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Classes and Communities: A Comment

Classes and Communities: A Comment C P BHAMBHRI Andre Beteille, following in the footsteps of the best social theorists and philosophers of modern industrial capitalist societies, has performed a yeoman job by focusing attention on the problematic of


Classes and Communities:

A Comment


ndre Beteille, following in the footsteps of the best social theorists and philosophers of modern industrial capitalist societies, has performed a yeoman job by focusing attention on the problematic of “social divisions” and the sources of “social inequality” with special reference to the concrete aspects of the Indian social structure. Andre is well known for his lucidity and clarity of thought and he has, as usual, in this contribution on “classes and communities”, clearly linked social theory with social praxis. The purpose of this comment is to take further the discussion on social structure because intellectuals and policymakers are once again engaged in finding the salient features of Indian social divisions and the sources of social inequalities. The mainstream social scientists of India follow theories of social stratification which lead them to define, as Andre has done, a class as “a segment of society that is defined primarily by property, wealth, occupation, income and education”. The logic of this theoretical approach leads the theoreticians of social stratification to identify sources of social inequalities, like Andre again, by claiming that Marx has failed to grasp “the emerging significance of occupation, education and income as bases of differentiation and inequality”.

The mainstream social theorists of stratification have always measured “inequality” on the basis of their definition of social divisions based on wealth, occupation, education and income. For instance, income-determined inequality is provided by David Cay Johnston on the basis of income tax returns filed by the Americans in 2005. Johnston informs that “the top 10 per cent earning more than $ 1,00,000 reached a level of income share not seen since before the Depression”. He continues, “The new data also show that the top 3,00,000 Americans collectively enjoyed almost as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans per person, the top group received 440 times as much as the average person in the bottom half earned nearly doubling the gap from 1980”.1 This example substantiates the argument that theories of social stratification followed by the mainstream Indian and western scholars cannot be “conflated” with Marxist theory of class-based inequalities which is logically linked with the “capitalist mode of production”.

The Petty Bourgeois

The first basic point of departure from the main thrust of social stratification as developed by Andre is that he is not following the intellectual and theoretical tools of analysis provided by Marx for the study of social divisions and the sources of social inequality. While it is correct to maintain, as seen in Andre’s essay, that Marx refers to the basic classes as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, it is unfair to suggest that he ignored the other emerging strata of society when feudalism was declining and a capitalist mode of production was taking birth. Marx while writing on the declining phase of the feudal system in Europe states that “The class newly forming itself beside the nobility and the peasants more or less dependent on it is not the bourgeoisie, which today rules in the civilised countries and is striving for mastery in Germany, it is the class of petty bourgeoisie. The present political system of Germany is nothing more than a compromise between the nobility and the petty bourgeoisie, which amounts to resigning power into the hands of a third class bureaucracy. The classical creation of the petty bourgeoisie were the free cities of the German Reich, that of the bourgeoisie is the French representative state. The petty bourgeois is conservative as soon as the ruling class makes a few concessions to him; the bourgeois is revolutionary until he himself rules.”2 Marx has written on large historical events especially witnessed during the phase of the grand transition from feudalism to capitalism and he has often referred to the role of the petty bourgeoisie and the “moneyed middle class”. He has also referred clearly to the social tendencies which are found in the “money making” middle class in different phases of history. Kevin Passmore also draws attention to Marx: “Between these two great classes are the petty bourgeoisie, including selfemployed traders, small businessmen, peasants and white-collar workers. The petty bourgeoisie is uncertain whether to side with capital or labour; it owns property and yet it is exploited by big business.” Further, “Nevertheless, capitalists were able to persuade the perpetually perplexed petty bourgeoisie that its interest lay in defending property against socialism”.3 Karl Marx is clear that “Classes are formed in relation to private property” and property owners consist of many strata and fractions. It is no use labouring the point that Marx only talked of a polarised class system of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The central focus of Marx’s analysis of social relations is the role of value. Its creatorsandappropriators are multiple strata and fractions of classes which emerge in the process of sharing a part of surplus value on the basis of their share in the system of social production either as “appropriators” or as the “labouring producing classes”. This “two class” theory is an old hat which cannot fit in with Marx’s analysis of the complex system of the capitalist mode of production.

Situating Identity Based on Birth

A logical next step from the narrative above is to situate the meaning and role of “identity” based on birth and its continuing significance during the phase of the grand transition and also when capitalist social relations have reached the full phase of maturity. The historical past based on identity resulting from birth continues to haunt the present and Marx had clearly recognised the fact that the “new society” is born out of the “womb” of the “old society” and the “old” takes a long time to die and give place to new social relations. Hence the persistence of identities like caste, religion and ethnicity in an emerging industrial capitalist society like India is not surprising. The central issue is: How do the theorists of social stratification and Marxist practitioners of the “class

Economic and Political Weekly June 16, 2007 approach” grapple with Andre’s definition: “Castes are communities of birth, and, as such different in their constitution and operation from classes”. Andre continues “The free association of individuals on the basis of common values or common interests tends to be thwarted by loyalties determined by birth in a particular caste or a particular community. Differences of economic situation or economic interest are often ignored where loyalty to caste or community is concerned.”

If Andre is correct in maintaining that the struggle for creating an alternative new social order gets “thwarted” by people’s belief in and firm loyalty to their “identity by birth”, it is expected that a way out has to be found for weakening the hold of caste or community over individuals who are searching for an alternative new social order. Marx is relevant here. It needs to be clearly understood that caste-based loyalties function under a specific political and ideological social milieu.

The issue is not loyalty to caste by birth but the whole ideological baggage which turning caste-loyalty to “casteism” or religion-based loyalty to “communalism” and ethnic identity based on birth to “ethnicism”. Not only this, such loyalists to their “group or community or caste of birth” are also the carriers of values, norms, traditions and historical memories which have gone into the making of their consciousness. Caste or community histories are constructed and manipulated to differentiate “the other” and daily customary practices reinforce this differentiation.

Human beings have shown capacities to transcend their “loyalties to groups of their birth”. The secularisation of European societies is a proof of the fact that human beings can emerge from their past based on religious hatred which has been a logical product of a firm belief in one’s own religion or sect by birth. The seminal contribution of Marxist theory and praxis is to take note of the levels of social consciousness and suggest that there is no fixity in the levels of social awareness. Marx had shown the way to transcend parochial, local, chauvinistic and fragmented tendencies which are linked with the ideological apparatus of identities based on birth. An alternative world view has been provided to contest against the inherited categories of caste and communities. A very creative debate has been engaged by European and American Marxists about the place of Marxist “class theory” while dealing with the concrete social reality of race and gender exploitation and oppression. American Marxists raised a pointed question: Is the “class approach of Marxists colour-blind”? Can radical-revolutionary movements ignore the specificities of caste-based or race-based or gender-based discriminations, oppressions and exploitations? How can any Marxist committed to the destruction of an exploitative social system wait for the ultimate day of social revolution which is expected to bring an end to specific caste or race or gender based discrimination in a highly discriminatory and exploitative society? Unlike the theorists of social stratification, Marx had emphasised that social struggles against exploitation in the process of revolution making create a level of consciousness where struggling masses are able to transcend their social fragmentary loyalties of birth. Theorists of social stratification want to find solutions for specific group discriminatory practices by “maintaining the exploitative system” and undertaking reform measures to take care of some of the concerns of the discrimination of groups by birth.

A high priest of sociology, Talcott Parsons, has maintained that “Social change is an ongoing process” and in history, there is “no Hobbesian war of all against all”. Karl Popper, an Austrian philosopher, has emphasised “the path of piecemeal social


Inclusive Growth K N Raj on Economic Development

Essays from The Economic Weekly and Economic and Political Weekly


The essays in the book reflect Professor K N Raj’s abiding interest in economic growth as a fundamental mechanism for lifting the poor and disadvantaged out of poverty. He has also been concerned that the political bargaining process may end up undermining growth and not provide support to those who were excluded from access to economic opportunities. These essays, many of them classics and all published in Economic Weekly and Economic and Political Weekly, are drawn together in this volume both for their commentary on the last half century of economic development and for their contemporary relevance for understanding the political economy of development in India and elsewhere.

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Economic and Political Weekly June 16, 2007

engineering” and Edward Shils talked of the “centre and periphery” while dealing with the problematic of social change. For Louis Dumont, “Homo Hierchicus” history is frozen only around caste consciousness.

Gradualism and reformism has been the watchword of system maintenance social theorists and its logical offshoot is that “communities of birth” have to be reckoned with and changes take place in the orientation of loyalties by birth by adapting themselves to the changing needs of society. The best formulation of systemmaintenance social theorists is that “old castes” adapt to “new roles” under the impact of universal adult franchise and “castes get politicised and politics makes caste play a new role in democracy”. It is forgotten that caste remains caste if political mobilisation is undertaken on the basis of caste-group loyalties and in such a schema the caste system gets perpetuated because the levels of consciousness get frozen in caste ideology. Social theorists and ruling classes are interested in maintaining the existing social system by creating situations which help in the perpetuation of “social fragments based on the status defined by birth”. Marx is interested in the social dialectics of the transformation of consciousness among the working and producing classes and strata who have the capacity to rise above their loyalty structure defined by birth.

Struggle and Transformation

Struggle is the motor of change and change in the system cannot take place without raising the levels of social consciousness. Human beings transcend their identity by birth in the process of struggles against social exploitation and oppression and it is only during these struggles that the working classes overcome the barrier of inherited identities of birth. Class action and class struggle lead to a new level of social awareness where labouring classes find an opportunity for their liberation from the inherited givens of society with a view to create a new social system. Class solidarity is not possible in an atmosphere of caste versus caste, religion versus religion and ethnicity versus ethnicity, in other words a fragmented society. The agenda of Marxists cannot be to nurture and patronise identities based on birth because fragmented loyalties act as a brake over the development of large social movements for the creation of a new social system. Andre’s intervention should make everyone ask: Whose class interests are served by patronising fragments of communities of birth? M Karunanidhi, the DMK supremo, provided the answer when he described Tamil Nadu as the “birth place of social justice”, and said that “reservation of seats in educational institutions and in government services for the backward classes, most backward classes, denotified communities, scheduled castes and tribes has been under implementation for several decades”.4 The effect of promoting castebased loyalties in Tamil Nadu has been the “castisation” of the whole society and instead of “social justice”, caste has become the sole defining marker of a Tamilian.

Is revolution the main agenda or is solidification of loyalties by birth the model to be emulated by Marxists who are committed to the idea of class struggles for creating a non-exploitative new social system? The social stratification theorists who attach primary importance to identities on the basis of birth do not attach any importance to the large collective social project for the transformation of the whole society because a social collective cannot be built if “fragmented identities are the only reality. Ann E Cudd reminds us that ‘social oppression’ is perpetrated through social institutions, practices and norms on social groups by social groups”. Marx has shown that by launching “collective social 23.5 class struggles” against the “exploiting classes”, society can be liberated from social oppression. History has proved Marx right because large social and political formations have led to the basic transformation of an exploitative social system. Can it be denied that powerful socialist movements played a transformatory role in 20th century Europe? The “markers of birth” have not been able to stop the onward march of history because human beings have the capacity to “transcend” categories by birth and organise united struggles against exploiters and oppressors.




1 David Cay Johston, ‘Income Gap Is Widening in America’ Guardian Newspaper, (reproduced) The Hindu, New Delhi, March 30, 2007, p 9.

2 Aijaz Ahmad (ed), Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: On the National and Colonial Questions: Selected Writings, Leftworld Books, New Delhi, 2001, pp 180-81.

3 Kevin Passmore, Fascism: A Very Short Introduction (Indian edition), Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp 14-15.

4 ‘Parties Put Pressure to Get Past Quota Stay’, The Indian Express, New Delhi, March 31, 2007, p 4.

Economic and Political Weekly June 16, 2007

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