Re-collecting Guha through a counter-archival lens

Alice Corble

The impact of Guha on my work is different to that of my senior colleagues and alumni from University of Sussex who have engaged directly with his scholarship and teaching. I encountered Guha somewhat obliquely yet at close quarters, via the small but potent fragments that remain of him in the university’s archival records. Finding traces of him there, hidden away in the quiet clinical space of the reading room at The Keep, brought to life the power of his mind, his voice, and the archive itself.

The power of the archive is of course a major force in the work of any historian, but in Guha’s case there is an archival energy that that appears to transcend the material boundaries of buildings and printed matter, transmuting the small voices of history into larger collective forms of articulation. Stuart Hall’s sense of a collective living archive was embodied through the intergenerational and transnational legacies and influences of his work and his character was palpable at the Remembering Guha event, as past and present scholars, students and activists gathered together to share memories, musings and provocations about their interactions with the man and his work. This culminated in a moving musical presentation from Moushumi Bhowmik, who was visiting Sussex from Kolkata with her Travelling Archive, her reflections and song reverberating ethereally around the circular concrete and coloured-glass brick space of The Meeting House.

Moushumi Bhowmik presenting in the University of Sussex Meeting House, 20th October 2023. Photo credit: Alice Corble

My own presentation at this event was based on the records of institutional rather than personal memory, linking archival collections with the social connections living through the legacies of Guha’s scholarship. Through the University of Sussex collection I have been able to travel back in time to connect with Guha’s contributions to Sussex. Guha’s work countered the colonial silencing of the historical record. This is still happening, and Sussex is not exempt. There are only two known documents penned by him in this archive (out of a total of around 700 archival boxes). These are like two small stars in a very large galaxy, which may be hard to find but they do burn bright. 

The first record I uncovered is a copy of a syllabus of one of Guha’s modules, titled ‘History Special Subject: IMPERIALISM, 1879-1914.’ (SxUOS7/36/1) This fifteen-page typescript document is signed R. Guha and dated March 1969. It is divided into three parts:

(A) a one-page course outline split into the following eight weekly subject areas: Concepts and theories; Interests and Rivalries; Continental Imperialisms; Expansion and Consolidation: Collaboration and Resistance; Instruments of Expansion; Pioneers and Promoters; Parties and Politics: For and Against Imperialism; Propagation of the Imperial Idea. Each of these sections have numbered subsections that detail the countries, figures and projects that detail each of these subject areas.

(B) A twelve-page bibliography which totals 298 references spanning an incredibly diverse range of cross-disciplinary sources.

(C) A two-page alpha-numerical instructional list to guide students in how to match the extensive bibliography to the sections and subsections of the curriculum topic outline.

The syllabus lists the eighth and final topic of the curriculum as ‘The Propagation of the Imperial Idea’, broken into four parts: (8.1) The Thinkers: Seely, Froude, Dilke; Mary Kingsley; (8.2) The Writers: Kipling; Austin; Henly; Henty; Haggard; (8.3) Indoctrination of the Youth: Clubs and Brigades, Associations; (8.4) The Press. The Music Hall. The Patriotic Crowd. The way in which this course is structured and concludes goes far beyond any traditional academic approaches to teaching history, expanding into the realms of what would later become methodologies of the British Cultural Studies tradition. The inclusion of literary authors and cultural texts on the reading list also testifies to Guha’s intellectual formation at the intersections of history, philosophy, and literature, on which he reflects in his later writings, notably History at the Limit of World-History (2002).

Sussex humanities undergraduate degree programmes still today include a ‘special subject’ module in the third year. Having worked in the Library reading list team over the past few years, I know that there are no reading lists anywhere near as extensive and complex as this. Students of Guha must have had to dedicate a lot of time to succeed in this course, which I imagine was complemented by their teacher’s critical pedagogy in the tutorial system that was in place during Guha’s tenure at Sussex. This small-scale tutorial teaching is long gone in today’s neoliberal academic teaching machine which crams large numbers of students into lecture halls for more transactional modes of education. As Rudrangshu Mukherjee reflects, “Guha taught his students and his readers to read texts against their grain to gouge out answers that were not apparently visible.” He trained them in a counter-archival mode of enquiry that he himself was steeped in as he laid the foundations for his Subaltern Studies work during his years at Sussex.

It would appear Guha’s time at Sussex was spent somewhat in the shadows, confining himself to reading and teaching. As Partha Chatterjee recalls, “during this time he did not publish any academic article or books, he would even largely avoid going to conferences. Basically, he was in a self-imposed exile from the professional community of historians”. Sussex Emeritus Professor of Geography Tony Binns, who attended the Remembering Guha event, corroborates this, sharing the following personal reflections:

During my first 5 years or so (1975-1980) I had an office on level 2 in AFRAS (Arts C) opposite Ranajit Guha. I remember him being a quiet and unassuming person who spent most of his time in his office and the library and was rarely seen socialising in the school common room. I guess he must have been in his fifties then? I arrived just after David Pocock (Anthropology) stepped down as Dean and Ieuan Griffiths (Geography) took over. There was clearly some tension between Guha and Pocock, and I remember Griffiths saying he had difficulty dealing with him. I think Ranajit Guha was probably a rather marginalised figure in AFRAS and I don’t recollect him being promoted or being a member of key committees.” (Email, 24 October 2023)

These reflections chime with Guha’s own (1998) account of ‘The Migrant’s Time’, in which the diasporic subject “finds himself more often than not as an unwelcome guest” in his host community, cut adrift from a shared past with barriers to finding “a toehold in that living present where a communal identity renews itself as incessantly in the day-to-day transactions between people as it is promptly reinforced by a common code of belonging.”

The second archived text by Guha in the University of Sussex collection is a typescript letter with the following heading:


This quite remarkable two-page letter testifies to Guha’s moral and intellectual integrity and acerbic fearlessness to speak truth to power in matters of conscience. It regards the furore that broke out on the Sussex campus when in Summer 1973 a group of student union activists from the Indo-China Solidarity Committee prevented American political scientist Samuel P. Huntingdon, visiting from the US, from giving his guest lecture, on the grounds of his imperialist ideology and complicity with state violence via his work with the Pentagon during the Vietnam War. The students had been refused the right to publicly challenge him at the lecture so decided to use peaceful direct-action tactics instead and the lecture was cancelled. The protests hit the national headlines, with newspapers and politicians from both sides of the political spectrum criticising Sussex for threatening academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Guha’s letter responds to having been unwillingly dragged into this affair by the AFRAS Dean’s apparent insistence that all AFRAS faculty should implicitly rally together on the side of freedom of speech to appease the establishment. Guha did not hold back in his response:

“Let me make this quite clear to you. You may be the Dean or God Almighty Himself. But you cannot decide for me on which side of the American war in Vietnam I should take my stand. As one who belongs to the Third World I feel I have had enough of academics who would not condemn the rape of our continents, the defoliation of our forests, the pollution of our waters and skies, the destruction of our villages and the contamination of embryos in the wombs of our women by U.S. napalm-bombing, germ-bombing, defoliation-bombing, nuclear bombing, and yet come out with a load of sophistries about an American warmonger’s freedom of speech on the campus.  […]

And in case this note tempts you to ‘classify’ me as an extremist of some alien brand, let me tell you that in stating my position as above I feel rooted in a great British academic tradition. It is the tradition that inspired undergraduates from British universities to volunteer to fight against Franco and the perpetrators of Guernica. It is this tradition that makes me despise the intellectual allies of the perpetration of My Lai. There is, of course, the other academic tradition, too: that of Appeasement as represented by the Munich men of pre-war All Souls, Oxford, where, appropriately enough, Huntingdon has been offered asylum during his current visit. I have chosen the academic tradition that suits my conscience. Rupert Wilkinson has chosen the tradition that suits his. If you want to side with him, feel free to do so, but for God’s sake, Don’t presume to speak for me at least. And if you want to introduce a debate in the School on this matter, do so by all means. Only don’t try to sell us this initiative of yours as a blow in defence of some abstract and ideal Freedom of Speech. Call it by its real name – that is, Politics of a Particular Kind.” – Signed by hand, Ranajit Guha. (SxUOS1/5/6/5/6/17/1)

As I read this letter in the quiet clinical atmosphere of the archival reading room, his striking clarion call crackled with its fiery message. Guha’s voice cuts through the discursive pontifications of the academic elite and the press, waking the reader up with an authenticity of mind which today’s mainstream media pundits would no doubt cast disparagingly as overly ‘woke’. The memorandum certainly holds a timely resonance for today’s neo-colonial wars both at home and in the Middle East.

I am not a formally trained historian myself, having completed a BA in Literature and Philosophy, an MA in Cultural Studies, and a PhD in Sociology; however there has been a strong historical focus threaded throughout my interdisciplinary research and professional work in libraries and archives over the past two decades. This has led to commencing my current position as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of Global Studies (Department of International Development), which takes a historical sociological approach to exploring the question of what ‘decolonising the university’ means through the prism of the library, archival memory, oral histories and transnational legacy relationships between Sussex and academic bodies of knowledge and resistance in Britain’s former colonies. I strive to take a grounded, ‘bottom-up’ and epistemically disobedient approach to this work in collaboration with scholars, activists, librarians, and archivists working along and against the colonial grain of knowledge production.  

I think we can infer from both Guha’s Imperialism syllabus and his letter to Pocock that his contributions to developing radical history in the interdisciplinary social studies programmes at Sussex were ways of working through what he defined in his 1963 book A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement as the “epistemological paradox”: the ways in which bourgeois and statist forms of knowledge are hell-bent on structurally transforming and maintaining master-slave relations between Imperial rulers and their semi-feudal subject. The idea of ‘permanent settlement’ here pertains not only to land and property, but also to what constitutes legitimate bodies of knowledge and ways of life and forms of economic and social reproduction.  In this sense, I’d like to suggest that what Guha was contributing to Sussex through his teaching and research was a rigorous decolonial unsettling of the British episteme, as an insider-outsider disrupting the geopolitical ‘map of learning’ through counter-archival praxis. Today, Sussex’s corporate strategy includes the phrases “disruptive by design” and “dare to be different”, but from what I have observed here, the institution does not make this easy to do, particularly for racially minoritized scholars.

As Vinita Damodaran cites in her Sussex obituary of Guha, her late husband Richard Grove (Professorial Fellow and co-founder of the Centre for World Environmental History at Sussex) characterised Guha’s work as developing knowledge with “the sticks and stones of history”. This can be understood both in terms of the British Marxist tradition of making history from below, and in the grounded context of subaltern struggles for articulation and power in the field (both literally and metaphorically) of survival and transformation in colonial, post-colonial and neo-colonial terrains. Sticks and stones can break subaltern bones, but as Guha’s work testifies, the small voices of history can triumph.


Sections of this article have been adapted from an earlier blog by the author: Corble, A. (2023) ‘Re-collecting Ranajit Guha through a counter-archival lens’, Decolonial Maps of Library Learning, 3 November.

Alice Corble is an interdisciplinary sociologist, scholar-activist, educator and practitioner. Her praxis is grounded in the role that libraries and archives play in past and present fields of social and epistemic (in)justice.  With fifteen years professional experience in these sectors, she is presently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Sussex School of Global Studies, undertaking a multi-sited ethnographic and archival project tilted Postcolonial library legacies and new transnational maps of learning (2023-2026).This builds on her previous AHRC-RLUK Professional Practice Fellowship and teaching role at University of Sussex Library (2019-2023). Alice also teaches as a Associate Lecturer on the Library and Information Studies MA at University College London, and is the East Atlantic Lead for the Critical Race Theory Collective.

Header Image Credit: Author’s own


Corble, Alice 2024. ‘Re-collecting Guha through a counter-archival lens’ Discover Society: New Series 4 (1):