November 7, 2014 kb

Communist Movements and Postcolonial Metanarratives

This post continues a conversation I began with this post and continued with this post on Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things on the body, the nation, and postcolonial meta-narratives. In an attempt to parse the tensions I feel the in the book–and many others of its era–I continue my thoughts below. 

Let’s backtrack for a moment and take a look at one of the largest figures in the novel: the Communist movement.

As presented in the novel, the Communist movement is a nostrum:

“As a reformist movement that never overtly questioned the traditional values of a caste-ridden, extremely traditional community. The Marxists worked from within the communal divides, never challenging them, never appearing not to. They offered a cocktail revolution” (The God of Small Things, 64).


As Roy writes in the above quote, the movement—intended to overthrow the bourgeoisie and bring justice to and for the exploited proletariat—is nothing more than a “cocktail revolution.” It panders to each faction, easing fear of the Other for both. Chacko, uncle to the twins, epitomizes the waffling, self-serving tendencies of the movement. Oxford educated, Chacko often fondly invites the female workers at the factory to become comrades even as he reinforces the very ideals he ostensibly opposes: “[Chacko] would call pretty women who worked in the factory to his room, and on the pretext of lecturing them on labor rights and trade union law, flirt with them. He would call them Comrade, and insist that they call him Comrade back” (62).

The Communist movement becomes crucial at this moment for two reasons: first, it explicitly connects the small town of Ayenemen with China and, through this, Hong Kong. Second, it gives language to the very thing that is so unspeakable in the Donahue scene—that a movement can often become the instrument of the very force it works against. Initial descriptions of Chacko endear him to the reader—after all, he’s an Oxford educated man, who can quote philosopher after critical theorists after literary genius, and more than well-loved by his niece and nephew. He, more than anyone, is supposed to understand the harm of his actions. Instead he sells empty dreams of being heard and having a voice only to “pretty women.” Sound familiar? Chacko’s moment of altruism mirrors the performance in the Donahue scene, and like the Donahue scene, we can see an anxiety surrounding the idea that the means for helping the disenfranchised actually work within the very same structures that reinforce the disenfranchisement of the subaltern, falsely believing itself to be disrupting those very structures. Like the Communist movement in Ayenemen, the postcolonial “movement” wavers at the precipice, threatening to become a cocktail movement.

Or perhaps it already has. The idea of postcolonialism has become the metanarrative that satisfies everyone (read: those who matter) enough. It concerns itself with the masses in order to achieve an admirable goal, but unfortunately at the expense of the individual. Guha’s charge to the Indian people to write their own history highlights exactly the problem of postcolonialism as exemplified in the novel: there is only a singular history of the Indian people in this insidious version of postcolonialism.

If we know the dangers of metanarratives, then, why do we insist upon working within the center?

The problem is this: postcolonialism has become another way to other the Other. How do we decentralize ourselves and think postcolonialism outside postcolonialism? One way to accomplish this is through looking at smaller regions and allowing them to write their own narratives, to decide not be relegated to the realm of the “folk” but rather as the self-sustaining, rich spaces that they are. If postcolonialism is to truly make a difference, it cannot be a cookie cutter solution. Zhang states, “the difference within Chinese culture is largely ignored so that the relevant differences between China and Western cultures can be highlighted.” Just as Hong Kong exists between the colonial power of Britain and the dominant native culture of China, and much like Hong Kong cannot be subsumed into the latter in the service of resisting the former, postcolonialism (as a set of practices and a type of consciousness) needs to recognize the third spaces of the post-colonial world. But, again much like Hong Kong, to do so would require working outside of the postcolonial structure.

So, again: how do we think of postcolonialism outside the postcolonial paradigm? We must instead think in terms of migration.

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