Non Eurocentric Marxism and Indian Society

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Sun Dec 10 08:05:36 MST 2000

[bounced from "Siddhartha Chatterjee" <siddhart at>
... this is from last Saturday, just getting to it now. Les]

The following extract is from "Non Eurocentric Marxism and Indian
Society" by Ashok Rudra (People's Book Society, Calcutta, India,
1988, 1991).  This should be directly relevant to recent discussions
on your Marxism list concerning the origins of capitalism,
underdeveloped countries, Brenner, etc. It provides an alternative
view to that of the Dependency school and the conventional Marxist
account of the reasons for the non-evolution of capitalism in
third-world countries like India. I have some reservations with
the arguments but we should be open to other points of view. Sorry
for the length of the post.

S. Chatterjee
>From the book jacket: " Non Eurocentric Marxism and Indian
Society" by Ashok Rudra (People's Book Society, Calcutta, India, 1988,

"Ashok  Rudra is a statistican by training and his professional work
has been in the field of Quantitative Economics.....Though his
analyses are often based on Marxian ideas yet they are remarkably
original in character...."

Dr. Rudra has written a curious book  whose basic thrust is that
the conventional modes of production analysis (primitive communism,
slavery, feudalism, capitalism) developed based on European history
is not universally valid for other third-world societies. For
example, there was no "slavery" (in the way ordinarily understood) in
India. Marx conceived of the "Asiatic Mode of Production" to
characterize societies like India and China. So Rudra proposes to
comprehend Indian history without the help of the concept of "mode of
production". He also feels that the concept of "feudalism" true for
Europe fails in the case of India, and he disputes the application of
this concept and terms like "semi-feudal" to describe past and
present Indian society. In lieu of the concept of the mode of
production, he uses, as he says, two central instruments of Marx's
method of history - contradiction between the forces and relations of
production, and the class struggle. This method does not involve any
"strait-jackets" and retains a certain fluidity. Rudra also claims
that social sciences, unlike natural sciences, cannot be objective
but has of *necessity* to be subjective. Rudra also does not believe
that there are "laws" of history similar to those that govern the
natural world.

In the Introduction, Rudra says: " It is not surprising that the
literature of Indian social history carried out in Marxian terms
should remain so poor. We are convinced on the one hand that no
analysis of Indian society and history can possibly throw any light
to illuminate their dark corners if it is not carried out on Marxian
lines. On the other hand, we are equally convinced that this Marxian
framework has to be quite different from that used for European
history. We are at presently engaged in tha task of building up
precisely such a framework".

>From Chapter 3 (Some Problems of Historical Materialism)

 Marxian Theory And Indian History

We shall now turn towards some of the problems that we face in trying
to apply the Marxian method of analysis to Indian history. As students
of Marx, we are not interested in knowledge for the sake of
knowledge. We are interested in knowledge about society so as to be
able to change society. We are interested in our history so as to
understand our present and to be able to build our future. The
present-day reality of India is that of an underdeveloped society. If we
want to develop our society we have to understand why it is
underdeveloped. The question can be best put as, why did India not
pass through the stages of industrialisation and capitalist development
at the time or even before European countries bad those experiences?
Nationalist sentiment seems to have prevented any serious enquiry into
the question. One has accepted the apparently satisfactory answer that
imperialist conquest prevented 'Indian feudalism' (assumed to exist
before the coming of the British) from giving rise to capitalism. It is
not really an answer at all, because, the question to ask is, why was it
possible for European imperialism to stop the process of development
in India? Why was it not possible for the Indian society to resist the
imperialist onslaught? One may go further and ask, why did it not
happen the other way round? That is, why was it not possible for
Indian imperialisms (or, say, Chinese imperialism) to stop the process
of capitalist development in Europe?

The same questions can be asked of the Dependency School. The
analytical framework of the school with the conceptual elements of the
Centre, Periphery and Unequal Exchange is indeed a very useful one
for the understanding of the conditions of the present day world. But
the framework takes as given a certain number of countries to
constitute the Centre or the Core, and the remaining countries to
constitute the Periphery. Once this division is accepted, the process of
'development of underdevelopment' becomes demonstrable rigorously.
But the school cannot answer the question, why did Brazil or India not
belong to the Core from the beginning? Search for the reasons for
pre-colonial India's failure to develop industrially and capitalistically
has to be made in pre-colonial history of India itself. If the search has
not been even taken up seriously that is because of Indian Marxists
remaining stuck: to the idea that Indian history has to be
comprehended in terms of a sequence of modes just like European
history. We shall however argue that it would be advisable to free
ourselves of this particular straitjacket.

We take this approach because of the theoretical difficulties of the
concept of the feudal mode of production and that of development
through a succession of modes that we have already discussed, as well
as the dismal record of the attempts that have been made to
comprehend Indian history in that framework. This record is that of
treating present day India as semi-feudal and our past as feudal But for
the exception of Dange, even the most doctrinaire Indian Marxist has
had to admit that India never knew the slave mode of production.
There were domestic slaves and palace slaves but not slavelabourers
engaged in production on any considerable scale. So from the
beginning of the emergence of class-divisions, the Indian society has
to be treated as 'feudal' and this has to be taken as having lasted to an
unspecified period, from which time the mode changed into
'semi-feudal'. This feudalism of the past has of necessity to be one of
the broad open general definition which we discussed in the previous
lecture to show its uselessness for any analytical purposes. As to
semi-feudalism, it is a term that was hardly ever used by Marx, Engels
or Lenin. It is a term that is hardly ever used by Marxist scholars of
the West and does not even find a place in the recently published
Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Bottomore [1983]. As a
matter of fact, semi-feudalism for the present and feudalism for the
past is a legacy that Indian Marxists, along with other third world
country Marxists, have taken over uncritically from the Chinese
Communist Party. It is that party that fought for the official
acceptance by the International Communist movement of these
concepts for characterising the histories of all Third world countries. It
was to placate that party that in 1931 Stalin decreed a termination of
the debate that was taking place among Soviet scholars about the
Asiatic Mode of Production for characterising the societies of many
non-Western countries Unfortunately, the Chinese party did not
produce any theoretical literature about the feudal mode of production
as it might have prevailed in countries like China and India

This would of course have required the formidable task of refuting
Marx's own arguments for rejecting feudalism for India, a task much
more difficult than that of rejecting Marx's Asiatic Mode of
Production Marx was categorical in his rejection of feudalism in India.
The most explicit rejection is found in Marx's Conspectus of
Kovalevsky, (Sovetskoe-Vostokoredenier 1958, Nos 4 and 5).
Kovalevsky stated that under Mohammadan rule in India, allodial
land tenures had tended to change into feudal ones, and free
Landowners had become dependent. Marx rejected the inferences
which had led Kovalevsky to this conclusion. He argued that "the
mere fact that under the Mogul benefice system the land tax was paid
to an appointee of the treasury rather than directly to the treasury by
no means implied the feudalisation of India. In general, the Indian
land tax no more covered landed property into feudal property than
did the land tax in contemporary France. The fact that the tax was
used by the government as a payment to its appointees did not make
the latter into feudal lords". One of the specific differences between
Western feudalism and oriental society which was enumerated by
Marx was "the absence in the latter of anything approaching the
Western system of 'feudal law'. Marx followed Palgrave in describing
feudal law as being based on the assumption of the right of the
individual, whether free or enserfed, to legal protection from his
feudal lord".

The same is true of semi-feudalism. There is no analytical literature
whatsoever about the dynamic of this so called mode. In contemporary
India those who talk about semi-feudalism mean no more than the
existence of such things as usury, tenancy, speculative trade etc. in
Indian agriculture. It is significant that Western scholars do not
describe the period of transition between the decline of feudalism and
the rise of capitalism as 'semi-feudal' even though tenancy, usury and
trading capital played roles in the European society of that time not
dissimilar to that in present day India.

While it is true that most Indians who talk about Indian feudalism
think implicitly in terms of the all too general definition (based on
coerced labour alone) the staunchest proponent of the thesis of Indian
feudalism namely, R.S. Sharma, and his companion B.N. Yadava, in
their serious works, did not use that definition but tried to argue that
the model of West European feudalism, with characteristics not only
of the infrastructure but also of the superstructure, with all the
paraphernalia of fief and vassalage, lordship and serfdom (understood
as labour attached to the soil), was applicable to Indian historical
reality between the fourth century A.D. and the thirteenth century
A.D. It is not surprising that the thesis should have received in the
hands of critics severe batterings. It is indeed an extra-ordinary
intellectual feat to treat gifts of land to Brahmins as the counterpart of
benefice: in the first case, the gift is unconditional; in the second,
there is the obligation to render service and that often military. Again,
as Hilton [1984] points out, an essential feature of European feudalism
was "The fragmentation of political authority particularly in its
jurisdictional aspect. Jurisdiction-the right to bring one's own tenant
and subject to one's law court was the essence of feudal political
domination ...." Such a question can hardly arise in the case of
Brahmin receipiants of land gifts. These and many other objections
were raised by a number of critics (e.g. D.C. Sircar and others [1969],
Harbans Mukhia [1979], Rudra [1982}) to reject the thesis of Sharma
and Yadava point by point. We need not repeat them here. In any case
Sharma's thesis is not particularly relevant for our question as to why
India did not know industrial and capitalist development. That is
because Sharma's feudalism disappears in the 13th century A.D. and
he has nothing to say about the mode prevailing immediately before
the British conquest.

Incidentally, the proposition that India has passed through some feudal
stage comparable in any way with feudal Europe loses credibility
when one notices the highly divergent periods in which supporters of
the view have located that discovery. Thus, as Mukhia [1979] writes,

"The distinguished Russian historian of the nineteenth century, M.M.
Kovalevski, on the other hand, believed that the process of
'feudalisation' in India started precisely with the 'Muslim Conquests'.
For D.D. Kosambi,, whose writings in Indian history justly enjoy a
privileged status, the feudal system broke down around the middle of
the seventeenth century, under Aurangzeb. Col James Tod, on the
other hand was witness to the functioning of what he believed was the
classic form of feudalism in Rajasthan in the early nineteenth

As to the last mentioned, feudalism supposedly occurring in
Rajasthan, it was subjected to scrutiny by Daniel Thorner [1956] who
reached the following negative conclusion: "Using feudalism then in
the sense of a method of government as indicated in the introductory
essay, we have to conclude that neither the Rajput states nor the
Muslim regime of Northern India were feudal". As to the Mughal
period the rejection by Irfan Habib [1985] is quite categorical. His
rejection is based not on any static 'comparison between the social
structures of Mughal India and mediaeval Europe but because of his
finding presented also in his previous important article (Habib
[1969]). that the Mughal society did not possess the potentialities of
the kind of industrial and capitalist development that European
feudalism gave rise to.

If attempts of periodisation of Indian history in terms of a sequence of
modes has given rise to such poor results to this day, we doubt very
much if further attempts in the same direction would give us any better
results. On the other hand, the record of those Marxists who did not
use the framework of sequence of modes and applied Marx's other
tools of analysis have indeed produced impressive results. We have
only to think of the masterly works of Kosambi and the excellent
results arrived at by Irfan Habib. We are not forgetting that Kosambi
did talk of 'feudalism from above' and 'feudalism from below'; but true
to his style, he did not stop to elaborate what he meant by those
categories. In any case, his profound analysis does not reveal any
strait-jackets of rigid categories. Instead, he made superb use of the
two instruments of analysis which for us constitute the essence of the
Marxist method. namely, those of class-struggle and contradiction
between forces of production and relations of production. It is also the
skillful use of these two instruments which account for the success of
Irfan Habib. In our judgement it is on such use of these two
instruments that we have to depend for solving the problems of Indian
history that remain as yet unresolved.

In using these instruments, we would be well advised to keep clear of
some problems-false problems in our judgment -that seem to have
caused no little headache to theoretical Marxists in the West. One of
these goes by the name of the Primacy debate. It is held by some
theoreticians (e.g. Cohen [1978], Laibman [19841 that in Marx's
thought the forces of production enjoy a primacy over the relations of
production. As Cohen puts it, "The primacy thesis is that the nature of
a set of production relations is explained by the level of development
of the productive forces embraced by it (to a far       greater extent than
vice versa) ..The primacy thesis, as we find it in Marx, is associated
with a second thesis, which will be called the development thesis.The
productive forces tend to develop throughout history". Laibman speaks
of "a fundamental, immanent pressure for progressive change...
which does not require determination from outside.

There is no doubt that there are many many passages in Marx which
seem to suggest that the forces of production grow in some kind of an
autonomous fashion; the relations of production react to this growth
sometimes by obstructing them and sometimes by changing so as to
facilitate it. There are some others, e.g. Hilton and Brenner, who read
the opposite meaning in Marx, namely that the relations of production
change autonomously and bring about changes in the forces of
production. Thus Hilton [1984] writes: "It might even be suggested
that this crucial change in lord peasant relationships determined,
rather than was determined by, the forces of    production" and Brenner
[1982] writes "..       the relatively autonomous processes by which class
structures were established, developed and transformed have to be
placed at the centre of any interpretation of the long-term evolution of
the pre-industrial European economy".

It seems to us wrong to ascribe primacy either to the forces of
production or to the relations of production. We agree with Byres
[1985] that "There seems to be no binding reason, in theory, why one
should posit relations of production or forces of production as
dominant. Marx himself can be shown to have argued for each."
Similarly, one cannot disagree from Heller [1985] that: "One can only
agree with Laibman when he insists that the development of the
productive forces is of the greatest importance: it is essential to
understand fully the way work was organized and tools were used by
craftsmen or wealthy peasants. On the other hand, it would be
blindness not to see that the level of rent extracted by landlords, tithes
by the Church, and taxation by the State had an important bearing on
the deployment of these forces of production. The rules, regulations,
values and decisions of the ruling class had an enormous impact on the
actual processes of production, and even on the choice of what was to
be produced. Similarly it would be folly to downgrade the role of
peasant and craft social mobilization or the nature of popular religion
in the face of such domination". Hilton [1984] also writes es follows:
"the 'motor' of change in the feudal mode of production cannot easily
be ascribed exclusively either to the development of the forces of
production or to changes in the balance of production relations (class

It would indeed be mysterious, even metaphysical, if the growth of the
forces of production, say, in Europe during the transition from
feudalism to capitalism (or alternatively the changes in the relations of
production that took place in that period) were autonomous. In that
case no scope is left for asking the question, why no such growth (or
no such changes of production relations) took place in India or China?
Stagnation in these countries has then to be treated as unexplainable,
given facts.

The second false problem affecting much of the work of Marxist
historians is that of the supposed primacy of infrastructure over the
superstructure. As Hilton [1984] says in continuation of his statement
quoted in the previous lecture (about the impossibility of
understanding a society, "without understanding the nature of the
pre-dominant mode of pro auction within it."): "the precise
developmental process of the society considered will be determined by
specific features in it including superstructural features - as well as by
the dynamic of the mode". We have seen in the previous section how
Perry Anderson and Brenner emphasise the 'fusion' of the economic
and the political (that is to say, the infrastructure and the
superstructure) in precapitalist societies. Whether one admits it or not
while debating on basic Marxist principles, every serious work of
history, whether by Marx himself or Marc Bloch or Maurice Dobb,
Perry Anderson or Brenner, Hilton or Hobsbawm, show the very great
importance that has to be attached to political and social institutions
as well as ideology in comprehending the process of development.

Ideology is a matter which many Marxist theoreticians have tended to
neglect to the great loss of their analysis. Of all the elements of the
superstructure, ideology has been regarded as the most passive
reflection of the infrastructure. To suggest
that ideology on its part seriously affects the infrastructure has been
treated by doctrinaire Marxists as constituting a deviation towards
Idealism. Of course there are some exceptions. For instance, in a
Colloque organised by the Centre for Marxist Studies and Researches
of France held in 1974, various participants including Parain [1974]
emphasized the importance of the village community on one side and
the Catholic Church on the other for the understanding of European
feudalism. All the same, it is rare to encounter a thoroughgoing
analysis Of European feudalism in which the role of the Church and
that of the Christian world outlook has been given its due importance.

We shall argue that in Marx's thought ideology plays a most centrally
determining role. The two most important tools of Marxian analysis
are the contradiction between the forces of production and the
relations of production and class-struggle. In Marxian literature one
uses a language about the growth of the forces of production as if they
grow by themselves. However, as Hobsbawm [984] writes, "History is
not like ecology: human beings decide and think about what
happens?'. But physical objects like machinery and energy do not
increase in quantity or improve in quality by themselves. They are
made to do so by human agents working upon them. The skill of
labour and technological knowledge do not improve by themselves.
Such improvement is a result of human effort. The correct verb to use
is not of "growing" but of "causing to grow": the correct phrasing
ought to be "human agents make the forces of production grow through
innovations, explorations, investments etc." These activities call for
certain values and attitudes on the part of the human agents working
with them. It has been seen in history that in certain times and places
(as in post Renaissance Europe) human agents have worked for the
improvement of forces of production with amazing results? whereas in
certain Other times and places (like Mughal India? as demonstrated by
Irfan Habib) human agents were not oriented towards making
technological improvements. In accounting for this difference one
cannot but look at, among other things, the ideologies affecting the
minds of men in these two different settings. This does not constitute
any kind of a departure from Historical Materialism.

A very similar argument applies to class struggle. Doctrinaire
Marxists often talk as if class struggle has always been }there in every
society with equal intensity. That, of course, is untrue. The intensity of
the struggle has varied from very thigh to very low in different
societies at different periods. Brenner [1976] quite rightly argues that
if the evolution of society have been different in different parts of the
world? that has been because of the differences in the nature and
intensity of class struggle in those different places. But he does not ask
what determines those differences. Obviously, .these differences are
given rise to by a large number of factors, [structural and conjunctural.
But, surely, even under the same structural and conjunctural
conditions, there can be different [intensities of class-struggle. The
difference would arise from the differences in the level of class
consciousness which the contending classes might have developed.
The degree of class consciousness cannot but be deeply influenced by
ideological factors. Under one kind of ideology exploited working
people might be rebellious in spirit, given to periodic revolts. On .the
other hand, under an ideology like the one propagated by the
Brahmins of India, the poor and the exploited masses might surrender
themselves to fatalism and accept their lot without any demur.
Whether Max Weber was right or not in attaching that much
importance to the Protestant Ethic giving rise to the capitalist spirit,
we have no doubt whatsoever that the stagnation of the forces of
production and the stability of the Indian social order has been very
largely due to the Hindu dharma. If it would be impossible to write
any serious history of feudal Europe only on the basis of serfdom, with
or ;without manors, without taking into account not only fief and
vassalage, homage and benefice, knight errants and the code of
chivalry, but also such things as marriage patterns and the family,
communal organisations of the peasants, military ~organisations of the
Barons, State formation, the church organisation and the ethos of
christianity and so on, it would be equally impossible to write any
Marxist history of India without taking into account the caste-system,
the Jajmani system, untouchability, the rationalisation of
Sankaracharya and the rules laid down by Manu, the pervasive
influence .of the Epics & the Puranas, the philosophy of Karma and
re-birth etc. In our judgment the most important source of the utter
poverty of Marxist historical accounts of India lies in the neglect of
these aspects of Indian society. Attempts to reduce caste to class rather
than treating them in their intricate inter-relation and remaining
blissfully ignorant of our religious literature has been a fatal handicap
suffered by Indian Marxists.

While class struggle deserves the importance that it receives in
Marxian literature, we would like to make one point about a certain
tendency that is revealed in much of contemporary Marxian analysis,
both Western and Indian. That is to look at only the struggle between
the most exploited class on the one side and the exploiters on the
other. Thus, in the latest writings of Hilton and Brenner, one finds
attention paid only to the struggle between lords and serfs, with no
reference at all to the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the
nobility. Our difficulty lies not only in that in Marx's own writings as
well as in that of Maurice Dobb himself it is this struggle which seems
to play the part of motor of history. At a deeper level, we fail to
understand how the struggle between lords and serfs can possibly play
the role of motor. If class struggle has to act as the motive force of
history, it has to reflect the contradictions between the forces of
production and the relations of production. In any historical situation
there are classes whose interests are furthered by the growth of the

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