[Marxism] Jairus Banaji on D. D. Kosambi

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue May 9 15:56:54 MDT 2017

(From FB)

D. D. Kosambi (1907–1966), Indian mathematician, statistician, and 
Marxist historian, who was fluent in several European languages and 
active intellectually in a wide range of fields from genetics to 
Sanskrit philology. (His [Sanskrit!] dedication of a 1948 philological 
work, “The Epigrams Attributed to Bhartrhari”, significantly omits the 
name of Stalin from its list of dedicatees; “To the sacred memory of the 
great and glorious pioneers of today’s society, Marx, Engels, Lenin”.) 
Kosambi was also an early critic of ‘diamat’ and the idea that all major 
societies passed through the same succession of modes of production, 
rejecting the notion that India ever knew slavery in the classical 
(Graeco-Roman) sense, and arguing that caste was India’s historically 
specific form of bondage so that India had a caste-based Asiatic mode 
for much of its history.

Kosambi was a sharp reviewer. He wrote a devastating review of 
Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism, and reviewing Dange’s India from 
Primitive Communism to Slavery (in 1949), he would say, ‘Dange’s very 
title is wrong, for his sources contain neither primitive communism nor 
slavery’, adding, ‘Marxism is not a substitute for thinking but a tool 
of analysis…’

More interestingly, he was an early modernist in his style of historical 
thinking, breaking with the minimalism that was widespread in the 
historiography of his time. He argued that Magadha, the kingdom (in 
Bihar) that preceded the Mauryan dynasty and that was ‘destined to grow 
into India’s first universal monarchy and empire’, ‘functioned on a 
powerful cash economy’ where ‘the demand upon currency must have been 
enormous’. About the silver coinage of the period, he wrote, ‘The 
weights are as accurately adjusted as for modern machine-minted coins, 
with very low tolerance. This type of coinage…implies highly developed 
commodity production’. About the Arthaśāstra he said in the same work 
(Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India, 1970) ‘The work remains 
unique in all Indian literature because of its complete freedom from 
cant and absence of specious reasoning’.

Kosambi believed that no real development of Marxist theory would be 
possible unless intellectuals were willing to be an organic part of the 
working class for at least part of their lives. Thus, “Marxism cannot, 
even on the grounds of political expediency or party solidarity, be 
reduced to a rigid formalism like mathematics. Nor can it be treated as 
a standard technique such as work on an automatic lathe. The material, 
when it is present in human society, has endless variations; the 
observer is himself part of the observed population, with which he 
interacts strongly and reciprocally. This means that the successful 
application of the theory needs the development of analytical power, the 
ability to pick out the essential factors in a given situation. This 
cannot be learned from books alone. The one way to learn it is by 
constant contact with the major sections of the people. For an 
intellectual, this means at least a few months spent in manual labour, 
to earn his livelihood as a member of the working class; not as a 
superior being, nor as a reformist, nor as a sentimental ‘progressive’ 
visitor to the slums.”

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