One of the central insights of Marxism is that it demonstrated the incompatibility of interests between those who own property and those who are property-less. The former are called Bourgeois while the latter are the Proletariat. The former is numerically small but controls large amounts of capital and property, while the large mass of property-less workers have no means of survival, other than to sell their labour power to the propertied. The workers, typically, own nothing of productive use but work on the machines owned by the capitalist and are paid a wage at the end of their labour. Without wage employment the workers would not survive. This necessity of selling their labour power to survive enslaves them to the capitalists, which explains the universal resonance of Marx’s famous exhortation, “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains”.
But feudal society was not like this. Most direct producers owned either land or their tools of production. Through there were landless agricultural workers and workers in artisan manufacture who did not own their own tools and workspace, these were a minority within the working population. The typical direct producer of feudalism was the peasant who worked his own small plot of land and was forced to pay high amounts of tribute to his lord(s). Other direct producers too, like weavers, carpenters, potters, fishermen, ironsmiths, etc, owned their own tools of work as well as their workspace and merely provided the goods they produced to their rulers and lords. They were property holders, albeit small and politically vulnerable, and this ownership of private property gave them material interests in the feudal system. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the emergent capitalist class dispossessed the peasants from their land and the artisans and craftspeople of their tools in their general assault on feudal property relations. This dispossession pushed them into the new industrial towns without any means of survival other than to sell their ability to work, their labour power.
A class of small property owners continued to exist under capitalism, as it developed in Europe. This class comprises a diverse set of occupations like the small shop owner and self employed professional, white collar workers and managers, bureaucrats and teachers, journalists and artists, etc. While they all need to work to survive, they are not destitute like the proletariat. In fact, they often manage to earn well and live a life similar to the capitalists, but unlike the capitalists they need to daily work their skills to sustain their lifestyles. The moment they stop working, or lose their petty property, they risk falling into the ranks of the property-less proletariat. This condition – of needing to work like the proletariat to survive, but with an ability to sustain a lifestyle similar to the capitalists – marks out this class, whom Marx termed the petit bourgeoisie (small capitalists) and we commonly refer to as the middle class(es). They constantly feel exploited (and sometimes oppressed) by the rule of capital, a condition which pushes them towards left-wing politics, but are not willing to destroy the system which ensures the sanctity of private property and economic inequality, which brings them back to right-wing politics.
In the great social churning which invariably accompanies the advent of capitalism in any society, many of those who owned property in the feudal society are dispossessed and join the ranks of the property-less proletariat, while a few individuals manage to accumulate large wealth and become capitalists. Some manage to retain their unstable “middle class” status through a combination of hard work, luck and political dexterity.
Unlike in Europe, the development of capitalism in India is not a story of its epochal triumph over feudalism, but rather, to establish itself, capitalism made protracted compromises with feudal property relations like caste. The new classes which emerged under capitalist relations of production mirrored the caste divisions of society. Capitalists were almost all drawn from upper castes (or other trading communities like the Parsis), while workers were overwhelmingly from the Shudra and outcaste Jatis, comprising the direct producers of feudalism. While many upper caste individuals have become workers and, recently, significant numbers from within the lower castes have risen into professions and bureaucracy (the middle class), modern class division still continue to mirror the caste divisions of feudal India to a large extent.
While caste identity was helpful to the capitalists by splintering the working class, it was also an asset for the peasants and rural artisans in their encounter with capitalism. Caste provided a social security net for its members, as well as a ready mass of individuals, linked by ties of kinship and trade, to jointly voice grievances and demands. In this sense, caste was amenable to easy modification into a political community to articulate the material interests of its members, a role which in Europe had been the forte of trade unions and political parties. This ability of caste to provide succour to the exploited and oppressed provided crucial legitimacy to the institution of caste from within the groups of direct producers, who discovered that caste solidarity was often the only weapon they had to protect themselves from both the colonial (and post-colonial) State and the ruling classes.
This historical compromise of capitalism with feudal property relations and caste also resulted in the incomplete destruction of small property owned by peasants and artisans, who may have been pauperised but were rarely proletarianised (made property-less), like their European counterparts. The general trend has not been of eviction of peasants from land despite partition into tiny plots and falling agricultural productivity. The typical response of the small and middle peasantry to economic pressures in the village has been to export one (and sometimes more) able bodied male from its family to the city for work, who then sends a chunk of his income back for the sustenance of the family economy in the village. In that sense, much of the urban, industrial working class remains attached to petty private property in the form of land and other resources in the village.
This persistence of property ownership among the poor along with the felt utility of their caste identity in providing social security and political voice provided the material basis for the continuation of caste and with its caste consciousness among the direct producers. This caste consciousness brought with it notions of hierarchy and inequality as the basis of life while injecting a sense of fatalism in the worldview of the toiling people. This combination of ideological and material forces has been fatal for the growth of Marxist politics as the link with property has invariably fractured the working class movement whenever they have grown.
The class interests and demands of the toiling people, the poor and the oppressed, has largely been expressed in the form of caste politics. Articulated within the structures of India’s democracy, this caste based politics has succeeded in providing significant relief to the lower castes, who form the overwhelming majority of India’s toiling masses. Next week, this column will look at the consequences of lower caste politics in contemporary India.
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This article was published in my weekly column in The Post on 04 July, 2007.