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Caste and Class

Gail Omvedt

By Morton Klass
Institute for the Study of Human Issues, Philadelphia, 1980, pp. 212, price not stated.

VOLUME V NUMBER 6 May/June 1981

Morton Klass’s book is perhaps the most important analysis of the Indian caste system to come out of western scholarship in the last thirty years. It comes at an opportune time - when the economic and social crisis of Indian society has reached the point where caste divisions among the labouring masses have become a major weapon of the ruling classes and ‘atrocities against Harijans’ have leaped into the front pages of all daily papers. From brutal landlord attacks and gun battles in the more feudal areas of Bihar (Belchi, Pipra) to kulak-engineered mass campaigns in the more capitalist areas (Kanjhawala), from mass pogroms against dalits in western India's ‘land of saints’ (Marath­wada) to the land of Gandhi where riots have recently broken out over the issue of reservations, no part of India is immune from the poison of casteism. Klass, as an academic anthropologist safely ensconced in the comfort of an American University, is perhaps little concerned about such events. But the fact is that they have forced the Indian Left ­which is deeply entrenched among the masses affected by caste divisions and caste oppression—to rethink the issue. Major theoreticians of almost every left party are publishing pamphlets on the issue of caste; new political trends are emerging from dalit and socialist back­grounds that talk of ‘combining caste and class struggle’; and there has even been a communist organization, the Satyashodhak Communist Party, formed around this issue. This indicates that the Indian revolu­tionary movement is reaching a point where it cannot go forward without con­fronting the problem of 'caste. Though there have been brilliant historical works by such scholars as D.D. Kosambi and Deviprasad Chattopadhyay, there has been almost no theoretical analysis of caste by Marxists that does not dismiss the phenomenon as super-structural maya. The previous tendency among Marxists has been to reject all talk of caste as simply a western academic conspiracy, to see it only as a ‘weapon’ of the ruling class without analyzing what the objec­tive basis is that makes it possible to use that weapon, to describe it simply as a survival of feudalism which is rele­vant today, and to argue that organizing on common economic issues will be sufficient to bring a bout class unity and that caste will (like women's oppression) more or less automatically disappear with the achievement of revolution. All this ...

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