Bengal in Global Concept History: Book Response


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(Skip the first 4 paragraphs if you don’t care about the book, and just want the general narrative of how Bengali culturalism evolved and declined)

For those who are tempted to pick up this book as a primer on Bengali cultureput the book down. This is really a book not on culture, but culuralism, that is to say the social and political ideology that encompasses most of the Bengal Renaissance.

Without reservations I applaud Andrew Sartori for making good on his promise to deliver a explanation of the rise of Bengali culturalism and related thought systems such as Bengali classical liberalism, and to a lesser degree, early Bengali Hindu nationalism, Bengali Muslim nationalism, and Bengali Marxism. His analysis is grounded in the particular local intellectual and economic changes taking place in Bengal. He does not place a disproportionate weight on formal chains of intellectual influence, nor does he fall into the vulgar Marxist trap of economic determinism. Kudos!

However, in the first two chapters of the book, he lays out (in excruciatingly jargon laden and difficult to read prose) several other promises, which are either unelaborated and/or left unproven. I’ll zero in on one illustrative example, which he phrases as a sort of thesis for the whole book: Sartori claims to show that Bengali culturalism is rooted in a fundamental “misrecognition” of the structures of global capitalist society.

This perplexes me, as the main thrust of his work seems to imply the opposite. He broadly argues that culturalism was in essence, a rational permutation of Bengali liberalism, in response to the altered conditions of capitalism in Bengal after the collapse of the native bourgeois class. How could such a natural ideological evolution rest on fundamentally misrecognizing the surrounding economic structures? The following is his basic narrative, with my own interpretive spin put on it of course:


Dwarkanath Tagore portrait. Image Source: Wikipedia

After the British East India Company introduced Permanent Settlement, the existing quasi-feudal arrangement was destroyed, with a quasi-bourgeois class emerging in its place (I will stop using the word “quasi” to preface such concepts for the rest of this article, but know that these terms are not exactly analogous to their European counterparts.) Entrepreneurial landowners like Dwarkanath Tagore purchased newly privatized land, and utilized their landholdings to generate massive amounts of wealth. Farms were no longer just for subsistence cultivation, but could now be used for the industrial production of indigo, silk, and other cash crops with high commercial value. This bourgeois class also produced thinkers like Ram Mohan Roy, a Bengali classical liberal thinker. He was a free trader, and the social, political and religious reformer who founded the Brahmo Samaj.


Ram Mohan Roy portrait. Image source: Wikipedia

As in Europe, this early period in which Bengal had a flourishing bourgeois class (which competed and cooperated at parity with the British) produced a classical liberal ideology. Under the logic of liberalism, the bourgeois class and its civil and economic institutions serve as the intermediaries between the elites and the peasants. Economically, Tagore’s Union Bank can be seen as such an intermediary institution, meditating investment between elites and farmers. Socially, the Brahmo Samaj and other reformist civil and social organizations can be seen as fulfilling this purpose. This middle class generated concept of a necessary “intermediary” between the top and the bottom was reflected in Bengali liberal theology as well. Between man and God, intermediaries were posited, such as natural law, science, or even self-interest in accordance with divinely imbued human nature. This was all conceptualized in a Vedantic Hindu framework, influenced by Christian Unitarianism.

However, the British did not intend for Bengal to become a manufacturing hub with a native industry and strong financial sector. After a cotton bubble, a fall in indigo prices, and a financial meltdown, in conjunction with increasingly mercantilist British tariff and trade policies, the burgeoning Indian bourgeois society underwent a crisis and collapse. Tagore’s Union Bank went under. The Indigo trade went entirely into English hands. Bengalis would never again operate on an equal basis with Britishers in the economic domain. As a result, the Bengali bourgeois class evaporated. Bengali society then became divided between peasantry, and an intellectual elite, with no mercantile bourgeois mediator.

Without a bourgeois class, liberalism was untenable, but it didn’t simply die. Its thought systems underwent a permutation, and reemerged as what Sartori calls “culturalism.” Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay‘s writings are the most obvious example of this shift. He went from being a free trader, to being indifferent to political economy (his antecedents would eventually become anti-free traders and protectionists.) He switched from advocating natural law, to advocating a form of Bhagavad Gita or Vedanta derived monism. Gone was the concept of the “intermediary.” All people could directly immerse themselves, or participate in the Divine, without reference to natural law. To put it in Hindu terms, there was a shift from a Jnana Yoga approach, to a Karma, and eventually, Bhakti yoga approach. Again, this monistic approach in theology was mirrored in social philosophy as well. All parts of the social body were to be united in “culture.” One participates in Indian or Bengali culture through direct action, and labor, all types of which was seen as equally necessary and valuable. Thus, the intellectual and the laborer were one in their karma (acts), which cumulatively expressed and manifested culture. Later on, this would be expanded to emphasize bhakti, or devotion as a unifying force in which all people were immersed in the nation. With the deification of the Shakti infused Mother India concept, the duality between the religious and the social perspectives would also dissolve. The dying bourgeois class or the “babus” were in this period criticized as selfish, concerned with money, and infected with British culture. Their selfishness and lack of monism (both in theology and in their economic independence) makes them outside of “culture.” Chattopadhyay even derisively comments that the mercantile classes chant “mantras from Adam Smith‘s Puranas, and Mill‘s Tantras.” (107)


Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay portrait. Image Source: Wikipedia

However, there was an obvious problem in this system, which became manifest. When culturalism (at this period in its evolution, we can also refer to it as Swadeshi-ism) was mobilized as an anti-imperialist ideology, the lack of alignment between the economic interests of the peasants and the intellectual class was exposed. Specifically, I’m referring to the Swadshi Boycotts of 1905, largely led by Sri Aurbindo and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. While I think the boycotts were more successful than Sartori describes, they didn’t seriously pinch the British extractive economy, and in that sense they failed. This was because it was rather difficult to convince low caste Hindu, and particularly Muslim peasants to cooperate in such a boycott. Both these groups had an economic interest in buying cheaper British goods, and the Muslims had already been antagonistic towards Hindu society for years based on religious and communal differences. Swadeshi thug enforcement of the boycott only served to irreparably deepen the communal rift.

At this point, Culturalism entered its post-Swadeshi phase, in which karma was vastly de-emphasized, and bhakti to the nation takes on a dominant role. The peasantry is now derided in a similar way to how the “babu” was formerly derided. Selfish, ignorant, concerned with money, and outside of “culture.” The Muslim peasants are additionally characterized as alien (a notion which Muslims themselves often encouraged), traitorous, divisive, and even further outside of culture.

From this point, culturalism evolved in two seperate directions. One emphasized the aforementioned currents of thought, and formed the roots of Hindu Nationalism. The other, represented by Rabindranath Tagore, reconceptualized labor not as an act which inherently constitutes culture, but actually as the antithesis of culture unless it is preformed in a meditative, detatched manner divorced from materialism. This is why Tagore used the term “Songskriti” for culture, rather than Chattopadhyay’s term “Onushilon.” Onishilon denotes practice, cultivation, or method, whereas Songskriti denotes thought, improvement, and uplifting. When confronted with the economic intransigence of the peasantry, Tagore created a philosophy of retreat from the material world. He founded Shantinekatan as part of an educational theory in which free, uninhibited exploration of ideas divorced from everyday drudgery would foster a society of more moral, enlightened individuals. In this sense, he wanted to build a “new Swadeshi-ist man,” while other culturalists wanted to simply exclude the diseased non-Swadeshi oriented peasants from the Bengali or Hindu nation.


Rabindranath Tagore portrait. Image Source: Wikipedia

The history of culturalism can be thought of in reference to two periods of crisis. The first crisis (the collapse of the Bengali bourgious) led to the permutation of liberalism into culturalism, this second crisis (the failure of Swadeshi) led to the permutation of culturalism into a sort of Bhadralok (gentleman) communalism, and into Tagore style post-Swadeshi culturalism. However, two other groups also adopted the thought constructs generated by culturalism: In the East, Bengali Muslim nationalists, and in the West, Bengali Marxists.

Both of these groups took the culturalist critique of the laboring classes and inverted it. M. N. Roy, the most celebrated Bengali Marxist started his career as a Hindu Swadeshi-ist. He retained the culturalist vision of a monistic society, but connected it with Marxist collectivism. The critique of peasants as being self-interested was adopted, in an inverted manner. Perhaps in a sense the peasants were self interested— interested to obtain the justified product of their labor from the social elites who were self interested in an exploitative sense. The “babu” critique rears its head again in Marxism, in the portrayal of elites as selfishly accumulating material wealth and collaborating with oppressors while disregarding the welfare of the social whole.


M.N. Roy portrait. Image Source: Wikipedia

Whereas the Marxists inverted the culturalist critique of labor the Muslims inverted the culturalist critique of the Islamic community. Early Muslim Bengali nationalists like Abdul Mansur Ahmad didn’t speak despairingly of Hindu culture, but spoke of it as something “other.” In a sense, he agreed with the culturalists that Muslims constituted a separate culture and therefore a separate nation. Hindus, in his mind were artistic, inward looking, concerned with otherworldly affairs. In contrast, Muslims were concerned with worldly justice, equality, struggle, and martyrdom. But nevertheless, he saw the manifestation religion as geographically contextual, meaning that Bengali Islam differed from Islam in Punjab for instance. From the start, Bengali Muslim ideology was infused with this particularist strain, which perhaps made Bangladesh’s breakaway from Pakistan all the more inevitable.


Ahmed Abdul Mansur portrait. Image Source: Banglapedia

That is Sartori’s basic narrative. I’ve tried to do justice to its subtlety, and logical progression, but his book is infinitely more refined than I could hope to emulate in a mere article. But after this fascinating story, I must return to the thesis of the book: that culturalism was premised on a fundamental misrecognition of global capitalist structures. Where is this misrecognition?

I can find a few: Culturalism, in its mature form made a false conflation of British mercantilist policy with “free trade.” The notion that intellectual, artistic, and physical labors are of equal value is also misrecognition. But Sartori doesn’t remark on either of these, and I wouldn’t call them “fundamental” to culturalism.

Perhaps Sartori means that the culturalists did not recognize that the class interests of peasants were misaligned with their own class interests? He is right about this. That misrecognition did lead to Swadeshi’s failure. But culturalism didn’t collapse after Swadeshi. It simply changed into an elite Bhadralok ideology on one hand, and a transcendentalist Tagore-style ideology on the other hand. The Bhadraloks recognized the discontinuity between peasant and elite interests, they just derided peasants as a result of it. Tagore either didn’t make this misrecognition, or if he did, it was not fundamental to his philosophy. And Tagore is after all, the most currently influential culturalist from whose literary corpus the modern Bengali word for culture (Songskriti) derives.

Furthermore, misrecognizing the discontinuity of economic interests between peasants and elites is not unique to culturalism. Indeed, many ideologies make this error. It seems like a highly Marx-centric worldview to view this misrecognition as the “fundamental” feature of all these systems.

I wish that Sartori had simply given us this lovely illustration, without including unfulfilled, jargon laden promises at the onset. But perhaps I am only revealing here my disdain for “overexplanation” in history, and a preference for linear narrative simplicity. In any case, if you want a challenging, advanced reading on the Bengal Renaissance, I highly recommend this book.

2 comments on “Bengal in Global Concept History: Book Response

  1. raj66fli says:

    dear sir, i want to read lokayat/charvak in hindi,you are send me link of lokayat written by d p chattopadhaya, please send me again i am very thankful to you,because i found this book but its not available, with regards &oblize raju jaluthria

    On Sat, Mar 1, 2014 at 2:59 AM, Videshi Sutra

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