Born in Muzaffarnagar, in British India, Aijaz Ahmad 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, Ahmad began to dream of internationalism and socialism. He studied in Lahore, Pakistan, where his family had migrated after the Partition in 1947-1948, but these studies took place as much in the college classrooms as they did in the cafes and in the cells of political organisations. In the cafes, Ahmad 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, Ahmad came to the attention of the authorities, which is why he skipped the country for New York City in the United States.
The two passions of 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 WS Merwin), reciting Ghalib to them, feeding them wine, watching them recover from Ghalib’s language and Ahmad’s explanation, the meaning of the poems. This innovative work resulted in Ahmad’s first book, Ghazals of Ghalib (1971). At the same time, Ahmad 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, Ahmad mainly wrote about the insurgencies in East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in 1972) and in Balochistan. It was in this period that Ahmad 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, 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, Ahmad settled into a rhythm of critique that produced substantial work on three different areas of inquiry: on postmodern and postcolonialism, on Hindutva and liberalisation, and on the new world order centred around the United States and US-driven globalisation.
Based on his great appreciation for culture and literature, Ahmad 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 Ahmad’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, Ahmad 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 Ahmad began his close reading of Gramsci’s work. These writings were published in Ahmad’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, Ahmad 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 Ahmad mounted an important defence of the Marxist tradition. “Marx is boundless,” Samir Amin wrote, a line that Ahmad discussed with me when we produced a book of Amin’s later writings with a foreword from Ahmad. That boundlessness 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 Ahmad’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 liberalisation and by the growth of Hindutva, took refuge in Ahmad’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 Ahmad. 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 Ahmad’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 privatisation agenda brutalised labour 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 reread as we continue to face an assault on human dignity from these fascistic forces. Ahmad gave us confidence when the eclipse of hope seemed almost complete.
Those were rough years. India liberalised 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 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya. Two years later, in 1994, the World Trade Organisation was established. The resources of socialism were much depleted. During this decade, Ahmad’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, Ahmad read it with great care and enthusiasm. I was at a meeting with N Ram and Ahmad around that time, when they spoke of the book, and Ram asked Ahmad to write about it for Frontline. That essay – Reading Arundhati Roy Politically – is a gem of literary criticism and one that was, oddly, not anthologised in either Ahmad’s collections or in books on Arundhati’s work. That essay began a long relationship with Frontline that went till the very end. Ahmad 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 Ahmad’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 neoliberalism entered not only the vocabulary of popular culture (with individualism and greed at the centre) but as neoliberalism 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. Ahmad 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. Ahmad 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 Ahmad 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, Ahmad 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. Ahmad 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 Ahmad’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.
Ahmad 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 Ahmad leaves us, his voice remains in our ears. It will be with us for a long time yet.
This article was first published by Newsclick.