretical turn that Ahmad had publicly censured.

When In Theory was first published, Partha Chatterjee had charged Ahmad with ‘dissembling’, querying why the book ‘should conceal so strenuously, in its jacket, preliminary pages and text, the fact that the author has spent the overwhelming part of his career studying and teaching in the ‘metropolitan academy’”. But looking back, what is bothersome is not the alleged suppression of Ahmad’s academic career, but rather that of his career outside the academy. Why do we know so little about the political ebbs and flows of Ahmad’s life? Or more broadly, why do we know so little about the lives of those countless organizers and activists, autodidacts and litterateurs, who live and write in the postcolonial periphery? Why does their work rarely travel to the shores of the metropolitan academy? And who is responsible for this ‘concealing’?

Read on: Aijaz Ahmad, ‘Reconciling Derrida’, NLR I/208.