Aijaz Ahmad (1941–2022)
By Sudhanva Deshpande
Aijaz Ahmad’s most celebrated book is In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. It is, somewhat surprisingly, the only book he wrote. He published four other books which are all collections of essays (one of which, Lineages of the Present, appeared in two editions with non-identical tables of contents), three books where he is credited as editor or co-editor, and one book of edited conversations. For an intellectual with a wide international appeal and influence, this is paltry output.
Aijaz Ahmad was an essayist, not a book writer. He wrote numerous essays, initially in Urdu and then in English, on a range of topics—the class character of the Pakistani state; the role of ‘intermediate classes’ in Third World societies; the relevance of Gramsci in understanding the rise of Hindutva; imperialism and globalization; languages and literatures; Marxist theory; post-modernism, postcolonialism and the ‘post-condition’ in general; imperial wars after 9/11; the trajectory of the twentieth century as a whole; communist strategy and tactics…the list goes on and on.
In Theory was published in 1992 but was written in the three previous years—at the very moment of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Three chapters from the book—critiques of the American Marxist Fredrick Jameson, Palestinian theorist Edward Said, and British novelist Salman Rushdie—catapulted Aijaz to intellectual stardom. While these critiques give the book its muscle, its spine is elsewhere, in his masterly exposition of the dialectic of the twentieth century, which Aijaz saw as the unfolding of three great processes—imperialism; decolonization; and the struggles for socialism. At the very moment when theorists across the world were declaring the end of socialism and Marxism, and of history itself, Aijaz produced his masterpiece which argued that not only was Marxism relevant, but that it alone was capable of producing an authentic understanding of the world in its contradictory totality.
Post-Marxism, Aijaz said in his interview to Vijay Prashad, is actually pre-Marxism—it is a return to the idealism that Marx had transcended. Lenin had pithily argued that Marxism combined three strands—English political economy, German philosophy, and French socialism. Aijaz took Lenin to heart and trained himself rigorously in all three. To this he added his own training in literature. He was that rare intellectual who could speak with equal authority on macroeconomics, politics, literary theory, and philosophy.
I use the word ‘speak’ deliberately. Soon after he started living in India in the mid-1980s, he began to have a deep and abiding influence on the Indian Left intellectual and political scene. He never refused an invitation from Left groups to speak. He became close to the CPI(M), in particular to Prakash Karat. He also became involved in the publishing house set up by the CPI(M), LeftWord Books, and in the media portal Newsclick set up by Prabir Purkayastha. Aijaz was also a regular contributor to the newsmagazine Frontline.
Aijaz’s arrival in India brought a fresh vigour to Indian Marxist thinking. He would sometimes rue that Indian Marxists—many of them first-rate intellectuals—spoke essentially to, and about, India. Their familiarity with other parts of the Third World was often sketchy and almost always derived from western writing. ‘The RSS,’ he once remarked to me, ‘was set up in India at the same time as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt [1925 and 1928, respectively]. Both have displayed Olympian patience in their project to transform culture in their quest for political power. This differentiates them from the European fascists, who sought the annexation of power as the means to transform culture. I don’t understand why Indian Marxists don’t study movements in the Middle East with any sustained seriousness.’ He threw himself with zest and gusto in the Indian scene, teaching and theorizing with a Marxist framework.
‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ was Romain Rolland’s motto, adopted by Gramsci. It could well have been Aijaz’s as well. We were chatting in the immediate aftermath of Obama’s first election in 2008. Obama was black, well-educated, sophisticated, decent, funny, charming, young, handsome, and his campaign had mobilized the working class in a big way. What was not to love? ‘You know’, Aijaz said, ‘the white working class came out and voted in unprecedented numbers, and they voted for a black president. They voted colour-blind. They will now be betrayed by the Democratic establishment and by Obama personally so fundamentally that they will turn 180 degrees to the Right. The liberal establishment will deliver the white working class as a gift to the American Right.’ In effect, he predicted Trump’s rise within days of Obama’s first victory. ‘Gosh, I never want to talk to you, you’re so depressing,’ I said. ‘You’re right,’ he said, fixing me with his piercing eyes and a slanted smile. ‘Marxism is depressing because it tells the truth.’
Aijaz was among the last handful of people who considered India and Pakistan both to be equally their countries. He was born in Uttar Pradesh, and he watched the tricolour go up on 15 August 1947, perched on his uncle’s shoulder as a boy of six. Some parts of his family migrated to Pakistan during and soon after Partition, while his parents—believing in the secular dream of Nehruvian India—stayed back. By the mid-1950s, however, they too decided to make the move. Aijaz was left behind for two years to complete his matriculation, after which he joined them in Lahore, where he went to college. He took part in the massive protest movement of students and workers in 1968-69 which resulted in the resignation of Ayub Khan and the transfer of power to the army under General Yahya Khan. The military government began a crackdown against student activists. Aijaz left Pakistan and went to the United States where he pursued higher education—which included enrolling for a Ph.D. and dropping out of it after a few days.
After the return of civilian rule under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1972, it became possible for him to visit Pakistan again. He went in and out of Pakistan several times till soon after 1977, when General Zia-ul-Haq deposed Bhutto in a coup. Now the US became his home. By the mid-1980s however, he longed to return to the land of his origin. The Pakistani intellectual and political climate was by now fairly listless, so he sought to make India his home. He found, however, that it was impossible for him to get Indian citizenship because he carried a Pakistani passport. All he could do was get short-term, city-specific visas.
At a time when Indian academics were increasingly seeking tenured positions in US universities, he made the opposite journey. He gave up his Pakistani passport for an American one, only so he could get five-year visas without travel restrictions inside India. He worked as a Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Library, and then taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia. He was also a visiting professor at York University, Toronto, Canada, for part of this time. But having once been a Pakistani citizen, the doors to Indian citizenship were forever shut to him.
After nearly three decades in India, by the time Modi’s BJP ascended to power in 2014, it became harder and harder for him to get visa extensions. By now, he was a Visiting Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, where he was offered a full-time position. He found it expedient to take up the offer and re-migrate to the US, where he lived the last eight years of his life in self-imposed exile.
It was painful. He missed India terribly. I last met Aijaz face to face when Vijay Prashad, Moloyashree Hashmi and I visited him for four days in Irvine to record the interviews that became his last book, Nothing Human is Alien to Me. As we walked into his drawing room, Moloyashree looked out of the French windows at the undulating landscape. ‘Beautiful’, she said. ‘Sone ka pinjra hai’, Aijaz said with a sad smile. It was in this gilded cage that he died on 9 March 2022, dreaming, doubtless, of his beloved India and of revolution.
Sudhanva Deshpande is Managing Editor, LeftWord Books, New Delhi, and an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch. He is the author of Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi.