Saturday, June 20, 2015

MARX ON CASTE AND THE VILLAGE COMMUNITY: While Marx never discussed the Indian caste system at any length, he touched on it a number of times in writings on other questions.

 While Marx never discussed the Indian caste system at any length, he touched on it a number of times in writings on other questions. 


Village scene around a pond in rural bengal 1865 john edward sache

village scene around a pond in rural Bengal, 1865 (Joseph Lawton Saché)

     While Marx never discussed the Indian caste system at any length, he touched on it a number of times in writings on other questions. 

     In one of the best known of these passages, from his Herald Tribune article "The Future Results of British Rule in India" (1853), Marx foresees that "[m]odern industry, resulting from the railway system, will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labor, upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power." This one sentence contains in germ the premises of a materialist understanding of caste in Indiathat it arises not from an invasion by Central Asian nomads or a set of ideas about purity but from a traditional division of labor linked to the family, that it is a central obstacle to material and social advancement, and that the replacement of its economic basis with modern industry is a necessary condition for doing away with it.

     The prediction that this would happen as a direct result of British colonialism is skewed by Marx's not having yet appreciated the degree to which imperialism distorts and holds back development in the countries it exploits. In the first volume of his Capital, published fourteen years later, he explains the actualresults of British rule in India:

By ruining handicraft production in other countries, machinery forcibly converts them into fields for the supply of its raw material. In this way East India was compelled to produce cotton, wool, hemp, jute, and indigo for Great Britain. [...] A new and international division of labour, a division suited to the requirements of the chief centres of modern industry springs up, and converts one part of the globe into a chiefly agricultural field of production, for supplying the other part which remains a chiefly industrial field.

     Not until this truly decisive impediment to Indian progress and power has been removed through proletarian revolution will the country be able to complete its industrialization and fully enjoy the social effects of this transformation. But the caste system has already been profoundly shaken (if not necessarily in progressive ways) even by the partial and uneven development that has been allowed to take place to date, confirming the thrust of Marx's analysis. 

     Below are the main passages from his works in which Marx refers to caste or discusses the traditional village community, listed chronologically. At the very end some comments extracted from a couple of essays by the Indian economic historian Irfan Habib on the most important of these passages are appended. 



In the whole conception of history up to the present this real basis of history ["the material production of life itself"] has either been totally neglected or else considered as a minor matter quite irrelevant to the course of history. [...] For instance, if an epoch imagines itself to be actuated by purely "political" or "religious" motives, although "religion" and "politics" are only forms of its true motives, the historian accepts this opinion. The "idea," the "conception" of the people in question about their real practice, is transformed into the sole determining, active force, which controls and determines their practice. When the crude form in which the division of labor appears with the Indians and Egyptians calls forth the caste-system in their State and religion, the historian believes that the caste-system is the power which has produced this crude social form.

The German Ideology (written: Fall 1845 to mid-1846, first published: 1932)

Part I: Feuerbach, section B: The Illusion of the Epoch, [subsection 8: The Inconsistency of the Idealist Conception of History in General, and of German Post-Hegelian Philosophy in Particular]




For Mr Proudhon, the division of labor is something exceedingly simple. But was not the caste system a specific division of labor? And was not the corporative system another division of labor? And is not the division of labor in the manufacturing system, which began in England in the middle of the seventeenth century and ended towards the end of the eighteenth century, likewise entirely distinct from the division of labor in big industry, in modern industry?

letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov (December 28, 1846)


If one took as a model the division of labor in a modern workshop, in order to apply it to a whole society, the society best organized for the production of wealth would undoubtedly be that which had a single chief employer, distributing tasks to different members of the community according to a previously fixed rule. But this is by no means the case. While inside the modern workshop the division of labor is meticulously regulated by the authority of the employer, modern society has no other rule, no other authority for the distribution of labor than free competition.

Under the patriarchal system, under the caste system, under the feudal and corporative system, there was division of labor in the whole of society according to fixed rules. Were these rules established by a legislator? No. Originally born of the conditions of material production, they were raised to the status of laws only much later. In this way, these different forms of the division of labor became so many bases of social organization. As for the division in the workshop, it was very little developed in all these forms of society.

It can even be laid down as a general rule that the less authority presides over the division of labor inside society, the more the division of labor develops inside the workshop, and the more it is subjected there to the authority of a single person. Thus authority in the workshop and authority in society, in relation to the division of labor, are in inverse ratio to each other.

The Poverty of Philosophy: Answer to The Philosophy of Poverty by M. Proudhon (1847)

Chapter Two: The Metaphysics of Political Economy, Division of Labor and Machinery



These two circumstances – the Hindu [Indian], on the one hand, leaving, like all Oriental peoples, to the Central Government the care of the great public works, the prime condition of his agriculture and commerce, dispersed, on the other hand, over the surface of the country, and agglomerated in small centers by the domestic union of agricultural and manufacturing pursuits – these two circumstances had brought about, since the remotest times, a social system of particular features – the so-called village system, which gave to each of these small unions their independent organization and distinct life. The peculiar character of this system may be judged from the following description, contained in an old official report of the British House of Commons on Indian affairs:

"A village, geographically considered, is a tract of country comprising some hundred or thousand acres of arable and waste lands; politically viewed it resembles a corporation or township. Its proper establishment of officers and servants consists of the following descriptions: The potail, or head inhabitant, who has generally the superintendence of the affairs of the village, settles the disputes of the inhabitants attends to the police, and performs the duty of collecting the revenue within his village, a duty which his personal influence and minute acquaintance with the situation and concerns of the people render him the best qualified for this charge. Thekurnum keeps the accounts of cultivation, and registers everything connected with it. The tallier and the totie, the duty of the former of which consists [...] in gaining information of crimes and offenses, and in escorting and protecting persons traveling from one village to another; the province of the latter appearing to be more immediately confined to the village, consisting, among other duties, in guarding the crops and assisting in measuring them. The boundary-man, who preserves the limits of the village, or gives evidence respecting them in cases of dispute. The Superintendent of Tanks and Watercourses distributes the water [...] for the purposes of agriculture. The Brahmin, who performs the village worship. The schoolmaster, who is seen teaching the children in a village to read and write in the sand. The calendar-brahmin, or astrologer, etc. These officers and servants generally constitute the establishment of a village; but in some parts of the country it is of less extent, some of the duties and functions above described being united in the same person; in others it exceeds the above-named number of individuals. [...] Under this simple form of municipal government, the inhabitants of the country have lived from time immemorial. The boundaries of the villages have been but seldom altered; and though the villages themselves have been sometimes injured, and even desolated by war, famine or disease, the same name, the same limits, the same interests, and even the same families have continued for ages. The inhabitants gave themselves no trouble about the breaking up and divisions of kingdoms; while the village remains entire, they care not to what power it is transferred, or to what sovereign it devolves; its internal economy remains unchanged. The potail is still the head inhabitant, and still acts as the petty judge or magistrate, and collector or renter of the village."

These small stereotype forms of social organism have been to the greater part dissolved, and are disappearing, not so much through the brutal interference of the British tax-gatherer and the British soldier, as to the working of English steam and English free trade. Those family-communities were based on domestic industry, in that peculiar combination of hand-weaving, hands-spinning and hand-tilling agriculture which gave them self-supporting power. English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindu spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.

Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible 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 the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration 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 deigned 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 other 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 distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of 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 Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.

"The British Rule in India," New-York Daily Tribune (June 25, 1853)


How came it that English supremacy was established in India? The paramount power of the Great Mogul was broken by the Mogul Viceroys. The power of the Viceroys was broken by the Mahrattas. The power of the Mahrattas was broken by the Afghans, and while all were struggling against all, the Briton rushed in and was enabled to subdue them all. A country not only divided between Mohammedan and Hindu, but between tribe and tribe, between caste and caste; a society whose framework was based on a sort of equilibrium, resulting from a. general repulsion and constitutional exclusiveness between all its members. Such a country and such a society, were they not the predestined prey of conquest? [...]

Modern industry, resulting from the railway system, will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labor, upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power.

"The Future Results of British Rule in India," New-York Daily Tribune (August 8, 1853)




Once men finally settle down, the way in which to a smaller degree this original community is modified, will depend on various external, climatic, geographical, physical, etc., conditions as well as on their special natural make-up — their tribal character. The spontaneously evolved tribal community, or, if you will, the herd — the common ties of blood, language, custom, etc. — is the first precondition of the appropriation of the objective conditions of life, and of the activity which reproduces and gives material expression to, or objectifies [vergegenständlichenden] it (activity as herdsmen, hunters, agriculturalists, etc.). The earth is the great laboratory, the arsenal which provides both the means and the materials of labor, and also the location, the basis of the community. Men's relations to it is naïve: they regard themselves as its communal proprietors, and as those of the community which produces and reproduces itself by living labor. Only in so far as the individual is a member — in the literal and figurative sense — of such a community, does he regard himself as an owner or possessor. In reality, appropriation by means of the process of labor takes place under these preconditions, which are not the product of labor but appears as its natural or divine preconditions.

Where the fundamental relationship is the same, this form can realize itself in a variety of ways. For instance, as is the case in most Asiatic fundamental forms, it is quite compatible with the fact that the all-embracing unity which stands above all these small common bodies may appear as the higher or sole proprietor, the real communities only as hereditarypossessors. Since the unity is the real owner, and the real precondition of common ownership, it is perfectly possible for it to appear as something separate and superior to the numerous real, particular communities. The individual is then in fact propertyless, or property — i.e., the relationship of the individual to the natural conditions of labor and reproduction, the inorganic nature which he finds and makes his own, the objective body of his subjectivity — appears to be mediated by means of a grant [Ablassen] from the total unity to the individual through the intermediary of the particular community. The despot here appears as the father of all the numerous lesser communities, thus realizing the common unity of all. It therefore follows that the surplus product (which, incidentally, is legally determined in terms of [infolge] the real appropriation through labor) belongs to this highest unity. Oriental despotism therefore appears to lead to a legal absence of property. In fact, however, its foundation is tribal or common property, in most cases created through a combination of manufacture and agriculture within the small community which thus becomes entirely self-sustaining and contains within itself all conditions of production and surplus production.

Part of its surplus labor belongs to the higher community, which ultimately appears as aperson. This surplus labor is rendered both as tribute and as common labor for the glory of the unity, in part that of the despot, in part that of the imagined tribal entity of the god. In so far as this type of common property is actually realized in labor, it can appear in two ways. The small communities may vegetate independently side by side, and within each the individual labors independently with his family on the land allotted to him.

(There will also be a certain amount of labor for the common store — for insurance as it were — on the one hand; and on the other for defraying the costs of the community as such, i.e., for war, religious worship, etc. The dominion of lords, in its most primitive sense, arises only at this point, e.g., in the Slavonic and Rumanian communities. Here lies the transition to serfdom, etc.) Secondly, the unity can involve a common organization of labor itself, which in turn can constitute a veritable system, as in Mexico, and especially Peru, among the ancient Celts, and some tribes of India. Furthermore, the communality within the tribal body may tend to appear either as a representation of its unity through the head of the tribal kinship group, or as a relationship between the heads of families. Hence, either a more despotic or a more democratic form of the community. The communal conditions for real appropriation through labor, such as irrigation systems (very important among the Asian peoples), means of communication, etc., will then appear as the work of the higher unity — the despotic government which is poised above the lesser communities. Cities in the proper sense arise by the side of these villages only where the location is particularly favorable to external trade, or where the head of the state and his satraps exchange their revenue (the surplus product) against labor, which they expend as labor-funds.

(Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, pages 68-71)




The tribes [Stamme] of the ancient states were constituted in one of two ways, either bykinship or by locality. Kinship tribes historically precede locality tribes, and are almost everywhere displaced by them. Their most extreme and rigid form is the institution of castes, separated from one another, without the right of inter-marriage, with quite different status; each with its exclusive, unchangeable occupation. The locality tribes originally corresponded to a division of the area into districts [Gaue] and villages; so that in Attica under Kleisthenes, any man settled in a village was registered as a Demotes [villager] of that village, and as a member of the Phyle [tribe] of the area to which that village belonged. However, as a rule his descendants, regardless of place of domicile, remained in the same Phyle and the same Deme, thereby giving to this division an appearance of ancestral descent.

 (pages 76-77)




Ancient classical history is the history of cities, but cities based on landownership and agriculture; Asian history is a kind of undifferentiated unity of town and country (the large city, properly speaking, must be regarded merely as a princely camp, superimposed on the real economic structure); the Middle Ages (Germanic period) starts with the countryside as the locus of history, whose further development then proceeds through the opposition of town and country; modern (history) is the urbanization of the countryside, not, as among the ancients, the ruralization of the city.

(pages 77-78)




[Of the different forms of pre-capitalist societies,] [t]he Asiatic form necessarily survives the longest and most stubbornly. This is due to the fundamental principle on which it is based — that is, that the individual does not become independent of the community; that the circle of production is self-sustaining, unity of agriculture and craft manufacture, etc. If the individual changes his relation to the community, he modifies and undermines both the community and its economic premise; conversely, the modification of this economic premise — produced by its own dialectic, pauperization, etc. Note especially the influence of warfare and conquest. While, e.g., in Rome this is an essential part of the economic condition of the community itself [the armed defense of the land they cultivate], it breaks the real bond on which the community rests [by leading through military conquest to the enslavement of captives and the development of slave labor].

 (page 83)

[Note: See the second draft of Marx's letter to Vera Zasulich excerpted below for an apparent revision of the view that communities of the type found in India lack a basis for the differentiation of its members and hence for further development.]




...[A] tribe conquered and subjugated by another becomes propertyless and part of theinorganic conditions of the conquering tribe's reproduction, which that community regards as its own. Slavery and serfdom are therefore simply further developments of property based on tribalism. They necessarily modify all its forms. This they are least able to do in the Asiatic form. In the self-sustaining unity of and agriculture on which this form is based, conquest is not so essential a condition as where landed propertyagriculture, predominate exclusively. On the other hand, since the individual in this form never becomes an owner but only a possessor, he is at bottom himself the property, the slave of that which embodies the unity of the community. Here slavery neither puts an end to the conditions of labor, nor does it modify the essential relationship.

(pages 91-92)


The primitive forms of property [in land or in the instrument of production] necessarily dissolve into the relation of property to the different objective elements conditioning production; they are the economic basis of different forms of community, and in turn presuppose forms of community. These forms are significantly modified once labor itself is placed among the objective conditions of production (as in slavery and serfdom), as a result of which the simple affirmative character of all forms of property embraced in No.1 [that is, the first category mentioned above: property in land] is lost and modified. All of these include potential slavery, and therefore their own abolition. So far as No.2 [the second category: property in the instrument] is concerned, in which the particular kind of labor — i.e., its craft mastery and consequently property in the instrument of labor — equals property in the conditions of production, this admittedly excludes slavery and serfdom. However, it may lead to an analogous negative development in the form of a caste system.

(pages 101-102)

Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations (Grundrisse) (1857-58)

Part I: The process which precedes the formation of the capital relation or of original accumulation



If capital (i.e., the separation of the conditions of production from the laborer) is the source of profit (i.e., of the fact that surplus labor appears as the revenue of capital and not of labor) then profit becomes the source of capital, of new capital formation, i.e., of the fact that the additional conditions of production confront the worker as capital, as a means for maintaining him as a worker and of appropriating his surplus labor anew.  The original unity between the worker and the conditions of production <abstracting from slavery, where the laborer himself belongs to the objective conditions of production> has two main forms: the Asiatic communal system (primitive communism) and small-scale agriculture based on the family (and linked with domestic industry) in one form or another.  Both are embryonic forms and both are equally unfitted to develop labor as social labor and the productive power of social labor.  Hence the necessity for the separation, for the rupture, for the antithesis of labor and property (by which property in the conditions of production is to be understood).  The most extreme form of this rupture, and the one in which the productive forces of social labor are also most powerfully developed, is capital.  The original unity can be reestablished only on the material foundation which capital creates and by means of the revolutions which, in the process of this creation, the working class and the whole society undergo.

Theories of Surplus Value (1862-63)

[Chapter XXIV]  Richard Jones, 3(a)




If we consider ground-rent in its simplest form, that of labor rent, where the direct producer, using instruments of labor (plough, cattle, etc.) which actually or legally belong to him, cultivates soil actually owned by him during part of the week, and works during the remaining days upon the estate of the feudal lord without any compensation from the feudal lord, the situation here is still quite clear, for in this case rent and surplus-value are identical. Rent, not profit, is the form here through which unpaid surplus-labor expresses itself. To what extent the laborer (a self-sustaining serf) can secure in this case a surplus above his indispensable necessities of life, i.e., a surplus above that which we would call wages under the capitalist mode of production, depends, other circumstances remaining unchanged, upon the proportion in which his labor-time is divided into labor-time for himself and enforced labor-time for his feudal lord. This surplus above the indispensable requirements of life, the germ of what appears as profit under the capitalist mode of production, is therefore wholly determined by the amount of ground-rent, which in this case is not only directly unpaid surplus-labor, but also appears as such. It is unpaid surplus-labor for the "owner" of the means of production, which here coincide with the land, and so far as they differ from it, are mere accessories to it. That the product of the serf must here suffice to reproduce his conditions of labor, in addition to his subsistence, is a circumstance which remains the same under all modes of production. For it is not the result of their specific form, but a natural requisite of all continuous and reproductive labor in general, of any continuing production, which is always simultaneously reproduction, i.e., including reproduction of its own operating conditions. It is furthermore evident that in all forms in which the direct laborer remains the "possessor" of the means of production and labor conditions necessary for the production of his own means of subsistence, the property relationship must simultaneously appear as a direct relation of lordship and servitude, so that the direct producer is not free; a lack of freedom which may be reduced from serfdom with enforced labor to a mere tributary relationship. The direct producer, according to our assumption, is to be found here in possession of his own means of production, the necessary material labor conditions required for the realization of his labor and the production of his means of subsistence. He conducts his agricultural activity and the rural home industries connected with it independently. This independence is not undermined by the circumstance that the small peasants may form among themselves a more or less natural production community, as they do in India, since it is here merely a question of independence from the nominal lord of the manor. Under such conditions the surplus-labor for the nominal owner of the land can only be extorted from them by other than economic pressure, whatever the form assumed may be. This differs from slave or plantation economy in that the slave works under alien conditions of production and not independently. Thus, conditions of personal dependence are requisite, a lack of personal freedom, no matter to what extent, and being tied to the soil as its accessory, bondage in the true sense of the word. Should the direct producers not be confronted by a private landowner, but rather, as in Asia, under direct subordination to a state which stands over them as their landlord and simultaneously as sovereign, then rent and taxes coincide, or rather, there exists no tax which differs from this form of ground-rent. Under such circumstances, there need exist no stronger political or economic pressure than that common to all subjection to that state. The state is then the supreme lord. Sovereignty here consists in the ownership of land concentrated on a national scale. But, on the other hand, no private ownership of land exists, although there is both private and common possession and use of land.

Capital, Volume III (1864-67)

Section Six: Transformation of Surplus Profit into Ground Rent (II. Labor Rent)





If we now go more into detail, it is, in the first place, clear that a laborer who all his life performs one and the same simple operation, converts his whole body into the automatic, specialized implement of that operation. Consequently, he takes less time in doing it, than the artificer who performs a whole series of operations in succession. But the collective laborer, who constitutes the living mechanism of manufacture, is made up solely of such specialized detail laborers. Hence, in comparison with the independent handicraft, more is produced in a given time, or the productive power of labor is increased. Moreover, when once this fractional work is established as the exclusive function of one person, the methods it employs become perfected. The workman's continued repetition of the same simple act, and the concentration of his attention on it, teach him by experience how to attain the desired effect with the minimum of exertion. But since there are always several generations of laborers living at one time, and working together at the manufacture of a given article, the technical skill, the tricks of the trade thus acquired, become established, and are accumulated and handed down. Manufacture, in fact, produces the skill of the detail laborer, 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. [Marx in a note here refers to an ancient description of the Egyptian caste system, where "artificers may not in any way meddle with the affairs of another class of citizens, but must follow that calling alone which by law is hereditary in their clan," allowing the arts there, more so than in other countries, to reach "the requisite degree of perfection." In the main text he further cites a nineteenth-century account of Indian textile production:]

"The muslins of Dakka in fineness, the calicoes and other piece goods of Coromandel in brilliant and durable colors, have never been surpassed. Yet they are produced without capital, machinery, division of labor, 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." [Marx's note: "Historical and descriptive account of Brit. India, &c.," by Hugh Murray and James Wilson, &c., Edinburgh 1832, v. II., p. 449. The Indian loom is upright, i.e., the warp is stretched vertically."] 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 laborer.

Capital, Volume I (1867)




If, in a society with capitalist production, anarchy in the social division of labour and despotism in that of the workshop are mutual conditions the one of the other, we find, on the contrary, in those earlier forms of society in which the separation of trades has been spontaneously developed, then crystallized, and finally made permanent by law, on the one hand, a specimen of the organization of the labour of society, in accordance with an approved and authoritative plan, and on the other, the entire exclusion of division of labour in the workshop, or at all events a mere dwarflike or sporadic and accidental development of the same.

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 bookkeeper, 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 recognizing any authority over him. The simplicity of the organization 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 economical elements of society remains untouched by the storm-clouds of the political sky.

Capital, Volume I (1867)

Part IV, Chapter XIV




I now come to the crux of the question. We cannot overlook the fact that the archaic type, to which the Russian commune [along with the Indian village] belongs, conceals an internal dualism, which may under certain historic circumstances lead to its ruin. Property in land is communal, but each peasant cultivates and manages his plot on his own account, in a way recalling the small peasant of the West. Common ownership, divided petty cultivation: this combination which was useful in remoter periods, becomes dangerous in ours. On one hand mobile property, an element which plays an increasing part even in agriculture, gradually leads to differentiation of wealth among the members of the community, and therefore makes it possible for a conflict of interests to arise, particularly under the fiscal pressure of the state. On the other hand the economic superiority of communal ownership, as the base of co-operative and combined labor, is lost [...].

second draft of letter to Vera Zasulich, March 8, 1881


The "village community" also occurs in Asia, among the Afghans, etc., but it is everywhere the very youngest type, as it were the last word of the archaic formation of societies[...].

As the last phase of the primitive formation of society, the agricultural community is at the same time a transitional phase to the secondary formation, i.e. transition from society based on common property to society based on private property. The secondary formation comprises, as you must understand, the series of societies based on slavery and serfdom.

third draft of letter to Vera Zasulich, March 8, 1881


from Irfan Habib, Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception (Tulika Books, 1995):

It is best to remember that his analysis of the union of agriculture and craft and the immutable division of labor, as the twin pillars of the Indian village economy, is of lasting value. Furthermore, the economic historian today must ask the same questions Marx did, about the precise implications of the extraction of 'rent' in the shape of land tax. The contrast that Marx drew between an exchange economy based on the disposal of the surplus and the 'natural economy' within the village serving for its basis, must still stand, though the intrusion of commodity production and differentiation within the village might yet have been more extensive than Marx had allowed for. In his view, the urban economy was largely parasitical; and here we have an important suggestion as to why the potentialities of capitalistic development in the Indian economy remained thwarted. All these form an important legacy of ideas for Indian historians, who may thereby be inspired still more to explore the mechanics of change in a society which Marx himself had once thought rather unjustly to be unchanging.

("Marx's Perception of India")


Being a relatively rigid form of division of labor, the caste system formed part of the relations of production. But the caste system operated in two different worlds of labor, and these two must be distinguished in order to better understand both the caste system and the social formation of which it was a part. Marx derived a very important insight from Richard Jones, when he distinguished the artisan maintained by the village and the artisan of the town, wholly dependent on the vagaries of the market. In one case the caste labor belonged to a natural economy, in the other to a commodity or monetized sector.

Those who are familiar with Marx's writings on the Indian village community may remember that he locates the base of its economy on two opposite elements existing side by side: 'the domestic union of agricultural and manufacturing pursuits,' limiting thereby the domain of exchange within the village; and 'an unalterable division of labor,' with the artisans and menials belonging to particular castes as servants of the village as a whole, maintained through customary payments in kind or land allotments, dispensing, again, with commodity exchange.[...]

The hereditary artisan and servant, thus, was of crucial importance in sustaining the self-sufficiency as well as the internal natural economy of the village. Such self-sufficiency not only isolated the village, but enlarged its capacity to deliver a larger part of the surplus to the ruling class, since it did not need much extra produce to exchange for its own imports.

As the surplus was taken out of the village, it entered the realm of commodity exchange, as Marx particularly noted in his classic passage [...] on the Indian village community in Capital, Volume I. Outside the village the artisan appears as an individual selling his wares on the market. The hereditary occupation by caste was necessary to enable 'special skill' to be 'accumulated from generation to generation.' The hereditary transmission sustained skill while excluding even horizontal mobility. In addition, the caste system possibly created another element of advantage for the ruling class, by giving a lowly status to many artisan castes. Artisan castes already appear among the mixed jatis in Manu; and in the eleventh century Alberuni classes eight professions, including those of weavers and shoemakers, among the outcaste antyajas. Their depressed status and lack of mobility must surely have helped to curtail the powers of resistance of the artisans and so keep wage costs low.

The caste system, in its classical form, could therefore function with as much ease in a natural economy as in a market-oriented one. In either case it helped essentially to maintain [...] a system of class exploitation as rigorous as any other.

("Caste in Indian History")


notes towards a materialist analysis of caste

Marx and Engels on India and colonialism

revolutionary Marxists on South Asia

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