From Varna to Jati (Part 1) – Y. Naveen Babu

For the first time this piece, the first part of martyr Com. Naveen Babu’s MPhil dissertation, is made available on internet. Born in a small farmer middle caste family in Andhra Pradesh, Com. Naveen Naveen studied BSc at Babu Jagjivan Ram College, Hyderabad, then  he went to Meerut University in 1984 to study MA in Sociology. In 1986 he shifted to Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, gaining an MA in 1988 and starting to study for a PhD.  In 1988, he joined Delhi Radical Students Organisation (DRSO) and in 1990, Naveen represented the DRSO in the national All India Revolutionary Students Federation, and became editor of its magazine KalamIn the early ’90s Naveen abandoned his studies and joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) as a full-time activist in the People’s War Group (PWG) and quickly moved up through the ranks to the Central Committee.  He took the lead in organizing an International Seminar on Nationality Struggles in Delhi in February 1996 for the All India Peoples’ Revolutionary Forum. The Coordination Committee of Struggles of Nationalities and Democratic Movements was formed as a result of this seminar, bringing together revolutionaries from different South Asian countries. Naveen was killed on 18 February 2000 in a village near Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. He died in a firefight with police. In September 2008 his M.Phil dissertation was published as a book “From Varna to Jati: Political Economy of Caste in Social Transformation”which is considered to be one of the masterpieces on the political economy of caste and would be uploaded here in 4 parts. Com. Naveen was a pioneer of radical students’ politics in India and has always been an inspiration to the struggling masses.



Most of the Western scholars who worked on Indian Society in the early decades of this century have presented it as a stagnant society with unchanging self-sufficient isolated village communities ruled by a despot. In this society, it is religion, which is considered to govern the people. Important institutions like jati (1) are a direct consequence of the Hindu religion. They believed that India provides the proper case study to understand the evolutionary process through which they thought all European societies have passed through. In this process, they contrasted Indian institutions, like jati, village community, religion, culture, etc., while characterizing these as static, with that of European institutions, which, according to them are dynamic. Despite many later scholars, both Indian and Western, disproving this view of Indian society, we still have a substantial number of scholars who consciously or unconsciously subscribe to this point of view. Even after India has attained Independence and shown its potential for change, time and again, efforts are being made to depict Indian society as a static one.

Those who argue for the static nature of Indian society do this on two grounds:

  1. Those of them who argue that Indian society is divided into four Varnas from the Vedic period onwards are implicitly saying that the Indian society is static. They argue that the four Varnas have remained the same. These scholars realize the complex nature of the Indian reality, which is evident in thejati system, and the inadequacy of the Varna model to explain this reality. However, they refuse to discard the Varna model. For some, the symbolic and the ideological aspects, which they trace in the Varna system, are more important than the empirical reality (jati) to understand Indian society. For others, empirical facts are important, but at the same time, Varna has some relevance in understanding Indian society. The underlying assumption of these writers is that Varna and jati both exist in the present-day society. However, there is a dispute as to which concept has to be given more weightage.
  1. Another group of scholars argue for the staticness of the Indian society on the basis of Oriental Despotism and Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP).

It is to be kept in mind that not all the scholars who use these categories (Varna and AMP) have intentions to show Indian society as static. In fact, some of them have effi ciently shown the changes that have been taking place in different time periods of Indian history. Nevertheless, as we will show later, the use of these categories to show the dynamic nature of the Indian society is self-defeating and distorts the understanding of Indian society.

1.1 Objectives of the Study

An attempt is made in this work to re-emphasize the view that Indian society is not static. After analysing the material basis of Varna and jati, these two categories are located in their respective social formations. Following Dipankar Gupta,(2) it is argued that Varna and jati belong to two different modes of production. It is argued that Varnas are only two (Aryans and dasas) and these categories belong to the pastoral mode of production. A distinction is made between two types of social differentiation in the Rg Vedic period, one indicating the differentiation between the Aryan tribes and the non-Aryan tribes (dasas) and the other indicating the internal differentiation of the Aryan tribe— brahmanas(3),kshatriyas and viz (commoners). It is this later differentiation, which played an important role in the transformation of society from pastoral to agrarian economy. When the society transformed from pastoral (tribal) to agrarian (jati) social formation, the distinction between the Aryan tribes and the non-Aryan tribes (dasas) had become redundant, because the agrarian society is based on jatis and not on tribes. With the increase in population and rising inequalities within the Aryan tribes (dasas were already subjugated) which resulted in large sections of the society being reduced to subordinate position, the existing pastoral economy failed to provide subsistence and necessiated the search for alternative means of production.

This led to the development of agriculture. With the transformation of the society from pastoral to agrarian economy, the old form of social differentiation (Varna) gave way to the new form of social differentiation, i.e., jati. With the transformation, also emerged, new institutions like the state, village community, etc., which consolidated the new form of social differentiation. Because of the very nature of transformation, tribal institutions and values played a prominent role in shaping the new institutions.

The changed notion of the word Varna from “colour”, indicating the fair-skinned Aryans and color-skinned dasas or dasyus to the four-fold division of brahmanaskshatriyasvaisya and sudrais traced out. The ideological implications of this change are pointed out. It is our contention thatbrahmanas have consciously developed this four Varna theory which places them permanently at the top. It is shown how the brahmana scholars in later periods were faced with difficulties in relating this theory with the empirical reality (jati). It is argued that in order to prove the relevance of the theory of four Varnas, the later brahminical writers have invented other theories like the theory of mixed unions.

They have also developed the notions of dvija (twice-born) and once born, where brahmanas,kshatriyas and vaisyas are entitled to wear the “sacred” thread after upanyana (initiation ceremony). This enabled them to show something “concrete” about the existence of Varnas.

The present work broadly deals with the developments that have taken place in Indian society from Rg Veda to the end of the Mauryan period. It basically deals with north-India, but references are also made to other parts of India to explain the absence of kshatriya and vaisya Varnas in those regions. This work is mainly based on limited secondary sources. This is not an exhaustive work dealing with the developments in ancient India. It tries to provide a framework with which ancient Indian social history may be studied with new insights.

In the following pages of this chapter, some of the essential concepts that have been used in this work are discussed. The second chapter deals with the review of literature. The pastoral social formation and the transition to agrarian social formation are dealt with in chapters III and IV respectively. In conclusion, the question of how the theory of four Varnas continues till date is dealt with in addition to hints for the further prospects of this study.

1.2 Social Categories and Social Transformation

There is a tendency to use the same social categories to analyze different modes of production. Little distinction is made between social categories, which belong to two different modes of production. For example, Varna is used to analyze both pastoral and agrarian social formations. As a result of this, ambiguities continue to prevail in locating a particular social category in its material conditions. Each social category represents a particular social formation. When this social formation changes, the social categories, which represent it, also undergo a change simultaneously.

In other words, the relations of production manifest themselves in some social categories, which are characteristic of that particular mode of production. Whenever the mode of production changes, the relations of production also change. This means a change in the social categories. When the mode of production changes, the population, which is hitherto, grouped into social classes on the basis of the earlier production relations, regroup themselves into new social classes representing the changed relations of production. Thus, we have masters and slaves in the slave mode of production, feudal lords and serfs in the feudal mode of production and bourgeoisie and proletariat in the capitalist mode of production. Even though classes exist in all these modes of production, they change from one mode to another. Similarly, we can argue that Varna and jati are two distinct social categories, which belong to two different modes of production. It is quite possible that some aspects of the earlier social formation might continue in the later social formation, but one has to see on what basis this continuation is taking place and the consequences of this continuation. Some of the earlier elements might be used as ideological aspects in the later social formation, but what is more important is to see whether this has any material basis or not.(4)

1.3 Concept of Class

Marx’s notion of class has been adopted here. According to him, class is a group of people who are placed in the similar position in relation to the means (5) of production. The concept of class is used in two senses:

  1. a)in the abstract sense, where it refers to two antagonistic groups, the owners and the non-owners of the means of production,(6)and
  2. b)in its specific sense where it is applied to study the social classes in a particular given society.(7)

Class in its abstract sense refers to two antagonistic groups, divided on the basis of the owners and the non-owners of the means of production. This definition of class enables us to understand the basic classes in a given society. But, in reality, we have more than two groups. (8) This is because the two abstract classes, in reality, are divided into further groups. We may call these groups as social classes. Thus, we have many social classes in each abstract class. The society as we see consists of many social classes but in principle they can be divided into two abstract classes, representing the underlying structure of the society. (9) These social classes can be arranged hierarchically, whereas the abstract classes are dialectical in nature. The notion of social class has come into usage only in the capitalist societies. Even though all earlier pre-capitalistic societies have abstract classes, the social groups, which form part of these abstract classes, are not referred to as social classes. These groups are referred to with their specific names, which are peculiar to a given society. For example, in medieval Europe, the social classes are referred to as landed gentry, landlords, serfs, free peasants, artisans, etc. Thus, the abstract classes manifest themselves in various social categories, which are particular to a given society. In the Indian context, the abstract classes have manifested in reality in terms of jaticategories in the agrarian social formation.

Jatis are talked in terms of high and low, thus broadly indicating the owners and the non-owners of the means of production. At the same time jatis are arranged hierarchically. It is relatively easy to rank jatis at the top and jatis at the bottom without much dispute. But there is a lot of ambiguity in ranking the middle jatis. This is obvious because there is an element of subjectivity involved in placing a particular group either in the upper jatis or in the lower jatis. (10) Because of this very reason, the ambiguity remains at the middle level. This brings us to another distinction of class made by Marx — Class-in-itself and class-for-itself. (11) The ambiguities regarding the ranking of the middle groups remain as long as class is in a state of class-in-itself. Once class-consciousness develops and class-in-itself becomes the class-for-itself, these ambiguities will be resolved and the various social classes will identify themselves with one class or another, i.e., either with the exploiters or with the exploited.

It has been assumed that development of class-consciousness automatically dissolves the social classes and the society will be reduced to two “pure” classes. Our understanding of the past and the contemporary societies shows that class-consciousness need not always necessarily lead to the dissolution of the social classes into two “pure” classes. In fact, social classes maintain their separate identities while identifying themselves either with the exploiters or with the exploited. It has to be remembered that the abstract classes have emerged out of the inequalities in society whereas the social classes have emerged out of the division of labour.

1.4 Characterization of Vedic Society

Rg Vedic and later Vedic societies are characterized by some scholars as stratified, rank, chiefdom, etc., societies. (12) According to them, class differ-entiations have not emerged in this period. Only in the post-Vedic period, with the development of agriculture and state, classes have emerged. Rg Vedic society is based on gift-economy, where the members of the tribe give presentations to the chief, who in turn gives it in the form of gifts to brahmanas and other rajanyas. At the sacrificial ritual, the chief also gives gifts to commoners. It is said that this gift economy was initially enforced by custom and later with the use of force. One of the reasons given for the nonexistence of classes in Rg Vedic and later Vedic period is that surplus production is not possible in a pastoral economy.

Not enough attention has been paid to study how the gift economy came into existence, what are the factors that are responsible for it and other related questions. It is our contention that misinterpretation of “gift economy” will lead one to characterize Rg Vedic and later Vedic society as rank-based and stratified society rather than as a class society.

In a tribal society, which is in a stage of food gathering or hunt-ing, all the members of the tribe give whatever they have collected to the tribal collectivity, which in turn is redistributed among all the members of the tribe. This practice is a natural necessity at this stage where man has not developed the techniques of food storage. So, whatever is col-lected is to be consumed in a short period of time.(13)The chief or an elder, with the assistance of either a council or a group of elders, represent the tribal collectivity and undertake the responsibility of pooling together the food gathered/produced by the tribal members and its redistribution. This kind of an arrangement is necessary for the survival of the tribe when the food producing techniques are very primitive. As the society developed into higher stages of food production, this institution has also continued.

       In these kind of societies, inequalities develop when those people who are in-charge of the food or surplus distribution, instead of distributing it equally appropriate it for themselves or distribute it unequally, thus benefitting some and affecting others. In the initial stages, the appropriation of surplus might have been by cheating and corruption by those who are in-charge of redistribution, but in the later stages magic, religion and other super structural elements are used to justify and rationalize the unequal distribution. Whenever religion failed to justify exploitation and convince the exploited of their subordinate position, force was used to subjugate the people and to extract the surplus. This initial accumulation enables some sections of the society to own or control the means of production. From then onwards, those who own the means of production appropriate the surplus from those who do not own the means of production and are dependent on others for their survival. The means of production might be owned collectively by the tribe or the class or individually by the family or an individual.

          Because of the very nature of food production, inequalities are not as sharp as in the later stages of development. In fact, as the society progresses from one stage of development to another, inequalities also increase and more and more people are subjected to suppression. These inequalities will cease to exist only when a classless society is established. The nature of exploitation varies from society to society and from one stage of development to another. In primitive food gathering societies, inequalities might have existed but may not be as severe and sharp as in later food producing societies. This does not, however, mean that classes do not exist in these societies. They may not be as sharply visible but they nevertheless existed. All those societies where the redistribution does not take place equally may be characterized as class societies.

From these primitive food-gathering societies, two aspects of the social organization, which are essential for all societies, become very clear. They are the appropriation of the food or surplus and theredistribution of this food or surplus. Every society depending on its stage of develop-ment develops its own way of doing these two essential functions. In a food gathering society, it takes the form of prenstation or “gift-economy” whereas in a food producing society it takes the form of taxes and public works by the state (some aspects of gift-economy might continue here). Individuals might give whatever they have collected/produced to the collective or give only the surplus after satisfying ones own basic needs. A tribe, a clan, a family or an individual, depending on the nature of society, might be the unit of food collection/production and consumption.

1.5 Relevance of the Concept Of Mode Of Production

       While there is an increasing use of Marxist theory and concepts to study various stages or time periods of Indian society, differences continue to persist on the question of mode of production in India. This debate continues at various levels. Questions have been raised regarding the character of Indian society: Whether it was Asiatic or feudal, or non-feudal before colonialism; and whether it is semi-feudal or colonial or capitalist or dual mode from the colonial period. While the debate has been conducted with the help of historical data and empirical evidences, the very concept of “mode of production” was not clearly defined by the scholars concerned. In this section, an attempt is made to indicate what is mode of production and this section studies the relevance of this concept to study Indian society with specific reference to ancient India. This section addresses the following question: If the general concept of mode of production is useful in studying Indian society, then is it necessary to have another concept like Asiatic Mode of Production (here onwards, AMP) to study Indian society? The differences between the general concept of mode of production and AMP are stated. In the end, it is upheld that the general concept of mode of production is sufficient to study Indian society and that the concepts like AMP, which are methodologically defective, only mislead us in our task of understanding Indian society. In the first part of this section, the general concept of mode of production is defined; in the second part, the notion of AMP as perceived by Marx and its critique is stated; and in the final part the revival of the concept of AMP is dealt with.

1.5.1 The General Concept of Mode of Production

A precise definition of the mode of production may be found in Marx’s Preface to the Contribution to Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will and relations of produc-tion, which correspond to definite stages of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production consti-tutes the economic structure of society, the real basis, on which raises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life condi-tions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto… In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois mode of production can be designated as progres-sive epochs in the economic formation of society. (14)

        Two terms are important in the definition of mode of production: relations of production and forces of production. G.A. Cohen defines re-lations of production as follows: “persons and productive forces are the terms of production relations… Production relations are EITHER relations of ownership by persons of productive forces or persons OR relations pre-supposing such relations of ownership. Byownership is here meant not a legal relationship but one of effective control.”15 According to Hindess and Hirst, “the relations of production define a specific mode of appropriation of surplus labour and the specific form of social distribution of the means of production corresponding to that mode of appropriation of surplus la-bour.16 Forces of production consist of means of production (instruments of production and raw material) and labour power (that is, the productive faculties of producing agents: strength, skill knowledge, inventiveness).17

Marx used mode of production in three senses in his writings:

i) the material mode,

ii) the social mode, and

iii) the mixed mode. 

               The material mode is used by Marx in the sense of technique. “This is the way men work with their productive forces, the kinds of material process they set in train, the forms of specialization and division of labour among them.”(18)

    The social properties of the production process are referred by Marx as the social mode. “Three dimensions of production are relevant here: its purpose, the form of the producers’ surplus labour, and the means of exploiting producers (or mode of exploitation).”(19) The mixed mode is used in a “comprehensive fashion, to denote both material and social properties of the way production proceeds, its entire technical and social configuration.”(20)

The concept of mode of production can be used only along with other concepts like class and exploitation. “We cannot talk of relations of production and modes of production without at the same time talk-ing of social classes and of exploitation and vice-versa.”(21) The concept of mode of production is not applicable to study both pre-class societies and Communist societies, where classes are theoretically non-existent.

1.5.2 The Notion of Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP)

Marx has written on Asiatic societies between the years 1853–1881. He expressed his views on Asiatic societies in his private communications with others and in the articles he has written in New York Daily Tribune on India. Sparse references can also be found in Capital I and Grundrisse. Marx has not developed his analysis of Asiatic societies as rigorously as he has done in the case of the capitalist societies in Europe. He expressed his views over a period of time while he contrasted Europe with non-European societies (or capitalist societies with pre-capitalist societies). He maintained silence (22) on the issue at many points and, in fact, in his last writings on the subject he has not expressed determined views on the subject. Marx was highly influenced by the writings of European scholars on Orient and echoed their feelings in his own idiom. (23)

Before Marx, thinkers like Bodin, Bacon, Bernier, Harrinton, Montesqieu, Machiavelli, Hegel, Smith, Mill, and Jones have written on Oriental societies. Montesquieu felt that there is no private property in Asiatic states and moreover these states are despotic. Adam Smith has written about the hydraulic works in Asiatic societies. Hegel propounded the idea of isolated, self-sufficient village communities as the oasis for Oriental despotism. Jones emphasized the point that king is the sole pro-prietor of land in Asiatic societies. J.S. Mill re-emphasized Smith’s view of hydraulic society. Thus, each of these scholars has propounded that one or more than one of the following characteristics as the basis of Oriental despotism. The characteristics of Oriental despotism as viewed by schol-ars earlier to Marx are: a) state property of land, b) lack of juridical re-straints, c) religious substitution for law, d) absence of hereditary nobil-ity, e) servile social equality, f) isolated village communities, g) agrarian predominance over industry, h) public hydraulic works, i) torrid climatic environment, and j) historical immutability.(24) Besides these thinkers, British administrators and travellers have written on India and Asiatic societies. The writings of Marx and Engels on Asiatic societies are based on the above-mentioned sources.

The basic characteristics of Asiatic Mode or Production as mentioned in the writings of Marx are: 1) no private property (or the ownership of all land by the state), 2) despotic state, 3) the presence of large-scale irrigation, 4) self-sufficient and isolated village communities (communal property), 5) stagnant system, and 6) no classes.

Marx in a letter written to Engels on 2nd June 1853 has written that: “Bernier rightly considered the basis of all phenomena in the East — he refers to Turkey, Persia, Hindustan — to be the absence of private property in land. This is the real key, even to the Oriental heaven(25). Engels, besidessupporting Marx’s view, felt that “it is mainly due to the climate, taken in connection with the nature of the soil, especially with the great stretches of desert which extend from the Sahara straight across Arabia, Persia, India and Tartary up to the highest Asiatic plateau. Artificial irrigation is here the first condition of agriculture and this is a matter either for the communes, the provinces or the central government (26). In his reply, Marx has written that:

the stationary character of this part of Asia — despite all the aimless move-ment on the political surface — is fully explained by two circumstances which supplement each other: 1) the public works which were the business of the central government; 2) besides this the whole empire, not counting the few larger towns, was divided into villages, each of which possessed a completely separate organization and formed a little world in itself… I do not think anyone could imagine a more, solid foundation for stagnant Asiatic despotism (27).

In his public writings, Marx asserted the views exchanged between Engels and him. On the village communities he writes:

… these idyllic village “communities . . . had always been the solid foundation of oriental despotism… We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjected man to external circumstances instead of elevating man to the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social State into never-changing natural destiny… (28).

The emphasis on different characteristics of AMP has changed in the writings of Marx over a period. By 1881, he no longer strongly felt that there is no private property in land in India and Oriental societies. (29) Likewise, he did not give much importance to irrigation in his later writ-ings. He increasingly felt that the village communities are the basic foundation of Oriental despotism.

… its foundation is tribal or common property, in most cases created through a combination of manufacture and agriculture within the small community which thus becomes entirely self-sustaining and contains within itself all conditions of production and surplus production.(30)

After considering the change of views by Marx, there remain, at the end of his writings on Asiatic societies, the following elements which constitute the Asiatic Mode of Production:

1)      despotic state

2)      self-sufficient, isolated village communities,(31)

3)      stagnant system, and

4)      no-classes.

In the following pages, we see some of the methodological weaknesses of the concept of AMP.

There are many paradoxes and contradictions in the concept of AMP as conceptualized by Marx. Marx brings the despotic state “above” and the autarchic village “below” into a single unit called AMP (32). Can the despotic state and common property go together? If the society is organized on the basis of common property into village communities, then there is no need for a “despot.” Anderson writes that:

for the presence of a powerful, centralized State presupposes a developed class statification, according to the most elementary tenets of historical materialism, while the prevalence of communal village property implies a virtually pre-class or classless social structure. How could the two in fact be combined? Likewise, the original insistence by Marx and Engels on the importance of public irrigation works by the despotic state was quite in-compatible with their later emphasis on the autonomy and self-sufficiency of the village communities: for the former precisely involves the direct in-tervention of the central state in the local productive cycle of the villages-the extreme antithesis of their economic isolation and independence. The combination of a strong, despotic state and egalitatian village communes is thus intrinsically improbable; politically, socially and economically they virtually exclude one another. (33)

Bipan Chandra points out that Marx has written that when India is not under the power of the foreign “conqueror’s sword” (it) often gets “dissolved into as many independent and conflicting states as it numbered towns or even villages” …In other words, centralization of state power springs not from the inner needs of the economy, when it should lead to the rise of an internal centralizing power, but from the need of the foreigner to conquer. It is thus imposed from outside for reasons that pertain to the foreigner’s need and not the internal needs of the peasant. In fact, Marx’s remark that the village communities do not care at all whether empires rose or fell would also lead to the conclusion that the peasant was not benefited from centralization. If the centralization had an essential function in the economy of the village or rather a function that alone enabled them to exist and function, they could hardly have been so unconcerned about the fate of the centralizing empires.(34)

Thorner points out yet another contradiction: Marx believed Indian communal ownership to be the most ancient form of rural property in the world, which provided the starting-point and key to all later types of development, and yet also maintained that the Indian villages were quin-tessentially stagnant and non-evolutionary, thereby squaring the circle.

The general concept of mode of production as used in European context (with adjectives ancient, feudal and capitalistic, indicating specific mode of production) is coexistent with classes. In fact, every mode of production is the articulation of antagonistic classes in a specific way. Thus, Marx in theCommunist Manifesto writes: “The History of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman — in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes (36). But in the case of AMP, Marx did not find any antagonistic classes. In fact, Marx goes to the extent of saying that India has no history.

Besides, the problems of methodology and facts, political factors (37) also played an important role in rejecting the concept of AMP. In India (scholars like) D. Thorner, S. Naqvi, I. Habib, Gunawardana, R. Thapar, H. Mukhia and Bipan Chandra are some of the scholars who rejected the concept of AMP.

1.5.3      The Revival of Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP)

But, unfortunately in the 1960s the concept of AMP was revived.

The notion has been extended in two different directions. On the one hand, it has been cast far backwards to include Ancient societies of the Middle East and Mediterranean prior to the classical epoch: Sumerain Me-spotamia, Pharaohic Egypt. Hittite Anatolia, Mycenaean Greece or Etrus-can Italy. This use of the notion retains its original emphasis on a powerful centralized state, often-hydraulic agriculture, and focuses on “generalized slavery” in the presence of arbitrary and unskilled labour drafts levied from primitive rural populations by a superior bureaucratic power above them. At the same time, a second extension has occurred in another di-rection. For the “Asiatic mode of production” has also been enlarged to embrace the first state organizations of tribal or semi-tribal social forma-tions, with a level of civilizations far below those of pre-classical Antiquity: Polynesian islands. African chieftainries, Amerindian settlements. This us-age normally discards any emphasis on large-scale irrigation works or a particularly despotic state: it focuses essentially on the survival of kin rela-tionships, communal rural property and cohesively self-sufficient villages. It deems this whole mode of production “transitional” between a classless and a class society preserving many pre-class features.(38)

In this section, we consider Godeleir who revived the concept of AMP (in the second sense), and Dipankar Gupta who applied this concept in the Indian context. Godelier applied the concept of AMP to the societies, which are in transition from pre-class to class society. In this process, he deviates from the original concept of AMP as described by Marx.(39)

According to Godelier, the power of the despot takes “root in func-tions of common interest (religious, political, and economic) and, with-out ceasing to be a functional power gradually transforms itself into an exploitative one…the special advantages accruing to this minority, nominally as a result of services rendered to the communities, becomeobligations with no counterpart, i.e. exploitation.”(40)(Emphasis added).

It implies from the above account that the communities (majority) give surplus to the despot (minority) not because of his coercive power, but because he is functional, and serves the common interest. Then, why should this despot “gradually transform itself into an exploitative one”? Even if we assume that the transformation takes place, the question re-mains: what necessitates the transformation? How does it transform? Godelier did not specify these aspects. The notion of “function” as used by Godelier implies mutual exchange of services rather than coercion.

Ironically, elsewhere, Godelier himself says that all pre-capitalist societies are based on non-economic coercion.\

In the general concept of mode of production we have antagonistic classes, but in Godelier’s AMP we have “contradictory structures.” Godelier says that this society “presents simultaneously as a final form of classless society (village community) and an initial form of class (a minority exercising state power, a higher community). (41) This shows that class exists not in the community, but outside the community. In the concept of AMP, which Godelier tries to construct, there is only one class represented by higher community. Its counterpart is not the class but village commu-nities (classless). It is clear that Godelier’s construction of AMP does not fit into the Marx’s original concept of mode of production. This raises a further question: Can there be a transitory mode of production?

Dipankar Gupta applies the concept of AMP to ancient Indian society to the period “beginning from the Yajur Vedic age to the fall of the Mauryan Empire (42). This was the period where the four Varna (brahmanas, Kshatriyas, vaishyas and sudras) system existed. Dipankar Gupta intends to place “Varna in the material history of the period in which it was man-ifest, i.e., in the Vedic age, and then to trace the course of its fate through history” (43).

For Dipankar Gupta, the “general exploitation of the people directly by the superior community or the state is the crucial feature of the Asiatic Mode of Production.(44) If we recollect, for Marx despot or the state is a person, whereas for Godelier and Gupta the despot is a ‘superior com-munity.” Dipankar Gupta further writes that ‘stratification and differentiation among the exploited, as we shall see, in no way militates against the concept of Asiatic Mode of Production, nor does it contradict the principle of general exploitation. (45)

There is a major contradiction in Dipankar Gupta’s arguments. On the one hand, he agrees that there existed “extensive differentiation and division of labour,” and, on the other hand, he says that generalized exploitation “precludes any relationship of dependence and exchange at the lower levels. (46) The existence of division of labour indicates interdependence and exchange. Stratification itself develops when the division of labour increases.

Dipankar Gupta further writes: “It was this system of generalized ex-ploitation that brought about the Varna order of differentiation wherein the various distinctions between the artisans and peasants had not yet developed. This was because each community was largely self-sufficient, as agriculture was open to all, and secondly, because they were all ex-ploited by the superior community or the state” (47)(emphasis added). He believes that “the priestking/warrior groups combined to form a com-posite ruling class…”(48)

There is yet another contradiction here. According to Dipankar Gupta all Varnas were subjected to generalized exploitation by the state. Then he goes on to say that priest-king combination forms the ruling class. Even though, Varnas existed before YajurVedic period, which Dipankar Gupta himself mentions, (49) his concept of AMP is applicable only from YajurVedic period. He did not give any specific reasons for this arbitrary selection of time period.(50)

We have indicated what is the general concept of the mode of production and shown how this concept is different from AMP. It is clear from our discussion that the concept of AMP does not follow the fundamental principles of historical materialism. Marxist historians in India, after rejecting AMP, have been successfully applying the general concept of mode of production in Indian context. (51) But, very little is talked about the character of mode of production prior to the “feudal” or “agrarian economy”. Dipankar Gupta rightly perceives that Varna and jati belong to two different epochs or modes of production.(52) This aspect has to be further studied from the perspective of the general concept of mode of production.

(to be continued in part 2)


  1. Throughout this work, the indigenous term “jati” is used to refer to the endogamous occupational groups, instead of the prevailing English term “caste.” The term “caste” is ambiguous in many ways. It is often interchangeably used for Varna, jati and “sub-caste”. It is our contention that this confusion has arisen because of our use of an alien word “caste” to represent the Indian word jati, which is supposed to be a peculiar institution to be found mainly in the Indian sub-continent. Jati is a classificatory category used not only to classify human groups but also animals, trees, objects, etc. It is used to differentiate between the good quality and the bad quality of various objects. In fact, many words we find in Indian society have different connotations.
  2. Gupta, Dipankar. 1980. ‘From Varna to Jati: The Indian caste system, from the Asiatic to the Feudal Mode of Production,’Journal of Contemporary Asia. 10(3)
  3. The words brahmanbrahman and brahmanas are used interchangeably
  4. As we have mentioned earlier, Varna is used as an ideology in later periods. Similarly, jati, which is characteristic of agrarian social formation, is used as an ideology in the modern period.
  5. Marx, Karl. 1967. Capital III, pp.94–42, in T.B. Bottomore and M. Rubel (eds), Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy. London, pp. 186–7.
  6. This corresponds to the “pure” classes of Marx.
  7. In this work, abstract class and class are used interchangeably to indicate the two antagonistic groups, the owners and the non-owners of the means of production. Social class(es) is used to indicate the further divisions within each abstract class.
  8. Marx, Karl. 1961. ‘Capital III VA (III}/2), pp.941-2,’ in T.B. Bottomore and Maximilien Rubel (ed.), Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, London. Even though Marx thought that in the capitalist society classes are coming closer to their “pure” form, he mentions about the existence of other groups. Thus he writes: “The economic structure of modern society is indisputably most highly and classically developed in England. But even here the class structure does not appear in a pure form. Intermediate and transitional strata obscure the class boundaries even in this case, though very much less in the country than in the town.” At another place Marx writes: “What [Ricardo] forgets to mention is the continual increase in numbers of the middle classes,… situated midway between the workers on one side and the capitalists and landowners on the other. The middle classes rest with all their weight upon the working class and at the same time increase the social security and power of the upper class”. op.cit, p.198.
  9. Wright, Erik Olin. 1985. Classes. London, pp. 9–10. Wright talks about the same thing in different terms. Nevertheless there is a difference between his approach and the approach adopted here. He talks in terms of “class structure” and “class formation.” “Class structure refers to the structure of social relations into which individuals (or, in some cases, families) enter which determine their class interests… Class formation, on the other hand, refers to the formation of organized collectives within that class structure on the basis of the interests shaped by that class structure… If class structure is defined by social relations betweenclasses, class formation is defined by social relations within classes, social relations which forge collectivities engaged in struggle.”
  10. The criteria of ranking varies very often and from place to place. Whenever the criteria changes, a jati’s placing in the hierarchy also undergoes a change. However, ranking of the social classes is not the prime concern of historical materialism. It is more concerned with the nature of abstract classes and the relationship between various social classes.
  11. Quoted in Bottomore and Rubel (ed.), op.cit, p.196. Talking about the small-holding peasants in 18th Brumaire Marx writes: “… In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not form a class.”
  12. Kosambi, D.D. 1975. An Introduction to the Study of Indian History. Bombay (2nd ed); Sharma, R.S. 1983. Material Culture and Social Formations in Ancient India. Delhi; Thapar, Romila. 1984. From Lineage to State.Delhi.
  13. Kosambi, D.D. 1987. The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline. Delhi, p.31.
  14. Quoted in Cohen, G. A. 1978. Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. Oxford, p.20 \
  15. Cohen, 1987: 34.
  16. Hindess, B. and Paul Q. Hirst. 1975. Pre-capitalist Modes of Production. London, pp. 9–10.
  1. Cohen, op. cit., p. 32
  2. Cohen, op.cit., pp. 79–80.
  3. Cohen, op.cit., p.80. The purpose of production may be either for use or for exchange. Marx thought the form taken by the surplus labour is an important factor in identifying the specific social formation. Exploitation takes mainly two forms: a) non-economic coercion (in Pre-capitalist societies) and b) economic coercion (in Capitalist societies).
  1. Cohen, op cit., p.84.
  1. Rey, P.P. ‘Class contradiction in Lineage societies,’ Critique of Anthropology, 4(13–14): 84.
  2. Anderson, P. 1974. “The Asiatic Mode of Production,” in Lineage of the Absolutist State, London: p. 484; Thorner, D. ‘Marx on India and the Asiatic Mode of Production,’ Contributions to Indian Sociology. (IX): p. 66; Habib, I. 1969. ‘Problems of Marxist Historical Analysis,’ Enquiry. p.57.
  3. Most of the European social thinkers who had written on Orient before Marx have expressed Eurocentric views. They depicted Europe as the dynamic and moving society, and non-European societies as static. Even in Marx’s writings on Orient, these tendencies persist. We see this Euro-centicism in Max Weber also.
  4. Anderson, op.cit., pp. 464–72.
  5. Quoted in Anderson, op.cit., p.475.
  6. Quoted in Anderson, op.cit., p.474.
  7. Quoted in Anderson, op.cit., pp.474–75.
  8. Quoted in Thorner, op.cit., p.41. In Marx’s writings on India we see two meanings of stagnation. At times he says that Asiatic society is “never-changing” and at some other points he writes it “necessarily survives the longest and most stubbornly.” Nevertheless, it is changelessness which is given more stress and we consider Marx only in this sense. Changelessness should be distinguished from slow-change. Indian society is characterized by “slow-change” but not by “changelessness.” It is the task of the Marxist scholars to find out the factors responsible for slow-change in Indian society.
  1. Marx has written to Engels that among the English writers of India, the question of property was a highly disputed one. Gunawardan says “that Marx recognized several forms of land tenure in Asia: i) communal property, the ‘original form’ of tenure which had survived in certain Indian villages; ii) ‘private property’ in the region south of the Krishna which had not come under Muslim rule; iii) ‘feudal property’ in areas like Oudh where tax-collectors had made use the weakness in the central government to develop into feudal landlords; and IV) ‘developed feudal property’ in Japan which was comparable with medieval European forms of property.” (Gunawardan, 1976: 377).
  2. Quoted in Anderson, op.cit., p. 477.
  3. Marx’s comments on Indian village communities are very significant. It is true that the structure of the village communities in India enabled the system to continue for long periods with little change. Marx felt that these village communities are the foundation of AMP. While it is true that the slow change is due to the structure of the village communities, one should not (as Marx has done) immediately conclude that this leads to AMP. Except saying that manufacture and agriculture are combined in Indian village communities, Marx had not further said anything on the structure of village communities. Instead of upholding AMP, because of its foundation on the village communities, one should look at the internal structure of the village communities, and find out the factors that are causing slow change. As we have seen, the concept of AMP negates the fundamental principles of historical materialism. It is for this reason we reject the very concept of AMP.
  4. Anderson, op. cit., p.477.
  1. Anderson, op.cit., p.490.
  2. Chandra, Bipan. 1979. (Mimeograph) Karl Marx, His theories of Asian societies and colonial India. p.79.
  1. Thorner, op. cit., p.66.
  1. Marx, 1848. Also see Thorner, op.cit., p.56; Habib, op.cit., p.54–7.

Habib, op. cit., p.58. Russian Marxist scholars were the first to reject AMP for political reasons. In the first phase of the debate that took place between 1929–34, the concept of AMP was officially removed. It was felt that the concept of AMP denies the societies other than European, the revolutionary character. AMP presumes that these societies are static. In India also similar feelings were expressed. Habib writes: “The essential purpose in the attempted restoration of the Asiatic Mode is to deny the role of class- contradictions and class struggles in Asian societies, and to emphasize the existence of all authoritarian and anit-individualistic traditions in Asia, so as to establish that the entire past history of social progress belongs to Europe alone; and so in effect to belittle the universal value of the lessons which may be drawn from the recent revolutionary changes in Asia.”

  1. Anderson, op.cit., pp.485–486.
  1. According to Habib, Godelier “constructs a definite scheme for the Asiatic Mode which is quite unreal and deceptive”. Habib, op.cit., p.58. Also see Thorner, op.cit., p.63.
  2. Godelier, M. 1981. ‘The Asiatic Mode of production’ in Anne M.Bailey and Joseph R. Llobera (eds.), The Asiatic Mode of production: Science and Politics, London, p.264.
  3. Ibid., p.264.
  4. Gupta, Dipankar. 1980. ‘From Varna to Jati: The Indian Caste System, from the Asiatic to the Feudal Mode of Production,’Journal of Contemporary Asia. 10 (3): 258.
  5. Gupta, op.cit., p.249.
  6. Gupta, 1980:250.
  7. Gupta, op.cit., p.251. On the same lines he continues: “There is nothing inherently contradictory between the existence of extensive differentiation and division of labour and a simple four-tired stratification system, such as the Varna system, the two can be reconciled, as it is here hypothesized they were in the Mauryan period, if the logic of generalized exploitation is followed through” (1980:256).
  8. Gupta, op.cit., p.250. Dipankar Gupta translates Marx’s village communities into his Varna community. According to Marx, these village communities are self-sufficient, isolated and are directly related to despot (“higher unity”). Dipankar Gupta applies this principle to Varnas. He writes: “… each community (Varna) was largely self-sufficient, because agriculture was still open to all communities, and as exploitation was general, hardly any economic interaction among different groups and communities at the local level” exists (Gupta, 1980:258).
  9. Gupta, 1980: 258.
  1. Gupta, 1980:254.
  1. Gupta, op.cit., pp.252–53.
  2. Gupta presents AMP with the elements—powerful state, self-sufficient communities, unity of agriculture and industry, stagnant economy—drawn from Marx and uses it to transitory mode of production, taking this aspect from Godelier. In this process of applying AMP to transitory mode of production, Dipankar Gupta attributes to Marx things he did not say.
  3. Even here there is no single view on the nature of mode of production at various time periods. As we indicated already, the debate continues.
  4. Gupta, 1980: 249.

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