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  • Bengal in Global Concept History: Culturalism in the Age of Capital
  • Kris Manjapra
Bengal in Global Concept History: Culturalism in the Age of Capital. By Andrew Sartori (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2008) 288 pp. $55.00 cloth $22.00 paper

In this signal contribution to the emerging field of South Asian intellectual history, Sartori avoids the commonplaces of the colonial archive by a close reading of vernacular texts and an intensive engagement with Marxist social theory closely associated with Postone.1 Through a study of canonical Bengali thinkers such as Bankim Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, and Aurobindo Ghosh, Sartori affirms an established periodization of Bengali history that accords with the classic scholarship of Kling and Sarkar, as well as the new, influential arguments of Goswami.2 Following Kling, Sartori situates the “failure” of Bengali liberalism and the rise of Hindu “culturalism” in the context of the fall of the Union Bank in 1848 and the passing of the Act X of 1859, which defined the rights of peasant farmers against landed elites. With Sarkar, he isolates another [End Page 474] watershed of Bengali thought in the “failure” of the Swadeshi movement, 1905–1908, and with Goswami, he locates the rise of Indian territorial nationalist imagination in the context of post-1857 infrastructural innovations of the British Raj.

The impressive novelty of Sartori’s argument derives from his interpretation of how the political economy of Bengal, located within a system of global capital, determined the history of ideas in the region. By the term culturalism, Sartori means a set of responses by Bengali Hindu intellectuals to the alienation and dislocation brought by the rising global capitalist order. Before the economic crisis of 1848, culture was associated with liberal “reformism” and with what Sartori calls the proclamation of free, “underdetermined” subjectivities vis-à-vis the realm of nature. To be cultured among the Bengali bhadralok was to be above nature and instinct, and to be occupied with reading, writing, and erudition. Culturalism as antiliberalism first arose in Bengal after 1848, Sartori argues. The concept became part of a quasi-Romantic discourse among high-caste Hindu intellectuals as they reasserted their organic connection to the land and to the productive powers of rural labor. The failure of the Bengali Hindu productivist project at the end of the Swadeshi movement in 1908 led a large group among the Hindu political right toward a new, retrenched form of culturalism that set itself against the so-called barbarism of the “Muslim popular” threat and that located culture not in proximity to nature but in an internal realm of Hindu subjectivity.

Sartori’s approach generates other new findings. Abul Mansur Ahmad’s Bengali Muslim “Pakistanism” and Manabendra Nath Roy’s Hindu Marxist “parochial cosmopolitanism” were twentieth-century responses to culturalism in Sartori’s view, which were nonetheless caught up in the contradictions of global capitalism. However, bringing attention to the interregional social milieus and transnational conversations that sustained the pro-Pakistan and Marxist movements in Bengal would have enriched the latter sections of the book. Also, the strict dyads that Sartori adopts—liberalism versus culturalism, circulation versus production, and the global versus the local—may obscure alternative ideologies and intermediary spaces that operated within a global frame. For example, there is no discussion of forms of Bengali internationalism or cosmopolitan aspiration as possible alternatives to both liberalism and culturalism. Yet, on balance, Sartori presents a highly disciplined, careful, and imaginative intellectual history, and his Marxian history of ideas, grounded in economic relations instead of in discursive responses to the “colonial divide,” will incite lively debate and provide a much-needed stimulus to the writing of South Asian intellectual history. [End Page 475]

Kris Manjapra
Tufts University


1. Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (New York, 1993).

2. Sumit Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, 1903–1908 (New Delhi, 1973); Blair Kling, Partner in Empire: Dwarkanath Tagore and the Age of Enterprise in Eastern India (Berkeley, 1976); Manu Goswami, Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space (Chicago, 2004).