I wrote Critical Reflections on Economy and Politics in India: A Class Theory Perspective (published by Brill in 2020) as an attempt to ‘apply’ to the Indian context, some of the general ideas about class presented in my Marxist class theory for a skeptical world (published in 2017). Many scholars argue that class analysis is not relevant to India because India is a caste-society or that Marxist class analysis cannot adequately capture India’s unique post-colonial conditions. I instead assert that in examining India’s economy and polity, one must begin with the mutually antagonistic interests of classes.

The class-perspective prompts theoretically rigorous and empirically-corroborated research on a wide variety of topics. Only a few of these are covered in the book’s 12 main chapters. Some of the main themes are briefly discussed below.

Nature of the capitalist class relation

If capitalist class relation revolutionizes the development of productive forces as Marx had thought, and yet if the level of development remains as low as it is in India, then could it be that India is not (dominantly) a capitalist country? Conversely, if India is a capitalist country, why does it have such a low level of economic development? There is therefore a need to conceptualize capitalism as a class relation in the specific context of India.

The capitalist class relation in India exists in different forms of what Marx calls ‘subsumption of labour’. India’s class structure is characterized by the dominance of capitalism in the form of formal subsumption (a regime of long hours and low wages), which is a potential obstacle to technical change and economic development. This form of capitalism coexists with capitalism in the form of real subsumption (associated with systemic use of technology to raise per-hour labour-productivity), and with localized non-capitalist production relations. This situation, including geographically uneven transition from formal to real subsumption which is mediated by the balance of power between capital and labour, produces uneven and combined development.

Class character of technical change

In spite of structural obstacles to technical change imposed by formal subsumption of labour, technical change does happen, even if not systemically. Using the green revolution technology as an example, and against many existing views (including neo-Malthusianism), I argue that to the extent that capitalism induces technical change which can increase production, this does not necessarily benefit common people because of the class character of the technical change.

Neoliberal form of capitalism

While from one vantage point (i.e. class relations), India’s capitalism can be seen in terms of subsumption of labour, from another angle (i.e. the way in which capitalism is regulated by capitalist institutions), it exists in the form of neoliberal capitalism. Indian capitalism has taken a neoliberal form since at least the early 1990s, with its specific traits and effects: increasing alignment between capitalist circuit (M-C-MΔ) and public policy, rising economic and geographical inequality, agrarian neoliberalism, and expansion of imperialist influence.

Capitalist production for the world-market

 A specific form of neoliberal capitalism is agrarian neoliberalism. And one of its more concrete forms is manifested in what is called new agriculture: the production, for the world market, of high-value non-traditional crops (e.g. flowers and shrimps), as compared to the traditional crops produced under colonialism and during the immediate post-colonial period. This process has led to India becoming one of the ‘New Agricultural Countries’ (NACs) (a term coined by the sociologist, Harriet Friedmann). Counterpoised to the Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs) of recent decades, the emergence of NACs represents a quintessential strategy of Third World development under neoliberalism, which has occurred, paradoxically, with heavy state support.

New agriculture signifies the relatively deregulated production of commodities for export, based on a low-paid, politically-unorganized working class that is increasingly deprived of government welfare benefits. Aqua-culture is an important form of new agriculture. When explored through an ecologically-sensitive class-perspective, capitalist production in aqua-culture driven by the world-market reveals the nature of a dual ‘metabolic rift’, one where capital takes a lot more out of labour and nature than it gives them, as well as commodity fetishism. Also revealed is how place-specific relations of difference (social oppression including that based on age, gender and indigeneity) influence the more general relations of capitalist production.

The class relations of the capitalist state

The capitalist class context affects not only economic matters but also political matters. Against much of the existing discussion on the state – including by liberals such as the Rudolphs from Chicago, the post-colonialists, or the Marxian scholars, including the economist, Pranab Bardhan, and sociologist, Vivek Chibber, I argue for a thoroughgoing class-perspective on the post-colonial state. The class relation shapes, and is shaped by, the relation between the rulers and the ruled, within a system of relations in which the class relation is fundamental. And the relation between class and the state itself is shaped by various empirically-existing conditions, including social oppression (e.g. caste), and external connections such as economic globalization.

The state and rural/urban capital are the two arms of what is an overarching structure of capitalist social relationship. The actions of both capital and its state, which represent class struggle from above, and which produces contradictory influences on the conditions of the lower classes, are in turn influenced by struggles conducted by them.

Lower-class struggles

India’s capitalist political system and its capitalist economy have failed to meet the needs of the masses. Such a failure has prompted not only city-based trade union struggles. It has also led to the village-based Maoist struggle that has been going on in a quarter of the country’s territory since the late 1960s. It is the longest surviving revolutionary movement in the history of peasant resistance in India. The movement has conferred limited benefits upon the poor in some places. The Indian state has been trying to violently suppress the movement, killing thousands, and producing ‘a state of exception’ in specific areas. Anyone suspected of having any links with the movement, and especially with that segment of it which has been criminalized, can be jailed or killed.

One reason for state’s coercive response lies in the legitimacy threat (as opposed to military threat) from a part of the Maoist movement: it does things for the poor that the state has failed to do, and it has been willing to defend its gains by force where necessary and possible. Of course, the movement itself has several problems, including its own two-stage, class-collaborationist theory of revolution, where socialist revolution remains a distant dream. The long-term changes in society require active participation of politically conscious men and women in villages and cities, engaged in the struggle against class exploitation and social oppression. Emphasizing violent methods as a strategy cannot construct the conditions for such a struggle.

Fascistic Tendencies as a form of class struggle from above

The failure of the bourgeois economy and the bourgeois state to meet the needs of the masses is also the context in which fascistic forces have gotten stronger. These forces support, and are supported, by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won India’s 2014 general election by making false promises of development for all (and also by stoking hatred against non-Hindus. (It won the 2019 election as well). As far as the well-being of the masses is concerned, there has been little change, in part because the right-wing government is wedded to pro-business interventions.

The country is indeed experiencing an undeclared emergency. This is in the form of persistent attacks by hyper-nationalist Hindu-supremacist forces and their government, on the basic democratic rights of ordinary citizens, progressives and leftists. Religious minorities, especially, Muslims, have become the ‘near-exact equivalent of the Jew’.  The right-wing forces are bent on creating a Hindu state, where religious minorities will remain subservient to Hindus, and where dalits (ex-untouchables) will continue to be oppressed in the Hindu social order.

The development of fascistic tendencies is a capitalist class project, more than anything else. There are four notable processes here.

  1. India’s bottom 70% faces numerous pressing problems: low wages, un-/under-employment, insecure employment, reduction in government’s welfare, forcible loss of access to land or other means of livelihood, crisis of rural production, ecological degradation, lack of quality health care, education and shelter, etc. These problems are fundamentally caused by the nature of capitalist class relation and exacerbated by its neoliberal form. While the masses have not been doing well, the top 1-10% of the wealth-owning class began doing extremely well, especially, since late 1980s.
  2. Often organized by the Left parties, ordinary people are engaged in recurrent protests and struggles against exploitation, oppression, dispossession and immiserization/inequality. The intensity of strikes (e.g. person-days lost per strike) is actually increasing. Strike is a top risk factor for Indian business associations. So, there is a pressure on the enterprise-owners to reduce not only wage-costs of workers but also the possibility of strikes which inflict an economic cost. To reduce these costs, they need help from political parties. This helps comes in the form of repression and deception/consent-making. The need for repression is often expressed as admiration for authoritarianism and for a strongman who could solve problems. The deception works in part through the creation of ‘an enemy within’ based on religious (and other related) differences (e.g. ‘anti-nationals’, including Muslims, and indeed, anyone who criticizes the BJP) or of ‘an enemy outside’ (non-Hindu neighbours).
  3. Capitalism does not only create the structural condition for fascistic tendencies by creating economic problems for the masses, who then blame their conditions on an enemy (e.g. religious minority). It also creates the agencies through which the fascistic project as a mass movement is carried out: the economically frustrated petty-bourgeois and lumpen-proletariat elements.
  1. A fuller understanding of fascistic tendencies must take us beyond the sphere of the economic. We must pay attention to the sphere of politics in a bourgeois society. The Congress Party and the Communist parties (which are social-democratic in practice) constitute the combined forces of the ‘Center’ and the Left, and can be called ‘reformist democracy’. The latter has failed to meet the masses’ economic needs and to protect democracy including democratic rights of minorities. This situation has made it possible for the right-wing forces to become stronger, electorally and otherwise. When allparties in the entire political system pander to neoliberal capitalism, identity politics is played to win votes. The party of Hindu-fascistic forces has played this game most successfully, with the support of big business.

The emergence of fascistic tendencies points to a curious case of ideological and political inversion. This is one where the relation of class-antagonism between the common people (workers and peasants) and their real enemy, capital, is transformed into an antagonistic relation between them and their manufactured enemies (e.g. minorities, democrats and communists).

What is to be done by the Left?

The fascistic forces constitute a very powerful obstacle to, and reflects the relative weakness of, the progressive and the Left movement. In several parts of India, communists and their offices are being physically attacked, and communists are being killed or harmed by the fascistic forces. So, these forces must be the target of an all-out fight, a fight on economic front (economic struggle) and on political and ideological fronts.

The Marxist Left must mobilize its basic classes (skilled and unskilled workers, self-employed small-scale producers, and unemployed people, of all castes and religions) with help from politically progressive (‘de-classed’) intellectuals, against the fascistic brigade, as a part of the struggle to transcend the capitalist class relations that are at the origin of the fascistic tendencies.

On the basis of their large numbers as well as rallies and general strikes, and local-level people’s committees, Marxist forces must take the lead, where possible, in countering the fascistic movement and stop it from physically intimidating people.  This should be the dominant approach to fighting the fascistic movement to which the electoral approach can only be a supplement. Such an approach requires the emergence of a revolutionary Marxist Left.

Raju Das is Professor of Geography at York University in Toronto.

This article is based on Raju Das, Critical Reflections on Economy and Politics in India: A Class Theory Perspective (Leiden: Brill), 2020.

Image: India: National Domestic Workers Movement-organized rally and public meeting on International Domestic Workers Day, 2017-6-16 (Flickr: International Domestic Workers Federation)