Marxist Theory

Caste Overlordship and the Problem of the Indian Revolution

 By Murzban Jal

Murzban Jal has been a regular contributor to this website. We publish below an article by him, hoping it will lead to more discussions. -- Administrator, Radical Socialist Website 

We revolt because it is impossible to breathe, in more than one sense of the term.


Frantz Fanon.





Since the idea of the Asiatic mode of production and the social formations embedded thereon was not taken seriously in twentieth century Marxism, especially in India, the understanding of Marxism was predicated on a Eurocentric and Stalinist theoretical problematic that was itself completely alien to Marx’s original understanding of revolutions in Asia in  general and India in particular. This led to a teleological and unilinear understanding of history where history was seen as a march-past from primitive communism via slave society, feudalism and capitalism, and, as if, waiting for socialism to automatically evolve as if metaphysically and independent of revolutionary action. While at the theoretical sense it meant that the Indian revolution had to be predicated on the revolutions in advanced capitalist nations, or at best usher in the bourgeois national revolution; in the practical sense it meant that Moscow and Beijing would throw their shadows on the Indian revolution. The communist revolution would be totally absent from this revisionist framework.

In this colonial Eurocentric view of history and society, the liberal democrats led by Nehru opted for a reformed type of capitalism at the time of independence governed by parliamentary democracy, while the Established Left was by and large anchored in the bourgeois parliamentary system, except twice when it was swayed by revolutionary action as seen in the Telengana movement (1946-51) followed by the Naxalbari movement from the late 1960s onwards.

And when postmodernism started showing its influence in India, the Established Left in the deconstructionist name of différance, let caste, feminism and ecology in their movement. What happened was that the Established Left moved in from one mess (Stalinism and Maoism) to another (postmodernism). And then suddenly différance came onto the scene of Indian politics, but not as caste, feminism and ecology, but as fascism. The Stalinist Left was left trembling, not knowing what to do. It is then they thought that the ghosts of Nehru and Gandhi would serve better to fight fascism than the specters of Stalin and Mao. But little would they know that ghosts are best understood as mere ghosts and the time to bury them was of extreme necessity.

Earlier the Established Left had two Overlords—Stalin and Mao. Now they are joined by many, many more. Again little would they realize that while their Overlords would appear as mere ghosts, the time for the real Overlord has come. Fascism is now no mere tale for the Established Left to narrate. It is reality, terrible and brute reality.



 Where are we Heading?


“Shame”, so the young Marx once wrote to his friend Arnold Ruge, is “a revolution in itself”.[1] The impossibility of breathing that Frantz Fanon said is also another kind of revolution. In fact one may ask: “If in class divided societies, breathing is really impossible, then how come the anti-caste, anti-class revolution is not hitherto successful in India? Why has fascism come and why does it quite oft speak in the name of Gandhi?”

            And with global capitalism tightening its grip over the entire globe, where it creates a world after its own ugly and distorted image; racism, casteism, the politics of primordial nativism and terrorism become the new commodities for sale in the global market. And in this production of these new commodities, we need another form of breathing. In this sense, to quote a contemporary Marxist-Humanist philosopher Peter Hudis: “Time seems to be moving backward in many respects, as xenophobic—as well as subtle but no less insidious—forms of racism seem to define the very shape of globalized capitalism in the twenty first century”.[2]

            It is in this sense that I say that reflections on caste and class are to be constituted in an understanding of history moving backwards. But if we are indeed moving backwards, “the question is, to what?”[3] Where are we heading? What future beckons us?

In an essay ‘In Defense of Leninism’ which was published in Economic & Political Weekly which I later added in my edited book Challenges for the Indian Left, I said that if according to Marx, great personages and facts appear in history as if twice, the first as tragedy the second as farce, then we must add that in neo-liberal capitalism history appears now also as joy since unbridled capitalism has put on the stage of world history the great revolutionaries: Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, etc. And if great personages do appear once more, then great events have also to occur with their appearance. If history appears as moving backwards, then the reversal is also now seen.

            And that is why I am saying that if history in the era of late imperialism in permanent crises is seen moving backwards, in the era of barbarism, its direct antithesis, socialism, cannot be left out from the scene of history. And this is because history moving backwards is an anomaly against history itself. Luxemburg’s great question, “socialism or barbarism”, now speaks out.  Unfortunately the dominant discourse is that of historical barbarism that now speaks. For if in the Western world, capitalism speaks through the language of racial and religious conflicts (as if the production of all other commodities it has exhausted), then in India it is through the discourse of caste and messianic religious that capitalism is able to speak. It is, as if, capitalism has totally lost its voice and needs to speak through the other. 

            Ironically both caste and religion as explicit public discourses found their voices in India only in the early 1990s with the political endorsing of the “end of socialism” theme by the Indian state. Socialism had to die for the Caste Overlord to speak its real language. The earlier Caste Overlord died who spoke the language of Nehruvain socialism, another Caste Overlord, now joined by many more lords and ladies came marching in this little scene of Indian history. And when caste did speak through the language of “justice” and “affirmative action” with the coming of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), it seemed that what Christophe Jafferlot calls a “silent revolution” did finally appear. But was this indeed the case? Would the BSP unleash a revolution of any sort, silent or otherwise? Would the dalit communities submerged beneath the hegemony of the upper caste elites under Congress rule be finally getting their own voice? Or would this be a mere inversion of Brahmanism to create nothing but an “inverted Brahmanism”? Would this silent revolution under the auspices of an “inverted Brahmanism” be nothing but a schizophrenic revolution that would lead to a complete counterrevolution? And would caste be the basis of this schizophrenic revolution turned counterrevolution?


What is Caste?


Since caste has been repeating finding its voice, mainly from parties like BSP and aided by centres of inclusion-exclusion (usually funded well by American universities and patronized by Congress politicians), one needs to out this question in the scientific perspective. Thus to the question: “What is caste?” I answer that caste is a form of enclosed community constituted in a concrete mode of production and sanctified by a concrete religious and political ideology and that it implies an essential cutting off people from one another.  It is this sense of essential clannishisness and an estrangement emerging thereon that an analysis of caste can take place. For a working dialectical materialist definition by caste I mean an enclosed, ossified and petrified class that is reified as a closed clan system with its parasitical bureaucratic system where humans lose their humanity. Let us see what Marx had to say about India appearing as:


Idyllic village communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental Despotism, that they had restrained the human mind within the smallest compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget that the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable piece of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetuation of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who designed to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the one part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindustan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by caste and slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances, that they transformed a self developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Hanuman the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.[4]


In the first volume of Capital this is what we see:




Manufacture, in fact, produces the skill of the detailed labourer by reproducing, and systematically driving to an extreme within the workshop, the naturally developed differentiation of trades which it found ready to hand in society at large. On the other hand, the conversion of fractional work into the life-calling of one man, corresponds to the tendency shown by earlier societies, to make trades hereditary; either to petrify them into castes, or whenever definite historical conditions beget in the individual a tendency to vary in a manner incompatible with the nature of castes, to ossify them into guilds. Castes and guilds arise from the action of the same natural law, that regulates the differentiation of plants and animals into species and varieties, except that, when a certain degree of development has been reached, the heredity of castes and the exclusiveness of guilds are ordained as a law of society.

“The muslins of Dakka in fineness, the calicoes and other piece goods of Coromandel in brilliant and durable colours, have never been surpassed. Yet they are produced without capital, machinery, division of labour, or any of those means which give such facilities to the manufacturing interest of Europe. The weaver is merely a detached individual, working a web when ordered of a customer, and with a loom of the rudest construction, consisting sometimes of a few branches or bars of wood, put roughly together. There is even no expedient for rolling up the warp; the loom must therefore be kept stretched to its full length, and becomes so inconveniently large, that it cannot be contained within the hut of the manufacturer, who is therefore compelled to ply his trade in the open air, where it is interrupted by every vicissitude of the weather.”

It is only the special skill accumulated from generation to generation, and transmitted from father to son, that gives to the Hindu, as it does to the spider, this proficiency. And yet the work of such a Hindu weaver is very complicated, compared with that of a manufacturing labourer.[5]


And a few pages later we have this:


Those small and extremely ancient Indian communities, some of which have continued down to this day, are based on possession in common of the land, on the blending of agriculture and handicrafts, and on an unalterable division of labour, which serves, whenever a new community is started, as a plan and scheme ready cut and dried. Occupying areas of from 100 up to several thousand acres, each forms a compact whole producing all it requires. The chief part of the products is destined for direct use by the community itself, and does not take the form of a commodity. Hence, production here is independent of that division of labour brought about, in Indian society as a whole, by means of the exchange of commodities. It is the surplus alone that becomes a commodity, and a portion of even that, not until it has reached the hands of the State, into whose hands from time immemorial a certain quantity of these products has found its way in the shape of rent in kind. The constitution of these communities varies in different parts of India. In those of the simplest form, the land is tilled in common, and the produce divided among the members. At the same time, spinning and weaving are carried on in each family as subsidiary industries. Side by side with the masses thus occupied with one and the same work, we find the “chief inhabitant,” who is judge, police, and tax-gatherer in one; the book-keeper, who keeps the accounts of the tillage and registers everything relating thereto; another official, who prosecutes criminals, protects strangers travelling through and escorts them to the next village; the boundary man, who guards the boundaries against neighbouring communities; the water-overseer, who distributes the water from the common tanks for irrigation; the Brahmin, who conducts the religious services; the schoolmaster, who on the sand teaches the children reading and writing; the calendar-Brahmin, or astrologer, who makes known the lucky or unlucky days for seed-time and harvest, and for every other kind of agricultural work; a smith and a carpenter, who make and repair all the agricultural implements; the potter, who makes all the pottery of the village; the barber, the washerman, who washes clothes, the silversmith, here and there the poet, who in some communities replaces the silversmith, in others the schoolmaster. This dozen of individuals is maintained at the expense of the whole community. If the population increases, a new community is founded, on the pattern of the old one, on unoccupied land. The whole mechanism discloses a systematic division of labour; but a division like that in manufactures is impossible, since the smith and the carpenter, &c., find an unchanging market, and at the most there occur, according to the sizes of the villages, two or three of each, instead of one. The law that regulates the division of labour in the community acts with the irresistible authority of a law of Nature, at the same time that each individual artificer, the smith, the carpenter, and so on, conducts in his workshop all the operations of his handicraft in the traditional way, but independently, and without recognising any authority over him. The simplicity of the organisation for production in these self-sufficing communities that constantly reproduce themselves in the same form, and when accidentally destroyed, spring up again on the spot and with the same name—this simplicity supplies the key to the secret of the unchangeableness of Asiatic societies, an unchangeableness in such striking contrast with the constant dissolution and refounding of Asiatic States, and the never-ceasing changes of dynasty. The structure of the economic elements of society remains untouched by the storm-clouds of the political sky.[6]


One should understand that to have a scientific understanding of caste on should find a material referent for the same. To talk of the material referent is of great importance, since parties that propagate alleged anti-elitist politics (like the BSP) and the ideology that speaks in the name of Ambedkar (like the many factions of the RPI in Maharashtra) not only do not want to talk of the material referent, but choose to be totally blind to this very important factor.

And this material referent is the mode of production—to be precise the Indic variation of the Asiatic mode of production, a mode that did not exist in some exotic past, but which through its numerous mutations, yet exists. What we shall do is take the above two renderings and then go back to ‘The British Rule in India’ where Marx locates caste as “semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities”[7] where these caste-communities are seen manifesting themselves as clan systems which creates the structures of extreme hierarchy and the ideology of rank worship. Rank worship is inherently related to the totem of purity and the taboo of pollution.  If purity and pollution are its ritualitsic superstructure then economic and cultural stagnation are its two main pillars. One follows Ambedkar in outlining the two principles of graded inequality and division of labourers as central to the mechanism of caste. In the principle of graded inequality various labouring-subaltern castes are unable to recognize their exploiter, but are themselves graded within themselves unequally. And in the principle of division of labourers, there is a marked internal division based on the ideology of caste-hierarchy. While the Left has almost not touched these it is first the liberals that saw caste as a progressive structure—Gandhi was the chief proponent of this worldview. Not only did they recognize this fact, they perfected this. And this is precisely why Ambedkar saw the Congress as the most reactionary party which perfected these principles of graded inequality and division of labourers.  But is this is the case, if Ambedkar thought that the Congress was the party of the Indian counterrevolution, then why is the Established Left not going hammer and tongs after it? 

Further, what happens with caste and its fetish of purity and ranking is that racism also comes in. As racism, albeit of the South Asian variety, the upper castes are not merely “understood” as being of higher biological stock and the lower ones considered as inferior, but actually “cultivated” as inferior. When I am talking of casteism as a form of South Asian racism, I am also calling this “schizophrenic racism” where ranking in terms of “high” and “low”, “pure” and “impure” form its ontological basis. The tragic element is that even the lower castes imitate this model and imagine that they belong to a superior stock. For a certain type of Indian politics, this idea of caste as race forms the leitmotiv of its fascist politics. Both V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar based their politics on the idea of race and racial superiority. But this not mean that Gandhi and Nehru were free from this blame. For then too this same idea was sketched deep in their ideological cranium. 

The third part of caste, I outline as “neurosis-psychosis”. I here claim that caste generates essentially a form of mental illness which creates cultural and political schizophrenia. This form of cultural illness and the ideological superstructure which caste creates is unable to generate critical-scientific thinking and a democratic culture. The main thing that this new form of cultural illness does is that it breeds the contempt of other social groups. The creation of authoritarian fascist politics is an essential part of neurosis-psychosis. But this form of contempt and also this form of neurosis-psychosis is also an essential part of Indian liberalism.

It is here imperative to understand that Marx’s idea of the “estranged mind” from Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Georg Lukács’ “reification of consciousness” from his History and Class Consciousness, R.D. Laing’s idea of the “divided self” and Theodor Adorno’s “general regression of thinking” are able to articulate caste as “neurosis-psychosis” along with Marx’s theory of alienation.   What I am saying is that the idea of the caste system as “a sort of equilibrium, resulting from a general repulsion and constitutional exclusiveness, resulting between all its members”[8] fits in Marx’s theory of alienation, while the idea of the “wild aimless, unbounded forces of destruction”[9], fits in the theory of “neurosis-psychosis”. One must understand this rather strange combination of class, racism (as schizophrenic racism) and neurosis-psychosis that has given rise to both liberalism of Gandhi and Indian fascism. What I am saying is that caste combines both the sites of the economic base and the political and ideological superstructure of the reified-estranged mind. That is why I have brought in Marx’s problematic of alienation, reification and fetishism that deals with this Indian form of capitalism in India where caste and its accompanying schizophrenia is not only preserved, but actively reproduced, albeit in modern, capitalistic forms.

It is in this perspective that I say that the Indian revolution has a very specific and particular task which cannot be reduced to the question of the New Democratic Revolution and other allied questions. One needs here going to a quote from Slavoj Žižek. According to Žižek (he is quoting Gilles Deleuze here): “If you’re trapped in the dream of the other, you’re fucked”.[10]  The problem is with the “caste question” we inevitably live in the dreams of the other. But it is not merely the other, but the Big Other which now literally f***s us all. Now who is this Big other that is f*****g us all.


The Big Other


“The tradition of all the dead generations”, so Marx once said, “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”[11] Probably no other nation can be burdened by its past as India. For understanding this, let us go once more to the good old Marx:


And just as when they seemed engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.[12]


It is this idea of “borrowed language” that we need to understand. We also need to understand what Marx meant by “conjuring up of the dead of world history”.[13] What I am saying is that caste—the unfortunate and terrible reality—appears in borrowed and conjured forms. Caste, or to be precise, Caste Overlordship as the Big Other, is both the ancient law giver and exploiter and also the appears as the modern bourgeois. But Caste Overlordship also has a habit of conjuring tales, the tales of “ahimsa” and “Ram Rajya” of “non-vegetarianism” and “cow protection”.

            About caste there are infinite tales: Just as snakes and elephants wander around in India and just as the sadhu takes his flute and presto climbs up the magical rope only to disappear, so too caste is a part of this exotic India. These tales are those perfected by post-Ambedkar-Ambedkarites (from the RPI and BSP to centres of inclusion-exclusion). Caste for them is something unique and exotic about India. Then are other tales: caste is a mere part of an archaic division of labour and just as modernity dissolves the archaic, so too caste will inevitably be dissolved. The second tale is of the liberal democrats and the Stalinists.  

            But caste is neither an exotic or liberal tale. It is real and appears not only as the ritualistic priest of days gone by, but realizes itself as the fascist state itself, the state takes the form of the Big Other. This Big Other, one should further note, is anti-Marxist. He assures us that caste is excellent, and if it is not excellent then it will most certainly be abolished one fine day. And the best way that caste would be both affirmed and negated is in the Gandhian conjuring way. Consider Gandhi:


The injunction against Sudras studying the Vedas is not altogether unjustified: a Sudra, in other words, a person without moral education, without sense, and without knowledge would completely misread the Shastras.[14]


It is this nasty perspective that we mention what Marx said:


A ship of fools can be perhaps be allowed to drift before the wind for a good while; but it will still drift before the wind for a good while; but it will still drift to its doom precisely because the fools refuse to believe it possible. This doom is the approaching revolution. [15]  


One can hope that the doom that Marx is talking of is the doom of the ruling classes. The ship of fools is comprised of the liberal democrats and the Stalinists. hey most certainly are going to crash on the rocks. Look at the ship of fools and see how they are drifting, without will, without plan for action. It is the liberal democrats who are without double going to crash, would they will let the entire nation crash, the proletariat included.  And they would not crash in the revolution, but the counterrevolution. The leader of the Indian liberal democrats is not Nehru, but Gandhi. It is Gandhi. And he is steering the ship of fools. 

In this case why has the nation been taught to worship Gandhi when he himself absolutely and unconditionally justifies the caste system and its demonical hierarchy, and along with the caste system justifies capitalism and landlordship where he classifies the Indian peasants and workers—the Sudras—as people “without moral education”?  The terrain now has to change in the understanding the Indian revolution. This terrain is not of class conflict in the purely West European manner, class conflict devoid of the terrors of the caste system. The terrain is of the Indic variation of the Asiatic mode of production with the caste mode of production forming its economic base. It is in this new perspective, that we see the figure of the Big Other very clearly who like the tradition of all the dead generations is weighing like a nightmare on the brain of the living. The figure is of Gandhi. And now Gandhi is wearing jackboots marching to the tune of Ram Rajya and marching with him are the cows and vegetarians of the world. If Marx said that workers of the world should unite, for Gandhi (not to forget the fascists) it is the cows and vegetarians who should unite.

No wonder that for Ambedkar, Gandhi was the biggest counterrevolutionary. But then is anyone listening?









[1]Karl Marx, ‘To Arnold Ruge, March 1843’, in Karl Marx. Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (London: Penguin Books, 1992), p. 200.

[2] Peter Hudis, Frantz Fanon. Philosopher of the Barricades (London: Pluto Press: 2015), p. 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Karl Marx, ‘The British Rule in India’, in Marx. Engels On Colonialism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), p. 40-41.

[5] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), pp. 321-2

[6] Ibid., pp 337-9.

[7] Karl Marx, ‘The British Rule in India’, in Marx. Engels. On Colonialism, p. 40.

[8] Karl Marx, ‘The Future Results of the British Rule in India’, p. 81.

[9] Karl Marx, ‘The British Rule in India’, p.41.

[10] Slavoj Žižek, Event. A Philosophical Journey through a Concept (London: Melville House, 2014), p. 74.

[11] Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 96.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] M.K. Gandhi, The Bhagavad Gita (Mumbai: Jaico, 2017), p. 3.

[15] Karl Marx, ‘To Arnold Ruge, March 1843’, p. 200.