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Marx and Sociology in India

by Satish Deshpande, 2 May

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via Global Dialogue Volume 8, Issue 1 (April 2018)

Since roughly the middle of the twentieth century, it is only in the Anglo-American West that academic Marxism has loomed larger than political Marxism. In most of the world (and not just Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union), Marxism has been far more important as a political ideology than as an academic persuasion. That is why, when writing about places outside the West, discussions on “Marx and sociology” need to be placed within a larger societal context.

Established between 1920 and 1925, the Communist Party of India (CPI) was the second largest party in the first three national elections held in 1952, 1957 and 1962, although it won less than 30 seats against the 360-plus won by the Indian National Congress. However, the CPI had the distinction of forming the world’s first democratically elected communist government in 1957 in the southern state of Kerala (current population 33 million). The CPI-Marxist, or CPM (formed after a split in 1964) was re-elected continuously for 34 years (from 1977 to 2011) in the eastern state of West Bengal (population 91 million). But the electoral importance of communism has declined and today its major impact is felt through the ongoing armed conflict between the Indian state and a coalition of Maoist groups based among tribal peoples in the forested regions of central India, mainly in the state of Chhattisgarh (population 26 million). A more limited source of influence is through student organizations with allegiance to Marxist parties or movements.

Marxism has also been significant in the Indian academy, but its influence is greater in history, economics, and political science than in sociology. Within sociology three scholars have had the most impact; all of them served as presidents of the Indian Sociological Society (or its predecessors).

The earliest of these was Dhurjati Prasad Mukerji (1894-1961), an influential intellectual who taught at the joint department of economics and sociology at Lucknow University from 1922 to 1954. Mukerji was mainly interested in the Marxist method, which was the subject of his book On Indian History: A Study in Method (1945). He called himself a “Marxologist” rather than a Marxist because of his reservations about Marxism and its doctrinaire tendencies that prevented it from addressing the specificities of the Indian context.

Akshay Ramanlal Desai (1915-1994) was arguably the scholar who did the most for the development of Marxist sociology in India. He entered academics relatively late, after having worked as a full-time organizer for nationalist, Marxist, and finally Trotskyist political organizations (in which he retained lifelong membership). His doctoral thesis in sociology submitted to Bombay University was published in 1948 as The Social Background of Indian Nationalism and remains a perennial classic today, after twelve reprints, six editions, and numerous Indian-language translations. The book uses the “materialist conception of history” to connect the economic transformations triggered by colonialism to the sociocultural and political changes that ultimately produced nationalism. Desai’s argument that capitalist development had already begun in the colonial period ran counter to the party line of the CPI and the CPM who asserted that Indian society was still “semi-feudal.” Apart from nationalism, he also published books on peasant and agrarian struggles in India as well as book-length discussions on human rights and their violation by the state. Desai joined the department of sociology in Bombay in 1951 and went on to head it in 1969. His overall contribution is in having made an explicit attempt to develop a Marxist sociology in India and in promoting this approach among his students and other scholars he mentored.

Dattatreya Narayan Dhanagare (1936-2017) studied with the British Marxist sociologist Tom Bottomore at the University of Sussex and spent most of his career teaching at the University of Pune, India. Dhanagare’s best known works are on social movements, notably Peasant Movements in India (1983) and Populism and Power (2015). Through his writings and his graduate students, Dhanagare made a significant contribution towards promoting class analysis in Indian sociology.

Marxist perspectives have been more prominent in history (where they are dominant) and economics (where they are a significant minority). Internationally acclaimed examples of Marxist scholarship in these disciplines are to be found in the so-called “mode of production debate” and the work of the Subaltern Studies school.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, an entire generation of scholars (mostly economists) engaged in a wide-ranging effort to characterize the mode of production of agrarian India since the colonial period. Taking its cue from the Maurice Dobb-Paul Sweezy debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe, the Indian mode of production debate focused on the specifics of transition in a feudal-colonial agrarian system. It raised the question of defining capitalism in agriculture to new levels of theoretical sophistication by addressing in rich empirical detail themes such as: waged versus family labor; productive versus unproductive uses of surpluses; the role of extra-economic coercion in the capital-labor relation; the feasibility of a “colonial mode of production”; and the implications of Marx’s distinction between the formal and real subsumption of labor by capital.

The group of scholars working under the rubric of Subaltern Studies from the early 1980s to the 2000s came together in an attempt to critique existing versions of Marxist historiography and especially its treatment of Indian nationalism. Arguing that this history focused on the elite and ignored the subaltern classes, this collective produced a Gramscian interpretation of elite nationalism as a regime of “dominance without hegemony” marked by “the failure of the Indian bourgeoisie to speak for the nation” as well as the weakness of the subaltern mobilizations. The subaltern historians emphasized social and cultural history and folk forms of resistance and mobilization. The collective has since been disbanded though its members remain active academics and intellectuals.

Finally, Marxism is a routine part of the social science curriculum in Indian universities (except, lately, in economics). Marxist perspectives retain their significance in India today, but tend to be more diffuse and hybrid, reflecting broader global trends.