This is the only way to travel’—Groucho Marx in the film Duck Soup (1933), as Rufus T. Firefly, President of Freedonia, sitting on a motorcycle that isn’t going anywhere.
Where the study of peasants is concerned, there can be little doubt as to the identity of the most fashionable and influential paradigm exercising intellectual hegemony in academic circles over the past two decades: the Subaltern Studies project, a sixvolume series edited by Ranajit Guha that appeared throughout the 1980s.1
Conceived initially as an alternative historiography of South Asia, it sought to reinterpret both the rural ‘voice from below’ and grassroots agrarian mobilization that occurred during the colonial era. Its goal was simple: to expunge the outdated view of South Asian peasants as ideologically passive/disempowered-a tainted legacy of colonialism, it was argued-and replace it with an appropriately (post-) modern (or post-colonial) perception of them as active/empowered rural subjects. For this reason, the epistemological focus of the Subaltern Studies project was from the outset on the idioms of agrarian protest, the object being to rescue and give expression to hitherto subordinated and/or ignored forms of ideological utterance. An important effect of subalternist methodology-uncovering a hidden ‘authentic’ form of plebeian discourse/agency-was nothing less than the reinstatement of ‘the peasant’ as the subject of the historical process in South Asia.