Culture, Nationalism, and the Role of Intellectuals: An Interview with Aijaz Ahmad

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Q: Cultural studies are currently in vogue in the Atlantic academy. Although many academics would claim that their cultural criticism is itself profoundly subversive, they regard as "vulgar" any cultural work that connects theory to political commitment outside the academy. So, for example, two of the most frequently cited precursors of cultural studies - Antonio Gramsci and Raymond Williams - are turned simply into cultural thinkers, though both were politically active intellectuals. How would you respond to this conception of cultural studies?

Ahmad: My own writings, actually even my prose style, should be testimony enough that I have no use for Stalinist kinds of distortions and simplifications of Marxism often called "vulgar." But that really is not what is at stake in today's culturalist charges of "vulgarity." Such charges are available, I think, against anyone who makes a direct and consistent connection between culture and class; between social oppression and economic exploitation; between cultural work in the academic institution and political accountability outside the institution; between a critique of capitalist culture and a commitment to socialist transformation in the sense of a revolutionary politics of the working classes. The avant-gardist consensus which dismisses all such work as "vulgar" became dominant in France after the defeat of 1968, the Gaullist restoration, the modernization of French capitalism during the 1970s, the continuation of all that in the time of Mitterrand. In the United States, such distancing of cultural studies from revolutionary Marxism and even labor traditions came in the last two decades, partly out of earlier and very powerful traditions of anti-communism, partly out of the importation of Parisian fashions, partly out of the decline of the 1960s left in the next decade. The bizarre acceptance of 1989 as a year of democratic revolution and liberation then authorized everyone to dismiss as "vulgar" everything that even spoke of the implacable reality of class conflict.

In this atmosphere, it is only natural that Gramsci's thought would be stripped of its revolutionary charge and that he would be presented in the United States as a cultural critic on the model of Matthew Arnold and Julien Benda. Edward Said goes so far as to trace a line of straight descent from Croce to Gramsci, which is like saying that Marx presents not a critique but a continuation of Hegel. And, mind you, Croce!!! the Croce who campaigned actively for the fascists in the elections of 1924, the very elections that sealed Gramsci's fate forever. No one wants to say that Gramsci's thinking on "culture" simply cannot be separated from the fact that he was at the nerve-center of the largest proletarian uprising that Europe witnessed in the aftermath of the First World War or that it is not the category of "culture" but the issue of the strategic dilemmas of the Italian Communist movement that gives to the architecture of the Prison Notebooks its essential unity. If you were to say that there is some connection between celebrating Gramsci in glossy, avant-gardist journals and eliding the question of the central political commitment of his life, you would be called "vulgar," "moralistic," etc.

The case of Raymond Williams is not entirely comparable with that of Gramsci, but there is one thing about cultural studies that I find very striking. In England, the beginnings of cultural studies were inseparable from working-class aspirations and, more generally, they were concerned with the way the disprivileged of society - the elderly poor, the women who gave their lives to domestic labor and low-wage work, the proletarian men, the children who can't even dream of private schools - get caught between pressures of upper-class culture and the cultural worth of their own lives. The way Williams initially conceived of his project had a lot to do with his work in adult education and with his involvement in the socialist and peace movements. …