Ranajit Guha and Subaltern Studies: Genesis, Key Concepts and Contemporary Relevance
by Arindam Sen

"Guha’s incisive, capacious, untiring mind has now come to rest. For us, he has left behind a treasure house of ideas that scholars will explore for years to come."

Partha Chatterjee[1]

As a sequel to our tribute to Ranajit Guha in the June 2023 issue of Liberation, here we propose to zero in on three most important aspects of this discourse. We will base ourselves mainly on the observations – or testaments, if you will – of the historian himself and some of his closest associates, friends, and students.

The Making of the Maverick

In a candid interview with Milinda Banerjee on 2 February 2010, Guha said:

Coming from a khas taluqdar family of Barisal in East Bengal, I had witnessed the structure of zamindar-praja relations in rural society, which left a profound impression on me. In my student days at Presidency College, Calcutta, I became a Marxist, and a member of the Communist Party. In the late 1940s, I spent a considerable part of time in Europe involved in Communist Party work. However, I also gradually started getting alienated from doctrinaire Communist Party Marxism. Experiences of the USSR’s handling of the political situation in Eastern Europe, disenchantment with the Communist Party of India’s internal factional squabbles for power, and finally the Soviet invasion of Hungary, made me decide to leave the Communist Party. Later, I became something of a Naxal intellectual. I still consider myself to have been inspired by Charu Mazumdar’s ideas which, I think, contain a lot of validity. agency and actions. But Charu Mazumdar and his followers were weak in organizational capability, which resulted in the movement being crushed.[2]

The historian’s own account is fully corroborated by his student Sumanta Banerjee:

…Those were tumultuous years [1970/71] following the peasant rebellion in Naxalbari. You visited India and came to Delhi …. We had a delightful time, discussing international politics and the Naxalite movement. … both shared our common admiration of the peasant warriors and the student activists of the Naxalite movement. During your brief stay in Delhi, you addressed the students at the Delhi University in a meeting, where you urged them to come forward in support of the movement.

The next time I met you was sometime in 1979 … [at] your home in Sussex …You narrated how your interest in the Naxalite movement had prompted you to try to understand the peasant psyche. This had led you to explore the historical roots of anti-British peasant rebellions in India in the past.

A few years after my return to India, in 1983, I received a copy of your book ‘Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India’. This seminal book was the outcome of your research about which you talked that afternoon in your Sussex home. …Your insatiable urge to probe further into the subject led you to come up with the concept of the ‘subaltern’ …[3]

Partha Chatterjee, one of Guha’s closest associates and widely recognized as one of the greatest exponents of the Subaltern Studies school, tells us how Naxalbari radically transformed Guha’s plans. Now he had a definite direction and purpose for his research. Full ten years of Herculean labour produced Guha’s magnum opus and the Subaltern Studies collective. To quote Chatterjee: 

… In 1970-71, he spent a year in India with the intention of writing a book on Gandhi. The aftershocks of Naxalbari were shaking university campuses in India. ‘I supported the violence of the Naxalbari movement because it was a warning to communists who were sliding down the slope towards a corrupt parliamentarism,’ he later reminisced. Guha returned to England with an entirely new project in mind: an analytical history of peasant revolts. The book would appear a decade later as Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983).

The snippets shed an intimate light on the historiographer’s political self: on how he heard the voice and saw the agency of the subaltern in the ‘Spring Thunder over India’. Highly inspired, the explorer embarked on a new leg in his life’s journey. He was already on the wrong side of 50, yet this was going to be the most creative and productive period in his life. As Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty, one of his younger colleagues in Subaltern Studies Collective/Group (henceforth SS), said in an interview:

"Guha was the first historian I met in flesh and blood who had a real enthusiasm for ideas. He encouraged you not just to go to the archives – which he always did – but to learn to read archival texts actively, reflectively, by thinking about language and its relationship to the world.[4]"

Indeed, even in history-writing Guha was an original thinker, an imaginative mind rather than a chronicler and arranger of historical facts. Always brimming with new ideas, the maverick, following DD Kosambi, inspired another paradigm shift in Indian historiography.[5] Amartya Sen was spot on when he commented long ago that Guha was the most creative Indian historian of the 20th century.

Emergence of Subaltern Studies: The Political Backdrop

The indefatigable, brilliant pathfinder in social and historical research soon took up the role of a motivator-cum-organizer of historians. Under his leadership, the Subaltern Studies stream of historiography emerged in the early 1980s as a consequence of the all-round ideological and political churning in India and abroad since the late 1960s. Militant peasant activism in Naxalbari, Bhojpur and other regions in the 1970s and early 1980s led to intense interest in the role of the peasantry in social dynamism and transformation among historians and social scientists, while politics was rife with the quest for a people’s alternative to both the hated authoritarian regime of Indira Gandhi and the failed Janata party government that replaced it. Apart from Guha’s leadership qualities, these factors also helped create an intellectual milieu which was conducive to the rapid growth of the SS collective and a major reason behind the positive response it received. 

Eminent Marxist historian Sumit Sarkar gives us a condensed account of this formative period of the SS:

"As the shining promise at the dawn of Independence began to dim by the late 1960s and early ’70s, and as a new wave of popular struggles began in various forms against the post-colonial ruling classes, I felt it was more important to explore the historical limits of mainstream nationalism, especially the class perspective of its leadership. The ongoing Vietnam War, and the residual excitement of May 1968, made quite a lot of us think for some time, independently and in isolation from one another, that the struggles of peasants and workers were more significant for national and social liberation than the leadership provided by the elites.[6]

Already, Ranajit Guha had gathered around him a group of young scholars in England who were thinking on similar lines about how to re-envision Indian history. That was the nucleus of the Subaltern Studies collective, with which I, too, became associated for a while. When I visited Oxford for a year in 1976-77, I met the group, and I still remember the very exciting and stimulating discussions I had with Professor Guha at his Sussex home, where the two of us, once or twice, stayed up all night and I listened to him on the Indian peasantry, practically spellbound.[7]"

The discussion ‘modified many of my ideas’, Sarkar remarked in the Preface to his book Modern India: 1885-1947. Before we proceed towards discussing Guha’s ideas, perhaps it would be better to acquaint ourselves with authentic meanings of certain key concepts.

Key Categories and Major Propositions

In the Preface to Subaltern Studies I (1982), Guha writes:

"The word subaltern stands for … ‘of inferior rank’. It will be used in these pages as a general attribute of subordination in South Asian society … expressed in terms of caste, class, gender, and office."

Here we emphasize on certain phrases to highlight the crucial fact that Guha and the SS used the term (and the associated term ‘elite’) not as universally applicable alternative categories for bourgeoisie and proletariat, but only in the field of South Asian studies, and that too especially for the colonial period. Overlooking this specificity in terms of region and historical period, both indicating an Asian version of semi-feudal social formation, where the capitalist mode of production and the corresponding class formation was in a primary stage, has led some to misunderstand the basic categories of SS as a departure from Marxian class analysis. They forget that this alternative historiography was concerned with an era and a region of the world where it was not possible to say, as Marx and Engels said:

"Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, … has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – bourgeoisie and proletariat.[8]"

Note the use of the present continuous tense: even in mid-19th century Europe, the process was continuing, was yet to be completed. Far less developed was the SS group’s field of study, which resembled ‘the earlier epochs’ marked by ‘a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank.’  To illustrate such arrangements, the authors of the Communist Manifesto referred to a plethora of social groups such as ‘feudal lords, vassals guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs’ in the middle edges. So, what is wrong or non-Marxist in categorising or describing such disparate groups under two broad, comprehensive heads – subaltern and elite – especially when this terminology offers convenient analytical tools for societies to which they are applied?

In fact, Guha’s terminology does not ignore or negate class, but subsumes it in a broader inclusive category. We shall shortly see how, in the last two paragraphs of what has come to be known as the SS Group’s ‘manifesto’, Guha weaves his arguments around concepts like ‘class outlook’ of elitist historiography, ‘class-for-itself’, and so on.

Let us continue analysing the SS concepts for now. Guha clarifies that ‘people’ and ‘subaltern classes’, ‘have been used as synonymous.’ He goes on:

"The term ‘elite’ has been used in this statement to signify dominant groups, foreign as well as indigenous. The dominant foreign groups included all the non-Indian, that is, mainly British officials of the colonial state and foreign industrialists, merchants, financiers, planters, landlords and missionaries."

Regarding ‘dominant indigenous groups’ Guha says:

"…at the all-India level they included the biggest feudal magnates, the most important representatives of the industrial and mercantile bourgeoisie and native recruits to the uppermost levels of the bureaucracy …At the regional and local levels they represented such classes and other elements as were either members of the dominant all-India groups included in the previous category or if belonging to social strata hierarchically inferior to those of the dominant all-India groups still acted in the interests of the latter and not in conformity to interests corresponding truly to their own social being.

"The words ‘history and society’ in the subtitle [to the title of Volume I] are meant to serve as shorthand, for all that is involved in the subaltern condition. As such, there is nothing in the material and spiritual aspects of that condition, past or present, which does not interest us." [Emphasis ours].

The preface is followed by an introductory essay titled On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India. It is widely regarded as the ‘Manifesto’ of the group, though it was never declared as such. We reproduce here an abridged version of this important document, with emphasis and a few explanatory notes supplied by us.

"1. The historiography of Indian nationalism has for a long time been dominated by elitism —colonialist elitism and bourgeois-nationalist elitism. Both originated as the ideological product of British rule in India but have survived the transfer of power and been assimilated to neo-colonialist and neo-nationalist forms of discourse in Britain and India respectively. Elitist historiography of the colonialist or neo-colonialist type counts British writers and institutions among its principal protagonists but has its imitators in India and other countries too. Elitist historiography of the nationalist or neo-nationalist type is primarily an Indian practice but not without imitators in the ranks of liberal historians in Britain and elsewhere.

2. Both these varieties of elitism share the prejudice that the making of the Indian nation and the development of the consciousness—nationalism—which informed this process, were exclusively or predominantly elite achievements. In the colonialist and neo-colonialist historiographies these achievements are credited to British colonial rulers, administrators, policies, institutions, and culture; in the nationalist and neo-nationalist writings—to Indian elite personalities, institutions, activities, and ideas."

The author of course, is not blind to the contributions of elitist historiography:

"It helps us to know more about the structure of the colonial state, the operation of its various organs in certain historical circumstances, the nature of the alignment of classes which sustained it; some aspects of the ideology of the elite as the dominant ideology of the period; about the contradictions between the two elites and the complexities of their mutual oppositions and coalitions…"

But he goes on to say:

"6. What, however, historical writing of this kind cannot do is to explain Indian nationalism for us. For it fails to acknowledge, far less interpret, the contribution made by the people on their own to the making and development of this nationalism. The bankruptcy of this historiography is clearly exposed when it is called upon to explain such phenomena as the anti-Rowlatt upsurge of 1919 and the Quit India movement of 1942—to name only two of numerous instances of popular initiative asserting itself during nationalist campaigns in defiance or absence of elite control." [Ranajit Guha also cites instances like Chauri-Chaura or the militant demonstrations of solidarity with the RIN mutineers.]

"7. This inadequacy of elitist historiography follows directly from the narrow and partial view of politics to which it is committed by virtue of its class outlook. …"

The (bourgeois) class outlook and politics embedded in elite historiography is clearly exposed here, underscoring the need of a subaltern historiography which, drawing upon from proletarian class outlook and politics, can overcome the dominant historiography. Yes proletarian – not peasant – class outlook; because the only real alternative to a bourgeois vision of past, present, and future is a proletarian one, as clarified in points 14 and 15 below. On this question, and hence also on the question of the two types of democratic revolution led by either of the two contending modern classes, Guha stands firmly on the standard Marxist-Leninist formulation.

"8. What clearly is left out of this un-historical historiography is the politics of the people [which constitutes] an autonomous domain [of] the subaltern classes and groups, i.e., the mass of the labouring population and the intermediate strata in town and country.…Elite mobilization tended to be relatively more legalistic and constitutionalist in orientation, [whereas] subaltern mobilization [were] more violent…more spontaneous and…was realized in its most comprehensive form in peasant uprisings.

"10. The co-existence of these two domains or streams … was the index of an important historical truth, that is, the failure of the Indian bourgeoisie to speak for the nation. There were vast areas in the life and consciousness of the people which were never integrated into their hegemony."

At the same time, Guha takes note of,

"…efforts made from time to time by the more advanced elements among the indigenous elite, especially the bourgeoisie, to integrate them. Such efforts, when linked to struggles which had clearly defined anti-imperialist objectives and where consistently waged, produced some splendid results. Linked, on other occasions, to movements which either had no firm anti-imperialist objectives at all or had lost them during their development and deviated into legalist, constitutionalist, or some other kind of compromise with the colonial government, they produced some spectacular retreats…"

The preface also notes:

"13. Such dichotomy did not, however, mean that these two domains were hermetically sealed off from each other and there was no contact between them. On the contrary, there was a great deal of overlap …the braiding together of the two strands of elite and subaltern politics led invariably to explosive situations indicating that the masses mobilized by the elite to fight for their own objectives managed to break away from their control and put the characteristic imprint of popular politics on campaigns initiated by the upper classes."

Up to this point what we get is a very brief critique of elitist historiographies, followed by the briefest possible summary of what is ‘left out’ from elite accounts of colonial India – the ‘autonomous domain’ of ‘politics of the people’ and the braiding together of elite and subaltern politics. The last two paragraphs, which we quote in full, explain why the long series of powerful peasant insurgencies failed, thanks to the absence of a revolutionary worker-peasant alliance under working class leadership, to rise to the level of a national liberation movement.

"14. However, the initiatives which originated from the domain of subaltern politics were not, on their part, powerful enough to develop the nationalist movement into a full-fledged struggle for national liberation. The working class was still not sufficiently mature in the objective conditions of its social being and in its consciousness as a class-for-itself, nor was it firmly allied yet with the peasantry. As a result, it could do nothing to take over and complete the mission which the bourgeoisie had failed to realize. The outcome of it all was that the numerous peasant uprisings of the period, some of them massive in scope and rich in anti-colonialist consciousness, waited in vain for a leadership to raise them above localism and generalize them into a nationwide antiimperialist campaign. In the event, much of the sectional struggle of workers, peasants and the urban petty bourgeoisie either got entangled in economism or, wherever politicized, remained, for want of a revolutionary leadership, far too fragmented to form effectively into anything like a national liberation movement.

"15. It is the study of this historic failure of the nation to come to its own, a failure due to the inadequacy of the bourgeoisie as well as of the working class to lead it into a decisive victory over colonialism and a bourgeois-democratic revolution of either the classic nineteenth-century type under the hegemony of the bourgeoisie or a more modern type under the hegemony of workers and peasants, that is, a ‘new democracy’— it is the study of this failure which constitutes the central problematic of the historiography of colonial India. There is no one given way of investigating this problematic. Let a hundred flowers blossom and we don’t mind even the weeds."

The ‘manifesto’ thus ends with a call for investigating the ‘central problematic’ in whatever way one may choose, indicating a broad and open-minded approach to debate, discussion and collective research. The same spirit also stands out in the preface to volume I. Starting from these basic propositions, over the years and decades members of the SS collective produced a rich harvest of essays dealing with wide-ranging facets and episodes of ‘society and history’ – in most cases concerning colonial India, but some related to the post-colonial period too.

After the publication of Volume VI of Subaltern Studies in 1989, Guha relinquished the editorship of the series but remained as fecund as ever in print and other modes of communication. To understand this revolutionary heritage, he delved in the last decades of his life into Indian philosophy and literature, mostly writing in Bengali. The octogenarian young man also picked up a new love: the Puranas and ancient religious texts of India. He presented Sita, Shakuntala, Draupadi, and Antigone as comparable rebellious women who resisted the violent male state. In the Stri Parva (Book of Women) of the Mahabharata, Guha discovered abiding female indictments of war. History writing, Guha now felt, must not base itself on mountains of archived materials alone, and look for insights in art, literature, and religious texts too.

Why Guha’s Contributions are So Important Today

In order to properly understand our past – on which is predicated the understanding of present and therefore building our future – it is necessary to grasp the specific Indian modes of subalternity and thus truly appreciate Indian society in its complex richness and nuances. The SS contributed hugely to this. How?

Take a closer look at Guha’s interview to Milinda Banerjee. It was 2010. National and international situations had changed almost beyond recognition compared to late 1960s and early 1970s; the mental world of the historian himself also did not remain the same. So, what are the ideas that had continuing ‘validity, agency, and actions’ for Guha?

It seems what impressed him the most was Charu Mazumdar’s total reliance on and abundant admiration for the revolutionary zeal, perseverance, strike power and collective heroism of the biggest contingent of the Indian subaltern – the peasantry – in CM’s eyes the primary producer of all wealth and culture. But Guha did not take the easy way of romanticizing the peasant hero. He narrated the true story of the Indian peasant in all its complexities and subtleties with the highest standards of historiographic rigor. That is why his Elementary Aspects earned international acclaim for its authenticity, originality, and boldness. Published about a decade after Naxalbari and other hotspots of armed agrarian struggle announced independent India’s first great peasant insurgency (and the first pan-Indian one in recorded history), Guha’s seminal work provided the first comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding peasant insurgencies in India, past and present.

Today when the people of India are groaning under the jackboots of an anti-Dalit, anti-Muslim, anti-women, anti-poor, Manuvadi fascist regime, it is crucial that we make full use of the historical insights provided by the SS in our fight against that regime, as we do with the political insights of BR Ambedkar. The Modi regime has acquired, maintained, and bolstered its power not only by brute force, but also by different techniques of hegemonization, such as Hinduisation of Dalits and other marginalized communities; targeted social engineering; whipping up nationalist frenzy – particularly before major elections – and so on. In combating these techniques, apart from our own first-hand experiences, Guha’s, and his associates’ detailed expositions on ‘the material and spiritual aspects’ of ‘the subaltern condition’ may prove quite helpful. In fact, it is only in this way – by using and working on his historical insights in our struggle to change the present and build a better future – that we can pay the best tributes to Ranajit Guha.


1. Chatterjee, Partha, ‘Ranajit Guha, the Unconventional Historian’, The Wire, 05May, 2023

2. Bannerjee, Milinda, ‘Subaltern Politics and the Question of Being’, Jhi Blog, 18 July. 2022

3. Banerjee, Sumanta, ‘An Advance Birthday Greetings to Ranajit Guha’, published in Frontier, 55:14-17, Oct 2 – 29, 2022.

4. The New Leam Conversation, 4 December 2020. (

5. Both Kosambi (1907-1966) and Guha were independent Marxist thinkers critical of stale, lifeless ‘official Marxism’, as the former famously called the received orthodoxy of many communist leaders of his time. Guha, as noted above, charged the official communists for ‘corrupt parliamentarism’. Kosambi was primarily a mathematician and scientist, but even his limited contribution in history was powerful enough to help the emergence of a batch of outstanding Marxist historians in India. He was also an early critic of the schematic proposition that all major societies passed through the same succession of modes of production, arguing that India never knew slavery in the classical European sense. Instead, he asserted, caste has been India’s historically specific form of bondage.

6. Student rebellion in a Paris suburb, which was joined by the working class and ignited powerful protests in France and other countries.

7. Sarkar, Sumit, Essays of a Lifetime, Orient Blackswan, 2017.

8. Marx, Karl and Engels Friedrich, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Chapter I, emphasis ours.

Genesis, Key Concepts and Contemporary