Selected Subaltern Studies

By Ranajit Guha; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak | Go to book overview

Conditions for Knowledge of Working-Class Conditions: Employers, Government and the Jute Workers of Calcutta, 1890-1940*

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY


I

At the heart of this essay are two rather general propositions: first, that the ruling-class documents often used for historical reconstructions of working-class conditions can be read both for what they say and for their 'silences'; and secondly, that an attempt to understand their silences cannot stop at the purely economic explanation--though the economic is undoubtedly important--but has to push itself into the realm of working-class culture. It will also be claimed here that in arguing thus we are arguing with Marx and not against him.

The discussion in the first volume of Marx Capital raises the possibility of a relationship between the day-to-day running of capitalism and the production of a body of knowledge about working-class conditions. Marx in fact presents us with the elements of a possible theoretical approach to the problem. Even at the risk of appearing to digress a bit, it may be worthwhile to go over that theoretical ground once again, as the rest of this essay will examine one particular working-class history--that of the Calcutta jute mill workers between 1890 and 1940--in the light of Marx's discussion. Perhaps it should also be emphasized that what we are borrowing here from Marx is essentially an argument. Marx used the English case to illustrate his ideas but the specifics of English history are not a

____________________
*
This essay owes a great deal to discussions with Imran Ali, Katherine Gibson, Ranajit Guha, Stephen Henningham, Anthony Low and Roger Stuart. I am, however, solely responsible for any errors of fact or judgement.

-179-

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