Indian Marxists have, for a long time, been oblivious to the “caste question” (Rao 2009). It is only within the last few years that they have started, under the pressure of lower-caste political mobilizations, to acknowledge caste inequalities as a social fact that cannot be explained away as being due to a lack of modernity. One straightforward ‘sociological’ explanation for this blind spot could be that leading Indian Marxists have all been of upper-caste origin – with the upper-caste denial of the “persistence of caste” (Teltumbde 2010) being one of its modern mechanisms of reproduction. There are also, however, more internal reasons for this negligence which have to do with the theoretical grammar of Marxism itself, and can be traced back to Marx’s historical materialism as a philosophy of history as well as to his critique of political economy as a scientific theory.

According to the Communist Manifesto, one of the founding texts of historical materialism, the triumph of the bourgeoisie implies that “all that is solid melts into air” (Marx and Engels 2010, 487), meaning that in modern, capitalist times the social relevance of ascriptive inequalities steadily declines. Applied to caste inequalities the corollary has been this: caste is something belonging to the past and will, like all “heavenly ecstasies” (ibid.), be drowned “in the icy water of egotistical calculation” (ibid.) – a road that the Indian (post-)colonial state with its secularism and scientism will inevitably have to take. There is, however, still another and deeply ironic twist to this story. When Marx himself, in an article series written for the New York Daily Tribune in 1853, applied historical materialism to the Indian case, he mentioned caste only three times. According to him, the British colonizers had to fulfill a “double mission in India, one destructive, the other regenerative” (Marx 2010, 217), because the subcontinent had been stuck in stagnation and had lost all historical dynamics. What constituted for Marx this “imaginary waiting room of history” (Chakrabarty 2000, 8) were, however, not caste hierarchies, but a mélange of three other things: the economic interventionism by a ‘despotic’ state, a system of isolated village communities, and the absence of private property. When, according to Marx himself, caste was not even a fundamental social characteristic of the pre-colonial past, why should Marxists, in their analysis of Modern India, be attentive to this kind of inequality?

One way of escaping this theoretical impasse could be to jettison historical materialism and focus instead on the scientific theory of the capitalist mode of production Marx has elaborated in Capital. Then, however, the question arises as to whether the categories of Marx’s critique of political economy are adequate for India’s (post-)colonial capitalism, with its huge amount of unfree labor shaped, among other things, by caste relations. Postcolonial critics like Dipesh Chakrabarty deny such an appropriateness, claiming that India has its own social ontology, which is incommensurable with that of the West. In a recent reply to them, Marxist sociologist Vivek Chibber (2013) argues that these critics simply misunderstand Marx’s concept of capitalism, which primarily refers to market dependency and a class of laborers ‘freed’ from the means of production. Against this allegation, I would like to recall that Marx consistently considered the ‘double freedom’ of the wage laborer, i.e. not only her separation from the means of production but also her juridical status as a formally free subject, as constitutive of capitalism. If one can show, as Chakrabarty and others have done in their historiographic work, that the recruiting practices of capitalist enterprises in colonial India heavily relied on relations of personal domination, then the Marxian approach is in serious trouble. Correspondingly, Indian Marxists have either ignored these relations of unfreedom, which were shaped by caste subservience, at best declaring them to be remnants of a rapidly dissolving past, or, acknowledging these realities, they have claimed that India is ‘not yet’ ‘fully’ capitalist, thereby extending the ‘waiting room of history’ infinitely.

Caste, in this respect, might serve as an entry-point for an iconoclastic Marxism, which takes into account what historians such as Arno Meyer have also established for the ‘West’: that the ‘double freed’ wage laborer, as a necessary condition of capitalism, is at odds with the historical record – not only in India, but everywhere, and – as Heide Gerstenberger (2016) revealed – at all ‘stages’ of this mode of production. This – and here Chibber, the orthodox renegade, may be right – does not have to lead us into abandoning the critique of political economy in its entirety. For, I would claim, Marx’s main explanations of the dynamics of capitalism remain intact even if one discards the assumption of the ‘double freedom’ of the wage laborer as constitutive, i.e. as something more than a historically contingent possibility within the capitalist mode of production.

Additionally one might ask what a reconstructed Marx has to positively offer regarding the understanding of caste in India. I would say it is primarily three things: first, the Marxian approach can lend plausibility to what Ambedkar already pointed out in 1917: that “caste is an enclosed class” (2002, 253) functioning via the mechanism of endogamy. Under pre-capitalist conditions caste is simply one form of class. What constitutes, in modern India, the divergence between class and caste are different degrees of the closure of class relations combined with different kinds of status ascription. Second, and this was emphasized by Ambedkar as well, caste has to be considered as something fundamentally relational. Marx’s account of class inequality, focusing on underlying social relations and not on distributive end-states, can make sense of this relationality, which cannot be grasped by mainstream, distributive theories of inequality. Third, Marx may remind us – against orientalist scholars like Louis Dumont – that caste is not only about status and identity but also about power and exploitation. It is a social structure that is both rule-governed and non-hermeneutic. Thus, Marx may serve as an antidote to ideological assumptions championed by both Hindu nationalists and some proponents of postcolonialism: that caste, under modern conditions, only continues to exist due to the classification practices of the Indian state that are intended to uplift lower-caste people.