McGrail: I’d like to start by asking if you could give us an overview of the term “subaltern studies” and explain how it has evolved in the past few decades.
Chatterjee: When the Subaltern Studies Collective began, our initial move was a reading Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, which had just been published in English. We were compelled by the fact that Gramsci used the term “subaltern” instead of “proletariat.” Now, he used this term because he was writing in prison under condition of extreme censorship; therefore, he didn’t want to use standard Marxist term and coined the term “subaltern.” But as a result, Gramsci was fundamentally altering the core definition of classes in the orthodox version of Marxism at the time. By simply renaming the proletarian class to the subaltern, he was suggesting that classical Marxist division of European industrial society into classes was not entirely adequate. The classical understanding of class didn’t quite work in a country like Italy, where in the North there was a large industrial structure, while most parts of the South were agrarian and most exploited people were peasants. Gramsci was suggesting that the classical understanding of the “proletariat” didn’t fit the political situation in Italy. So in using a term like subaltern, he was trying to incorporate this very large, pre-industrial formation in to the understanding of political strategies for the Left or the Communist movement.
We found this extremely relevant in trying to understand the situation in countries like India, for instance, which in the early 80s was more-or-less in exactly the same situation: there was an important and developing industrial section with industrial working classes, but a very large part of the country essentially consisted of agrarian formations. Therefore most Indians were in fact still peasants. So it was in trying to reorient or reformulate the problem of what it is to write the history of the “people” in a country like India that we found the idea of using “subaltern classes”—rather than the orthodox formulation of classes in Marxism—much more useful and, in a sense, full of new possibilities. That’s how it began; we actually began by using the term “subaltern classes.”
Initially in our thinking, subalternity still referred to a certain class structure that was perhaps not entirely frozen or well-defined—i.e., it was often indeterminant, fuzzy and so on—but the term still referred to a certain structure of class relations. It’s work that happened later on—particularly with Gayatri Spivak’s interventions—that allowed for a different inflection to be given to the term subaltern.