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The Quality of Empathy

Moushumi Bhowmik

I came to Ranajit Guha’s work only recently, late in my life. If I had been a first year at university then my teachers and peers would tell me what to read and how to read him. Now I must seek assistance in writings on Guha, from his readers, scholars and critics; in interviews and reminiscences.

The good thing about coming so late to someone’s work, especially to work as vast and deep as an ocean, is that by now I have a measure of my own self, I know that I have not learned to swim and I can’t even stay afloat, but barely dip my ankles in the water. I also know a thing or two about what I can take home after hours of sitting by the shore; some sand sticks to my feet, that I must  dust off before walking in through the door. But I keep with me the sights of the rising waves I have seen and their sound as they come crashing, ships which cross the horizon, small fishing boats, even drowning people I was unable to save.

It is with such sounds and sights and feelings that I tried to loosely sketch an impression of Ranajit Guha, translating what I have understood to be some of his lifelong concerns and questions, into song.   

On 20 October 2023, when we had gathered at the University of Sussex to remember Ranajit Guha, two weeks of systematic destruction of life in Palestine had passed, following the 7 October bloody Hamas operation against Israeli occupation. Is there no daya left in our hearts? Where is the quality of empathy? There was an all-pervasive feeling of helplessness, even on the faces of those who were courageously marching to stop the killing spree. 

Around 2008, Ranajit Guha had started to write a Bengali book entitled Daya: Rammohan Roy O Amader Adhunikata (Empathy/Compassion: Rammohan Roy and Our Modernity) which was first published in 2010. 

‘We easily forget’, he wrote in its Prelude, which he subtitled ‘The Victory of Cruelty’. ‘If we couldn’t forget, then perhaps our very existence would be unbearable under the weight of remembrance. So, we need to forget. Even to those who witnessed Partition [of India] in their childhood and youth, that experience has faded now as [the colours and details] in an old scroll painting. The dust of Mahakal (Endless Time) falls on the past and everything fades away. Dust has begun to settle on the communal frenzy in Gujarat which happened barely seven or eight years ago. Which is why millions of people are unable to see in their minds’ eyes what they had actually seen. However, we know that the discipline of history and forgetting are sworn enemies. Hence, with my belief in justice [attainable through remembrance], I have picked up my pen to write about a much older time, to remind ourselves of 2002. [Lest we forget.]’ (Guha, 2021: 13; translation mine). 

‘Daya diye hobe go mor jiban dhute/Noile ki aar parbo tomar charan chhnute‘ (I must wash my life with daya/ How else can I touch your feet?) Rabindranath Tagore’s 1910 song rang in my ears. Ranajit Guha wrote extensively on Tagore and I wonder if this was one his favourite songs? His student, the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, wrote after his death that in writing only in Bangla/ Bengali during the last decades of his life, Ranajit da was ‘returning home’.  In her memoirs Danube, Ganges, and Other Life Streams, Methchild Guha wrote: ‘Ranajit and I discussed many times what our roots were. He feels rooted in Bengali language and culture irrespective of where he lives, and, believing it crucial to maintain this sense of identity, he kept pressing me to similarly acknowledge the culture and language that had formed me,’ (Guha, 2014: 49).  

The Bengal of Ranajit’s birth is where I have travelled over the past decades, listening to songs and stories and making recordings of what may be considered ‘small voices’ of history, with my machine and in my memory. But ‘small’, says who? In the pouring rain of the monsoon month of Sraban, the women of Barisal are singing songs to the snake goddess Manasa; the song rises above the sound of the rain, then it drowns, and rises again–one female voice leads, others repeat the lines. I have heard them and imagine that Ranajit had also heard such sounds when he was a small boy, for Barisal was his birthplace. Perhaps this was also the language and culture that had formed him? Why did he not write about these little things of his own history? 

Ranajit Guha ‘turned down all requests to write an autobiography,’ wrote Partha Chatterjee. ‘He even did not want to give any long interviews on his life and work. He would refuse saying, “It is not possible to write the truth about one’s own life. Whatever autobiographies you read, know that they are full of lies.”” (Chatterjee, 2023: 86) But for some reason he did give Partha Chatterjee a long interview on 1 and 2 July 2018 in his home in Purkersdorf on the edge of the Vienna Woods; he was 95 at the time. They talked about books he read as a boy, the library at home, his grandfather, teachers, early friendships, introduction to communist ideology, Tagore, Bankim, his comrades, literature, politics, history-writing, subaltern studies and so much more, but not much about the interior of his childhood home and other realms of feeling. The conversation is marked by the stark absence of voices of women. There was an externality in that conversation, such as there is in Bengali male intellectual addas.

How to listen to that absence? How to interpret it? In The Art of Listening, Les Back wrote about the need for deep sociological listening, which is ‘tied to the art of [‘thick’] description’. (Back, 2007: 21). We must be able to listen to both the presence and absence of sound.

It is interesting that Ranajit Guha had opened up in a different way during another conversation that he had with the Bastar folklorist Harihar Vaishnav in Canberra in 1991. The master dhokra or bell metal sculptor Jaydev Baghel of Chattisgarh was also present in the room, along with anthropologist Chris Gregory. Ranajit Guha was talking in Hindi and this translation by Pritha Banerjee is from a  special volume  dedicated to him which was published after his death by Anushtup in Kolkata, edited by Simool Sen. ‘I am a Dukkhabadi (I incline towards sorrow),’ Ranajit had said to Harihar Vaishnav. ‘I see both happiness as well as dejection. I have seen both. But I perceive a sense of remorse in the unprecedented fate of mankind. […]  But the battle must be waged. It doesn’t matter whether you triumph or fail. The struggle must go on.’

Vaishnav then asked him if there was any one incident he remembered which gave him both inspiration and pain?  ‘I don’t know about any specific event,’ Ranajit said, ‘but there is one that I can recall. You people are all young, born after Independence. There is one event before Independence that has left a mark on all people’s lives — British Rule. Before our independence, the era of British rule was an era of humiliation. I cannot begin to tell you how deeply humiliating the situation was. An Englishman had the power to come to this country and demean its own citizens. My childhood was situated within this corridor of humiliation. My family was an elite, upper class family in Bangladesh. We were big Hindu landowners. When I was a child, I saw peasants being thrashed with shoes by members of zamindari (landowning) families like mine. There was a farmer who lived near my house. He was older than me. I used to call him Dada. Although I belonged to a wealthy family, he brought coconuts for me. When he went fishing in the river, he used to take me along in his boat. I saw my uncle and his servants in our zamindari family pummel him with shoes. One day, he was heartbroken and left his home and the village. He thought my family was affectionate towards him. But they beat him with shoes – that was sheer insult! He left in a small boat. My young mind was affected by this. This agony occupied my mind since childhood. This is a short anecdote. It’s not political. It is empathy. It is sympathy. My discernment, my anger come from that place.’ 

I think it was a real political act on the part of Ranajit Guha to draw from the deep well of empathy and fight the battle ‘that must be waged’, throughout his long life. 

Here is a clip from my presentation at a memorial event for historian Ranajit Guha (1923-2023) at the University of Sussex on 20 October 2023. My presentation-performance was entitled ‘Some Small Voices of History: Listening after Ranajit Guha’. The composition I sing, first setting the context, is of the Bengali poet and composer Rabindranath Tagore, written in 1910.


Back, Les 2007. The Art of Listening (Oxford, New York: Berg)

Guha, Methchild 2014.  Danube, Ganges , and Other Life Streams  (New Delhi: Permanent Black)

Chatterjee, Partha ed. 2023 Ranajit Guha Sahityer Satya (Kolkata: Anushtup)

Guha, Ranajit 2021. Daya: Rammohan Roy O Amader Adhunikata (Kolkata: Adom)

Sen, Simool ed. 2023. Ranajit Guha Bishesh Sankhya (Kolkata: Anustup)

Moushumi Bhowmik is an Indian singer-songwriter, writer and researcher based in Kolkata.

Header Image Credit: The Travelling Archive


Bhowmik, Moushumi 2024. ‘The Quality of Empathy’ Discover Society: New Series 4 (1):

Property and the Political Economy of Colonialism

Gurminder K Bhambra

Ranajit Guha, as set out so clearly in the other articles in this issue, was a complex man. He was at the University of Sussex for close on twenty years and is most well-known for work that he did at the end of that period; that is, his work on historiography and the setting up of Subaltern Studies. My own initial encounter with Guha’s work was through these very studies. In particular, I was taken with the way in which he used historiography to investigate the exclusion of the subaltern from the structure of academic disciplines and thereby revealed the parochial and partial nature of the histories produced. Here, I want to return to his earlier work; to his first book, A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the idea of Permanent Settlement.

Guha had started work on this topic in the 1950s and it was published in 1963 by a French publisher around the time that Guha started as a lecturer at Sussex. By all accounts, Asa Briggs, then Dean of the Social Sciences, who would go on to become Vice Chancellor, had invited Guha to apply for the job on the basis of this work. Around the same time, Briggs was also involved in bringing the economic historian, Donald Winch, to Sussex. Winch’s first book, Classical Political Economy and the Colonies, was published two years after Guha’s and ostensibly dealt with similar themes. It was developed from his dissertation which dealt with ‘the optimal conditions for colonial economic development’ and was primarily focused on Britain’s settler colonies with only a brief discussion of India via the work of the Mills.

The overlap between their concerns is sufficient, however, for it to be a puzzle – at least ostensibly – as to why they never appeared to acknowledge the work of the other. Winch did reference Stokes’s The English Utilitarians and India, which had been published just prior to Guha’s book and with which it was often compared and addressed in tandem. One reason could be that provided by David Fieldhouse in his review of Winch’s book which notes that while Winch ‘is good on economic theory, … [he] is obviously less strong on colonial history’. However, this would be to point to an intellectual divergence that was confirmed only through Guha’s later work directly addressing the colonial context. A Rule of Property is as much focused on economic theory as is Winch’s text and I will discuss the implications of their similarity subsequently. First, to the text itself.  

A Rule of Property addresses the debates that took place between East India Company administrators in Bengal in the late eighteenth century around the status of land, how it was best to be managed, and the consequences of this for the possibility of colonial governance and deriving revenue over the longer term. The focus of the debates was the idea of a ‘permanent settlement’ or solution. The primary impetus was that a new way of organising the ownership of the land was required and that this would be best served by entrusting its care to ‘a class of native entrepreneurs who had solid interests in the land and were politically reliable’ (p9). That is, the proposals being debated were around establishing a right of private property in land. The security of landownership was deemed to be necessary for the creation of a sound administration.

It was acknowledged by the colonial administrators of the time that they held no good title to the land. Alexander Dow, for example, noted that while the provinces were held ‘in appearance, by a grant from the present emperor’, in reality, they were only maintained ‘by the right of arms’ (quoted in Guha p25). As such, what was necessary was to establish the legitimacy of dominion beyond that which was provided through the act of conquest. This was done by developing economic theories that saw the territory governed as if it were a Company estate. This estate could then be parcelled out to local zamindars who would come to own the land, permanently, as property and be made responsible for the payment of taxes on it, thus ensuring a steady stream of revenue for the colonial government. It was this separation of the right of ownership from the right to collect revenue that would establish the permanence of dominion.

Guha, impressively and rigorously – as Sanjay Subrahamyam notes in his obituary – ‘took apart the minutes, proposals and counterproposals that were presented and debated in the administrative councils of the time’. He set out their different economic premises – deriving from mercantilist, physiocratic, and classical political economy – and demonstrated that, despite their differences, they nonetheless shared a common political focus, establishing the permanence of orderly dominion. However, this political orientation, is much less a concern for Guha in A Rule of Property, rather, his focus is on the detail of the economic debates.

As an aside – as I was reading in preparation for this, I came across reference to a review of Guha’s book, by Sarvepalli Gopal, published in 1966, who regarded it primarily as an exercise in British intellectual history, with the implication being that it was therefore of little concern to historians of India. A Das Gupta similarly suggested that the book had little to do with India ‘because India existed beyond the thoughts of Englishmen’. Guha rebutted this critique in the 1981 preface to the second edition of his book (comment and critique took longer in the times before social media) by stating that if the historical origins of the concepts and theories underpinning the most important land reform introduced by the British in India, which led to the statute of permanent proprietary rights, wasn’t important to the study of Indian history, he didn’t know what would be. Nonetheless, there was something to the critique.

While the importance of Guha’s book appears clear, to me at least, I am interested in the place of colonial histories in the book, or, rather, their absence. It is obvious that Guha is not unaware of them and, given his subsequent work, he is alert to the relationship between power and knowledge in the construction of disciplines and the production of histories. So, what accounts for his failure to locate the discussions of the East India Company administrators within their colonial context and discuss the implications of their theories with regard to that? I suggest that this is where the overlap between Guha and Winch is perhaps more pertinent.

The illegitimacy of colonial rule may have been so obvious to Guha that it was regarded as otiose to even mention that this was the context in which he was working. However, another explanation could be that, as a Marxist – as he was then and later – he worked within a frame of political economy that regarded capitalism as the more significant historical moment. One whose unfolding through time and history had to be understood in its own terms.

In Guha’s presentation of the discussions that were happening among colonial administrators about how best to organise the ownership and distribution of the land under their control, there is no questioning of their right to do so. The act of conquest is seemingly naturalised and forms no part of the contextualisation of the subsequent discussions oriented to establishing a permanence of dominion. As Subrahmanyam notes, Guha also had very little to say about ‘the complex property regimes [of the Mughal period] that had been in place before Company rule’. Something that was not omitted by at least one of the administrators under discussion, Dublin-born Phillip Francis.

This flattening of history and elision of its complexities enables colonial conquest to be made subordinate in an account of political economy oriented around ideas of capitalist development. This is also enabled through the way in which the debates constructed Mughal rule as despotic or feudal, at the same time as establishing a neo-feudal settlement. The British established despotism in the provinces and then claimed that Oriental despotism was the reason that they were needed in order to bring progress and modernity to these benighted areas!

While Guha’s political commitment to Marxism shifted over time – with him coming to support the Maoist Naxalbari peasant movements in the 1970s – the refusal to consider colonialism as central to the emergence and development of capitalism perhaps blunted the force of his arguments. Even in the terms of his own book, A Rule of Property, the question of colonialism is central to the emergence of the very need, on the part of the colonial administrators themselves, for a Permanent Settlement and yet this context is relegated to a few paragraphs.

I remember giving a lecture that mentioned British colonial rule in India and a student coming up to me afterwards and asking, ‘but what were the British doing in India?’ ‘Well, quite,’ I replied.

What were the British doing in India? And under what authority were they seeking to determine the patterns of land ownership and distribution there? And further, how do their understandings of property in the colonial context continue to shape our understandings in the present and how are our contemporary understandings inadequate to the extent that we do not acknowledge the significance of colonialism to the emergence of the very idea of property?

Not taking colonial histories seriously in the development of economic ideas is a shared elision in the work of Guha and Winch. While their political orientations may well have been different – Winch identified strongly as working class, whereas Guha saw himself as belonging to the Third World – what they had in common was a failure to acknowledge the significance of colonial histories to the emergence of a global political economy.

Guha’s identification with the struggles of the peasantry in the 1970s no doubt went on to shape his reflections on history and historiography, even if he did not return to consider the implications for political economy. This was also a moment when, as Vinita Damodaran notes, postcolonial nationalism was beginning to devour its children. Fifty years on, as political figures in India seek to decolonize from the ‘double empire’, it would be a shame – to put it mildly – if postcolonial perspectives were mobilized in the turn to populist ethno-religious nationalism as opposed to being the counter to it. Guha’s political commitments would undoubtedly have been with the latter.

Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Historical Sociology at the University of Sussex. She is author of Connected Sociologies and the award-winning Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination. She is also co-editor of Imperial Inequalities and co-author, with John Holmwood, of Colonialism and Modern Social Theory.

Header Image Credit: Book cover


Bhambra, Gurminder K 2024. ‘Property and the Political Economy of Colonialism’ Discover Society: New Series 4 (1):

Ranajit Guha: An inspirational and challenging teacher

Adi Cooper

I had the opportunity to share my reflections regarding being taught by Ranajit Guha at an event at Sussex University celebrating his career on 20th October 2023. I have had, and continue to have, a very varied career – I am a long away from where I was in 1984 submitting my PhD on the tebhaga movement, the sharecroppers’ struggle that took place in Bengal in the late 1940s. I have worked in the charity sector, as a paramedic, as a qualified social worker, manager and senior leader in Adult Social Services. I continue to work in the specialist field of safeguarding adults in England. This may appear quite random but there is a connection between then and now. People requiring safeguarding are often the most marginalised and vulnerable in our society in England; sharecroppers were amongst the most oppressed and dispossessed in rural communities in Bengal.


It is no exaggeration to say that Ranajit Guha changed my life; first in motivating me to undertake my degree in the School of African and Asian studies (AFRAS) in Sussex University, and then to undertake a PhD on sharecroppers’ struggles, particularly the tebhaga movement. In 1976, when I was choosing a subject for my PhD, no one had studied the tebhaga movement, which grew from a pre-history of peasant activism and was led by the Kisan Sabha, the peasant wing of the Communist Party of India.

Ranajit supported me to do my PhD in so many ways – significantly by advising me to do a PhD in the first place. I wanted to go to India after 3 years of studying Indian history and he said – ‘don’t go as a tourist but go as a scholar’, so I did. In Kolkata his connections sent me to the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences where I was supervised, befriended and supported by so many people through different networks, scholars and students. His name opened doors.

I had read – probably directed by Ranajit – Sunil Sen’s memoirs of being an activist in Dinajpur in the tebhaga movement. I wanted to know more: how, what, when and where the movement had taken place. I wanted to understand how marginalised and oppressed Bengali sharecroppers became the fighters, resisters, and activists in the tebhaga movement, demanding to keep a larger share of the crop, challenging the landlords and oppression in their lives. I wanted to record their history. I undertook conventional research and found written records in the Writers Building in Kolkata and government archives in Dhaka. I wanted to go beyond and behind these texts to find out from people who were still alive in the late 1970s what they remembered, and I was fortunate as so many people were able to tell me their stories.

I learnt Bengali before I left England and spent 2 years meeting and interviewing over 200 people who had been involved in the tebhaga struggles. I searched out people, followed up leads, used different networks to find them. I collected their memories, stories and songs. I spoke to so many different people, in towns and villages, young and old, men and women, in West Bengal and Bangladesh; landlords, sharecroppers and agricultural labourers, peasant activists and communists, including a Minister in the West Bengal CPM government. I travelled all over Bengal and then returned to England to write the PhD thesis. I tried to do justice to their experiences.

Studying the tebhaga movement was unconventional because it was about Bengal – both East and West Bengal, now Bangladesh and India. My privilege as foreign scholar was that I could do this, at that time, when local historians couldn’t cross the international border. This helped me with my own issues about being a white English woman doing this work. Local scholars assured me that in this way I could make a helpful contribution. In current discussions and debates about decolonising, I can frame this discomfort in a clearer way.

The post-colonial legacy of guilt haunted me even though my own family were immigrants to the UK, and anti-imperialists. They were communists. In this context I remember walking through some paddy fields with an interpreter (because my Bengali wasn’t adequate for understanding all the local dialects), in single file behind an elderly peasant activist who was walking ahead of us, whom I was going to interview, talking to himself. ‘What was he saying?’ The interpreter told me – ‘he was asking himself, ‘why has this English woman come all this way to speak to me. This because of international communism’. This has stayed with me for decades. There was some truth in his reflection because I had been brought up with an internationalist perspective in a communist family.

Studying in Sussex

Ranajit had been my tutor throughout my undergraduate course, as well as supervising my PhD. I had met him in 1972, arriving in Brighton after travelling overland from Pakistan. Coming back to Sussex I really wanted to know more about the history of the non-European world. A schoolfriend introduced me to Ranajit and I was inspired. I moved across to AFRAS and this changed the course of my life. University life in Sussex in the 1970s was very different to how I understand it might be now. Sussex had a radical reputation both academically and in terms of the student experience. The radical approach to learning was why I had applied to go there: the inter-disciplinary schools of studies and the more fluid approach to curriculum, with courses based on cross-cutting themes like ‘millenarian movements’, rather than historical periods. I was attracted to the radical political activism that Sussex was known for. I was already involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement, anti-Vietnam demos, school student radicalism in London. Sussex was perfect for me.

It was a privilege to be taught by Ranajit although I don’t think I recognised this at the time – you take for granted that your experience is normal when you are young and have little to compare it with. I have memories only of tutorials with 2 or 3 other students. Ranajit spoke about whatever the subject was – he was hugely knowledgeable, and there were discussions and debates. I remember him talking about the way in which Greek philosophers taught their students through discourse. So, his teaching methods did make sense. What was this like for students? Exciting and scary. Writing essays to explore ideas. Being pushed to think and consider different ways of thinking. Light bulb moments. Stimulating and intellectually challenging. Terrifying and I was always in awe of him. Our essays would be tightly critiqued with respect and ambition. Correcting our use of language. ‘Inspirational and challenging’ as I called this piece.

He was an intellectual giant – Anna (another student of Ranajit’s in the 1970s) reminded me that he learnt Gujarati to read Gandhi’s work. He referenced Marx, Lenin and Gramsci, structuralism and post structuralism, semiotics. We learnt how to deconstruct text – being able to read other stories from what was on the surface, to see through to what was behind and the stories that weren’t told. This was his biggest legacy. Anna reminded me of her arguments with him about feminism – would sexism fade away with capitalism as a relic of feudalism? And he always had the last word. Studying with Ranajit was never dull. He always went to what was most important – issues of justice and human rights, class analysis. He also said that history was the true and only worthwhile academic discipline. He was so astonishingly erudite; he would use literature and multiple cultural references; unapologetically an intellectual.

AFRAS had a very strong identity – we learnt about imperialism and post-colonialism from radical scholars. So different to history in school. It was a great place to be and learn. Ranajit was part of that – he had his own style and brilliance. Additionally, it was special but not unusual to be invited to academics’ homes to meet other students. I did feel privileged but a bit overwhelmed to meet the scholars that Ranajit brought together. It was helpful to know that there was a community of interest, in which he was the centre. The connections were helpful when I went to India and in validating what I was doing, which always felt niche and isolated, particularly when I was in England.

When I came back to England in 1979, I experienced serious culture shock on re-entry. Looking back, I think Ranajit’s high standards of scholarship and his critique of my writing triggered a writer’s block and I made the very difficult decision to change supervisor. I moved to work with Terry Byres at SOAS, who helped me through this. I completed my PhD on sharecroppers struggles and sharecropping in Bengal in 1930s and 1940s. It was published in Kolkata and part translated into Bengali and published in Bangladesh. I was driven to ensure that at least there was a record of what I had been able to find out. I owed it to all the people that I had met. Decades later I emailed Ranajit, prompted by Shireen Huq, a mutual friend who visited him in Austria (she also studied with Ranajit in the late 1970s). I said what I’d been doing over the many years and got a lovely response from Mechtild Guha; there was closure.

Remembering those years, I want to also reflect on our politics at that time. We were intellectually and academically applying a Marxist lens and critiquing it – so my PhD was about the economic history of sharecropping as a semi-feudal mode of production, as well as a political history of a peasant struggle. Ranajit introduced us to what was happening in Indian communism at the time, including the Naxalite struggles. This had significant personal resonance for me; coming from a communist family, as a child living through the 1950’s Cold War backlash of anti-communism, parents who had been deported from America due to McCarthyism. This was another connection. I had a tutor who could make some sense of that. Researching a peasant struggle led by communists was amazing on a personal level. I was in West Bengal when the CP(M) came to power after Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Rule: this was an extraordinary experience for me. All the hammer and sickle graffiti on the walls and communist red flags waved in demonstrations on the maidan. This was incredible for someone whose grandfather, a Polish tailor, had heard Lenin speak in Paris. In India and Bangladesh, my communist party family identity was an asset, not something to hide. People trusted and helped me in my research because of it. As the elderly peasant activist said – I had come to speak to him ‘because of international communism’.

Postscript/legacy – some final words

Looking back, I just feel very grateful to have had the experience of being taught and inspired by Ranajit. In subsequent decades I have randomly come across people who knew his work, so belatedly I have understood that during those years he was developing his subaltern studies approach. It is always such a surprise and a gift to have those conversations. I have continued to utilise the skills I learnt, and I have always maintained my values and commitment to supporting people who are most marginalised and excluded. For the last 15 years as a social work leader this has taken the form of transforming the ways vulnerable adults are safeguarding in England.

I ceased my academic career once my PhD was published, although have developed one in social work. But I have come back to this part of my life. An American professor sought me out a few years ago; I showed her the notebooks recording the interviews that had been kept in the loft, unopened for 25 years. She wrote a blog about the encounter. That was a key turning point. Subsequently Dr Layli Uddin contacted me and with her encouragement and support, I have been transcribing the interview notes. I want to place the transcripts in archives so others can access them, reflect, analyse, and learn from these stories.

This is also part of Ranajit’s lasting influence. I still believe that this work is so important – there is an ongoing interest in subaltern studies; in the histories of people, seen to be at the margins but really at the centre. There is so much richness in these recollections of their experiences, their memories. This is a legacy that I want to pass on to others. A legacy that wouldn’t exist, if not for Ranajit Guha.


Adrienne Cooper Sharecropping and Sharecropper’s Struggles in Bengal 1930-1950, K.P.Bagchi, Kolkata, 1988

Sunil Sen Agrarian Struggles in Bengal 1946-47 P.P.H. Delhi 1972

The full text of the presentation is in the upcoming volume:

Ranajit Guha (1923-2023): Bishesh Sankalan (Ranajit Guha (1923-2023): A Special Commemorative Collection). Edited by Sourav Chattopadhyay, Kolkata: Alochana Chakra, 2024. ISBN: 978-93-83208-15-9.

Adi Cooper OBE is a Visiting Professor at the University of Bedfordshire, Independent Chair of two Safeguarding Adults Boards in London and Adviser for safeguarding adults (Partners in Care and Heath). She is a Non-Executive Director of Social Work England. She also works as a safeguarding consultant and has published books and articles on safeguarding adults. She is a qualified social worker and worked in Adult Social Care for over 30 years, including as Director of Adult Social Services, Housing and Health for nine years. Her PhD thesis about the tebhaga movement was published in Kolkata on ‘sharecropping and sharecroppers struggles in Bengal 1930-50’ and she studied as an undergraduate and post-graduate with Ranajit Guha at Sussex University. Twitter @adi_coo

Header Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons (government open data licence, India)


Cooper, Adi 2024. ‘Ranajit Guha: An inspirational and challenging teacher’ Discover Society: New Series 4 (1):

Guha, Indian history, and me

Sanjay Seth

After graduating from the University of Sydney in the early 1980s, I chose to pursue my PhD studies at the Australian National University (ANU), because – somewhat surprisingly – the ANU, located in the small capital city of Canberra, was at that time, arguably, one of best places to be for the study of Indian history. Anthony Low, the well-known historian of South Asia and Africa, was Vice-Chancellor of the university, and had put energy and resources into encouraging the study of South Asian history.

Ranajit Guha was the centre of this, and he, along with the well-known Australian philosopher Eugene Kamenka, became my PhD supervisor. Two of his other PhD students, Raghab Chattopadhyaya and Kamal Ahmed, and Dipesh Chakrabarty (who was finishing his PhD, and was Anthony Low’s student) often joined me in conversations with Ranajit – Ranajit tended not to have formal supervisory sessions but rather to have conversations, where he threw out an array of unfamiliar ideas and insights which we would subsequently discuss for hours over endless cups of (bad) coffee.

A stream of subalternists came through as visiting scholars, including Partha Chatterjee and Sumit Sarkar – I mention these two in particular because when I was in India working at various archives Sumit was my supervisor, and when I went to Calcutta I had some enlightening conversations with Partha. My PhD dissertation, later published as Marxist Theory and Nationalist Politics: The Case of Colonial India, bore the imprint of all these teachers and colleagues.

These details are by way of setting the scene, for my aim in this brief essay is not to reminisce, but to indicate how Ranajit’s work on Indian history influenced me – what I learned, as it were.

When I first arrived at the ANU, it was, as I remember it, at the tail end of an explosion of studies of the peasantry in the Third World, and also of the ‘modes of production’ debate. Alongside my readings in German idealism, Marxism, and structuralism, I immersed myself in some of these debates. These were fascinating, but it soon struck my then-youthful self that what was missing, or at least partially missing from these debates, was the question of power. Peasant studies often resulted in increasingly fine distinctions between middle, upper middle, and lower middle peasants, while the modes of production debates seemed to me to have forgotten the reason they were worth having – struggle had receded into the background, and a certain scholasticism crept in.

Reading Ranajit’s opening essay in Subaltern Studies 1, and even more so his Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, was the corrective or antidote I was searching for, for here the question of power was an organising concept. The very category of ‘subaltern classes’, borrowed from Gramsci, dispensed with fine gradations – as Ranajit explained in his opening statement in Subaltern Studies I, “The social groups and elements included in this category represent the demographic difference between the total Indian population and all those whom we have described as the ‘elite’.” This was not, of course, because he was unaware that both categories were heterogenous, but rather because he was seeking to highlight that notwithstanding the undoubted differences, divisions and forms of ‘internal’ exploitation between landless peasants, middle peasants and so on, the fundamental dividing line was not about size of landholding but of relations of domination and subordination.

This, according to Ranajit, was manifested most clearly in the course of peasant jacqueries, the subject of his brilliant Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency. These rebellions usually aimed not simply to expropriate property, but to reverse relations of domination and subordination, to ‘turn the world upside down’. This was because the power relations they challenged were not of the bourgeois type, ones marked by formal equality, but rather inscribed in the naked use of force, in dress, in language and bodily comportment, all parts of an elaborate semiotics of power.

Peasant rebellions were thus marked by what Ranajit described and analysed as ‘negation’, a consequence of the fact that the peasant’s “identity amounted to the sum of his subalternity…he learnt to recognise himself not by the property and attributes of his own social being but by a diminution, if not negation, of those of his superiors.” Hence why inversion was the principal modality of peasant rebellion- “a political struggle in which the rebel appropriated and/or destroyed the insignia of his enemy’s power and hoped thus to abolish the marks of his own subalternity…a project which was, by its very nature, negatively constituted.”

After the appearance of Elementary Aspects and the first few volumes of SS, it was often commented that this was an ‘application’ to India of the ‘history from below’ pioneered by brilliant historians like EP Thompson, George Rudé and Eric Hobsbawm. What this missed, however, was that the histories of Rudé and Hobsbawm characterised their subjects as ‘backward’, and their forms of protest and rebellion as ‘prepolitical’. Hobsbawm and Rudé were not seeking to diminish the struggles of those whom they were studying – the very fact that they sought to recover these struggles indicated otherwise – but this judgment reflected their view that by the standards of the sorts of struggles that occur on the grounds of bourgeois society, these earlier ones were undertaken by people who were not in a position to develop forms of militant organisation, or envision an alternative social order.

Early in Elementary Aspects, Ranajit writes that while this may be so for Europe, “the notion of pre-political peasant insurgency helps little in understanding the experience of colonial India.” In the course of the book, two reasons why this is so emerge – reasons that are in tension with each other. The first refers back to what I mentioned above – in a pre or non-bourgeois society where surplus extraction is not effected through the wage-labour capital relation, but through domination and subordination anchored in multiple points and effected through multiple means, including violence, any revolt was ipso facto political – there was simply no possibility of gradualism or ‘economism’. Important a point as this was, it lent itself to the reading that peasant revolt in India was political because of Indian ‘backwardness’, because India was ‘feudal’.

The other reading, at odds with the first, was that peasant revolts in colonial India were ‘political’ not because of Indian backwardness, feudalism or premodernity, but on the contrary, because in colonial and post-Independence India the dominance of capital had not also resulted in the dominance of bourgeois society and culture. As Ranajit put it in SSI, subaltern politics “was traditional only insofar as its roots could be traced back to pre-colonial times, but it was by no means archaic in the sense of being outmoded;” it was, in fact, “as modern as elite politics.”

In a later summation of Ranajit’s position, in “A Small History of Subaltern Studies,” Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote, “the global history of capitalism need not reproduce everywhere the same history of power. In the calculus of modernity, power is not a dependent variable and capital an independent one.” What Ranajit was signalling towards, in other words, was that colonial India was modern rather than premodern, but that this had not been accompanied by the sorts of transformations in the relations of power and politics that had (arguably) accompanied the dominance of capital in Europe.

If, for example (to paraphrase Marx) it was a feature of bourgeois society that formal political equality acquired the force of a fixed prejudice, this – and many other features thought to characterise bourgeois society – were not typical of India in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. And that is why Ranajit ends Elementary Aspects with a rhetorical flourish, claiming that the consciousness that had informed peasant insurgency in nineteenth century India extended into the twentieth, such that “Many of the mass movements which have swept through our land since then bear at least some of its hallmarks,” and, “No jacquerie in the countryside, no street riot in our towns is an exception.” This is the core idea underpinning his Dominance without Hegemony – that colonial capitalism and the colonial state integrated India into global capital and modern forms of statehood, but without establishing a hegemonic bourgeois culture.

Scholarship on India (and on much of the non-Western world) has usually been marked by a teleology in which the future of India can be seen in the present of Europe. The evident differences of India or other non-Western locations can then, even where they are recognized and attended to, be seen as marks of an incomplete ‘transition’, and the search begins for what the causes and remedies of that incomplete transition might be.

Writing the history of the non-West was thus often a search for its ‘lacks’ and its shortcomings, and descriptions of how far it had proceeded in its ‘transition’ to where the West had already arrived, all this in keeping with the premise that what had first happened in the West would eventually reshape the Rest. The result was often, as Achille Mbembe puts it of studies of Africa in On the Postcolony, “while we feel we now know nearly everything that African states, societies and economies are not, we still know nothing about what they actually are.”

Ranajit and many of his collaborators in SS rejected this, not out of nationalist self-assertion, but on the grounds that some of the most striking features of colonial and post-Independence India are not marks of the as-yet incomplete victory of capital, but in some cases constitute a structural feature of capital and modernity in India. Subsequent work by other subalternists, including but not limited to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s work on the Calcutta working class and Partha Chatterjee’s work on the peasantry, and in more recent times his Politics of the Governed, have started from this presumption. So too – and not necessarily because of the influence of Ranajit or SS – with other works I admire, including those of Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind on Egypt.

All of these start not by taking western modernity as the norm and measuring Indian (or Egyptian, etc) distance from it, but by examining the manifold ways in which the self-expansion of capital and the governmentalized state are now an integral part of everyday life and politics in many parts of the Global South, but without a corresponding effacement of forms of hierarchy, affect and mobilization that do not take their ground and point of departure from bourgeois culture. If we recognise that the non-West is not at an earlier point in the arc of western historical development, it follows that we must also recognise that making sense of it may require modifying or abandoning some of our conceptual vocabulary, which was born in the course of making sense of European history, and inventing new categories of analysis – as I argue in my recent book, Beyond Reason: Postcolonial Theory and the Social Sciences.

The non-West has for a very long time been regarded as different from the western world. But the ‘difference’ Ranajit and the SS scholars drew attention to was not an essentialist, ontological, and racist difference – ‘East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’. Nor was it the ‘difference’ recognized by stadial theories of historical development, according to which the non-Western world is at an earlier and lesser stage of ‘modernization’ and Enlightenment. They suggested instead that these two unpalatable choices may not exhaust our intellectual options, and made it possible to recognise that the non-West is different not because it is ‘not yet’ modern and fully rational, but that the globalization of capital and modernity has not effaced difference, and also that what we have taken to be Reason is but a historically and culturally specific way of conceiving of, understanding and inhabiting the world, rather than the ‘correct’ way finally discovered.

The spread of capitalism, for which colonialism was one of the main mechanisms, did indeed transform the non-Western world in many ways: but forms of thinking, living and conceiving of collective life that do not accord with Western modernity have not always been consigned to the dustbin of history. It is necessary, then, to study the non-West not as an earlier form of what the West was, but rather as something that embodies ways of life and thought that are part of the modern but without necessarily being like the Western forms of modernity. Ranajit’s work and the work of his fellow subalternists was not the only road to this realisation, of course; but for me it was critical, and it influenced my subsequent intellectual trajectory. 


Chakrabarty, Dipesh, “A Small History of Subaltern Studies,” in his Habitations of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

Guha, Ranajit. Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983).

Guha, Ranajit, “On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India,” in Guha (ed), Subaltern Studies I (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982).

Guha, Ranajit, Dominance Without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Harvard University Press, 1998).

Mbembe, Achille, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Seth, Sanjay, Beyond Reason: Postcolonial Theory and the Social Sciences (NY: Oxford University Press, 2021).

Sanjay Seth is Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for Postcolonial Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. He has written extensively on modern Indian history, postcolonial theory and international relations. His most recent books are Beyond Reason: Postcolonial Theory and the Social Sciences (Oxford University Press, 2021) and História e Pós-colonialismo (Imprensa de História Contemporânea, 2022). 

Header Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)


Seth, Sanjay 2024. ‘Guha, Indian History, and me’ Discover Society: New Series 4 (1):

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):

Anthropology and Subaltern Historiography: a critically constructive relationship

Maya Unnithan

Ranajit Guha’s work on history from below, and the Indian subaltern studies project it germinated, was exceptionally significant not just for its impact on the writing of Indian historians, but also for social science scholarship in India more generally.

For Indian sociologists and social anthropologists in particular (the two disciplines have had a greater congruence in India than in the UK), as Veena Das notes, the subaltern perspective provided ‘an invitation to think anew the relationship between history and anthropology from a point of view that displaces the central position of the European anthropologists or historian as the subject of the discourse, and Indian society as its object.’ This was an early, critical moment of ‘decolonisation’ in Indian scholarship which not only de-centred elite Western perspectives on Indian society but equally challenged elite Indian views which denied history, culture and agency of the more marginalised social groups.

Of key importance for social anthropological scholarship at the time, subaltern historiography, with its discursive focus on moments of rebellion and struggle, encouraged an interrogation into the discipline’s own taken for granted analytic frames. The early dominant perspectives within anthropology of structuralism and functionalism had dwelt on order and societal cohesion (works of British anthropologists such as Radcliffe Brown and Evans Pritchard), drawing on observations of kinship and sociality among East African communities. By contrast, Max Gluckman and the Manchester school did important work to argue that a focus on conflict provided an important lens or ‘valve’ which enabled the release of social pressures that people faced. But it was Guha et al who really brought the field of transgression, disorder and violence as central to an anthropological inquiry of India [Barnard; Kuper]. Guha himself was inspired by the social study of the history of the English working classes and peasant rebellions documented by historians in London and Cambridge at the time.

Most critically to this new historiography from below, was the idea of subalterns as subjects in the making of their own histories and on subaltern consciousness and agency. The task, as Guha sets out, essentially concerned the recovery of subaltern agency which lay buried in the layers of existing colonial and Indian historical writings on peasant insurgencies. In his own work, Guha meticulously uncovers what he labelled the primary, secondary and tertiary forms in the writing of peasant history. His typology was based on the time-space distance of the writer to his subject. Even in the ‘tertiary’ (most subject-distant) form of historical writing, which attempts to retrieve the history of insurgency from early colonial factual reporting, Guha finds a ‘persisting exclusion of the rebel as a conscious agent of his own history.’ The disregard for even the possibility of a peasant political consciousness in historical writing thus far, spurred Guha to make a powerful case for a new form of historiography focused specifically on subaltern consciousness.

By the time I came to study Indian Sociology in Delhi in the mid-1980s and Social Anthropology in England in the late 1980s, an anthropological critique of the subaltern project had developed around two main areas. Firstly, the critique focused on the ways in which subaltern consciousness was framed, with no intersection with everyday life. Secondly, there were analytic challenges posed by the subalternists’ focus on the historical moment of rebellion and law and order through reports from bureaucrats, lawyers, court officials, police statements. As Das notes, these accounts pose a challenge as they inevitably become framed in terms of ‘failure’ and defeat for the subaltern, and thus become appropriated into wider colonial narratives themselves. They also pose a challenge for the recovery of a subaltern voice as the reconstituted representation ‘wrench (es) speech from the person’ (Das). Both issues disregard what is axiomatic to anthropological inquiry – the quotidian or everyday, and how we incorporate the everyday into our analysis.

I drew inspiration from the works of subaltern historians such as Guha and Eric Stokes, as well as Veena Das’s critically constructive perspective on the subaltern project, as I began my PhD in Social Anthropology in 1986. This was on self-representation and the politics of identity of a group of poor farmers (so-called tribals) in southern Rajasthan, called Girahya or Girasia (Unnithan, 1994, 1997). The study involved archival research on the history of landholding in the region as well as ethnographic work to recover Girasia views of their history and identity, which until then had been submerged within the elite feudal and upper caste histories in the region.

A focus on Girasia kinship and gender relations and their oral, historical accounts of patrilineal descent, traced lineal descent back to the Parmar Rajputs who ruled the region in the 10th century AD. When set alongside colonial land-related records, and Stokes analysis in The Peasant and the Raj (1978) of the fluidity of feudal power relations pre-dating colonial intervention in the region, Girasia claims to Rajput heritage proved to be substantiated. Early colonial accounts provided evidence to their claims to feudal landholding based on kinship to the ruling clan, albeit this was title to minor land holding – to land that produced a ‘Giras’ (mouthful) of food. Over time, the Girasia were unable to claim back land and the attached title because of the ‘fixing’ of land and titles by the British process of land classification in the region. This was compounded by their related lack of success in shifting their classification as forested and tribal (savage, non-caste) people in later British accounts. Such identification carried on without redress from the later colonial state through to the nascent Indian state post-independence. Working backwards through the archives I had uncovered a process whereby a group labelled ‘tribal’ had in fact become ‘tribalised’ through a particular layering of historical accounts.

While such a historical focus from the ground up challenged the way Girasia history was imagined by the Indian state and in classificatory documents and surveys (they are included in the list of scheduled tribes), I also found through ethnographic observations that categorisations came to have a different meaning in the more current context of my field research at the time. I discovered that the label of ‘tribal’ was being used by the Girasia in an advantageous manner. It became part of the way the Girasia had begun to strategise, drawing on this forced identification to gain economic recognition of their poverty (as a ‘scheduled tribe’) and claim economic benefits from the modern state. The caste linked identity of being Rajput was still important but used in a more everyday context to define kinship relations and marital norms among the Girasia themselves. In this sense my work finds resonance with Das’s critical reflection on the subalternists’ use of the concept of subaltern consciousness.

Maya Unnithan is currently Head of the Department of Anthropology at Sussex and Director of the Sussex Centre for Cultures of Reproduction, Technologies & Health (CORTH). She is a Social and Medical Anthropologist who works at the intersection of Anthropology, Global Health and International Development. Maya received a Ph.D (1991) in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and holds degrees in Sociology (MA) and Economics (BA Hons). She has taught at the University of Sussex since 1991.

Header Image Credit: Three women carrying water pots, Rajasthan (6344112020).jpg – Wikimedia Commons


Unnithan, Maya 2024. ‘Anthropology and Subaltern Historiography: a critically constructive relationship’ Discover Society: New Series 4 (1):

Thinking with Ranajit Guha about the Macedonians

Jane Cowan

It was by grappling with historical materials from colonial and postcolonial India that Ranajit Guha developed the concepts and methods that became central to subaltern studies. But how well do those concepts and methods ‘travel’? To what extent can they help to generate insights about contexts beyond India, and even beyond the colonial world? An anthropologist of Greece, fresh from doctoral fieldwork in Greek Macedonia, I was alerted in 1993 to Guha’s now classic article, ‘The Prose of Counter-insurgency‘, as the more-than-a-century-long-and-still-unresolved Macedonian Question erupted, yet again, with the breakup of Yugoslavia. Guha’s bold, playful methods of reading historical documents helped me to probe the highly polarised controversy over the identities, loyalties and histories of Greece’s Macedonians and the real lives it obscured.

My perspective on the Macedonian Question’s long-term effects for people who lived there was grounded in my research in central Greek Macedonia, the portion of a diversely imagined, previously Ottoman territory that had been ceded to Greece in 1912 as a result of the Balkan Wars and, since then, energetically Hellenised. Between 1983-1985 I carried out sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in the small mountain town of Sohos, 60 km northeast of Thessaloniki. Predominantly bilingual Modern Greek and Slavic-speakers, Sohoians had been taught to be embarrassed by, yet were also secretly proud of and deeply attached to, their local Slavic language (which they mostly called ‘Bulgarian’) and their town’s polyglot practices of joking, nicknaming, singing and storytelling in Greek, Bulgarian and Turkish. But they strongly identified as Greek. Descendants of landless or land-poor tenant farmers, labourers and craftspeople, they had followed the lead of their wealthier Patriarchist Orthodox Christian and Greek-identified (though originally Vlach-speaking) bosses and landlords in supporting the Greek side against the Bulgarian side in the Macedonian Struggle for territory in the period 1903-1908. Countless Sohoians told me that ‘they had always been Greek’, despite their Slavic language. It was not a contradiction, therefore, when they insisted to me in the mid-1980s that they ‘were not a minority’. Nor did they want to be considered as Macedonians who were not also Greeks.

The stance of Sohoians, like those of most of Greece’s Slavic-speakers who – whether ‘always’, or over time and in response to assimilatory pressures – had come to identify as Greeks, differed markedly from some members of communities in the ‘same’ population in several towns and villages in western Greek Macedonia, around 250 km to the west of Sohos. As supporters and activists in the ‘Movement for Balkan Progress’ and the ‘Macedonian Human Rights Movement’ that emerged in the late 1980s, they called for Macedonians to be recognised by the Greek state as a ‘minority’ (cautiously framed as an ‘ethnic’, rather than ‘national’, minority). Citing their distinctive language, as well as their customs and musical traditions, they demanded the right to be taught and to use freely their Macedonian mother tongue, as well as to sing their songs and dance their dances at community festivals without police harassment. On behalf of the significant number among them who had been stripped of their citizenship, as members or supporters of the Communist-led Democratic Army, after fleeing over Greece’s northern borders in the final weeks of  the Greek Civil War (1946-49), they demanded that Macedonians living abroad who refused to declare themselves ‘ethnically Greek’ be reinstated as Greek citizens and allowed to return to Greece to reunite with relatives, visit family graves and reclaim their confiscated properties.  Although the activists in western Greek Macedonia could not have anticipated it, their movement became nationally visible, and their demands for recognition – to both the Greek government and to European institutions -played out, at the very moment of Yugoslavia’s disintegration. This coincidence intensified suspicion among many Greeks of their motives, and stoked fears that behind claims for human rights lay dreams of Macedonian secession.

During my regular visits to Greece and from afar, in England and Switzerland in the early 1990s, I watched as the public furore over the Macedonian movement’s program and activities intensified. While the Greek and Greek-American media largely condemned them, with one exceptionally virulent ultraright weekly, Stohos, regularly labelling the activists ‘Gypsy Skopjeans’ and spies for Skopje (their derogatory name for the new republic), the activists were supported by international human rights NGOs and several EU parliamentarians, as well as by local and international scholars. The half dozen or so anthropologists working with Slavic-speaking communities in the region, including myself, were pulled in as experts, or waded into the fray voluntarily. But the polarised, moralistic and highly emotional character of the debate over ‘who’ the Macedonians were, and what ‘they’ wanted, did not fit with the historical, social and political complexity and variation ‘on the ground’, making it difficult to know how to intervene constructively. Some who did, like the Greek anthropologist Anastasia Karakasidou, faced vilification and death threats, although much of what she pointed out was common knowledge to those who lived in, or knew, the region.

It must have been around 1993 when I was describing the complicated and fraught situation, and the dilemmas it raised for local people and for scholars, to the Africanist anthropologist and specialist on Kenya, Ivan Karp. Ivan had co-supervised my Indiana University doctoral dissertation on the performance of gender in social dancing in northern Greece. Although I had completed the dissertation in 1987, I continued regularly to seek out his counsel as an astute analyst and creative thinker who read widely, across disciplines. ‘What could I read to help me make sense of this, theoretically?’ I asked. He thought for a while, then replied: ‘Ranajit Guha, The Prose of Counter-insurgency.’

It is a remarkable text. Examining historical accounts of peasant revolts in India under the British Raj in the late 18th and 19th centuries, Guha categorised them into primary, secondary and tertiary discourses, distinguished by appearance in time, in relation to the original event, and what he called their ‘filiation’. Whether written by British colonial protagonists, observers or later interpreters, or by Indian scholars (bourgeois nationalist or Marxist), these texts shared a similar structure. Ideologically opposed, they mirrored each other. Borrowing an evaluative binary famously employed by Mao Zedong, Guha showed that an element that was marked in the British colonialist discourse on the revolts as ‘terrible’ (‘insurgents’, ‘fanatics’, committing ‘daring and wanton atrocities on the inhabitants’) would appear in the Indian nationalist discourse as ‘fine’ (‘peasants’, ‘Islamic puritans’, involved in ‘resistance to oppression’).  However, these accounts revealed little, Guha claimed, since they interpreted the rebels’ actions within a larger story (the transcendental Destiny of the British Empire, or alternatively, the struggle of Indian workers and peasants against foreign, as well as indigenous, oppressors) whose contours the authors already knew. In assimilating these peasant uprisings ‘to the career of the Raj, the Nation or the People’, and thus treating the rebels’ motivations as already known, they failed to grasp their specific political consciousness: in this case, its rootedness in a religious worldview. Rebels’ own narratives that they were following a divine command, or that they carried out rituals to ward off the apocalypse of the Primeval Serpents, Lag and Lagini, were treated by the writers as fanaticism, backwardness or propagandistic cunning. Whether approaching the topic from the right or the left, Guha wrote damningly, the writers ‘[refused] to acknowledge the insurgent as the subject of his own history’. This historiography failed, moreover, to comprehend ‘the many other contradictions’ of such rural insurrections: that they contained betrayal as well as solidarity, for instance. Treating them as either traitorous or heroic, writers had failed to grasp, Guha claimed, their internal messiness and ambiguity.

The polarised yet similarly off the mark discourses that Guha was describing in the historiography of Indian peasant revolts resonated strongly with the debate around the ‘insurgents’ of the Macedonian movement for human rights. In both public and academic spheres, though with varying degrees of nuance and courtesy, both attackers and defenders used nationalist discourses, or discourses informed by nationalist assumptions. Thus, certain journalists, academics and public figures mobilised an aggressive Greek nationalist discourse. They judged the activists’ ongoing activities as ‘terrible’, and some insultingly characterised them, as well as those who publicly supported them, as anti-Greek spies, ‘Gypsy Skopians’, separatists and traitors. Defenders were a diverse group, and included local supporters, academics, professionals, international human rights and minority rights NGOs and Macedonians active in refugee associations in the Macedonian diaspora, in Australia, north America, Eastern Europe and the new republic. Macedonian refugee associations and Macedonian intellectuals mobilised Macedonian nationalist arguments most explicitly to portray the activists’ activities as ‘fine’: as heroic resistance to an oppressive nationalising state, as justified exposure of long-standing Macedonian persecution and violent assimilation to Greekness and as legitimate demands for recognition of ethnic (in their view, national) uniqueness. The discourse of international NGOs could be similarly Manichean.

In the polarised debates surrounding this Macedonian movement, one saw the proses of insurgency and counter-insurgency portraying, as ‘fine’ or ‘terrible’, the actions of ‘insurgent’ Greek citizens with a Macedonian ethnic or national consciousness. But it often seemed that the subject whose actions were on trial as ‘fine’ or ‘terrible’ was the Greek state, or more abstractly, the longer-term projects of Hellenism and Greek nationalism. For one side, that project to create a unified nation out of Ottoman diversity was a noble and glorious project of inclusion, one built on education, culture, a shared Orthodox Christianity and the enlightened and inspiring legacies of Greece’s 2500 years of civilisation. For the other side, it was a fundamentally violent project, one that judged Macedonians’ Slavic mother tongue as linguistically inferior and its speakers politically suspect and that entailed denationalisation, forced assimilation, harassment, discrimination and social exclusion. Such intensely partisan assessments rarely acknowledged Macedonians’ more complicated, more mixed lived experiences that scholars had already begun to document.

The most inspiring provocation of Guha’s piece, and the one that spoke most strongly to me regarding the Macedonian case, concerned his charge that historians of Indian peasant revolts had ‘[refused] to acknowledge the insurgent as the subject of his own history’. Guha insisted on the importance of exploring that history and acknowledging the specificity of the subjectivity it produced. Ironically, Guha’s schematic, triadic formulation creates its own powerful, almost mythic discourse that, arguably, underserves his argument, for he certainly would have known that there was not a single insurgent or a singular insurgent consciousness. Nonetheless, Guha helped me to sharpen my grasp of the ways that those speaking the opposed yet similar Greek and Macedonian nationalist discourses typically ‘talk past each other’ while ‘talking over’—denouncing, ignoring or taking no interest in the diverse consciousnesses, situationally-variable identity performances and complex subjectivities of—the flesh-and-blood subjects that each side claims as ‘ours’.

Jane K. Cowan is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sussex. A specialist of contemporary Greece, her award-winning first book, Dance and the Body Politic in Northern Greece, investigated gender, dance, sociability and embodiment. Since the mid-1990s, with a focus on the region and “question” of Macedonia, she has been exploring culture and rights (inCulture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives, co-edited with Marie-Bénédicte Dembour and Richard A. Wilson, and inMacedonia: The Politics of Identity and Difference), as well as the nexus of rights claiming and international supervision. This research spans minority petitioning to the League of Nations’ Minorities Section to, with Julie Billaud, contemporary human rights auditing at the Universal Periodic Review, a United Nations human rights mechanism. She is president of the Society for the Anthropology of Europe (2022-2024), a section of the American Anthropological Association.

Header Image Credit: Author’s photo


Cowan, Jane 2024. ‘Thinking with Ranajit Guha about the Macedonians’ Discover Society: New Series 4 (1):

Editorial: Remembering Ranajit Guha

John Holmwood

We are very pleased to publish a series of articles, remembering Ranajit Guha, the Indian historian, scholar and founding spirit of ‘subaltern studies’. He died in Austria on April 28th, 2023, at the age of 99. His was a long-life of political engagement and scholarly reflection as set out in the obituary by Vinita Damodaran. Guha made an immense contribution to the social sciences and the humanities beyond the discipline of history.

Guha was born into a wealthy zamindar or land-owning family in East Bengal. He was active in the Indian Communist Party in the 1940s, but left following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. He migrated to Britain in 1958 to take up a fellowship at the University of Manchester from where he was appointed Reader in History in the School of African and Asian Studies at the University of Sussex in 1962. He left in 1981 for a position at the Australian National University from which he retired in 1988.

It was while at ANU, and after, that much of the work in subaltern studies for which he became widely known was published. It was incubated during his time at the University of Sussex and the articles published in this issue are drawn from a memorial event – Remembering Ranajit Guha – held at the University of Sussex on October 20th, 2023.

The articles address his influence within history, anthropology and sociology. They include contributions from former students as well as those who knew him only through his writing. Most contributors have links with the University of Sussex and attest to its unique status at the time when Guha was there. Academics and students were associated with an academic discipline, but were also located in an interdisciplinary school – for example, African and Asian Studies, American Studies, Culture and Community Studies.

Of these, AFRAS was the most significant in defining the possibility of a new post-colonial approach to knowledge and its contribution to social justice on a global scale. This was fertile ground for the development of subaltern studies, though it must be said that Guha was not especially productive during his period at Sussex. Nor was he a convivial figure on campus, acting more as a goad than conciliator, though undoubtedly there were problems of the host community fully accepting an eminent Indian scholar.

Alice Corble provides the flavour of Guha as teacher and colleague via the only documents in the University of Sussex that record his time at the university – these are a reading list for a ‘special subject’ in the history curriculum on ‘Imperialism 1879-1914’ and a scathing open letter to the Dean of AFRAS over the decision to invite Samual Huntingdon to give a campus talk in 1973 on the Vietnam War. Adi Cooper provides a personal account of undertaking a PhD with Guha on the tebhaga movement of Bengali share-croppers. Her family background of Polish migrant communists found validation through Guha’s own background in communism and the doors it opened with tebhaga activists. Her narrative recalls a demanding teacher, but a lasting influence.

Sanjay Seth  describes his own experiences as a postgraduate student of Guha shortly after his arrival at ANU and the excitement of the new perspective being developed. Guha opened the space to address power and the agency of the oppressed as subjects of their own history against various forms of telling history from above, including the unfolding of the structural logics of modes of production.

Gurminder K. Bhambra addresses Guha’s major publication shortly after he arrived at Sussex, A Rule of Property for Bengal. This dealt with discussions within the British East India Company on how to organise property relations to derive a permanent source of revenue for the company. This was a major contribution to the history of political economy, but she raises two puzzles. One is the failure of Guha to discuss pre-existing property relations and the nature of British colonialism itself, while the other is the lack of engagement between him and Donald Winch, the other great historian of the political economy of colonialism appointed to Sussex at the same time.

Notwithstanding, as Maya Unnithan shows, subaltern studies provided a valuable resource for considering how pre-colonial property relations were significant for understanding how Girasi claims of Rajput heritage were mobilised against the colonial power, albeit unsuccessfully. She shows how subaltern studies entered into anthropology to deepen understandings of power and the agency of the oppressed.

Most of the articles deal with the role of subaltern studies in transforming approaches to British colonial history, especially on the Indian sub-continent. Jane Cowan shows that Guha’s approach also influenced her understanding of a ‘post-colonial’ (after the breakup of the Ottoman empire) minority of Macedonians in Greece and their struggles for recognition. The legacies of empire and their multiple ethno-nationalist mobilisations last through to the present-day.

Finally, our collection ends with a contribution from Moushumi Bhowmik who recounts Guha’s empathy for the people he studied as reflected in his appreciation of folk music, poetry and song. Her article recounts her approach to providing a performance of music, song and poetry to celebrate Guha’s life at the end of the memorial event.

The memorial event remembering Ranajit Guha was organised by Gurminder K Bhambra, Alice Corble, Ben Rogaly, and Vinita Damodaran. It was co-sponsored by the University of Sussex Schools of Global Studies and Media, Arts, and Humanities, and by the Centre for Rights and Anti-Colonial Justice. 

John Holmwood is emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham . He is the author (with Therese O’Toole) of Countering Extremism in British Schools: The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Policy Press 2018) and (with Gurminder K. Bhambra) Colonialism and Modern Social Theory (Polity 2021).

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Holmwood, John 2024. ‘Remembering Ranajit Guha’ Discover Society: New Series 4 (1):

How to pay for the National / International Health Service?

John Narayan

Neoliberal Britain is in trouble. Faced with the legacy of underinvestment and wage freezes after a decade of austerity and the inflation driven current cost of living crisis, workers across Britain’s quasi-public sector have embarked on industrial action not seen for forty years – with more workers prepared to act collectively and, importantly, with the public largely supporting such action.

Central to this return of class politics has been the context of the National Health Service (NHS) – which has seen the public move from clapping NHS workers during Covid to clapping NHS workers on picket lines during strikes. In reaction to a decade of relative underfunding, declining pay and a system at breaking point, nurses, junior doctors and ambulance staff have embarked on historical waves of strike action.

Writing about the Royal College of Nursing embarking on strike action in December 2022, the economist James Meadway made a sensible argument that, given its aging population and Covid induced backlogs, the UK couldn’t afford not to pay nurses properly if it wanted an NHS that functions. Given the figures of settling the dispute with nurses ranging from £2.6-10 billion, Meadway proposed two ways forwards.

1) an expansion of borrowing that would see all taxpayers foot the bill with the premise of growing the economy

2) equalising the rate of capital gains tax with income tax to raise around £16 billion as a possible solution to the impasse over pay and working conditions for nurses.

These debates are crucial as they rightfully put into focus the pay and working conditions of key workers within society – and set out a relationship between taxpayer, service user and workers within the NHS that maps onto broader debates about taxation and income and wealth inequality in British society.

Yet, what I want to suggest in this piece is that simply seeing the current confrontation of NHS workers with their state employers over pay and conditions as a national debate about funding and taxation obscures how such a national service has been and continues to be paid for, at least in part, by others far beyond Britain.

In our 2020-piece Brexit as heredity redux: imperialism, biomedicine and the NHS in Britain, my co-authors and I reflected on the role of the NHS in the Brexit debates – both on and beyond the now infamous red bus and its £350 million promise for the NHS. Part of our argument was that ideas for Brexit often racialised the idea of the welfare state and its constituent parts, such as the NHS. These debates delimited those deserving or non-deserving of treatment whilst whitewashing how the history of empire was key to the NHS and erasing the NHS’s current forms of imperialist extraction of human capital from nations in the Global South.

There is a global shortage of healthcare workers. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates a projected shortfall of 10 million health workers by 2030, mostly in low- and lower-middle income countries. Britain’s links to its former empire and its status as a ‘developed economy’ allows the NHS to extract migrant labour to mitigate the lack of investment and planning to produce its own healthcare workers.

For example, 7 of the top 12 suppliers of foreign doctors for the NHS in England are former British colonies or protectorates such as India, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Ireland, Sudan and Sri Lanka. This is also apparent across nursing where India, Ireland, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ghana make up 5 of the top 12 suppliers of foreign nurses.

Such ‘brain drain’ from the Global South leads to a significant inability of poorer countries to provide their own domestic healthcare and reinforces exploitative economic relations between richer and poorer countries. In effect, this creates an imperialist set of relations where poorer countries in the Global South subsidise richer countries in the Global North –  and health systems like the NHS – by paying for the education and training of their immigrant healthcare professionals often at the detriment of their own health systems.

A good example of this was Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries. At the height of the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone (2013–2015), which was hastened by the country’s lack of trained staff, the NHS employed 27 doctors and 103 nurses trained in Sierra Leone. This amounted to around 20% and 10% of the number of the doctors and nurses to be found in Sierra Leone itself at the time. This was compounded by the fact that Sierra Leonean trained doctors and nurses employed by the NHS amounted to Sierra Leone providing a financial subsidy to the UK in the region of £14.5–22.4 million.

Outlining the imperial dimensions of NHS recruitment is important to confronting false narratives engendered by Brexit and state racism about who was paying for and who should have access to the NHS. What we showed was that the divide between the NHS, its service users, and taxpayers was not confined to the UK, but opened into wider debates about how the international community – or rather some of the poorest states on the planet – were partly paying for and subsiding our most quintessential ‘British’ state institution.

Since Covid-19, and the unfolding of Brexit’s impacts on the labour market and immigration, the conditions that engender such an imperial transfer of human capital and subsidy to the NHS and Britain have deepened. There has been an acceleration of international health worker recruitment since the pandemic and increased movement of health care workers from poorer to richer countries as workers seek better renumeration and working conditions.

The WHO Health Workforce Support and Safeguard List identifies 55 countries as ‘vulnerable’ with an insufficient availability of health workers required to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal target for universal health coverage (UHC) by 2030. These countries have a health workforce density below the global median: 49 medical doctors, nursing and midwifery personnel per 10,000 people. The WHO recommends that such health systems are strengthened partly through limiting active international recruitment of workers in listed countries by developed healthcare systems.

At home, the NHS has seen an acceleration of international health worker recruitment. Research by the Nuffield Foundation has shown that the decline in EU staff recruitment in the NHS has been compensated by increased recruitment from the rest of the world. Although this hasn’t solved the NHS’s recruitment issues – with many specialist roles remaining unstaffed – there has been a shift in the make-up of the foreign work force of the NHS.

A good example of this has been nursing, which has been subject to the 2019 electoral commitment by the Conservative government to increase the number of nurses by 50,000 (full-time equivalent) by the end of 2023/24. Within nursing, EU and EFTA nurses and health visitors have decreased by 28%, from 38,992 to 28,007 between September 2016 and September 2021, whilst those from the rest of the world have increased from 67,055 to 97,731. To put this into context, a near 11,000 loss in EU nurses, has been accompanied by an increase of around 30,000 nurses from the rest of the world.

The NHS follows The Code of Practice for International Recruitment – which produces a  list of ‘red’ and ‘amber’ countries based on the aforementioned WHO Health Workforce Support and Safeguard List. Yet, due to the engrained flows of people from its former colonies and a decentralised form of recruitment in the NHS the current influx of nurses into NHS has often contravened this system.

The Nuffield Trust reported that in the six months to September 2022, more than 2,200 (20%) of new international nurses came from just two red list countries: Nigeria and Ghana. By the end of 2022 more than 1200 nurses from Ghana joined the UK’s nursing register and in the year to March 2023, the figure for Nigerian nurses has reached nearly from 3,500.

In addition to this, the UK government has developed bilateral agreements with red list countries like Nepal and Ghana that appear to offer a path for the NHS to actively recruit nurses from red listed countries. The latter agreement even appears to include a payment of £1000 per nurse.  What is clear here is that even at it breaking point the NHS continues to be propped up by unequal transfers of labour and capital from the Global South.

The current wave of strike action in the NHS has rightfully questioned neoliberal orthodoxy on the welfare state, income inequality, and issues such as funding and taxation. But the reality of the extraction of human capital into the NHS raises genuine questions about nationally focused tax-based solutions. The need to raise or redistribute tax revenue to alter the working and living conditions of those working in the NHS, such as nurses, should not be questioned or turned back.  

But the idea simply returning more money into a nationally-bound universal health service ideal – tax-funded by and free at the point of delivery for British citizens – fails to adequately deal with questions about global health worker shortages, global health inequalities or the neo-imperial extraction of healthcare workers.

The above is important because as the neoliberal orthodoxy is being questioned in Britain, we should pay attention to the answers being generated. As I have outlined with Ishan Khurana in these pages, even though the neoliberal global economy is in crisis at the international level, and we have seen a return of state and class politics at a national level, without a real understanding of the imperial underpinnings of neoliberalism such endeavours may leave us with a regurgitation of the racialised and securitised contours of social democracy.

For instance, reforming the NHS would entail not only providing just pay and working conditions through taxation for NHS workers or simply rejecting the idea of foreign workers in the NHS in the pursuit of national autarky – but rather should examine issues such as how the border regime and state racism prevents access to those who already pay or work for the NHS; reforming the training of NHS staff within Britain and by default linking this to industrial and higher education policies; and reparative readdress for unaccounted funding by, and the damage wreaked on those living within, the Global South.

In this sense, how can the British taxpayer and the national health service contribute to a wider international health service for the many and not the few? To expand the idea of class this way is thus to examine how the cost of living here impacts the cost of living over there – and to organise to reduce the cost of living everywhere.

John Narayan is a Senior Lecturer in European and International Studies at King’s College London and an anti-racist scholar of globalization and inequality.’ John’s most recent publications have focused on Black Power and the political economy theories generated by groups like The Black Panther Party and Black Power groups based in the UK. His current research centres on anti-racism, abolitionism and IPE, and the political economy of the influential anti-racist scholar Ambalanaver Sivanandan. He is Chair of the Council of the Institute of Race Relations and a member of the Race & Class Editorial Working Committee.

Header Image Credit: NHS Employers


Narayan, John 2023. ‘How to pay for the National / International Health Service?’ Discover Society: New Series 3 (3):

Editorial: Who Pays? Who Benefits?

Gurminder K Bhambra

Taxation – and the ways in which it is returned to citizens through welfare – is one of the main ways in which the ‘imagined community’ of the nation comes into being. That is, the relationship between taxes and welfare is part of the process of constructing the institutions that contribute to the idea of the nation. While taxation was initially seen to be a significant factor in a state’s ability to wage war, by the mid-twentieth century it became more extensively bound up with its implementation of domestic welfare measures. The relationship between taxation and welfare, then, is integral to the idea of who we are nationally.

It is also part of the configuration of global structures of contemporary inequality. If we were to recognise that the ‘imagined community’ was built not only through national taxes, but also colonial ones, how might that change our understanding of what it is to be British today? Few in Britain understand the extent to which national projects – from social welfare and health services to cultural institutions such as country houses, museums, and galleries – have been enabled through the taxes paid by former colonial subjects.

In this issue, the various contributors examine different aspects of the relationship between who pays and who benefits, addressing the longer colonial histories that have shaped national institutions and ideas of legitimate claims upon a supposed national patrimony.

Alex Cobham argues that this is not just a reckoning with the past, but also a rebuilding for the future. If the social contract in Britain currently appears broken – as 62 per cent of those questioned believe – perhaps that contract can be rebuilt around ideas of tax justice. Cobham suggests that it is only when a population believes that the money disbursed is its own that it is motivated to hold the government to account for how it is spent. The corrupting influences of historical colonial bounty and on-going practices of tax havenry have violated the generalised webs of reciprocity that legitimate the relationship between taxation and welfare. These can only be repaired, he argues, by starting with a full and frank conversation of where the money has come from and how we account for its legacies in the present.

In discussion of non-domiciled tax-payers, Mike Savage similarly suggests that what may seem like an arcane loophole – the non-dom clause – is nonetheless ‘deeply redolent of embedded cultures of class, race and imperial power’ in Britain today, highlighting a variety of dimensions of inequality. In discussing the history of the clause, Savage highlights Lloyd George’s statement in 1906 that ‘the citizen of the empire, who is not domiciled in this country’, was exempted from income tax on their overseas income. Interestingly, as I’ve argued elsewhere, this did not exempt colonial citizens domiciled elsewhere from having to pay income tax to the British government in Westminster!

The special treatment of elites has been clearly illustrated in the inheritance rules applying to the monarchy as Charles became king. Laura Clancy sets out the many ways – beyond simply not paying inheritance tax – that the monarchy evades such generalised obligations through claims of historical precedence. Accountability is central to the legitimacy implied in the question of this issue, ‘Who pays? Who benefits?’ Clancy suggests that who gets to decide what accountability is, is also a necessary question to answer in addressing the broader issue of how systems of global inequality are reproduced.

Karen Rowlingson focuses on how stereotypical ideas of who taxpayers are and who the recipients of welfare are skews the debate on the relationship between taxation and welfare, as is evident in characterising the former as ‘hard-working’ and the latter as ‘idle’. The two groups – taxpayers and recipients – tend to be presented as distinct and yet in reality almost everyone is a taxpayer and everyone has some benefit from public spending. The inequalities that actually structure the relationship are much less discussed – for example, that taxes on income from wealth are taxed at a far lower rate than taxes on work. Reform of the tax system by increasing taxes on wealth and restricting tax loopholes would provide more money for public services for us all.

If the relationship between taxation and public services – specifically the NHS – is only thought about within a national frame, as John Narayan sets out, it obscures the contributions that have been made, and continue to be made, by others beyond the UK. Building on research that demonstrates the centrality of empire to the establishment of the NHS, Narayan highlights ongoing extractive processes by the NHS. He focuses on its recruitment of nurses and other healthcare personnel from countries on the World Health Organization’s red list, that is, countries from the Global South that already have an insufficient availability of health workers. These poorer countries pay for the education and training of healthcare workers that are then recruited by the NHS for the benefit of the population here. The broader implication of Narayan’s argument is to upend the standard understanding of who pays and who benefits that has been a central part of populist politics over the past decades.

When John Hills drew attention to the redistributive effects of the welfare state three decades ago, he argued that this ‘cannot be judged just by looking at who benefits from it … One also has to look at who pays for it through the tax system and in other ways.’ As the articles in this issue show, we need to consider those ‘other ways’ in much broader terms than is usual to also include the contributions made to Britain by those from its formerly colonized territories.

Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies at the University of Sussex. She is author of Connected Sociologies and the award-winning Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination. She is also co-editor of Decolonising the University and co-author, with John Holmwood, of Colonialism and Modern Social Theory.

Header Image Credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões


Bhambra, Gurminder K 2023. ‘Editorial: Who Pays? Who Benefits?’ Discover Society: New Series 3 (3):