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The Marxist Conception of Caste and its Relevance in Contemporary Indian Thinking

The Marxist Conception of Caste and its Relevance in Contemporary Indian Thinking

By Atharva Pandit

Edited by Namitha Sadanand, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

With the recent economic blunders all around the world, the capitalist way of thinking has, in mild terms, received flak and a major amount of re-thinking. While the Arab Spring has redefined- and certainly rekindled- interest in Revolution as the way towards survival, the suppressors might have a different ideology than what the Marxists and Communists believed in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Revolution, as we imagined it, has tumbled upon our doorstep, and everybody has jolted up and looked back towards Marx and his writings. To put it in simple terms, or to quote the recent Times magazine story, rather, Marx is back. And with a hopeful bang.

The issue of many anti-Marxist thinkers with Marxism is basically rooted in the fact that Marxism uses, to a wider extent, a normative approach towards society and politics. Their criticism lies in the argument that Marx lets upon his readers and believers hope, a lollipop to be enjoyed on its own merits, but devoid of the methods. All well and good on paper, but when the ideology is to be projected upon normal, daily lives, the violent revolution of Marx’s thinking does not hold any ground. Again, this kind of normative approach has its own merits- it is optimistic and, at the very least, provides a hope to the repressed world- which is what the initial foray of Marxism did. It opened up a reservoir of anticipation for the repressed class struggle within the capitalist society. And the instilling of optimism, as history has often proved, blinds. Marxist ideology did that as well- not everything within the Marxist text is Utopian, but neither is everything plausible. What Marxism promised was the formulation of developmental economics in social structure through revolutionary zeal- and all this amounted to nothing much, except a couple of experiments in the formation of agrarian society, which went wrong and horribly so. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ideology of the Left, even though upheld by several governments and notable leaders around the world, has been seen to be dwindling until today. The Left won’t sweep right in again, but at least a part of the universal society has begun thinking that some of Marx’s ideals could be applied, and to positive results.

One of those ideals is Marx’s writings and ideas on the creation of caste- especially in nations based on fault-lines, such as India and Egypt. To say that capitalism’s metaphysical ruminations into the world of industries and technological progress are tightening under pressure is to nod towards Marx’s thinking on labor and its creation of biases and divisions, and thus caste. Marx suggested that the social existence is composed of several factors- philosophical existence, economic existence, existence within the legal spheres (that is, law), religious life, art and politics. By taking into account all of these spheres, thus, man builds his social existence. And social existence is moved forward, at least in part, by labor, which is classified into divisions. These divisions are socially accepted, and in India at least, based upon the hierarchy of class, deciding with it social identity. But such social identity is far from beneficial, partly because such an identity does not create any kind of individualism as such, and wholly because it is based completely on the system of heredity and does not, in any way, promote equality. Of course, such an identity is completely unacceptable for Marx, who first wrote about the Indian caste system in The German Ideology (1845) and further in 1853 in the article, “The Future Results of British Rule in India,” published in Herald Tribune. In the first volume of his magnum opus, Das Capital, he kept coming back to the issue of social injustice practised in the form of casteist bias in India, and to some extent in Egyptian guilds. His theory revolves around the understanding that division of labor in the primitive times was responsible for the rise of present caste system, and not the other way round as some historians have suggested. That this division of labor hasn’t been on the lines of equality is his primary concern. Labor, he notes, is divided into manual labor and mental labor- the latter of which gains prominence in any hierarchical system, while the former languishes at the bottom of the social structure. In a more exploitative society, manual labor has been considered far too menial to mental one, and as such, does not guarantee any respect or social standing. Marx believed that labor should include within itself creativity, but capitalism prevents that from happening by creating of labor what we find it is- an occupation without any investment in the creative aspect of work.

Marx did address the Indian issue, calling the caste-based communities “small and extremely ancient” in Capital, but, as has been accused of and rings partially true, he does not give a concrete solution to the problem of caste. His thesis is based on ruminations, and, as Mahatma Gandhi noted, “making simple things complex.” To be fair, Marx did look at things which could have had a far simpler solution in a complicated manner, but this was simply because he loved details, and he found it important to have analytical thinking of the problem at hand rather than simply brushing it off with a lowly solution. That was simply not his style.

But what is the solution, then? And can it be applied to the contemporary Indian scenario? One of the biggest flaws (according to Marxist thinking) with the Indian government’s decision of positive discrimination is that it, in its turn, has divided the castes into a further structural mess wherein some depressed classes are provided with certain amount of reservation, to some not being provided reservation at all- and all the while considerably ignoring those of the so-called ‘open category’, which, deny it or accept it, do bear the brunt of a reservation system which, in the first place, was supposed to be temporary. Babasaheb Ambedkar did believe in the Marxist thinking, as has been analyzed in the book Caste and Class Dynamics- Radical Ambedkaraite Praxis by Dr. Thomas Matthew. The book was wonderfully reviewed by Vinod Mishra in Liberation, April 1994, in which he quotes Dr. Matthew declaring that the synthesis between Marxism and Ambedkarism as “the only hope of the teeming millions of India,” (Marxists Internet Archive[1]. That may be an overstatement, but it certainly isn’t wrong, for one of the solutions might be- as Ranganayakamma [2] , offers in its exhaustive analysis of the caste system and the Marxist thinking- to start with an equal distribution of labor, making the non-performing class performing and sharing labor; thus, to a certain extent, leading to the decrease of exploitative labor and the rise of equal labor- shared and worked together to create a stringent, but at the same time class-free economy. Both the classes should be involved with an exchange of labor, with the exploitative indulging in manual labor and the exploited indulging in mental. For this to happen, simple solutions like an increase in literacy rates and education of the masses against misconceptions of caste system is necessary, not a Communist revolution based in ideas of violence.

While we cannot absolutely return to Marxism for, as Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis remarks in his essay, “The Fate of Marxism,” a return to the idea of Marx would be violating the very faithfulness towards Marx, for he himself said that the “significance of a theory cannot be grasped independently of the historical and social practice which it inspires and initiates”. We certainly can tweak his ideas to suit the contemporary age. Even though Marx is as important in contemporary culture as he was in the 19th and 20th Century, it should be understood that the Revolution which Marx presented was to be moulded according to the time, thus creating a cycle of new Marxist thinking. Education, employment, eradication of misconceptions and an understanding of the class and caste is the only proper way towards the caste solution, not demonstrations and revolutions, which will result in- as history has often proved- more bloodshed and, certainly, increased widening of the gap among classes.

Works Cited: 

[1] “Antithesis of Caste and Class- An Orthodox Marxist Hypothesis,” Vinod Mishra, Marxists Internet Archive.

[2] “Marx on Caste,” Ranganayakamma.

 Atharva Pandit is an FYBA student at Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai, and intends to major in Politics. He is a close observer of international politics and is an advocate of free speech, all the while following social evils plaguing the Indian society. Apart from his journalistic ventures, Pandit also reserves an interest in foreign languages, and has cleared two advance-level Spanish exams. He is interested in reading, and recently presented a paper titled “The Role of Literature in Latin American Resistance.” 

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