Singing In Dark Times: the Politics of Race and Class: An Interview With Himani Bannerji

Erin Gray, Tom Keefer, and John Viola

Himani Bannerji is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at York University where she teaches in the areas of anti-racist feminism, Marxist cultural theories, gender, colonialism, and imperialism. Her recent publications include Inventing Subjects: Studies in Hegemony, Patriarchy and Colonialism; Of Property and Propriety: The Role of Gender and Class in Imperialism and Nationalism, and The Dark Side of the Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Racism.  She is currently working on a book on Rabindranath Tagore, decolonization, and modernity.  Erin Gray, Tom Keefer, and John Viola interviewed Himani at her home in Toronto in August of 2005.

UTA: In recent years, there has been a shift within the broader international anti-globalization movement towards a concentration on local radical organizing. Many activists have tried to integrate class into their analyses by organizing against poverty and for immigrant rights, but it has still been difficult to incorporate labour struggles into anti-war and anti-imperialist organizing. How do you define class, and how can it be a useful organizational concept?

Himani: A small task! Unfortunately, people often think in this either/or way, where class is thought to be either local or extra-local, international or national. It’s often framed as though you can’t have an informed politic that is concerned with the here and now through an understanding of its larger implications. The antiwar movement can surely become part of an anti-imperialist, class-based movement. Not having worked with left groups here in any systematic way, I just don’t understand this dichotomous approach to organizing.

I think, personally, that people obviously have to work at particular issues, but those issues have to be conceived in terms of, or built into, some larger awareness. For example, in terms of immigration – who is getting refugee status, who is being allowed to come to Canada and who’s being deported – it’s not hard to see that these are people from former colonies coming to a space that is itself a white settler colony. There’s a fundamental contradiction about actually admitting on one hand that we’re living on indigenous land, and, on the other, trying to say that migrants do not have the right to come to this land. This sort of confusion seems to negate the realization that we can build an anti-racist movement and work against the state’s draconian policies in regards to immigration, which especially affect migrant women and women of colour. So it’s not just simply a coalition politic, or about adding a number of groups into one. It’s a question of understanding, even when we are working on different aspects of this social formation. And we can certainly offer other groups support through this understanding, and work in solidarity without replicating them. Instead, it seems like a very small number of voluntary hobby groups, within which people start something, then break up into an increasing number of groups, which then dwindle until the last person disappears from sight. Why can’t we do something more constructive than have factional debates among the left?

In terms of answering your question more directly, I would loosely define class struggle as a way to organize around an opposition to capitalism and oppression, and ‘class’ in itself as an ensemble of social relations that sustains an entire social organization of proprietary relations for capitalism – the production of surplus value and its appropriation. It has been used in the Marxist tradition to describe the economic as well as a social organization. Class is not simply an economic phenomenon, since the economic needs a whole social organization to maintain it. You can have a theoretical formula for capital, but that doesn’t tell you how it comes into being, which has involved an entire history of dispossession and the organization of labour in relation to ownership of economic resources. It is this relation of the mode of production to the rest of society that we can code as class.

The social organization works like a chamber orchestra or a musical ensemble, where different relations come into interplay with each other. In North America, race and gender definitely go into the making of class, but in countries like India, caste is more important than race is. Society, culture, economics, and gender are not separable, and are also held in place by some juridical organization. You may be paid for your reproductive subsistence, but it is paid according to prevailing standards in a given society, which is the secret of surplus value.

Subjectively seeing oneself as part of a particular class is not achieved automatically. That’s where the whole question of consciousness and politics and intervention comes in, and the relationship between such things as gender and race, which brings people to a greater understanding of their commonalities on various grounds. It doesn’t happen transparently, from being to knowing; being in a certain location does not guarantee knowing where you are. It’s like learning to read a map. If you’re calling someone from a phone booth, you have to know where you’re calling from in order for that person to be able to pick you up. But one often doesn’t even know enough to make the phone call. So what we call a systemic existence and an ordinary life have lost all boundaries, they’ve become one and the same. To get to the point where you know the map requires working with people, with a knowledge of the extra-local, which does not mean talking about party politics. It’s not a matter of class in and for itself – a metaphysical gesture that philosophers have made – but rather a process of knowing and moving accordingly.

Our actual social experience is the process of class and class struggle, and what it looks like varies from country to country according to cultural and historical specificities. So I would say that this subjective knowing is really a matter of process. Class consciousness does not sit in our psyche as some type of hidden agent, as though all we need to do is to tear through the veils of illusion until we get to a “scientific view.” We start with a general sensitization to social relations or property relations, and question forms of consciousness and how they relate to exploitative institutions like the state.

UTA: When it comes to the Canadian context, can we speak of a working class, or are there a number of different working classes determined by a set of specific experiences?

Himani: I would start somewhere else. I would begin from the fact that dispossession or primitive accumulation has reached an international fullness. In the relations between states, deprivation is currently more strongly polarized along the logic of imperialism, and so primitive accumulation is a reality of our time. The fact is that most individuals as such are not the owners of the means of production, and are actually at a distance from them because they are owned by corporations rather than by individuals. No capitalist can do it alone, for we work within a social matrix where different people do different kinds of services, and all act within the framework of capital. Though we work in different parts of the social space, we are never disconnected from the mode of production as a whole. So I would begin with the fact that most people are part of that system of both ownership and dispossession, which may not make them part of the working class as such, but they are part of the process in that, overall, they facilitate the production process.

So I would begin from primitive accumulation, which allows us to talk about people being systematically dispossessed rather than being working class. The middle class, for example, neither directly produces nor directly owns capital, but is situated somewhere along a framework of production that makes capital possible. And most people in Third World countries haven’t become proletarian in the very narrow sense of being directly industrially employed, for they’ve become pauperized, lumpen, and no one knows where they are in that great darkness. They could be marginally employed, but there’s nothing there for them. This is where a category like dispossession makes more sense, and can be usefully followed up by subsequent categories pertaining to employment and exploitation for capital, like working class. Hardt and Negri have used the notion of ‘the multitude’ in a manner I don’t agree with, but it includes people who are also outside of the industrial working class, people who are active in one way or another in relation to capital.

UTA: Marxist feminist cultural theorist Gayatri Spivak has proposed the idea of “strategic essentialism,” arguing that where you start from is primarily a matter of strategy. Can the term working class be strategic in this sense?

Himani: The question of naming is always difficult because naming is done for a purpose, and the same people can be named in different ways for different reasons. You are summoned under certain kinds of names, and being summoned as a feminist is different from being politically summoned to be active as an anti-racist. But you can inform your work with all of these approaches and organize with an attention to class, racialization, and gender. We are discussing things that are intrinsic to Marx’s work.

Concrete formations are not simply replications of atomized elements, since many different elements constitute each other to make a concrete phenomenon. If you look at a piece of fabric, the thread runs both vertically and horizontally. If all of the thread ran horizontally, it wouldn’t make a piece of cloth. Nor would it work if it all ran vertically. They have to inter-weave. People often talk of the social fabric, which is a space made up of many movements in different directions. These different directions do not negate each other, but instead come into interplay with each other to create a pattern that is both a tension and a formation; it is this pattern that we really need to look at. Contradiction is necessary, and these contradictory moments are often experienced as discrete and separate from each other, but this is never really so. This is why it’s so difficult for Marxists to find the right word for what they mean by the social, which is a set of constitutive differences. People are differenced in many ways, in terms of gender, sexuality, and racialization, for example, and yet form full entities.

UTA: Can you expand on why you wouldn’t use the term race?

Himani: The word “race” places responsibility on the being of the subject herself. It is seen as ontological, as part of a person’s biological essence. On the other hand, there’s a difference in being named in the context of relational power, and this context is what makes fixed, reified, and fetishized categories out of difference. Race is such a construct, and it’s a construct of social relations of power, a way of expressing difference in a powered social context. But once it’s been produced, the notion of race becomes socially active and begins to actually produce experiential results and becomes real in the sense that people think it exists in and of itself as a human and social substance or ontology. Practice produces being.

UTA: Would you say the same thing about class and gender?

Himani: No. Gender is not just a category because it actually expresses a material difference within the social division of labour, production, and reproduction, and doesn’t have in and of itself a pejorative or power connotation. Gender could even assume equivalence; in non-property societies, gendered activities like breast feeding are not necessarily considered lower than hunting. Differences of activity within a communal and non-property society is not necessarily a power relation. Gender is our after the fact way of specifying the social division of labour, and the values that go with it. The values, of course, differ depending on the specific society. As terminology, race was born on the terrain of domination, and there is a predefined location of power implied within it.

Just about every category can be used in a way that is reifying, and that can happen to the notion of class itself. People who are dedicated to economic determinism and who think in terms of base and superstructure most often do not take into account the social nature of class. As a result, racialization and patriarchy become invisible or merely cultural additions to them. In Stalinist Communist parties, for example, patriarchy was an issue like any other political issue, and they talked of a general equality between men and women. But, instead of seeing gender as a socially formative contradiction, as a vital way of organizing capital, they saw it as a secondary contradiction, as something to be dealt with after the revolution. When this happens, class becomes ideological because it occludes the social, historical, and political nature of social organization itself.

When I was younger, liberal feminism – which was the standard feminism at the time – never took the category of race into account. Some liberal feminists were minimally interested in class, but even good Marxist feminists, such as Sheila Rowbotham, didn’t have any understanding of the implications of “race.” As a result, the word “woman” became an abstract thing, or an empty signifier, a bag into which white women’s interests were smuggled in as universal interests. To some extent, this mimics what Marx says about bourgeois universality. When the bourgeoisie comes to power, it speaks in the name of all because it otherwise cannot legitimate its own needs as a group. The women’s movement spent a long time doing that by using the word “woman” as a supposedly inclusive category, while they were, in reality, ignoring class and racialization. So it’s always possible to use so-called enlightened resistance categories in a non-resistant fashion, depending on how you understand the social nature of class. That is what is singularly lacking in the white left – its complete lack of interest in trying to understand that capitalism cannot be seen as a working system of social organization without looking at all of these constitutive differences of practice and power. There comes to be a world of what I would call “white” Marxism, which is particularly common within the mainstream North American trade union movement, and which, in not addressing issues affecting working classes in general, is inadequate for organizing.

UTA: How do we balance using these named categories when we understand them not to be centralized ontological categories? Can they be used strategically?

Himani: You don’t have to be strategic. You can use the category “woman” and then you can talk about the specificity of the lives and experiences of different women in social relations. There can surely be a women’s movement organized around patriarchy in which we become mutually aware of class and race.

UTA: Isn’t it harder than that if you think about people who try to qualify the word “woman” itself? Transgender people often feel marginalized within that category, as the word woman doesn’t necessarily describe them or include them. On the other hand you can continue unraveling and analyzing, but it seems as though, in the interests of organizing, you have to stop at some point, and say that this is a category.

Himani: You don’t ever have to stop because criticism or critique doesn’t stop. But you have to be clear about what you’re trying to do. It’s one thing to write a theoretical essay where you’re not acting except as a writer, but if you’re working with a women’s shelter, for example, surely you have to deal with issues of sexuality and transgender. And it doesn’t have to come down to any final definition. We have to be practical in terms of how we approach the issue of resistance, and be sensitized by social relations of oppression and power. If we are organizing unemployed people, we have to take into account how people of colour face the worst aspects of unemployment; racialization is, therefore, an issue. You have to see how women from non-white groups are treated and what sexual orientation these people have and how people within the communities treat each other.

Some of these categories may not be useful if you have a shelter for white women that is administered by white women. You may not have to deal with the issue of race directly, but you may if you have to compare the white women’s shelter to an immigrant women’s shelter. So the question of racialization comes up, and categories are useful insofar as you deal with them situationally. That we know about racialization and the various possibilities of power relations is a resource to draw upon. It’s not even strategic essentialism because there’s really no pragmatic strategy. It’s really rather a question of dealing with things at hand, of organizing in the here and now with an implicit constitutive and concrete social analytsis.

UTA: How do you reconcile Marx’s Eurocentric tendencies?

Himani: I think that the Marxist tradition is useful for understanding issues particular to Third World countries. I make a distinction between Marx’s method of inquiry and the content of his texts in terms of what he learned about people. A lot of the content of Marx’s work is very problematic when it comes to countries like India, but on the other hand, the fact is that social relations of a proprietary nature exist in other parts of the world. Using Marx’s method, I can look at what kind of social relations people have, who owns what, how people make a living, what the relationship is between their intellectual life and their everyday life. But Marx will not tell me what I will find. That is the work of history and sociology.

Marx’s accounts of colonialism were based on texts by such people as James Mill, who falsely characterized India as a primitive or village society. Why would Marx take colonialist accounts of colonial spaces at face value? Why was he not suspicious of them when he knew that colonialism was “written in the annals of blood and fire”? I don’t know. But other than women writers of his time, Marx is the only thinker who says that everyday life is the basis of social theorization. Marx’s work is very valuable for that, given that this society is a property society where difference is always inscribed with social relations and ideologies of power. Class is therefore not a transcendental or essentialist category, but a fact of civil society. His is the only critical apparatus we have to conceretely theorize society, history, politics, and the connections between them and forms of consciousness. Until Marx, consciousness was theoretically privileged over everyday life. So I criticize Marx’s Eurocentric tendencies by using his own method. Marx did not fetishize his predecessors, and we shouldn’t fetishize Marx.

As a woman, I feel close to Marx because I see the value of everyday life. How life is produced, how a home is run, how you make a living, how that exchange value that you get becomes use-value by cooking in your kitchen. Homes are places where exchange value constantly becomes use-value, whereas commodities become exchange values in the market. As a feminist, as a Marxist, and as a person from a Third World country, I find Marx to be useful, and to be useful beyond his Eurocentrism. This is not to deny that he had a Eurocentric perspective when it came to the content of understanding cultures. He showed the same weakness as all 19th century savants.

UTA: Could you speak a bit about how your involvement in feminist theory and practice has altered or contributed to your way of reading Marx?

Himani: I don’t think I could be a good Marxist thinker if I were not a feminist and an anti-racist one. Marxism is the politicization of the social, and I don’t really see how I could think about the social without having an analytical perspective on each of its aspects. I do come from an orthodox Marxist background, and there was never a time when we didn’t have some sort of feminist understanding. Growing up I read Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State by Engels, which is an extremely radical statement even today. The Communist Manifesto has some damning passages concerning the bourgeois family, and the sarcastic equation of marriage with prostitution. These Marxist works echoed in the hearts and minds of many women because they had no other way of making a living except by leaving home and getting married, or by becoming domestic servants or prostitutes.

When I was growing up, the number of women professionals was small, and it was really only the Communist Party that insisted on the equality of the labour of both sexes. But the only equality we ever talked about was the equality of women’s labour and participation; what goes on otherwise, for example within homes and families, was not part of the project. As the parties became less revolutionary and more and more petty bourgeois, they began to fetishize the family. The whole question of violence against women and domestic violence was ignored as material for politics, and the same goes for sexuality.

UTA: What do intellectuals do without a party?

Himani: Well, create some kind of an organization, I think. Marxism is alive in the academic world in the West. In India, at one time, trade unions had active education that used translations of the Communist Manifesto to teach literacy. Those sorts of things have completely gone, and now the economic function of trade unions is really what overrides its educational and political function. In a university setting, a number of people come to us and we interact with them. But it’s unstable, and it’s geared towards the production of a degree.

I feel inadequate doing this teaching because I’m just another interested reader of Marx. I feel a kind of an emptiness that’s sort of like being in an echo chamber. The reality of what I teach is lost, although I don’t negate the value of good thinking. I guess in a way the vacuum I’m expressing is called the University. There is a onesided exercise of intellect going on. It’s like having one end of the bridge and not finding any landing on the other side. There’s a groundlessness.

UTA: It’s easy to feel that way in academia, but don’t younger people, who primarily come to politics through mobilization, feel this same sense of disconnect between theorizing and practice? Folks really need a political practice that transforms their actions into a larger strategy and political program. How do we inform them with a deeper analysis around race, class, and gender?

Himani: People start with some sensitization, but doing is the best teacher you can have. Until you hit a wall, of course. And we also have to ask how we educate ourselves. Marx was right when he asked who would educate the educators; I would expand this to include a formulation of what educates as well. You only begin to feel a barrier when you try to cross it. Living in Canada, I’ve often heard people say that it’s so free, that there’s nothing to complain about. They don’t feel the fence because they haven’t gone up to the fence to ask for something. As soon as people ask, they feel the fence. I think this is key, that it’s not really who so much as what because it’s only in trying to do something that you have to fight, and figure out what is actually going on. As individual thinkers, we rarely stand back and admit our mistakes.

In the spirit of Marx, it is as important for me to question Marx. Marx was an extremely secular, polemical, and sarcastic thinker. The sacred never had much purchase with him, so to make him sacred, to entomb him, is not in the spirit of Marx. I really had to think hard about how much of Marx to take, and I came to the conclusion that I was interested in Marx’s method but not that interested in some of the content of Marx’s work. I don’t think that his work can be summarized because he’s so methodological, because he’s thinking about thinking a lot of the time.

He is a relational writer, and, of course, not a very friendly relational writer. So I think of Marx as a critical epistemologist. Dorothy Smith took some aspects of that methodological inclination out of certain texts and mainlyt the critique of ideology. It is, for both, not a question of false consciousness, but an epistemological problem.

UTA: Who else has influenced your understanding of Marxism?

Himani: I’ve been influenced by Walter Benjamin, mainly in regards to his understanding of history as the the use of the past in the here and the now, and the impossibility of replaying history. This here and the now involves a delving into the past in order to throw light on the now, and a using of the now to throw light on the past, but it is not a recuperative attempt. He never thought that the past would be brought back and made real. This would be the project of the fascists: the conversion of history into myth.

People who mythologize history end up by creating frightening state forms, not the least of which is the formation of the state of Israel. The myth of history has performed the worst kind of colonial occupation through the use of the notion of terra nullius, which essentially argues that the Palestinians didn’t exist in that space. The command of God and a historical claim to this space have allowed for the myth of a desert made green, and for the actual dispossession of a whole lot of people. Or in India, for example, the project of the Hindu right which has killed thousands of Muslims in the name of God and the myth of Hindu India, of returning the land to a claim of mythical origin. Benjamin has therefore given me an insight into how history can be used – or how it shouldn’t be used – and the relationship between myth and history. Which is not to say that I don’t believe in myths of liberation because even myths have social relationships created within them.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of polyphonality has been useful as well. Polyphonality is not the same thing as liberal pluralism; it is similar to the system of constitutive relations between contradictory voices that I was talking about earlier, which, in the end, creates a complex of social meanings that is necessarily multi-vocal.

I think that the first awakening I had regarding ‘race’ was from Fanon’s work. Even though he was not directly a Marxist, he was highly informed by Hegel, Marx, and Mao, and able to read colonialism both as a relation and as a phenomenon. Up to Lenin, people talked about capitalism as a structure, and left out the process by which a revolutionary agent is made a subject of and in history. Fanon asked that question for the first time. So much work by Marxists has been bereft of the necessary contribution of colonialism as an element of capitalism, and Fanon showed us that racialization, colonial discourse, and genocide are all part and parcel of the development of capitalism, and they entail a social psychology.

I’ve also really admired poets like Aimée Cesaire, writers from Senegal like Ousmane Sembene, George Lamming from the Caribbean, CLR James, and Black writers from the United States such as Zora Neal Hurston, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. Among women, I would say that I have been mainly influenced by Dorothy Smith and by some of Angela Davis’ and bell hooks’ early work.

UTA: In light of your appreciation of someone like Bahktin, what do you think of Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, and the poststructuralist appropriation or re-articulation of Marx?

Himani: I’m glad that Derrida got interested in Marx; he could have gotten interested in somebody else much less interesting and important. So I appreciate his appreciation, but I am not a Derridean scholar, and I don’t think that Specters of Marx actually has much to do with Marx. It’s an associative enterprise, and he really hangs the whole of his book on a metaphor, or one word pronouncement, in the preface to the Communist Manifesto. Derrida is a great thinker, and I’ve learned a lot from his notion of translation, for example, but I just do not see how Marx could be rendered into a set of metaphors. I don’t think that Derrida really has the framework for reading Marx. But then I don’t think that Spivak does either when she makes a comparison between Marx and Derrida. I don’t think that she understands what Marx meant by value. Value has become a moral category in her writing, which is far from Marx’s understanding of value.

UTA: Which is ironic because cultural studies was built upon a Marxist foundation. Structural linguistics came directly out of people using a Marxian critique of language.

Himani: I think it would be safe to say that nothing has been written since the late 19th century in social and political thought that does not in one way or another refer to Marx either in negation or in support. I don’t think the world of social theory can ever go back to a pre-Marxian era. This is not necessarily to say that all social theorists are themselves Marxist, but rather that genuine opposition is possible from the same frame of reference in the same way that Marx differed from Hegel.

UTA: Looking back on all of the scholarship and struggles that you’ve participated in, do you feel positive about where we’re headed?

Himani: I don’t feel positive about what’s happening, no. I do, however, share with many others an optimism of the will and a pessimism of the intellect. I think that these are very difficult and dark times, and dark in a strange way, for it’s also as though, on the underside of the earth, seeds are germinating. Where this is going to go is not clear to me, and, in fact, I think Western countries are actually crypto-fascist in their preparation for repression and in their coralling of migrant labour. And racialization is used extensively to control refugees and asylum seekers and in the terrorization of anti-terror laws for all sections of the population. I think that before it gets better it is going to get far, far worse. It reminds me of the Europe of the late 1920s and early 30s in a lot of ways, when all possibilities of going to the left were squashed.

I see lots of little political projects, but it’s clear to me that it can’t be any one political party taking sole agency for revolutionary change. In India, the communist movement is very strong, and there are two provinces that have communist governments, and mass fronts for women, students and peasants which do seem to have an impact. In the Western countries, though, I don’t really think that party politics of that kind is going to do it. It has to involve some sort of working peoples organizations around basic issues, a foundational way to oppose the structural dimensions of capital, while the social and ideological dimensions are also attended to.

The anti-war movement, and anti-racism and various other movements around rights could probably fit into a larger project. Even though the notion of rights is rather toothless, the discourse opens up huge educational possibilities, and furthers development towards a more critical social thinking.

What frightens me more are people – I will not call them postmodernists because I don’t know what that means – who are cynical about socialism and Marxism, and about any organized movement against capital. They are very cynical about any kind of socialist enterprise, and on the other hand, they are also critical of liberal democratic politics around citizenship and human rights. They have actually resurrected a lot of right wing thinkers, even extreme ones like Schmidt, for example, or more complex but reactionary thinkers, such as Heidegger. Fascists had a quite searing critique of liberals. It’s a kind of middle class politics which is radical, but individualistic, anti-social, and dismissive of any collective enterprise. It appears to me that they are building a negative politics with parallels within the forces of the right.

So I don’t feel very uplifted, but I also don’t think we have to lie down and die either. I’d really like to see a little less volunteerism, and less of the kind of hobby politics that has come to characterize many questions of life in our times.

UTA: And the optimism of the will?

Himani: Not being part of an organization is difficult for me, though I teach wonderful people, and I see them changing and thinking. The universities are changing in that students are no longer so uniformly dedicated to an elitist discursive stance. Recent experience in India has been good too, with the defeat of the Hindu right. This is very important because it didn’t come from the middle class, but from the most oppressed people in the country. I feel good about Chàvez in Venezuela, and about what’s happening in Bolivia in struggles against privatization.

If people in the 1930s could still continue to fight, we have no reason to give up. I think of somebody like Brecht writing those wonderful line; “will there be singing in the dark times?” to which he answers, “there will be singing in the dark times about the dark times.” I feel moved to think and act. The most frightening thing is silence. So if we could sing about the dark times in the 30s and 40s, when Germany had Hitler, Italy had Mussolini, France had Vichy, Spain had Franco, Portugal had Salazar, England had Chamberlain, and America was supplying war goods to Germany… if people could write and fight then, it would be utterly self-indulgent to not go on fighting now, and singing about what we can become.