The (Postcolonial) Marxist Shift in Response to Technology

In her previous post, Asha Achuthan discussed, through the Gandhi-Tagore debates, the responses to science and technology that did not follow the dominant Marxist-nationalist positions. Later Marxist-postcolonial approaches to science and responses to technology were conflated in anti-technology arguments, particularly in development. In this post, the fifth in a series on her project, she will briefly trace the 1980s shift in Marxist thinking in India as a way of approaching the shift in the science and technology question. This exercise will reveal the ambivalence in Marxist practice toward continuing associations between the ‘rational-scientific’ on the one hand and the ‘revolutionary’ on the other.

The importance of the subaltern

Ranajit Guha, writing in 1982, was the first to consider, within Indian Marxism, the structure of subaltern consciousness. Questioning the incidental place given to the peasant in what I have called Marxist-nationalist frames, Guha proposed a re-cognition of the subaltern – here the local peasant – as political and politicised, and not merely a cog in the wheel or an included member of a revolution conceived of by the vanguard. In re-conceptualising or re-discovering (it is not clear which) the political, the Subaltern School, up until the time of Subaltern Studies IV, brought up an analysis of colonialism that challenged early and neo-colonialist historiographies, as dominance without hegemony in at least the first fifty years of its existence. This suggested that colonial power had not only not worked with the active consent of ‘the people’; it had placed everything before colonial time in the zone of non-history, and by extension, in the zone of the pre-political. Nationalist historiographies had followed the same patterns in addressing the peasant, thus leaving out the 'politics of the people' (Guha 1982). The Subaltern Studies School up until Subaltern IV, then –

1.     Raised the question of subaltern consciousness.

2.     Uncovered the 'role of the peasant in nationalist movements' as the subaltern domain of politics – a domain separate from the 'elite' nationalist domain – rather than an un-political 'sticks and stones' activity.

3.     Re-read colonialism as a discourse of dominance without hegemony, that resulted in separate elite and subaltern domains of politics.

4.     Challenged existing ‘elite historiography’ - both colonialist and nationalist.

5.     Made these moves through a different mode of history-writing that took into account unconventional sources, and used different methodologies, producing, on that account, a different history.

I will not go into the two significant challenges to the Subaltern School[1] that came up with Subaltern IV. For my purposes, the early Subaltern phase, in its shifts from the Marxist-nationalist moment, is important for the ways in which it aligns with (or rather, facilitates) various critiques of technology that permeate discussions around development today, and sometimes seek alliances with Gandhian philosophies in doing so. Needless to say, all of these relied for their critique on the vantage point of the subaltern. That subaltern was an empirical category or condition as set out in Subaltern Studies.[2] I examine here two of three spaces where this shift from earlier Marxist to subaltern perspectives is visible – the popular science movements, the post-trade-union movements, and the critiques of technology available in the postcolonial school.

People’s Science Movements

The Science and Rationalists’ Association of India (name of the organization in Bengali is Bharatiya Bigyan O Yuktibadi Samiti) established on 1st March  1985, our organization is made up of like minded people coming from different professions. We are not affiliated to any political party. 
Our aim is to eradicate superstition and blind faith, which include religious fanaticism, astrology, caste-system, spiritualism  and numerous other obscurantist beliefs.


                Our view is that rational way of thinking shall be spread among the people as against spiritual or religious teachings, and that alone can bring about social change. 

The Medico Friends Circle was set up in 1974 at a national level, to critically analyse the existing health care system in India and 'to evolve an appropriate approach towards health care which is humane and which can meet the needs of the vast majority of the people in our country'. With an emphasis on the necessary role of the state in providing such health care, it demanded 'that medical and health care be available to everyone irrespective of her/his ability to pay … that medical intervention and health care be strictly guided by the needs of our people and not by commercial interests'; and asked for 'popularisation and demystification of medical science and … the establishment of an appropriate health care system in which different categories of health professional are regarded as equal members of a democratically functioning team'. Alongside, it also decided to push for 'active participation by the community in the planning and carrying out preventive and promotive measures', for 'a pattern of medical and health care adequately geared to the predominantly rural health concerns of our country … a medical curriculum and training tailored to the needs of the vast majority of the people in our country', and asked, further, that 'research on non-allopathic therapies be encouraged by allotting more funds and other resources and … that such therapies get their proper place in our health–care'.  It also asked that we be attentive to the role of 'curative technology in saving a person’s life, alleviating suffering or preventing disability'.

Community Development Medicinal Unit, an independent non-profit voluntary organisation, was set up in 1984, to 'achieve the basic societal need of facilitating access to essential medicines', to 'provide unbiased drug information to health professionals and consumers, to weed out spurious and “irrational” drug combinations from the market through consumer information and pressure on government, to “negotiate with the Government to formulate people-oriented drug policies and weed out irrational and hazardous drugs from the Indian market, [and to] … conduct community-oriented research on drugs' (

These were a few of the many organisations that grew in the 70s and 80s to nurture the ‘social’, ‘civil’, ‘cultural’ space. Alongside other organisations like the Janakiya Samskarika Vedi in Kerala, these determinedly claimed an autonomous, non-profit guardianship of 'the people', reacting as much to the violence in the political life of the entrenched Left as to its vanguardism.[3] Their primary aim, therefore, was to increase access and availability not only to the fruits of scientific knowledge, namely drugs and curative technologies, but to that knowledge itself, so that programmes of ‘popularisation and demystification’, rural needs, ‘alternative system use’, were incorporated and taken up as the activities of local science clubs.

On the other hand, the stress was on 'active participation', which did not need an unpacking of knowledge systems or knowledge-making, but rather an involvement at the level of knowledge-dispensation, as also an extension of the WHO slogan '(think globally) acting locally'. But the stress itself possibly had other histories. Autonomous or otherwise, these organisations came out of what Raka Ray has called the 'hegemonic field' of the Left, in Bengal and Kerala, among other spaces. In attempting to move away from the notion of vanguard party and the ‘mass’, ‘the people’ of a democratic state became the organising metaphor for these ‘movements’ that not only 'took science to the villages', but also admonished technology for its inattentions to the people. Appropriate technology and best practices, then, were the logical next step, as also the accompanying challenge to big dams – all manifestations of technology that suppressed subaltern voice.

While the Bigyan O Yuktibadi Samiti may be the most caricatural version available today, most of the people’s science movements did rely on associations between 'rationalist' and scientific ideas, using the one to bolster the other, or, in the later turn to the PSM, accuse the one on account of the other. In this later turn, the PSM share the philosophy of the anti-development positions, in their attention to the vantage point of the subaltern as an empirical identity from which to critique the existing knowledge frames. Part of the expectation from such movements, that they would eliminate 'nativism' and challenge 'fundamentalism', then, was obviously not met in the later turn.

Why have PSMs not taken the fight to the priests and the temples?

I believe that the nativist turn by an important segment of Gandhian social activists and intellectuals made it unfashionable to question tradition and religion. It became almost obligatory to defend the 'wisdom' of the masses, as opposed to the 'violence' of modern scientific ideas themselves. This kind of thinking moved the focus to 'safer' targets, like big development projects, MNCs and such in which 'modern' technology and modern institutions were the main culprits and people's traditions the source of resistance (I am not suggesting that the left should not oppose MNCs and big development projects, as and when they need to be opposed. But they have to be opposed while defending a progressive, secular worldview; not in order to defend the 'people's wisdom' which contains many inherited prejudices and superstitions). Science movements imbibed the populism and cultural traditionalism of leading Gandhian/postcolonial intellectuals who took a highly anti-modernist position for nearly three decades, starting around late 1970s (coinciding with Indira Gandhi's emergency).

        (Nanda 2005:

Nanda’s statement is at the cusp of the postcolonial appropriation of Marxian terminology in its anti-technology arguments. We will go into these in more detail in the next post.

[1] Spivak on subaltern agency (Can the Subaltern Speak?), and Ajit K. Chaudhury on Subaltern Studies’ dismissal of Lenin’s consciousness as ‘elite’ (In Search of a Subaltern Lenin). In effect, both moves challenged the empirical subalternity on which Subaltern Studies perspectives seemed to stand.

[2] 'The word "subaltern" … as a name for the general attribute of subordination in South Asian society whether this is expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender and office or in any other way'. And the work of Subaltern Studies therefore relates to 'the history, politics, economics and sociology of subalternity as well as to the attitudes, ideologies and belief systems – in short, the culture informing that condition' (Guha 1988: 35).

[3] Another element of the organizational perspectives is a certain divide between the political and ‘other’ activities that this period saw. Paralleled by the base-superstructure divide, or the massline versus military line was this socio-cultural activity versus political activity, a debate well demonstrated in the history of the Janakiya Samskarika Vedi (Sreejith K., EPW December 10, 2005).



Asha Achuthan

My disciplinary training is in medicine. Some of my questions about science and politics led me to a Women's Studies programme in Jadavpur University, from where I did an M.Phil with a focus on "women and development". I have recently submitted my PhD dissertation, "Feminist Standpoint Theory and the Question of Experience". I am also working as Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, on a project of curriculum revision in the natural and social sciences.