Bruce Robbins reviews Vivek Chibber's Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital in n+1:
Taking Subaltern Studies as symbolic of a wider intellectual failure, he asserts in its place the validity and explanatory power of a renewed and unapologetic Marxism, and with it the Enlightenment universals that it relied on. In the view of thinkers like Chibber, the charge that Marxist theory suffers from “Eurocentrism”—represented by decades of thinking, entire libraries of books, and hundreds of academic departments—is sterile and empty. Drawing a line in the sand naturally makes both sides upset, and the debate over Chibber’s book has been heated. The field was sowed when his less guarded, even more polemical thoughts about the bankruptcy of Subaltern Studies came out in an interview with Jacobin: “When Subalternist theorists put up this gigantic wall separating East from West, and when they insist that Western agents are not driven by the same kinds of concerns as Eastern agents, what they’re doing is endorsing the kind of essentialism that colonial authorities used to justify their depredations in the 19th century,” he said. “It’s the same kind of essentialism that American military apologists used when they were bombing Vietnam or when they were going into the Middle East. Nobody on the left can be at ease with these sorts of arguments.” The interview seems at times almost unhinged. A widely read critique by Chris Taylor, an English professor at the University of Chicago, published under the title, “Not Even Marxist,” argued that Chibber mistakenly forced readers to “choose sides” between Subaltern Studies and Marxism; moreover, Chibber’s brand of Marxism, Taylor suggested, was a bad one. This received a riposte at Verso’s blog (“Not Even Marxist?”), which got fought over in turn. The closing session of the Historical Materialism conference at NYU in April 2013 was a debate between Partha Chatterjee and Chibber, and was advertised like it was the return of Ali vs. Frazier.
The heatedness of the debates that flared up around Chibber’s book has to do with the place of honor it gives to the showdown between universalism and culture. Chibber’s impatience with culturalist interpretation—that is, interpretation that doesn’t merely deal with culture but wants to demonstrate how unnecessary and misleading it is to talk about the economic at all—is now widely shared. In an era when purely cultural explanations are no longer as persuasive, “economic determinism” loses its force as a smear. It would be surprising if Chibber’s book had not benefited from this development. Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capitalcomes bearing endorsements from a political philosopher (Joshua Cohen), an economic historian (Robert Brenner), Noam Chomsky, and, well, Žižek.