November 24, 2017
Caste In Indian History,
[“Caste in Indian History” is a brilliant essay on the evolution of caste in India, written by renowned Marxist historian Prof. Irfan Habib. It is the text of the Inaugural D.D. Kosambi Memorial Lecture delivered in Bombay in March 1985, and was published in Prof. Habib’s book ‘Caste and Money in Indian History’ (1987). It was reproduced in the collection of Prof. Habib’s essays titled ‘Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception’ (1995), published by Tulika Books, New Delhi. Anticaste.in republishes this classic essay with the author’s permission, for the benefit of a larger readership. The text is from the seventh reprint (2007) of ‘Essays in Indian History’.]
Caste is the most characteristic — and many would say, unique — social institution of India. No interpretation of our history and culture can demand a hearing unless it encompasses the caste system. One of the abiding achievements of D.D. Kosambi’s scholarship was his ability to unite a lively spirit of anthropological investigation with a critical analysis of historical evolution. I hope that by choosing the role of caste in Indian history as the theme of this lecture, I may be able to touch on some of Kosambi’s most valuable insights.
Any such endeavour must, first, come to grips with the problem of definition. It is not surprising that this should be difficult, but perhaps a working definition could still be attempted to serve us as a point of departure. Caste, we may say, is a fairly well-marked, separate community, whose individual members are bound to each other through endogamy (and hypergamy), and very often also by a common hereditary profession or duty, actual or supposed. Many sociologists, however, appear to regard this definition as quite insufficient. They would add that we must also stipulate the existence of a perception of the rank of one caste in relation to other castes, a ranking which finds expression in the degree of ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’ of the other castes in relation to one’s own, and in specific rites and practices followed by, or assigned to, each caste. Louis Dumont, in his Homo Hierarchicus  considers, as the very title of the work shows, the hierarchical principle to be the very core and heart of the caste system; without it, there would be no caste.
Whether we should follow the very simple definition we have suggested, or the kind of definition that Dumont would approve of is not a mere matter of semantics: it is of crucial importance for understanding the history of our civilisation. I, therefore crave the reader’s indulgence for examining Dumont’s views in some detail.
To Dumont the caste system must be understood in terms of its essential religious (‘Hindu’) ideology, which pervades all the immense variety that it displays. It is reflected in the endless, complex, even conflicting, arrangements of ranks, the highest belonging always to the Brahmans, who are the ‘purest’ and command much of its ritual. The ranking does not originate in, or correspond to, the actual distribution of power or wealth, but arises, so to speak, out of the basic elaboration of the basic principle of purity or pollution. Thus neither are castes ‘an extreme’ form of classes, nor is the caste system a system of social stratification: it need not, and does not, correspond to the distribution of wealth or power. Dumont insists that caste must be understood as ‘part of the whole’ (a favourite phrase of his), which means that the entire society must be divided up among castes, and there must be no significant residue. Thus, in effect, caste must exist as the sole or dominant form of social organisation, or not exist at all.
If all this is to be accepted, if, that is, caste arose out of an ideology of ‘purity’ unfolding as an elaboration of hierarchy on the basis of relative ‘purity’, without any reference to economic phenomenon, then the economic impulse within Indian society must surely have been very weak. Further, if the caste system has given India an unchanging hierarchy, India can have had no history that one may recognise as such. Both these positions Dumont readily espouses.
‘I would like to raise, he says, ‘the very question of the applicability to traditional India of the very category of economics.’ He points, in justification, to the ‘elementary’ fact that ‘even in our own [western] society it was only at the end of eighteenth century that economics appeared as a distinct category, independent of politics’. The argument is so illogical that one hesitates over whether one has understood Dumont aright. The fact that there was at one time no science of sociology does not mean that there have been no societies before the arrival of that science; similarly, because economics did not exist as a science before the eighteenth century, one is not excluded from speaking of the economic factors behind the English Civil War, or any other earlier historical process or event.
So too is India to be deprived of history:
The indifference to time, to happening, to history, in Indian literature and civilisation in general, makes the historian’s task very hard- But under these conditions, is there a history of India in a sense comparable to that in which there is a history of Christian civilisation or even [!] China? 
In other words, shall we say, no biography can be written of anyone who has not authored an autobiography!
Dumont offers here and there examples of how one can interpret India’s ‘non-history’. The most impressive example is his exposition of the rise and fall of Buddhism. The ideology of the caste system, he says, requires individuals’ renunciation of society. Some of ‘the renouncers’ begin competing with the Brahmanas. Out of such competition, the Buddhists and the Jainas expounded the doctrine of ahimsa and condemned animal slaughter and meat eating as polluting acts. This led the Brahmanas to give up animal sacrifice and stress vegetarianism to a greater or more systematic degree than even their challengers. The Buddhists were thus thwarted, vegetarianism became yet another symbol of purity, and the Brahmanas slept more easily until the next round of renouncers (e.g., the Lingaits) came round with some other eccentric competing propositions. Kosambi may point to the shift from pastoralism to agriculture, R.S. Sharma to the rise of towns and growth of commerce, in order to explain the success of early Buddhism; but their attempts are vain. The only factor behind it was a more successful appeal to the ‘idiom of purity’; and what made such an appeal at all possible was, again, the phenomenon of ‘renunciation’.
If such is to be history of India, to fit a contemporary western sociologist’s image of the caste system, is it not more likely that there is something wrong with this image rather than with Indian history? It may, in fact, well be that there is a good historical explanation for Dumont’s excessively narrow view of caste. During the last hundred years and more, the hereditary division of labour has been greatly shaken, if not shattered. As a result, this aspect has increasingly receded into the background within the surviving domain of caste. The purely religious and personal aspects have, however, been less affected. (One can see that this is by no means specific to India: religious ideology survives long after the society for which the particular religion had served as a rationalisation has disappeared.) It is obviously tempting to take the caste system’s surviving elements (mainly religious) as the sole or crucial elements, and the declining aspects (economic) as secondary and even superfluous. Dumont not only falls to the temptation, he builds a whole theoretical structure on a false premise to explain what India is. But then what he postulates about the hierarchical man in India is, perhaps, as difficult to accept as his other belief that western society today is ‘egalitarian’.
If then, Homo Hierarchichus fails to convert us, from where are we to begin? I think it is important to use the approach that Kosambi explicitly and consistently followed, the one that was introduced by Karl Marx. Caste should be viewed primarily in its role in different social formations that have arisen in a chain of sequence. A social formation, in so far as it is based on the form of the ‘labour process’, arises after the producers in society are able to provide a ‘surplus’. It is vain to expect a social institution like caste to exist before this stage has arrived. Indeed, Dumont himself recognises this, for he admits that the emergence of castes presupposes division of labour which cannot be found in primitive societies. The purusasukta in the Rigveda, the original statement for the four varnas, is more a description of social classes than of castes: the rajanyas, aristocracy, the brahmanas, priests, the vis, people at large (mainly peasants), and the sudras, springing from the dasyus, servile communities. There is no hint yet in Vedic times of either a hereditary division of labour or any form of endogamy. The varnas thus initially presaged very little of the caste system that was to grow later.
Kosambi, in An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, offers the view that castes did not arise out of any internal division of the varnas in the original Vedic society, but from an external process altogether: ‘The entire course of Indian history shows tribal elements being fused into a general society. This phenomenon . . . lies at the very foundation of the most striking Indian social feature, namely, caste.’ For this insight one can adduce confirmation from the use of the word jati. When the Buddha is spoken of as belonging to the Sakya jati the word obviously means a tribe. When, in the same literature, we also read of ‘excellent as well as low’ jatis, castes are clearly implied. Tribes are often rigorously endogamous: thus the Buddha’s story of the Sakya brothers who married their own sisters in order to avoid marrying outside the tribe. Can we suppose that as the tribes entered the ‘general society’, they carried their endogamous customs into that society? If the tribe was already an agricultural community, it would simply turn into the peasant caste of its territory.
However, the tribes ‘entering the general society’ would include a large number of primitive hunting or food-gathering tribes living in forests, who would be subjugated by the advancing peasant communities. This may be illustrated by the struggle between the Sakyas and Kolis. Kosambi has a long passage on the Nagas, the forest folk, who retreat before the Aryan advance, but leave their traces behind in brahmanical lore and later Vedic ritual. As the food-gatherers were subjugated they were reduced to the lowest jatis, so low as to be outside the four varnas altogether. The enumeration of the ‘mixed jatis’ in the Manusmriti shows a preponderance of such communities: the Sair Andhra ensnare animals, the Kawarta are boatmen; the Nisadas pursue fishing; the Medas, Andhras, Chunchus and Madgus live off the ‘slaughter of wild animals’; the Kshattris, Ugras and Pukkasas by ‘catching and killing [animals] living in holes’; the Karavara and Dhigvanas by working in leather; and the Pandusopaka by dealing in cane (Manu, X, 32, 34, 36-37, 48-49). The Chandalas and Nisadas both appear as hunters in Buddhist texts. These were the original ‘untouchable’ castes. Since they were excluded from taking to agriculture, and their own original or altered occupations were of minor or seasonal importance, they became a large reservoir of unfree, servile landless labour available for work at the lowest cost to the peasants as well as superior landholders. It is difficult to avoid the view that the bitter hostility which the rest of the population has displayed for these menial jatis had derived from this fundamental conflict of interest. Concepts of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ were a rationalisation of this basic economic fact.
The separation of the peasant and menial jatis represents a division of labour in a very generalised form. But R.S. Sharma has called attention to a second urban revolution (the first being represented by the Harappan culture) which took place on the eve of the rise of Buddhism. This implies that a multiplicity of productive skills must have developed. Gordon Childe has stressed the importance of ‘new tools and labour-saving devices, such as hinged tongs, shears, scythes, rotary querns’ for the emergence of ‘a number of new full-time specialists’. Some of these tools (shears, rotary querns) appear by the first century AD at Taxila. The Jatakas introduce us to the ‘manufacturers’ villages’, peopled by smiths and carpenters. It is possible that tribes brought wholesale into the general society began to throw off splinters under the pressure of the emerging division of labour. Different craftsmen isolated from the original tribe were formed into specific jatis. Thus Manu (X, 47-48) includes among the ‘mixed jatis’ those of carpenters, charioteers and physicians. A similar process of differentiation, based on the growth of commerce, led to the mercantile castes, which are quite prominent in the Jatakas. In time, they would make the vaisya varna exclusively their own.
The position of the brahmanas in the caste framework derived naturally enough from their priestly functions, and their guardianship of the dharma protecting the caste system. Kosambi suggests that part of their position also derived from their grasp of the calendar, which was so essential for regulating agricultural operations.
The one segment of caste structures most vulnerable to change was that of the ruling and warrior class, the kshatriyas (rajanyas). Invasions and rebellions made a hereditary monopoly of armed power extremely difficult, as the Puranas amply bear witness to. Thus where, logically, the caste system should have been strongest, in actual terms, it was the weakest- namely, in the stability of the ruling community. The entire caste structure has thus supposed a system of exploitation whose major beneficiaries, by its own terms, have so often been usurpers or outsiders.
Almost everyone seems agreed that in universalising the caste system within India, Brahmanas have played a key role, and that by integrating the caste doctrine into the dharma, brahmanas made the caste system and brahmanism inseparable. One result of these assumptions has been that the role of Buddhism in the process of caste formation has often escaped notice.
To anyone who reads Kautilya’s Arthasastra with its heavy stress on the varna system, and then turn to Asoka’s edicts, the contrast is a striking one. The word varna (or jati) never appears in Asoka’s texts; obedience to the varna rules does not form even implicitly a part of the dharma that Asoka propagated and whose principles he inscribed on rock and pillars. In so far as Buddhism rejected the religious supremacy of the brahmanas, it necessarily questioned the legitimacy of the varna division inherited from the Vedas.
And yet it may be asked whether Buddhism did not have its own contribution to make to the development of the caste system. The karma doctrine, or the belief in the transmigration of souls which formed the bedrock of Buddhist philosophy, was an ideal rationalisation of the caste system, creating a belief in its equity even among those who were its greatest victims. In the Manusmriti (XI, 24-26) it already appears as a firm part of the caste doctrine.
Second, there was the stress on ahimsa. Kosambi attributed the stress on avoidance of animal killing in Buddhism to the irrationality of large scale slaughter of livestock for sacrifice by Brahmanas, once settled agriculture had replaced pastoralism. Kosambi did not of course, intend to disparage the sincerity of the Buddha’s disapproval of violence or cruelty (and, after all, Asoka condemned the massacres by his army in Kalinga). What he implied was that any criticism of the large scale animal sacrifices would be popular among the ‘cattle raising vaisya’. But I would like respectfully to suggest what seems to me to be a more plausible reason why ahimsa should have become a popular doctrine. It provided reason for the subjugation and humiliation of the food-gathering communities. The Asokan edicts contain injunctions against hunting and fishing, and the Buddhist texts look down on ‘animal-killing jatis’ as much as the brahmanical texts do.
Indeed, here Buddhism also contributed to the ultimate denigration of the peasantry in the varna structure. R.S. Sharma’s exposition of how the sudra and not the vaisya varna came to be regarded as the category to which peasants must belong is practically definitive. In this denigration the ahimsa doctrine too was made to play was part. Manu (X, 84) condemns the use of plough for the injury that its iron point causes to living creatures. This is echoed in later Buddhism; I-tsing says that the Buddha forbade monks from engaging in cultivation because this involved ‘destroying lives by ploughing and watering field’.
It would, therefore, be wrong to suppose that the caste ideology has been exclusively brahmanical in its development.
The period from the rise of Buddhism (c. 500 BC) to the Gupta age (fourth and fifth centuries AD) may, then, be supposed to be the period of the formation of the caste system and its supporting ‘ideology’. It is significant that outsiders were struck not by the ‘hierarchy’ of the system, but by its hereditary occupations. Megasthenes (c. 300 BC), with his listing of the seven castes, and Yuan Chwang, both make unqualified statements in this respect, as do later foreign observers like Babur and Bernier.
Being a relatively rigid form of division of labour, the caste system formed part of the relations of production. But the caste system operated in two different worlds of labour, 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 labour belonged to a natural economy, in the other to a commodity or monetised sector.
Those who are familiar with Marx’s writing 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 labour’, 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. Max Weber gave to this kind of caste-determined labour the name of demiurgical labour.
Modern sociologists since W.H. Wiser have been sprinkling cold water on this view. To them, the actual system was not of demiurgical labour, but the jajmani system, that is, a system of the artisans serving only particular families. For Louis Dumont, as one would expect, it becomes immediately a matter of a ritualistic relationship between certain upper caste families and the ‘purity’ specialists, viz. the brahmana and the barber, which was then extended to relationships with other artisans and labouring castes. So, we are told: ‘In the last analysis, the division of labour shows not a more or less gratuitous juxtaposition of religious and non-religious or “economic” tasks, but both the religious basis and the religious expression of interdependence. Further it deduces interdependence from religion.’ Dumont has apparently let his edition run on without paying much attention to current historical work. In 1972 Hiroshi Fukazawa published the results of his investigations in the eighteenth century records, in which Maharashtra is so rich. His definite conclusion, closely based on documentary evidence, was that the jajmani theory was applicable only to the family priesthood; the traditional twelve balutas (carpenter, smith, potter, leather-worker, barber, etc.) were basically village servants, paid through land allotments (watan) and out of peasant crops. So strong is Fukazawa’s evidence that he is led to the perceptive comment that if modern village artisans appear to be servants of certain families alone, this is due to the decay of the old system under modern conditions.
Historical evidence for the village servants in fact goes back to a fairly early period. Kosambi cites epigraphic evidence attesting to carpenters’ plots in north Indian villages going back to the fifth century. Similarly, B.N.S. Yadava draws attention to the Lekhapaddati documents (Gujarat, c. 1000), which speak of the five village artisans (pancha karuka), viz. the carpenter, ironsmith, potter, barber and washerman, entitled to receive handfuls of grains from the peasant. The balahar, or the village menial, appears as the lowliest landholder in Barani’s account of Alauddin Khalji’s taxation measures (early fourteenth century).
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 (already cited) on the Indian village community in Capital, Volume 1. 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 to keep wage costs low.
The caste system, in its classic 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 not a fabric of imagined purity (if it did, this was incidental), but a system of class exploitation as rigorous as any other.
In many ways the beginning of thirteenth century marks a ‘break’ in Indian history. This break arises not only from the intrusion of Islam: we begin to see a social formation which is at last close to Marx’s ‘Oriental despotism’ as against the preceding age of ‘Indian feudalism’ delineated by Kosambi and R.S. Sharma. We must, however, allow for a much larger extent of commodity production and urbanisation than Marx seems to have visualised for pre-colonial India.
The caste structure in both villages and towns continued essentially to be the same as in the earlier period. As will be seen from what we have said in the foregoing section, the evidence for hereditary caste labour in villages and towns is practically continuous from ancient India to the eighteenth century. It is true that Islam in its law recognises differences based only upon free man and slave (and man and woman); caste, therefore, is alien to its legal system. Nevertheless, the attitude of the Muslims towards the caste system was by no means one of disapprobation. When in 711-14, the Arabs conquered Sind, their commander Mohammad Ibn Qasim readily approved all the constraints placed upon the Jatts under the previous regime, very similar to those prescribed for the Chandalas by the Manusmriti. Muslim censures of Hinduism throughout the medieval period centre round its alleged polytheism and idol worship, and never touch the question of the inequity of caste. The only person who makes a mild criticism of it is the scientist (and not theologian) Alberuni (c. 1030) who said: ‘We Muslims, of course, stand entirely on the other side of the question, considering all men as equal, except in piety.’ But such an egalitarian statement is almost unique; the fourteenth century historian Barani in his Tarikh-i iruz-Shahi fervently craved for a hierarchical order based on birth, although he was thinking in terms of class, rather than of castes, and does not appeal to the Hindu system as a suitable example.
In so far as the caste system helped, as we have seen, to generate larger revenues from the village and lower the wage costs in the cities, the Indo-Muslim regimes had every reason to protect it, however indifferent, if not hostile, they might have been to Brahmanas as the chief idol-worshippers. (Does not this also mean that the supremacy of the Brahmanas was by no means essential for the continuance of the caste system?) Nevertheless, the caste system had to undergo certain adjustments and changes, which must be recognised as important, not as a result of the policy of the Sultans, but of the new circumstances.
In the first place, the new ruling classes and their dependents brought not only demand for new products and new kinds of services, from their central and west Asian backgrounds, but also a fairly wide range of new craft technology. Kosambi, with his usual perceptiveness, spoke of the ‘Islamic raiders — breaking hidebound custom in the adoption and transmission of new techniques’. Among the technological devices which came early (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries) were right-angled gearing (for the final form of the Persian wheel), the spinning wheel, paper manufacture, vault construction, use of bitumen and lime-cement, iron horse-shoe, and so on. These necessitated, in some cases, the creation of new professions (e.g., paper-makers, lime-mixers) and, in others, the learning of new devices; in general, one can postulate the need for a considerable expansion of the artisan population, to accompany what, in fact, may be designated the third ‘urban revolution’ in Indian history.
The pressure of the new circumstances led initially to large scale slave- trading and the emergence of slave labour as a significant component of urban labour during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The numbers of slaves in the Sultan’s establishments were very high (50,000 under Alauddin Khalji, and 1,80,000 under Firuz Tughluq). Barani judges the level of prices by referring to slave prices, and the presence of slaves was almost all-pervasive. Slaves were, in effect, deprived of caste and, converted to Islam, could be put to almost any task or learn any trade. Manumitted in course of time, they probably created, along with artisan immigrants, the core of many Muslim artisan and labouring communities. There was also in time a conversion of free elements, possibly in many cases sections of castes splitting off from their parent bodies in search of higher status or willing to take to occupations of practices not permitted to them previously. There thus arose, in course of time, a substantial Muslim population.
Caste undoubtedly continued to exercise its influence on these communities. To judge from their practices as reported since the nineteenth century, weavers, butchers, barbers and others had strong tendencies to be endogamous. The menial castes duplicated themselves as kamin communities among Muslims, not untouchable but still kept separate and held in contempt. Nonetheless, it would still be correct to say that sectors of Muslim populations remained outside the caste framework even in its most rudimentary form; and in any case, the framework remained weak, since both shifts of occupation and deviations from endogamy could occur. In other words, there was always a much greater degree of mobility.
It is questionable whether the presence of such relatively caste- free populations at all undermined the caste system. Such populations might indeed have reinforced it by providing reserve labour for new professions or occupations without causing any disruptions to the structure of existing castes. But it is also doubtful whether the caste system was so completely devoid of capacity for mobility as has been assumed by Max Weber. Morris D. Morris in a notable paper argues that in actual practice the caste system has been vastly different from how one thinks it should have operated on the basis of the law book — or what Dumont calls its ‘ideology’. Castes divided to enable one section to take to new professions: Fukuzawa draws attention to a well-documented caste from eighteenth century Maharashtra, where a section of tailors took to dyeing and yet another to indigo-dyeing and set up as endogamous sub-castes. A historically singular case is that of the Jatts, a pastoral Chandala-like tribe in eighth century Sind, who attained Sudra status by the eleventh century (Alberuni), and had become peasants par excellence (of vaisya status) by the seventeenth century (Dabistani-i Mazahib). The shift to peasant agriculture was probably accompanied by a process of ‘sanskritisation’, a process which continued, when, with the Jat rebellion of the seventeenth century, as section of the Jats began to aspire to the position of zamindars and the status of Rajputs.
Moreover, where sanskritisation failed or was too slow a process, hearing began to be given to monotheistic movements, which condemned the ‘ideology’ of the caste system. It may be that the monotheistic belief of Islam and the legal equality of the Muslim community exercised a certain influence on these movements. But their stress on equality and condemnation of caste and ritual observance was certainly much greater than is to be found in any contemporary Islamic preaching. Most of its great teachers belonged to the low jatis: Namdev, a calico printer; Kabir, a weaver; Raidas, a scavenger; Sain, a barber; Dadu, a cotton-carder; Dhanna, a Jat peasant. In beautiful verse, composed in the name of Dhanna Jat, the fifth Guru of the Sikhs (Arjun) insists on God’s special grace for such lowly worshippers.
In these communities (panths) the doors were open to people of all castes. The Satnami sect (which arose in the seventeenth century, with some allegiance to Kabir), contained goldsmiths, carpenters, sweepers and tanners, according to one account, and peasants and traders of small capital, according to another. The Sikh community in the seventeenth century consisted in bulk of Jat peasantry; early in the next century, the complaint was being made that authority could be given among them to ‘the lowliest sweeper and tanner, filthier than whom there is no race in Hindustan’. The practices of these panths forbade caste distinctions within the community, and, there was a tendency in the communities, as with the Satnamis, amongst whom this was prescribed by scripture, to become endogamous. The net result was the creation of religious communities which drew their following from the caste framework but which ultimately returned to that framework though usually at a higher ‘rank’ than at the time of their departure from it. This had happened before, as in the case of the Lingayats in Karnataka; and these movements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries similarly made necessary adjustments in the caste system, without however subverting it.
The caste system, therefore, remained an important pillar of the system of class exploitation in medieval India. As we have said before, its chief beneficiaries could only be the ruling classes; in the medieval case, these were, first, the nobility and, second, the rural superior class, the zamindars. To the extent that the political structure was sustained by the zamindars, caste again was important, since the zamindars, by and large, belonged to the ‘dominant castes’ which maintained their position by force. It is worth remembering that when Abu-l Fazl in his detailed statistical tables of the Mughal Empire in the A’in-i Akbari (1595-96) gives the caste of zamindars of each locality, this information is followed not by the area of land they held but by the numbers of their retainers, horse and foot. There was, therefore, an undoubted connection between caste dominance and military power.
Barrington Moore Jr expresses some surprise that in his detailed descriptions of the Mughal Indian economy, W.H. Moreland should have had so little to say on caste. This applies to some of my own work as well, the reason, perhaps, is that when one looks at the specific relations, such as those of the peasant and the tax appropriator, or the petty producer and the merchant, caste is not immediately visible. What it did mainly was to provide a large part of the setting for these relations. It divided the agrarian classes into two antagonistic camps, the caste peasants and the menial labourers; and it stabilised the division of labour in petty production. But it is questionable if these functions were crucial enough for us to propound that caste defined the form of the labour process in medieval India (c. 1200-1750). The factors of mobility and competition were present to a certain degree, as we have seen. Iran was very similar to India in its economic and political organisation in medieval times, but without the benefit of the caste system. Can we nevertheless say that Mughal India and Safavid Iran belonged to two separate social formations, just because one had caste and the other lacked it? Any comment on the matter can at present be only tentative, and one may look forward hopefully to more discussion on the subject.
But one final word, before we leave the question of caste in medieval India. Any class formation like medieval Indian society was bound to generate internal tensions, finding expression notably in the struggles of the oppressed. India has a history of peasant uprisings, going back to the revolt of the buffalo-riding Kaivartas of Bengal in eleventh century. But it is from the seventeenth century that we get perhaps the richest evidence of peasant uprisings. One great weakness of these uprisings, when compared with those of Europe or china, is the rebels’ extremely backward class consciousness. Peasant rebels appear as zamindars’ followers (Marathas), or members of religious communities (Sikhs, Satnamis) or of castes or tribes (Jats, Afghans); they fail to see themselves as peasants or to raise economic or social demands for any section of the peasants. It seems to me that caste provides part of the reason for this failure. It prevented peasants of one caste from finding common ground with those of another, and so all the time undermined the growth of self-awareness of the peasantry as a class.
The history of caste in the foregoing pages has been brought close enough to modern times. I do not intend to pursue it further, but a few concluding remarks may still be offered.
In 1853, discussing the results of British rule, Marx predicted that ‘modern industry, resulting from the railway system will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labour upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power.’ It has become customary to deride this statement (vide Louis Dumont) as having been too optimistic. But it will be futile to deny that modern conditions have gravely shaken the economic basis of the caste system. This is not only because workers of several castes come together on the factory bench; and once this happens the traditional division of labour begins to collapse. Even more important has been the fact that industrial production has destroyed the crafts of a whole series of professional or artisanal castes. This process began with the import of Lancashire cloth, even before Marx was writing. The basis of the caste division of labour has weakened due to one further factor. As Surendra J. Patel has pointed out, commercialisation of agriculture has converted large numbers of peasants into landless labourers, so that no longer does landlessness remain a monopoly of the ‘menial’ castes, though they still form in most areas its largest contingent.
But if the economic base of the caste system has been shaken, can the same be said of its ideology? Endogamy continues to reinforce caste; and there has been a process of territorial enlargement of castes through mutual identification and absorption. ‘Sanskritisation’, which modernisation at one level strongly fosters, converts the erstwhile victims of the system into its votaries. So long as the conflict of interest between landless labour and landholding classes remains, there is an incentive for all castes to combine against the untouchables, whom we euphemistically call the scheduled castes. Caste still remains perhaps the single most important divisive factor in our country.
For all those who wish to see the Indian people united in a struggle for their material and spiritual liberalisation, it is of utmost importance that there be a renewed effort to eradicate the sway that caste continues to hold over the minds of our people. What Marx called the decisive impediment to Indian progress could only then be removed, and caste at last relegated to history, to which it properly belongs.
 See J.H. Hutton, Caste in India, fourth edition, Bombay, 1969 (reprint), p. 71 and passim.
 All my references are to the Paladin edition, London, 1972.
 Homo Hierarchicus, p. 300. (‘Hierarchy culminates in the Brahman.’)
 Ibid., pp. 288ff.
 Ibid., p. 300.
 Ibid., pp. 262, 274. Accordingly, to Dumont, ‘Hindus and Muslims form two distinct societies’ (p. 257).
 Ibid., p. 209.
 Ibid., p. 242
 Ibid., pp. 230-231.
 Ibid., pp. 192-95.
 Dumont shows an almost total lack of awareness of this development in his remarks on the unchanging caste framework. Ibid., pp. 265-66.
 So Dumont can now say: ‘In the caste system the politico-economic aspects are relatively secondary and isolated’. Ibid., p. 283.
 Ibid., pp. 260, 331-32. Compare Kosambi’s dictum that ‘caste is class on a primitive level of production’. Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline, London, 1965, p. 50.
 D.D. Kosambi in An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, Bombay, 1956, p. 25.
 Narendra Wagle, Society of the Time of the Buddha, Bombay, 1966, pp. 122-23.
 Ibid., pp. 103-4.
 Kosambi, Introduction, p. 122.
 Ibid., pp. 121-23.
 See Kosambi, Culture and Civilization of Ancient India, p. 15.
 See Vivekanand Jha in Indian Historical Review (IHR), II(1), pp. 22-23.
 R.S. Sharma’s review of A. Ghosh, The City in Early Historical India (Simla, 1973), in IHR, I (1), pp. 98-103.
 V. Gordon Childe, Social Evolution, edited by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, 1963, p. 110.
 See Sir John Marshall, Taxila, II, Cambridge, 1952, pp. 486 (rotary querns) and 555 (scissors).
 R. Fick, The Social Organization of North East India in Buddha’s Time, English translation, Calcutta, 1920, pp. 280-85.
 Kosambi, Introduction, pp. 236-37.
 Ibid., pp. 158-59.
 Recorded on Rock Edict XIII.
 Especially P.E.V. and the bilingual Qandahar inscription.
 R.S. Sharma, Sudras in Ancient India, Delhi, 1958, especially pp. 232-34.
 A Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practised in India and the Malay Archipelago, translated by J. Takakusu, Oxford, 1986, p. 62.
 For Megasthenes see R.C. Majumdar, The Classical Accounts of India, Calcutta, 1960, pp. 224-26, 263-68; Yuan Chwang, Buddhist Records of the Western World, I, translated by S. Beal, London, 1884, p. 82; Babur, Baburnama, translated by A.S. Beveridge, London, 1921, p. 520; Francois Bernier, Travels in the Mogul Empire, 1655-68, translated by A. Constable, edited by V.A. Smith, Oxford, 1916, p. 259.
 Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Vol. III, English translation, Moscow, 1971, p. 435.
 Capital, I, edited by Dona Torr, translated by Moore and Aveling, London, 1938, p. 351.
 Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus, p. 150.
 H. Fukazawa, ‘Rural Servants in the Eighteenth Century Maharashtrian Village – Demiurgic or Jajmani System’, Hitotsubashi Journal of Economics (HJE), XII(2), 1972, pp. 14-40.
 Kosambi, Introduction, p. 312.
 B.N.S. Yadava, Society and Culture in Northern India in the Twelfth Century, Allahabad, 1973, p. 267.
 Ziauddin Barani, Tarikh-I Firuz-Shahi, edited by S.A. Khan, W.N. Lees and Kabiruddin, Bib. Ind., Calcutta, 1860-62, p. 287. On balahar, see H.M. Elliot, Memoirs of the History, Folklore and Distribution of Races in the North-Western Provinces, II, edited by John Beames, London, 1869, p. 249; and Irfan Habib, Agrarian System of Mughal India, pp. 120-21.
 Marx, Capital, I, pp. 331-32.
 Edward C. Sachau, Alberuni’s India, I, London, 1910, p. 101.
 Anonymous, Chachanama, Persian version of the thirteenth century, edited by U-Daudpota, Hyderabad-Dn., 1939, pp. 214-16 (also see pp. 47-48). A later Arab Governor insisted that the Jatts should, as mark of identification, be always accompanied by dogs. See Elliot and Dowson, History of India as told by its own Historians, I, London, 1867, p. 129.
 Alberuni’s India, I, p. 100.
 Kosambi, Introduction, p. 370.
 See Irfan Habib, ‘Changes in Technology in Medieval India’, Studies in History, II, NO. I (1980), pp. 15-39.
 This paragraph is based on evidence already presented by me in Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol. I, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 89-93, where detailed references to sources will be found.
 See D. Ibberson’s remarks on conditions in western Punjab ‘where Islam has largely superseded Brahminism’, Punjab Castes, Lahore, 1916, pp. 10-11.
 Morris D. Morris, ‘Values as an Obstacle to Economic Growth in South Asia,’ Journal of Economic History (JEH), XXVII, pp. 588-607.
 HJE, IX(1), (1968), pp. 39ff.
 This evidence is examined in my paper ‘Jatts of Punjab and Sind’, Punjab Past and Present: Essays in Honour of Dr Ganda Singh, edited by Harbans Singh and N.G. Barrier, Patiala, 1976, pp. 92-103.
 Saqi Musta’idd Khan, Ma’asir-I Alamgiri, edited by Agha Ahmad Ali, Calcutta, 1870-73, pp. 14-15.
 Khafi Khan, Muntakhabu’l Lubab, edited by Kabiruddin Ahmad, Calcutta, 1860-70, Vol. II, p. 252.
 Muhammad Shafi Warid, Miratu’l Waridat, British Library (London), MS., Add. 6579, f. 117b.
 The Satnami scripture, containing these injunctions, is titled Pothi Gyan Bani Sadh Satnami, and is preserved in Royal Asiatic Library, London, MS. Hind. No copy is known.
 This point is lost in Jarrett’s translation of the A’in-i Akbari, since the translator has altered the arrangement of the columns. See my Agrarian System of Mughal India, Bombay, 1963, p. 139.
 Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, 1977, pp. 317-18 n.
 R.S. Sharma, Indian Feudalism, second edition, Delhi, 1980, p. 220.
 Homo Hierarchicus, p. 265.
 Surendra J. Patel, Agricultural Labourers in India and Pakistan, Bombay, 1952, especially pp. 9-20, 63-65.
November 20, 2017
Posted on November 17, 2017 by murraydobbin
The world is now at the mercy of a coalition of three of the most dangerous autocrats on the planet: Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s new absolute ruler Mohammad bin Salman, a name that will become increasingly familiar as the months go by. These three “leaders” are now collaborating in an incredibly reckless plan to permanently reshape the Middle East.
The final outcome will unfold no matter what Canada does. But unless the government of Justin Trudeau gets a grip on reality, Canada will be drawn into this potential catastrophe by virtue of foreign policy positions it has already taken. Geopolitics is getting incredibly complex and there is little evidence that the Liberal government has a clue how to navigate through the dangers. The problem is that despite all the hype about “being back”, Canada’s foreign policy under Trudeau and minister of foreign affairs Chrystia Freeland is still characterized by cynicism and ill-considered trade-offs on files within the broad spectrum of foreign affairs — including investor rights agreements like NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership.
Obviously, a certain amount of realpolitik is inevitable and even necessary to protect Canada’s interests. But even so it begs the question of how Canada’s interests are defined. How much of the store is Trudeau willing to give away to buy favour with the U.S. on NAFTA, especially when it seems concessions like putting our troops on Russia’s border has gotten us nothing in return? With Trump and his redesigned U.S. empire, there is no quid pro quo.
The embarrassing “me too” gang-up on Russia is bad enough. The Canadian version of the U.S. Magnitsky Act is a pathetic effort to please the U.S. (EU allies in NATO are increasingly uneasy about Russophobia given their own particular national interests). And Putin can hurt Canada and Canadian businesses more than we can hurt Putin and his oligarchs — and he has promised to do so.
And the Middle East is a whole other question. Canada’s past sins, such as torture in Afghanistan, and the destruction of Libya, can be dismissed by the government as old news. Canada has thankfully avoided getting re-involved in the chaos that is Middle East politics. But with the coming to (absolute) power of the new and reckless Saudi ruler Mohammad bin Salman, Middle East policy is suddenly fraught with danger and risk for any country allied with the U.S. or with any claim to interests in the region.
The new Saudi prince (who has arrested everyone who might challenge his authority) is encouraging Israel to invade Lebanon, urging the Israelis to do what they want to do, anyway: deal a crippling blow to Israel’s most effective foe, Hezbollah. Hezbollah basically governs Lebanon and has its own well-armed force. Funded by and allied to Iran, it fought the Israeli army to a standstill in 2006. It is this fact that prompted the Saudis to force the resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri; he refused or was unable to curb Hezbollah’s political power. The Saudi government upped the ante saying the Lebanese government would “be dealt with as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia.” It ordered all Saudi citizens to leave Lebanon.
For the Saudis, the ultimate target is Shiite Iran and its significant influence in the Middle East and presence, directly or indirectly, in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. When bin Salman declared that a rocket attack on Riyadh by Yemeni rebels could be seen as an act of war by Iran, the U.S. backed him up, implicitly giving the Saudi dictator a green light for more aggressive action.
Given the political situations in the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia, all sorts of case scenarios are now being speculated, with the potential for a rapid escalation of military confrontations, to the point of risking a confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. The first would be an Israeli assault on Hezbollah and Lebanon’s infrastructure. That could be followed by a Saudi-led invasion of Qatar and the removal of its government. While less likely, another confrontation could see the U.S. launch a campaign to seize Syrian territory reclaimed by the Assad regime, on behalf of Israel and risking a direct confrontation with Russia.
All of this could be a prelude to an attack on Iran itself and possibly the use by Israel of nuclear weapons. The rich potential for unintended consequences includes World War III.
If all of this sounds fantastical, consider who currently runs Israel, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu is mired in his own corruption scandal and needs a distracting war to survive. Bin Salman has already demonstrated a stunning recklessness and ruthlessness: the brutal bombing of Yemen (and now a blockade of food and medicine), the blockade of Qatar, and the house arrest of another country’s prime minister. As for Trump (and some of his generals), he seems to genuinely believe that the U.S. is invulnerable, a truly suicidal assumption. All three heads of state adhere to the doctrine of exceptionalism: the normal rules of international behaviour don’t apply to them.
If one or more of these scenarios begins to play out just what will Trudeau do? His government’s policy towards Israel is driven by political cowardice, rooted in the fear of the Israel lobby in Canada. Towards Saudi Arabia, it is driven by sales of armoured personnel carriers, and a blind eye towards gross human rights violations. With respect to the U.S. it is characterized by ad hoc efforts to predict the unpredictable.
If any of this war scenario plays out, Trudeau will suddenly be pressed to come up with principled positions in response and not just political opportunism and calculated ambiguity. And he should take note: Canadians’ attitudes towards Israel have turned very critical, with 46 per cent expressing negative views and just 28 per cent positive views of that country. As for our proposed $15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, 64 per cent disapprove.
While these progressive attitudes lie relatively dormant at the moment another slaughter of innocents will bring them to life. Is the prime minister prepared?
November 19, 2017
The South produces epistemologically-based theory—it’s not just a provider of native experimentation
The body of women was the first colonized territory, prior to the Spanish conquest
Thinking about the Global South without colonialist concepts
November 16, 2017
CP of Greece, Reply to the anticommunist hysteria of the European Parliament [En] Thursday, 16 November 2017
CP of Greece, Reply to the anticommunist hysteria of the European Parliament [En]
Thursday, 16 November 2017 16:39 Communist Party of Greece
Reply to the anticommunist hysteria of the European Parliament [En, Ru, Es, Ar, De, Sq]
“The learned people will find again their way. Your rotten system is the past. The future of the world is Socialism-Communism.”
A decisive answer to the vulgar anticommunism of the capital's political representatives was given by the Delegation of the Communist Party of Greece in the European Parliament in the Plenary Session on Wednesday in Strasbourg. The KKE MEP, Kostas Papadakis, said the following:
"We defend Socialism, which within a few years solved big problems that remain unsolved in Capitalism. Socialism abolished unemployment and exploitation. Socialism showed to the people what permanent stable labor with rights, free Health - Education for everyone, low cost housing, certainty for the future mean.
The exploitative system that you are defending entails sweatshop conditions, queues of unemployed people, permanent insecurity, auctions, people searching in the garbage.
In Socialism, the people lived peacefully for decades. Your system is dripping blood from the crimes of the imperialist wars, with Hiroshimas, dismembered states, refugees.
Socialism defeated the monster of fascism in the Second World War and fascism is capitalism's child. The democracy that you are promoting is the dictatorship of the monopolies.
The mud, the anticommunism, the prohibitions invoked by the supporters and apologists of Capitalism show their fear. The learned people will find again their way. Your rotten system is the past.
The future of the world is Socialism-Communism."
15/11/2017 DELEGATION OF THE KKE IN THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT
November 15, 2017
TWENTIETH CENTURY REVOLUTIONS: PLANTING THE SEEDS FOR TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY SOCIALISM Nov 7, 2017 by Harry Targ
TWENTIETH CENTURY REVOLUTIONS: PLANTING THE SEEDS FOR TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY SOCIALISM
Presented at the Working Class Studies Association annual conference, June 1, 2017, Indiana University,
A revised version printed in Duncan McFarland ed. The Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union: Seeds of 21st Century Socialism, Changemaker Publications. http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/chsngemaker
Harry Targ, Professor, Department of Political Science, Purdue University
Understanding Revolutions: Theoretical and Empirical Explorations
The phenomena of revolution has long been a subject of interest to scholars and activists. The original curiosity about revolution has its roots in histories and analyses of “the great revolutions,” the English Revolution, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Chinese Revolution. Subsequent to early studies of the great revolutions scholars and activists have conceptualized historical transformations in Cuba, Vietnam, Algeria, Iran and other cases as possible candidates for studies of revolution.
Perhaps undergirding the study of societal changes in the twentieth century, interest and concern about the Russian Revolution stands out as a motivation for such research and speculation. A substantial hidden motivation for this concern has been an implicit bias against the consequences of the Russian Revolution for other societies, for order and stability, for civilization, for the future of humankind. This bias includes various defenders of traditional regimes and cultures and sectors of left opposition to them who have been as vociferous opponents of the Russian Revolution and its consequences as the avowed enemies of revolution.
This essay briefly surveys the social science study of revolution, identifies key moments in the history of the former Soviet Union (which was officially constituted in 1922, five years after the revolution) from the vantage point of the anti-Soviet left, and proposes ways in which the Russian Revolution and its aftermath has contributed to social change in the twentieth century and continues to make contributions for the building of a twenty-first century socialism. This is a difficult and controversial subject, but one that needs to be confronted if a socialist agenda for the twenty-first century is to be meaningful.
The Social Scientific Study of Revolution
The subject of revolution has intrigued modern social science research and theory. Jack Goldstone (“Toward a Fourth Generation of Revolutionary Theory,” Annual Review of Political Science, 2001:4, 139-187) provides a wide-ranging survey of the twentieth century literature on the subject. He addresses the definitions of revolution; types of revolutions: the causes of revolution; the role of states, elites, ideology, mobilizations for and against revolution, foreign influences and factors such as leadership and gender shaping revolutions. Each of these sets of factors have generated research, discussion, and debate about this thing called revolution.
The literature surveyed has several interesting general features that characterize the way the phenomena has been studied. First, the concept of revolution, which was first derived from interest in a handful of cases has expanded to include all kinds of transfers of power; including Nicaragua, Iran, Afghanistan, and as some data sets suggest hundreds of cases of the transfer of power. Second, as Goldstone suggests, scholars have identified many “types” of revolutions: elite led power shifts, grassroots mobilizations, worker-led versus peasant-led forms, and unplanned disintegrations of political institutions. Third, the literature, Goldstone indicates, addresses the causes of revolutions. Here too there are a myriad of explanations from foreign intervention, the declining legitimacy of elites, intra-elite factionalism, crises in the distribution of resources among the population, unsustainable population growth, and stagnating economies.
An additional designation of revolution addresses various processes that generate the transformation that is being described. Some research on revolution concentrates on the formation of oppositional groups from unions to political parties, networking among opponents of regimes, leadership skills, the building of identities, and ideologies. In addition, some perspectives include a discussion of culture, from value systems to popular manifestations of protest. Also attention is paid to leadership skills and style. In recent years, studies have addressed the role of gender in revolutionary processes. Further, “rational choice” models assess the individual and group costs and benefits of participating in some effort at systemic transformation of the political and/or economic system.
As to the consequences of revolution, Goldstone suggests the research is more sparse. “The outcomes of revolutions have generated far less scholarly inquiry than the causes, with the possible exception of outcomes regarding gender. This may be because the outcomes of revolutions are assumed to follow straightforwardly if the revolutionaries succeed. However, such research as we have on outcomes contradicts this assumption: revolutionary outcomes take unexpected twists and turns” (Goldstone, 167). The research that has been done, he said, shows little long-term economic development or democratization after revolutionary occurrences. While China and the Soviet Union experienced short-term industrialization neither “has succeeded in generating the broad-based economic innovation and entrepreneurship required to generate sustained rapid economic advance.” He refers to an edited collection by D.Chirot, (The Crisis of Leninism and the Decline of the Left: the Revolutions of 1989, 1991, University of Washington Press) on this point.
After summarizing the myriad of studies of revolution, Goldstone does say that despite their failures to achieve sustained economic development and democratization they have been “remarkably successful in mobilizing populations and utilizing the mobilization for political and military power.” And these results, he claims, are attributable to strong leadership. In terms of international relations, revolutions have had consequences: stimulating others to revolt, causing threatened states to engage in conflict with the new regimes, and stimulating new states to engage in aggressiveness (for example the warlike behavior resulting from the Nazi “revolution”).
This survey of the social scientific study of revolution suggests many weaknesses. First, what is called “revolution” is defined in so many ways that all different transfers of power from Russia, China, Germany, Iran, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, to Cuba are all contenders irrespective of their radically different aims and bases of support.
Second, the lack of definition affords social scientists the opportunity to disaggregate every conceivable variable that might be part of the phenomena such that the historical and dialectical character of the revolutionary process is totally excluded from the analysis. Mindless empiricism replaces subtle historically-grounded judgement.
Third, and as a result of the second, leadership, organization, ideology, class, economic and political context, the cultural backdrop, and the international dimensions are all disassembled in such a way as to mask the reality behind the process.
Fourth, the analyses tend to be “presentist,” that is the history that led up to the transfer of power and the long-term domestic and international impacts of the revolution are eliminated from the analysis. And to the contrary, commentators and activists who have been part of revolutionary struggles provide a lens on the process that is usually deeply embedded in the country’s history, the long-term prospects for organizing aggrieved groups, and a vision of a “better future” that takes account of various setbacks, patterns of resistance, and regime errors. Social scientists have little or no sensitivity to revolution as an historic project.
And it is for these reasons that assessments of the Russian Revolution, 100 years later, requires an historical and dialectical assessment that goes beyond conventional scholarship.
Historical Materialists Analyses of the Post-1917 Post Soviet Experience:
Left critics of the former Soviet Union (and by implication often the Russian Revolution) have historicized the revolutionary process as they have assessed its impacts. If there is an historical narrative it is “declension,” or a step-by-step set of decisions that led to a betrayal of the vision of the revolution. The categorization of experiences of decline include the bureaucratization of the state, the centralization of power, Stalinism, and the transition from socialism to Soviet Social Imperialism. Each of these critiques is the result of political disputes between key political actors and/or nation-states as they engage with or confront the former Soviet Union. For some, the emerging conflicts have their roots in the Russian Revolution itself, particularly after the death of Lenin.
Looking at critical historical junctures, left critics of the Russian Revolution identify at least six moments in the declension. First, the Soviet leadership debated the direction of economic planning in the post-Civil War period shifting from “war communism” to the New Economic Policy. The latter reflected the need to slow down the process of moving from a capitalist to a socialist economy, recognizing the ongoing role of markets, and protecting private property, central to the outlook of the peasantry. For some, the NEP adopted by Lenin, constituted a shift away from the socialist project. Pragmatism replaced principle.
Second, with the death of Lenin, Stalin emerged as the new leader of the Soviet Union. He moved to collectivize agriculture, shifted more in the direction of a command economy, isolated his enemies, and escalated repression of dissent. What became known as Stalinism was a metaphor for totalitarianism. Totalitarian societies, critics suggested, were those in which the minds and behaviors of its members were controlled by a top-down administrative apparatus.
Third, the Soviet/Nazi Pact of 1938 is presented as proof that the similarities between fascism and Soviet-style communism outweighed any differences that were claimed by each. It showed, the critics said, that Stalin was willing to make a pact with any regime to maintain himself in power. At the state level the construction of socialism was replaced by traditional conceptions of national interest.
Fourth, the consequences of Stalinism were proclaimed in Nikita Khrushchev’s famous Twentieth Party Congress speech in 1956. It condemned the loss of life during the collectivization of agriculture, the trial and execution of Stalin’s enemies in the late 1930s, and criticized Stalin’s efforts to control the political life of allies in Eastern Europe.
Fifth, the Soviet Union practiced “great power chauvinism,” intervening in other countries when the latter seemed to be pursuing an independent path of economic and political development. This was most visible as Soviet troops crushed rebellions in Budapest in 1956 and Prague Spring in 1968. In both cases, workers and students sought more political autonomy within the Socialist camp.
And finally, many Communists around the world embraced the Chinese evaluation of the Soviet Union as a case of Soviet Social Imperialism, that is socialist in name but capitalist and imperialist in reality. And the Chinese embraced Mao’s “theory of three worlds.” One of the world’s poles, consisted of the United States and the Soviet Union. This pole represented the pursuit of global hegemony at the expense of most countries in the international system. The vast majority of countries were from the “Third World.” European countries, east and west, constituted a Second World. Consequently, with China in the lead, the countries and peoples of the Third World, needed to band together to challenge the domination of the two imperial powers and their client states.
The theorists who articulated one or many of these six moments came from the Communist or Socialist left. Contrary to the social scientists, these analysts derived their positions from historical analyses. Several of the theoretical positions on the Russian Revolution in decline came from the prioritizing of these historical moments; whether embracing the NEP, the rise of Stalinism, the Soviet-Nazi Pact, the revelations of Khrushchev, the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, or the Sino/Soviet split. But while these analyses use history to make their case against the historic project of the Russian Revolution they do so in a one-sided and ultimately ahistorical way. Whereas the social scientists atomize their subject, the left critical theorists derive simplistic historical lessons from their analyses.
Contextualizing the Russian Revolutionary Project
In 1916, Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik party that would seize power in 1917 and establish a state commonly referred to as Communist, wrote an essay: “Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism.” In it he described the latest stage of capitalist development as consisting of an economic system in each developed country of industrial and financial monopolies increasingly pursuing investment and trade opportunities in other countries. Sometimes powerful capitalist countries cooperated with each other, accepting spheres of influence where each would dominate. Other times powerful capitalist states would compete with each other for access to land, labor, resources, and investment opportunities. These last circumstances could lead to war. And, for Lenin, World War One was a direct result of capitalist competition and conflict.
One year after Lenin published his essay Lenin’s political party seized state power in Russia and created the new Soviet Union, the first state generally defined as Communist. President Wilson of the United States and his Secretary of State began to speak of the new danger of Communism to the prospects for creating democracies and market-oriented economies across the globe. The animosity to the new regime in Russia was manifested in several ways. Armies from at least fifteen countries sent troops to support a counter-revolutionary campaign against the new Soviet government. The counter-revolution supported by the United States continued until 1933 as it refused to diplomatically recognize the Soviet regime. When President Franklin Roosevelt assumed office in 1933, the Soviet Union was finally recognized.
During the 1930s, fascist movements gained power in Germany, Italy, Japan, and across central Europe. The Soviet Union, now led by Joseph Stalin, engaged in programs of rapid industrialization in part out of fear of the rise of German fascism. With the emergence of a fascist assault on democracy in Spain, relative isolationist policies in the United States, and acquiescence to fascism among European powers, the Soviet Union signed a controversial peace pact with Nazi Germany. The Germans also signed an agreement at Munich with Great Britain, France, and Italy promising non-aggression. This promise was short lived as their army invaded Poland in 1939. In 1941 they rescinded the Soviet/German agreement by invading the Soviet Union. The United States began to supply western nations fighting Germany with war material and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan and Germany. World War Two ensued.
During the war an “unnatural” but necessary alliance was formed between the United States and Great Britain, the new capitalist giant and the declining capitalist colonial power, and the Soviet Union, the center of the Communist political and ideological universe. After four years of devastating war in which 27 million Soviet citizens died and the Red army confronted 90 percent of Germany’s armies, the Nazi war machine was defeated in Europe. United States and British forces defeated Japanese militarism in Asia. The leaders of the wartime anti-fascist alliance, President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union met at Yalta on the Crimean Sea in February, 1945 and reached agreements on the establishment of a post-war world order. Just before the war ended in Europe, April, 1945, the new United Nations held its first meeting in San Francisco.
The “spirit of Yalta” was short-lived as escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union developed over a variety of issues as when to hold Polish elections, Soviet support of a separatist movement in Iran, and the Greek Civil War, where an anti-communist government was trying to repress the former Greek resistance dominated by Greek Communists. The struggle was over what kind of post-war government should be created. The British, who had supported a repressive Greek government, urged the United States to step in, help the faltering Greek government, and save Greece from Communism. In a meeting held in February, 1947 to develop a recommendation for President Harry Truman, key diplomats and politicians endorsed the idea of United States financial and military support for the beleaguered Greek government. The Republican chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Arthur Vandenberg, advised President Truman that he better “scare hell out of the American people” if the President would want to build support for a global policy of opposition to the Soviet Union.
Taking Vandenberg’s advice, President Truman spoke to the Congress and the nation on March 13, 1947 announcing his famous Truman Doctrine. He declared that the United States was going to be involved in a long war against a diabolical enemy, the Soviet Union. He said it must be the role of the United States to defend free peoples everywhere against the spread of International Communism. With that speech, warning of the Communist threat and need of the U.S. to resist it, the general features of United States foreign policy for the next forty years were proclaimed.
“The Free World” Battles “International Communism”
Over the 45 years between the end of World War Two and the beginnings of the collapse of Soviet bloc Communist states, tensions, threats of war, proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union ensued. The wars in Korea, Vietnam, Central America, and Southern Africa involved super power troops and/or military assistance to support their side in the Cold War. Historians have debated the root causes of United States foreign policy toward the Soviet Union. Some claim, as President Truman articulated, that the spread of International Communism, primarily through Soviet expansion, required a bold aggressive U.S. foreign policy. Others argued that the U.S./Soviet conflict was not too dissimilar from most big power conflicts in world history. Finally, the historical revisionists developed the most compelling case claiming that U.S. foreign policy was about the interests of global capital. The spread of Communism, ever since the initiation of the Russian Revolution was seen as a threat to the pursuit of investment, trade, cheap labor, access to natural resources and, in total, corporate profits.
Irrespective of the root causes of U.S. and allied foreign policies, they were explained in terms of the Communist threat. Pundits referred in a simplistic way to writings of Marx or Lenin or Mao Zedong to prove that Communist regimes sought to expand their power and control. This theme exacerbated political conflicts within the United States as the Communist issue was used to promote conservative politicians and public policies. The decade of the 1950s is often identified with the Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy who claimed that the successes of Communist regimes such as the Soviet Union and China occurred because of subversive Communist individuals and groups in or close to the United States government who were committed to weakening American institutions including government, popular culture, the education system, and even the military. While anti-communism had been deeply embedded in the American political culture ever since the rise of the labor movement in the 19th century, it grew in 1917, and flourished after World War Two. Being a Communist became associated with liberal domestic policies and supporting peaceful relations with Communist states.
Soviet fear of the west had its roots in the interventions of western and Japanese armies on the side of counter-revolutionaries during the Russian civil war. Statements from U.S. presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan about the threat the Soviet Union represented exacerbated Soviet fears. And paralleling Truman’s warning of the danger of International Communism to Ronald Reagan’s conceptualization of the Soviet Union as the “evil empire,” the Soviet Union consolidated its control of Eastern Europe, sought to keep up with the west in the arms race, and supported allies in the Global South who were challenging the rule of pro-western governments. The concept of Communism in the west and capitalist imperialism in the east fueled an escalating arms race, the profusion of nuclear weapons, and periodic crises that brought the two big powers into direct conflict. From the Berlin Blockade to the Korean and Vietnamese Wars to the Cuban Missile Crisis, to the building of the Berlin War, the Cold War always had within it the danger of escalating to hot war, maybe even nuclear war. The impacts of this ideological contestation led to wasted military expenditures on both sides, wars in the name of fighting Communism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America; domestic repression in both the Western and Soviet orbit, and always the fear of nuclear war lurking in the background.
Conflicts Within the Communist World
Key foreign policy decision-makers in the United States and many spokespersons for Communist countries and movements portrayed the Communist world as one based on solidarity and harmony. For the West, ironically, this perceived unity was the basis of the threat Communism meant for the so-called free world. However, while many states, and parties outside the Communist orbit, shared in a general Marxist/Leninist outlook, geopolitical conflicts diminished the harmony that simplistic outsiders believed existed among Communists.
The most significant and long-standing geopolitical and violent conflict among Communist nations involved the two largest, most powerful, and most engaged Communist countries; the Soviet Union and China. The so-called Sino-Soviet split which became visible to the world in the late 1960s had its roots in troubled relations between Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong of the Chinese Communist Party going back as far as the 1920s. Soviet/Chinese diplomatic tensions intensified in the late 1950s when Soviet and Chinese policy-makers disagreed about the appropriate development model the latter should adopt, whether the Soviets should provide the Chinese with nuclear weapons, and whether the Soviet Union should be negotiating with the capitalist enemy, the United States.
By the 1960s, Mao Zedong was declaring that the Peoples Republic of China, not the Soviet Union, represented the hub of an International Communist movement of poor countries. Mao declared that the Soviet Union was a state capitalist, and therefore imperialist, power and as much a threat to most of the world as the United States. The Nixon Administration, for the first time recognizing the Sino/Soviet split, began to play one Communist giant off against another. The president reopened relations with and visited China and signed trade and arms agreements with the Soviet Union. This increased the fears the Soviets and the Chinese had of each other, making them more cooperative with the traditional enemy, the United States.
The growing conflict between the Soviet Union and China reverberated around the world. On the Indochinese peninsula, the Soviet Union supported the newly unified Vietnamese government in its disputes with a new regime in Cambodia. The Chinese supported the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and invaded Vietnam in 1978. The Soviets and the Chinese supported different political groups in the long civil war in Angola. And in general, Communist regimes and parties felt compelled to side with one Communist giant against another.
These internecine conflicts weakened the Communist world and the Communist movement as a force in world history. The Sino/Soviet split was vital to understanding the collapse of the Soviet bloc between 1989 and 1991 and the shift of the post-Cold War international system to one based on globalization. What is clear is that the role of the vision, the ideology, and the practice of Communism was made more complicated and ultimately was contradicted by geopolitics in international relations.
Assessing the Russian Revolutionary Project in the Twentieth Century
Social scientists have contributed to the discussion of revolutionary processes by studying political organizations, leadership, ideology, mass-based support, regime types, and external interventions. Left critics of the Russian Revolution and the former Soviet Union, provide useful analyses of weaknesses in efforts to build socialism in the former Soviet Union. At the same time there is a danger in these intellectual traditions in that they underestimate the extraordinary contributions the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union made to the advance of socialism as a world historic project. And by marginalizing this history, millennial activists lack the tools to learn from the twentieth century about theory and practice, finding themselves groping for an understanding of where modern exploitation and oppression have come from and thinking about ways to challenge them.
First, the Russian Revolution was the singular event in modern history where a radical overthrow of a reactionary regime occurred, in which the new leadership represented the interests and perspectives of the working class. Its leaders embraced an anti-capitalist agenda and articulated a vision of building socialism, in both Russia and the entire international system.
Second, for oppressed people around the world (Lenin estimated that 1/7 of the world’s population lived under colonialism) the Russian Revolution stood for the overthrow of rule by the small number of capitalist powers. Within a decade of the solidification of the Revolution, anti-colonial activists from every continent began to dialogue about developing a common struggle against the great colonial empires of the first half of the twentieth century. And Third World revolutionary and anti-colonial activists, such as Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, looked to the Russian experience as a guide and source of support for their struggles.
Third, the experience of the Russian workers, paralleled by workers movements in the United States and other countries, gave impetus and inspiration to class struggles. Leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for example and many Debsian Socialists saw the Russian Revolution as a stepping-stone for the overthrow of capitalist exploitation of the working class in the United States.
Fourth, the Bolshevik Revolution stimulated new currents in struggles of people of color, particularly in the United States. Black Nationalist leaders of the African Blood Brotherhood and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance began to see a connection between racism and capitalist exploitation. Cyril Briggs, Harry Haywood, and others of the ABB were early founders of the Communist Party USA. Many saw in the evolving Soviet experience a commitment to oppose all forms of national oppression, including anti-Semitism, and over the decades prominent artists, intellectuals, and activists such as Paul Robeson and W. E. B. DuBois spoke to the connections between capitalist exploitation, national oppression and colonialism, racism, and war. In each of these cases the image of the Russian Revolution, if not the reality, contributed mightily to global struggles against capitalism, imperialism, and racism.
Fifth, International Women’s Day was first celebrated by the newly created Russian government on March 8, 1917, and it became a national holiday in the Soviet Union after the Bolsheviks seized power in November, 1917. As in reference to marginalized people, workers, people of color, ethnic minorities, the Russian Revolution sent a message that human liberation for all was possible. In the case of women, the new regime declared its commitment to women at a time when struggles for women’s suffrage were occurring in Great Britain and the United States.
Sixth, the first decade of the Russian Revolution was a time of experimentation in the arts and culture. Poster art, literature, music, alternative theories of pedagogy were stimulated by the revolutionary atmosphere. The support for cultural experimentation was stifled in the 1930s with the rise of the fascist threat and Stalinism at home but the linking of political revolution and cultural liberation became etched in the consciousness of revolutionaries everywhere. The literacy campaigns in Cuba and Nicaragua many years later may have been inspired by cultural dimensions of revolution inspired by the Russian Revolution.
Seventh, the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia created the necessity of anti-fascist states mobilizing for war. The Soviet Union assumed a major burden and thus became a leader in the anti-fascist struggles that engulfed the world by the late 1930s. Sensing impending German aggression, the creativity of the revolution was transformed into a mass mobilization of workers to rapid industrialization in preparation for German aggression. Germany invaded Poland in 1938 and the former Soviet Union in 1941. From the onset of World War II until its end, vast stretches of the Soviet homeland were laid waste and over 27 million Russians died in war. Without the Soviet sacrifice, fascism would have engulfed Europe.
Eighth, in the Cold War period, the Soviet Union and its allies were confronted with an anti-Soviet, anti-communist coalition of nations committed to the “rollback” of International Communism. What began as the first step down the path to socialism became a great power battle between the east and the west. And despite the enormity of resources the Soviets committed to their side of the arms race, they still supported virtually every anti-colonial, anti-imperial campaign around the world; from Asia, to Africa, to the Middle East, and Latin America. They gave Vietnam and Cuba as lifeline; they supported the African National Congress and South African Communist Party; the MPLA in Angola; and they supported nationalists leaders such as Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt.
Ninth, until the Sino/Soviet split rent asunder the socialist camp, the Soviet Union provided a check on the unbridled advances of western capitalism. After the split in international communism in the 1960s, Soviet influence in the world began to decline. This split had much to do with the dramatic weakening of socialism as a world force in the 1990s. One can only speculate what the twenty-first century would have looked like if the Soviet Union had survived? Would the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq have occurred? Would the Libyan regime have been overthrown? Would the countries of the Global South have had larger political space in world politics inside and outside the United Nations?
Lessons Learned: Assessing the Revolutionary Project
It is important, one hundred years after the Russian Revolution, to think about its contribution to human history, (and for many of us to twenty-first century socialism). First, it is important to conceptualize revolution as a multi-dimensional historical process, a process which sets off numerous collateral responses, positive and negative. This means that all the variables articulated by social scientists are part of an explanation of what revolution means. Also the history of shortcomings and the historical contexts are part of this process.
Second, when we revisit the Russian Revolution (and the Soviet Union which has to be seen as an extension of the revolutionary project) several features, often ignored, need to be stressed. The Russian Revolution planted the seeds for workers struggles everywhere. The Russian Revolution inspired anti-racist campaigns, particularly developing the links between class and race. The Russian Revolution provided a modest dimension to the historic process of women’s liberation. And putting all this together the Russian Revolution, and the material support of the former Soviet Union, gave impetus to the anti-colonial movements of the last half of the twentieth century. And we must remember that virtually all these dimensions were actively opposed by western imperialism, particularly the United States.
Having recognized all this, and other contributions as well, twenty-first century advocates of socialism need to revisit the history of socialism, of revolution, to find the roots of today’s struggles. The intellectual formulations of today, as well as debates about them, go back at least one hundred years. The intellectual connections revolutionaries today make with their past can be liberating in that they suggest continuity with common historic struggles. And they provide an opportunity to relive, study, critique, embrace or reject, ideas, strategies, tactics, and organizational forms of the past.
As a former leader of the Chinese Communist movement, Zhou Enlai is alleged to have said in response to a journalist’s request for an evaluation of the French Revolution, Zhou said, “it’s too early to say.”
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