Serajul Islam Choudhury: Our leading public intellectual

by Azfar Hussain

New Age pays tribute to Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury on his 80th birthday today. Choudhury is professor emeritus at the department of English, University of Dhaka, and one of the most prominent public intellectuals in the country. A prolific writer, he continues to offer a sharp critique of undemocratic social, economic and political world.

The critical attitude
Strikes many people as unfruitful
That is because they find the state
Impervious to their criticism
But what in this case is an unfruitful attitude
Is merely a feeble attitude. Give criticism arms
And states can be demolished by it.

Canalising a river
Grafting a fruit tree
Educating a person
Transforming a state
These are instances of fruitful criticism
And at the same time instances of art.
—Bertolt Brecht

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Serajul Islam ChoudhuryTODAY, June 23, marks the 80th birthday of Serajul Islam Choudhury. At a conjuncture characterised by the constitutive contradictions, crises, and cruelties of such systems of exploitation and oppression as capitalism and imperialism, Serajul Islam’s Choudhury’s work continues to speak to the emancipatory struggles of the oppressed around the country and even the world. Social theorist, literary and cultural critic, comparatist, political analyst, media commentator, teacher, pedagogist, translator, editor, columnist, and activist, Choudhury is undoubtedly one of the most prolific writers in the Bengali language today. He is the author of nearly 100 books and numerous essays. He has also written several books in English, including a few groundbreaking ones on the Bengali revolutionary poet Kazi Nazrul Islam — Choudhury’s all-time favourite. But, more than anything else, Serajul Islam Choudhury is a major and leading oppositional intellectual of our times, committed as he is to nothing short of the total emancipation of humanity in its entirety.
My purpose in this piece is not to provide a comprehensive evaluation of the entire range of Serajul Islam spe01Choudhury’s oeuvre, nor is it to trace his intellectual and political trajectory sequentially. I think, in a single essay like this one, it is impossible to do justice to the range and rigour, scale and scope — staggering as they are — of Choudhury’s work. However, I intend to offer at least a broad yet provisional sense of the totality of his work, while I wish to dwell on the significance of certain aspects of his work only.
To begin with, Choudhury’s work, in the first place, remains organically responsive to and thoroughly informed by our own national liberation movement, class struggles, and other forms of struggle in Bangladesh. One who always historicises his own people’s conditions of being and becoming, Choudhury continues to make interventions in such broad areas as society, politics, political economy, culture, and history, while making the points that telling without doing is profoundly insufficient and that gnosis (knowledge) without praxis (practice informed by knowledge) is simply empty.
Indeed, for more than five decades now, Choudhury has been making an inventory of the daily acts of people’s resistance and modes of forbearance and survival as well as their aspirations and hopes, exemplified in a range of his works from, say, his earlier book Nirashray Grihi (1978) and Bangali Kake Bali (1988), to Swadhinata Spriha Sammyer Bhay (1988) and Ganatantrer Paksha-Bipaksha (1991), to Rashtra O Sankskriti (1993) and Rashtrer Malikana (1997), to Bichchhinnatay Asammati (2014), among many others. One would also do well to cite yet another example here. It was our country’s most popular — if not populist — column called ‘Samay Bahiya Jay’ that Choudhury used to write with commendable verve and unflagging enthusiasm in a style that is distinctively Choudhuryian. Indeed, he has already exemplarily evolved a prose-style that makes his work pleasantly readable and accessible. For him, this very question of style is not only an aesthetic question but also a political one. If the style makes writing forbidding and obscure, it runs the risk of being anti-people in the final instance, as Choudhury seems to be suggesting.
Consistently critical as he is of individualism and opportunist liberalism, Choudhury characteristically keeps the problems, concerns, and struggles of the common, ordinary people at the centre of his work, while advancing and enhancing their cause at every turn and lending various forms of support to their actually existing movements about which he has also written profusely. Thus, he continues to play the exemplary role of a public intellectual in Bangladesh. But who are the ‘people’ for Choudhury? As we know, it is customary for politicians, business folks, and even corporations to invoke ‘people’ and speak in their name. The entire liberal-humanist tradition also relentlessly invokes ‘people’ and ‘humanity’ in the name of universal fraternity and love, while, however, erasing and obscuring the actual sites of material contradictions and the questions of unequal production relations and power relations obtaining among the people, including the questions of class, gender, race, and nationality, for instance. Choudhury is noted for his trenchant critiques of liberalism and liberal humanism, exemplified in his brilliantly articulated takes vis-à-vis a sub-continental figure like Raja Ram Mohan Roy or a figure like the English novelist EM Forster, just to give two quick examples.
But, in opposition to the tradition named above, Choudhury clearly identifies the people for whom he tirelessly writes and fights. The people for him, then, are clearly the majority in the country — the toiling masses — peasants and workers, including women as well as ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities, ignored and oppressed as they are. And he writes about them from the perspectives of their collective emancipation. To put it bluntly and quickly: Human emancipation itself constitutes the most fundamental, abiding theme in Choudhury’s work. In fact, the question of people’s emancipation remains organic and integral to the entire constellation of Choudhury’s interrogations and interventions from his earlier works to his relatively recent, massive work called Jatiyatabad, Sampradayikata O Janaganer Mukti (2015), which can justly be regarded as his historiographical tour de force.
Let me now briefly describe one of Choudhury’s predominant approaches used in his work. Indeed, what — among other things — enables his interventions to remain attentive to both connectedness and contradictions as well as to the ‘specific’ in its historical determinateness is dialectics itself. Dialectics is Choudhury’s weapon. For him, dialectics — as a science of the general laws of contradiction, motion, and transformation — is not merely a scholarly or academic exercise; it is a radical tool. He sharpens and deploys the weapon of dialectics in his writing. In fact, it enables him not only to zero in on the specific or the particular as such, prompting him to advance a concrete analysis of a concrete situation, but also to discern and demystify both contradictions and connections between the specific and the general, between the particular and the universal, between the abstract and the concrete, between critique and action, between gnosis and praxis. But only discerning or demystifying contradictions and connections is never enough for Serajul Islam Choudhury. He identifies them in the interest of social transformation and emancipation, broadly speaking.
Further, in the Marxist tradition, Choudhury’s approach reckons the class struggle as both the horizon and motor of world history. This approach enables us to see how the development of the productive forces brings into existence different production relations and different forms of class society. And this approach is also nothing short of a revolutionary one that makes us see how the question of the entirety of human emancipation remains connected to the transvaluation of the questions of property relations, the social division of labour, and the process of social reproduction, and so on — ie, connected to the total abolition of value (exchange value) itself — ‘an abolition that can be effected only by a revolution’, as Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto.
As the German Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin points out in his classic work ‘On the Concept of History’: ‘Class struggle, which for a historian schooled in Marx is always in evidence, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist’ (391). Choudhury’s approach demystifies how the class struggle in its concrete historical-becoming is a fight for ‘the crude and material things’ as much as it is a struggle for the ‘refined and spiritual things’, interconnected as they are. Thus his approach considers both political economy and culture as the dialectically interconnected sites of life-and-death struggles of the oppressed.

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NOW let me take up the question of the role of intellectuals that Serajul Islam Choudhury himself forcefully broaches and articulates in his oeuvre, particularly in his classic essay called ‘Buddhijibider Kajkarma O Daydayitwa.’ True, a number of intellectuals on the left already wrote about the role of intellectuals themselves. One may readily mention the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the American linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky, and the Palestinian-American cultural theorist Edward Said, among others. All of them — their different approaches notwithstanding — accentuate the oppositional role of an intellectual, committed as she or he is to radical or even revolutionary social change, while distinguishing this role from that of his or her traditional counterpart complicit in the status quo. Serajul Islam Choudhury seems to be underwriting the committed, engaged, and oppositional role of an intellectual, although he may not have consciously or directly borrowed from Gramsci, Chomsky, or Said. For Choudhury, an intellectual is one who does not take things for granted but one who questions. And, according to Choudhury, he or she questions the very systems that oppress the people, while confronting and contesting those systems by speaking truth to power in the interest of even revolutionary social transformation. For this, as Choudhury further suggests, it is imperative for the intellectual to reach others with her or his questions, inquiries, thoughts, and ideas. For one cannot change the system alone.
Indeed, what Choudhury ardently maintains about the role of intellectuals in his work can easily be applied to him — one who, unlike many of his counterparts and contemporaries today, clearly names and identifies the systems or structures of oppression and exploitation — capitalism, imperialism/colonialism, ‘communalism’, and patriarchy, profoundly interlinked as they are. No doubt Serajul Islam Choudhury is our foremost anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, anti-communal, and anti-patriarchal public intellectual and writer. His work, however, does not remain confined to opposition only. Choudhury clearly takes his position and openly advocates the cause of socialism. Contrary to many misconceptions and myths surrounding socialism, he holds that there are no contradictions or antagonisms between socialism and democracy as such. Instead, as Choudhury boldly maintains, to be socialist is to be democratic and vice versa.
A public intellectual as he is, Choudhury in his work touches upon almost every aspect of the life of the masses in Bangladesh. To the extent that he does it, he is bound to cross — and range across — disciplinary borders and boundaries, as he surely does in his work. This is why Choudhury is equally comfortable with producing literary and cultural criticism, political commentary, editorial essay, autobiographical narrative, tract and treatise, newspaper column, and so on, in which the linguistic, the literary, the social, the political, the historical, and the cultural interpenetrate and intersect, exemplifying a radical interdisciplinarity.
For instance, Choudhury has written on Tolstoy and on such modernists as Conrad, Forster, Lawrence, Joyce, Yeats, Pound, and Eliot, among others. Of course, Choudhury has written on every major, canonical Bengali writer — on Madhusudan Dutta, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, Bankim Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, Mir Mosharraf Hossain, Sharatchandra Chatterjee, Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, Manik Banerjee, Tarashankar Chatterjee, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Jibanananda Das, and Waliullah. The list here is by no means exhaustive. Then Choudhury has produced a remarkable body of work that traverses a wide range of concerns directly relevant to the contemporary life of the suffering masses in Bangladesh. And it is in this body of work that Choudhury most exemplarily forges and orchestrates organic links among the political, the social, the historical, and the cultural all at once. Moreover, it is in that body of work that Choudhury has consistently advanced and relayed his formulation — one that appears fundamentally Gramscian to me — that there is no alternative to forging links between the intellectuals and the masses, if ‘the point is to change the world’, to quote Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach.

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NOW onto Serajul Islam Choudhury’s role as a literary and cultural critic, a role which is by no means dissociated from that of a public intellectual. Indeed, like many Marxist critics, Choudhury reckons both literature and criticism as socially produced and historically inflected discursive fields of ideological production. But this consideration alone does not entirely characterise Choudhury’s early works, let alone his later ones in which Choudhury increasingly emerges as what Frantz Fanon calls a ‘combative writer’ (it is instructive that it is none other than Serajul Islam Choudhury who first wrote in Bangladesh a spirited essay on Fanon’s magnum opus called The Wretched of the Earth). What, then, is particularly characteristic of Choudhury’s work is not only his attempt to demystify and determine the ideological, social, and class formations of literary works as such, but also his pronounced oppositional stance. By this stance, I mean the rigour, the commitment, and the conviction with which a writer challenges dominant assumptions, formulations, values, and systems in the service of radical social change for the oppressed.
One particular tour de force of Choudhury’s oppositional, interventionist, ihajagatik or worldly criticism is an early work called Pratikriyashilata Adhunik Ingreji Sahitye. This work re-reads the trinity of modernists — Yeats-Pound-Eliot — among others. In fact, it fiercely mobilises a devastating critique of the literary establishment of Anglo-American high modernism. This work can also be regarded as what is called in Marxist criticism ‘ideology-critique’ — the kind of undertaking in which ideological underpinnings, formations, and even morphologies of literary works are all thrown into sharp critical relief. In his brief preface to the book, Choudhury tells us that he does not at all undermine the importance of the kind of criticism that is interested in the artistic or aesthetic values of literary work. But he also suggests that such criticism cannot be ideologically neutral and that it is also profoundly insufficient. Choudhury takes a hard, critical look at the broader ideological formations of modernism itself, inextricable as this project is from the logic of finance capital emerging towards the beginning of the twentieth century, while also revealing with superb rigour and clarity the retrogressive elements in modernism itself.
Serajul Islam Choudhury’s oppositional and interventionist critique of modernism is historically significant on more scores than one. Choudhury is probably the first one in the history of literary criticism in Bangladesh to have advanced a critique of modernism whereby he spells out his opposition to Eurocentric and retrogressive ideologies that underlie at least part of the modernist project. Also, Choudhury advanced such a critique at a time when many of his contemporaries as well as his juniors — creative writers, critics, and academics — were, under the spell of high modernism, busy interpreting the intricate symbolism of a Mallarméan Yeats or appreciating the craftsmanship of a ‘post-neo-classical’ Eliot, and thus also rehearsing the kind of enchanted engagement with metropolitan literary productions that some of the Bengali modernists themselves — particularly Buddhadeva Bose and Sudhin Dutta — initiated earlier. It is not for nothing that Choudhury has long been critical of Buddhadeva Bose himself and, by extension, the Bengali literary modernism of the 1930s. In fact, Serajul Islam Choudhury has long been questioning not only the political establishment but also the literary and cultural establishment all at once. Indeed, Choudhury played a historically significant role in inaugurating a new school of literary and cultural criticism — the kind of criticism that one would do well to characterise as ‘secular’, ‘worldly’, and certainly ‘oppositional.’
It is probably no exaggeration to say that Choudhury revolutionised Bengali literary criticism by ranging beyond the merely aesthetic and the formal, while fully zeroing in on the intersections of the economic, the social, the political, and the cultural in the very contested site of criticism in an attempt to promote and heighten our understanding of both literature and culture. Choudhury’s provocative and seminal reading of what he himself calls ‘the social grammar of prose’ is a case in point. This reading is a paradigmatic illustration of how a third-world literary critic decidedly dispenses with the tools of Anglo-American literary criticism in an attempt to evolve an oppositional, secular, and worldly cultural criticism. Choudhury’s work in question is certainly an example of literary-criticism-turned-cultural-criticism in the sense that Choudhury’s ‘social grammar of prose’ — a critical contribution in itself — is envisaged and engaged as a relational category that embraces the literary, the social, and the cultural simultaneously. This theoretical category, once put into motion, enables one to account for a dialectical interplay between feudalism as the nineteenth-century mode of production and prose as a form of cultural production, socially mediated as it is.
Serajul Islam Choudhury is probably the first critic in Bangladesh who in his work has most consistently and rigorously examined the relationship between class and representation in the Bengali novel. Choudhury’s cogent analysis of the notoriously famous colonial-feudal project called ‘Permanent Settlement’ is worth recalling. For him, the Permanent Settlement is not only an economic project but is also an ideological and cultural one. From this perspective Choudhury has critically examined the work of Sarat Chatterjee, for instance, whose limits and anti-revolutionary character and content Choudhury has most exemplarily exposed, as he does similarly with regard to Bankim Chatterjee. In fact, Choudhury has not let any major, canonical writer off the hook, evincing his persistent critical vigilance and his unswerving commitment to the question of human emancipation.

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I HAVE selectively drawn on Choudhury’s range of works in an attempt to bring to the fore his contributions that have proven not only historically significant but also continue to remain relevant to our times. A superb reader of the signs of our times and a first-rate critic by international standards, Choudhury continues to teach us that the production of knowledge is necessary but not enough. For Choudhury, then, what is more important is that knowledge needs to be mobilised in the service of social change — in the interest of the emancipation of the masses. In this, Choudhury remains firmly committed to the Marxian principle of praxis that values the materiality of emancipatory knowledge — the kind of knowledge that rises above the level of mere interpretation so as to grip the consciousness of the masses, profoundly affecting and even radically changing them.
Having enjoyed the privilege of being his direct student and working closely with him for several years (I was one of the editors of his national views weekly called Samay that we used to bring out back in the 1990s), I have learnt a great deal from him and his work, and indeed I continue to learn that teachers, intellectuals, students, and other educators must fully carry out their social and even political responsibilities and remain accountable to the people for the kinds of knowledge those educators produce and disseminate. On his 80th birthday, we cannot thank Serajul Islam Choudhury enough for what he has given us and our country and our world.

Azfar Hussain is vice-president of US-based Global Cenre for Advanced Studies and associate professor of liberal studies/interdisciplinary studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

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