03 September 2020

Relevance of Dialectical Materialism for the Struggle Against the Caste System

Pravin Nadkar

Interpretation of the old texts in Marxism to investigate the Indian social reality without an in depth study of the facts is the practice that leads to misunderstanding about Marxism. A view that, material realities of the economic base of society, rather than the ideological superstructure of politics, law, philosophy, religion, and art, drive historical change in the society, is often misinterpreted by the dogmatists as well as the critiques of Marxism. Dogmatic Marxist cling to a position of economic determinism to deal with problems in the superstructural sphere and critiques accuse Marxism for that practice. 

Both end up ignoring the dialectical relationship between the concept of base and superstructure in the Marxist theory. It is misinterpretation of Marxism to say that since the changes in the base determine the realisation of new dominant from of politics, culture etc., means that Marxism denies the essential role of struggle in the superstructural sphere in the pre revolutionary period. Moreover, caste is not merely a superstructural issue but is also a part of relations of production operating through economic division of labour. Assertion that ‘the determining factors in the development, relations, and institutions of mankind are not mystical or ideological but economic’ is misinterpreted by the dogmatists and critiques alike. Both misinterpret it, as a deterministic view point.

Many critiques of Marxism are driven by a genuine need to find lacunas in the hitherto Marxist understanding of the Indian social reality in order to gain further insights about problems associated with the superstructural sphere like caste, gender etc. in India. Their approach is that of revitalising or developing Marxism by denying a mere Veda like stature to its texts. Whereas there are some others who share the need to gain deep insights in these issues but prefer to approach their studies without the shadow of any particular school of thought like Marxism. There is no doubt that existing non Marxist trends in the progressive movements like Ambedkarite Movement or NGO driven initiatives in social fields have also made significant contri-butions toward revealing the nuances of the caste struggle as well as struggles in the other areas of social injustice. These initiatives have successfully sensitised the downtrodden classes about the aspect of social discrimination in our society.

Rejecting of Dialectical Materialism As a European Theory

There has been a tendency within the left movement of undermining caste struggle with the excuse of avoiding the divisions in the revolutionary classes. This understanding clearly is not in line with Dialectical materialism. Identity of the lower castes has changed significantly with the growing proletarianisation within its own ranks. Despite that, caste identity remains as part of the false consciousness among those proletarianised. As an ideological system it affects all aspects of social life and acts as a drag on the development of class consciousness of the economically exploited castes. 

Dialectical materialism demands a rising of class consciousness within the ranks of revolutionary classes. It follows from this demand that struggle against false consciousness in the ideological field is of utmost importance. Thus, the struggle against the caste system does not weaken the class struggle but actually strengthens it. It does not create divisions but helps to unite the revolutionary classes divided on the lines of caste. As such the objection to dialectical materialism, that its formulation of class based character of societies is irrelevant for the caste based peculiarity of Indian society is unfounded. 

The charming simplicity of the premise that we need Indian solutions based on Indian realities to attain our socialism, is very attractive. But Condemnation of the Marxist philosophy and its method as European and position that there can be no general valid global method, stems from the refusal to address the global concerns of the working class and the international character of the movement of social change. It is alleged that Indian solution cannot be obtained from a global perspective originating from abroad. In fact, the concern for the Indian solution does not automatically or necessarily exclude the need for a general theory. To understand the particular there is no need to defy its universal context. To understand the caste particularity of the social reality, it need not be separated from its class context in India. Moreover, to understand the caste system in class perspective does not necessarily follow that caste should be seen as a class. Though the theory of Marxism has its origins in the European working class movement, its significance is not limited only to Europe. 

It is not as if, European working class has been as Eurocentric in it approach to the world realities as the European ruling class.  Classical Marxism had to adopt a broader world view on account of its emphasis on the international character of the anti capitalist forms of struggle. Marxism does not claim to have answers to all the questions arising from time to time in the ever changing social patterns of the world. Important thing to remember is that Marxism as dialectical materialism is only an outlook or method proposed for social change. It is a method to find answers and therefore is open to new results of investigations. It is not based on presumptions. Dialectical materialism can only help to explore the nuances of the caste society, in that sense Marxism has not provided readymade answer to the annihilation of the caste system beyond indication of its inevitable linkage with the struggle against the world capitalist system. It is upto the Indian people to make appropriate use of it and devise ways of struggles, basing themselves on the principle of dialectical development of society. Those accusing Dialectical Materialism of western bias are themselves victims of the western trend of identity politics with regards to the caste issue in India

Understanding and Changing the Society

Marxism does not stop at correct analysis and theorisation but it has a bearing upon actions to change the reality. It refuses to recognise any knowledge based merely on a logical theory but it seeks validation of theory in experience gained from practical activity aimed at achieving its goal of revolutionary change in a society. Dialectical materialism relies on experiments and verification of concrete facts, objective experience, real history, scientific logic and reasoning as main factors for investigation of the social reality. It does not ignore any source of knowledge peculiar to progressive historical traditions in the pre capitalist period in India or any other society.

Historical materialism needs to understand the progressive contributions made in the field of method of knowledge in the past. The binaries of brahminical and non brahminical along with patriarchal and matriarchal institutional structures in the social history of India are crucial to the understanding of Indian social history. Class perspective of our social history and present society cannot be developed without taking into consideration various non antagonistic contradictions arising from existence of non class social groups among the revolutionary classes. 

Dialectical materialism gives a perspective regarding understanding of nature of contradictions and dealing with them. It teaches us to have differentiate between antagonistic and non antagonistic aspects contradictions. Caste contradictions prevalent among the friendly classes of revolution should be treated as non antagonistic and their resolution lies in education, persuasion and a struggle for unity amongst them. Caste antagonism embedded in relations of production and perpetuated by the enemy classes on the other hand should be treated as antagonistic. It means, there can be no reconciliatory approach and those contradictions can be resolved only by defeating the perpetrators of this kind of injustice involving socio-economic subjugation as a class, of the oppressed castes.

Preference for Dialectical Materialism

To Prefer dialectical materialism over the past traditional methods or other methods with non class approach is not denying the progressive role played by the other methods of understanding of reality. In the context of the understanding of the caste system, preference for dialectical materialism does not in any way signify belittling the importance of other progressive methods associated with Ambedkarism, Bahujanwad, neo-Budhism or neo-Marxism.

However, unlike many other epistemological theories, individual perception, individual intellect, individual thinking capacity or power of analysis of any philosopher (including Marx) are not the determining factors for arriving at truth in Dialectical Materialism. The failure of the communist forces in India to come to terms with the caste reality and making it an important part of the class struggle cannot be blamed on their tool of investigation, the dialectical materialism. It does not come in the way of finding Indian solutions to Indian reality. 

Essentially the opposition to dialectical materialism stems from the rejection of general method of analysis for entire range of things and phenomenon in nature and society. There has also been a growing sense among critiques that the 21st century social and economic problems cannot be understood by applying methods of 19th century classical Marxism. It is argued that these texts cannot be held as sole fount of truth in the post Soviet period. Idea of universal truths is any way, considered to be out dated in the present post modernist period.

However, truth in the sense of knowledge is separate from a belief. Dogmatist approach to Marxism is often that of merely having a true belief in Marxism. Often, its opposition also stems from some other such belief. Faith in Marxism as a sole fount of truth is not a claim that a serious Marxist can make. Marxist scholar, Maurice Cornforth, in his book ‘The Open Philosophy and the Open Society’ has described the difference between faith and knowledge very categorically. “What we call ‘knowledge’ must also be distinguished from ‘true belief.’ If, for example, there is life on Mars, the belief that there is life on Mars is true belief. But at the same time we certainly, as yet, know nothing of the matter. True belief only becomes knowledge when backed by some kind of investigation and evidence. Some of our beliefs may be true and others false, but we only start getting to know which are true and which are false when we undertake forms of systematic investigation....For nothing can count as ‘knowledge’ except in so far as it has been properly tested.” 

Alternative Methods

In the background of the failed projects of socialist construction in different parts of the world, it is natural to wish for alternative approaches to realising the goal of social development. All such attempts to analyse and develop the methods of investigation are extremely important in as much as they play an important role in realising the emancipation of the oppressed and the exploited. Many such studies being carried out in different fields of social science are providing meaningful insights into the different aspects of social contradictions in the Indian society. Some of these studies of the past and present have revealed many historical facts missed out by the Marxist scholars. Studies in caste also have presented significant aspects of caste reality and exposed the limitations of the Indian Marxists in understanding the deeper reality of the caste question. Such initiatives in alternative approaches to the study of society and their meaningful depth of investigations have woken up the traditional Marxists from their intellectual slumber. 

If disproved by scientific investigation of facts, a Marxist according to Georg Lucas should be in a position to reject all of Marx’s thesis in toto, without renouncing Marxism. Lenin and Mao rejected some of the Marx’s observations to bring Marxism in synch with reality of their societies. According to Lucas, Marxism is not about uncritical acceptance of Marx’s investigation. “It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders.” 

Alternative to a clearly defined and scientifically justified universal method of dialectical materialism can be found only in another such method with a genuine universal approach. No region specific method suitable only for India or any other society (like euro communism) can replace the universal method of philosophical investigations. However, the post modernist compulsion of negating the universal theory undermines the need to find an alternative universal method itself. But a truth can be negated only by a clear theoretical justification of the alternative newer truth replacing it on the basis of newer scientific knowledge. Similarly a correct universal method can have an alternative only in another newer method based on universal criteria and not in a combination of methods following different principles

While searching for newer methods of investigations, care should be taken that the central function of theory, to change the reality should not be undermined. Some critiques, while negating dialectical materialism as a linear method, suggest a multi-linear approach to understand the complex reality of the Indian society. We should be watchful that such a new theorisation should not stray towards Eclecticism, which is the practice of selecting doctrines from different systems of thought, without theoretically resolving the inherent contradictions in their methods of investigation. Dialectical materialism cannot be replaced by a combination of different approaches based on various doctrines lacking a single unified principle of investigation. A trend within the left social movements in Maharashtra, attempts to support Marxist methods in combination with some of the Buddhist methods in the field of epistemology.

While thus attempting a postmodernist fusion of Indian traditional methods and the so called European Marxism, neither dialects nor materialism is seen in its developed form. It is rejection of a holistic approach to Indian reality of caste and class. Distinctions rather than the commonality is emphasised in this approach to gain knowledge about class and caste. Dialectical Materialistic approach on the other hand seeks to find the common thread in these two categories in order to find solution to the resolution of these two specific woes of contemporary Indian society. It finds class struggle as a common thread and key for the resolution of the caste struggle. 

Semi Marxist Method for Caste and Class

Conjoining of two separate approaches for caste and class contradiction to bring about a social change in India denotes a strategy based on bifurcation of the tasks without resolving the inherent contradictions in them. Caste and class issues are so much intertwined in the social fabric of India that without finding a unified method of dealing with them, you cannot deal with any one of them effectively. There will be a confusion if these two are dealt separately. Caste opposites in caste contradiction are not exactly the same as class opposites among the castes in Indian society. Both the phenomenon are at the same time overlapping, inter connected, inter related and determined by each other. They together form the single entity of Indian society and as such need a universal approach common to both. 

Acceptance of socialism as a goal on the one hand and use of traditional ancient Indian methods to deal primarily with caste structure of the society is the multi-fold approach taken by some theoreticians from the progressive sections. Such a joint approach fails to understand the symbiotic relation between the class and caste. Fundamental principles of methodology for socialism and traditional Indian methods employed in pre-capitalist traditional societies for dealing with caste differ drastically. One is based on materialist view point while the other is based on Idealism. The so called multi-linear method completely ignores the contradictions arising out of two fundamentally different methods in their application to different social realities of caste in different social periods. The new feature of the contemporary society is the proletarianisation of the downtrodden castes. It demands a radically different principled approach to deal with the caste reality than the one used in the ancient period. 



Universality of Dialectical Materialism

Universal method cannot be a mechanical sum of different ways of research chosen by people in different fields at random without consideration for the specific fields. Each of these fields has their specific methods. A universal approach to the method of investigation tries to identify a common principle present in all these specific methods. Understanding class contradictions in different fields of social studies like, culture, gender studies, caste etc will evolve specific binaries and methods to deal with them. 

Understanding the caste system will necessitate the understanding of the struggle between the Brahminical and non Brahminical trends in the social practice and identifying the social groups associated with the dominant and oppressed sections of caste. While conducting the studies in Gender justice, one will have to work out specific strategy to deal with patriarchy and its opposition in the form of feminist assertions. At the same time if both these studies are undertaken with a common approach of a class bias, it does not in any way deny the importance of specific methods for specific issues. The problem with demanding primacy to the task of struggle against the caste system over the class struggle is not that it undermines the economic struggle, but that, it refuses to recognise class struggle as a political struggle which includes struggles in both social and economic sphere of politics without primacy of one or the other. Class struggle is thus the universal principle embedded in the struggle against the caste system.

Employing a common approach of class struggle to caste and class does not mean denying the existence of individual distinct issues of these two categories. It does not justify a requirement of combination of methods lacking  in principled approach to the social reality as a whole. It actually demands understanding of concrete realities of these issues separately in their distinct and specific contexts and evolving a principled approach. It cannot be termed as indulgence in sectarianism. It does not necessarily be about attaching relations of inferiority to other methods. Dialectical materialism is not based upon prejudice about other methods but is based on scientific laws of social development and has no place for sectarianism.

Class Struggle and Economic Struggle

There exists an essential difference between economic struggle and class struggle. Class struggle is the political expression of countless contradictions between the dominant class and the oppressed classes. Class struggle does not mean the struggle of the working class alone. It is supposed to take in its political fold(not purely economic) all exploited classes and groups consisting of peasants, tribals, oppressed  nationalities, women and oppressed castes in India; to challenge not merely the economic domination but also the ideological and political domination of the ruling class. The concept of change which is central to the dialectical materialism is based on the crucial importance of struggle in every field of societal discrimination, oppression and inequality. Identifying class struggle as the key does not mean belittling or neglecting the importance of the caste struggle, in fact it requires intensification of ideological and political struggle against the caste system.

Such a common principle as class struggle identified in all types of social structures does not come in the way of having distinct theories in different subdivisions of social science. Historical Materialism is a theory of social science as distinct from the field of natural sciences but at the same time, shares a common principle of dialectical development with it. It is not a combination of different methods based on different principles. It does not see the need to employ different methods for caste and class at the cost of their in-compatibility in the practice of social change. Even though the laws of development of different processes in nature have their own specific patterns, it does not necessarily mean that identifying the principle of dialectical development as common to all, is a negation of their specificities. 

Urgency for Struggle Against the Caste System

Marxism does not necessitate postponement of activities concerning the field of superstructure to the post revolutionary period. It does not suggest that the solutions to the problems in superstructure follow mechanically as a result of revolution in economic relations. Though politics is considered as superstructural phenomenon in Marxism, struggle in the political field is considered as a precursor to the success of the revolution itself. Change in the political system occurs only after the capture of state power and consequent capture of the means of production but political struggle precedes it. 

Similarly struggle against the caste system does not have to wait for the post revolutionary period. Caste is not merely a part of the superstructure. Structural analysis of caste reveals that it also forms a part of relation of production as representing a social status associated with economic division of labour. Caste system also include different classes in the same way as classes are also composed of different castes. The upward mobilisation of lower castes based on economic upliftment often leads to caste wars between the lower and upper castes. This form of caste war cannot is not the ultimate expression of class struggle. The caste system must be grasped essentially as hierarchical social system based on exploitative method of economic exploitation.

The real mark of the progressive aspect of the struggle against the social oppression of the higher caste is that it should be led by the revolutionary classes. The caste wars erupting in different parts of India are often led by different ruling class political groups for their parliamentary political gains. It is extremely important to note that distinctions based on caste and class are not purely exclusive of each other in the social reality of India. Therefore it is not correct to counterpose caste struggle to caste struggle. Caste struggle is a part and parcel of the class struggle and cannot be treated as a separate war exclusively against the caste system. Common economic deprivation among the members of a caste inevitably gives rise to a common class consciousness among them.

In fact the class struggle in a society cannot assume a sharp edge without a sufficient arising of a class consciousness in the working class. As such in India, the precondition for a heightened sense of class consciousness demands a will to abolish the caste system in it. Without rising above the caste pride and attitude of caste discrimination working class in India cannot be imbued with class consciousness for a revolutionary purpose. Prior to the revolution a political will has to be constructed through the practice of the advance sections of the revolutionary classes for abolition of the caste system. Struggle against the caste system has to be an important part of the revolutionary political struggle. It does not follow that without prior eradication of caste system in India class revolution cannot be accomplished. Moreover, capturing of state power by the working class along with the other exploited classes, does not amount to automatic changes in the economic relations of production in the society. Success of political revolution and capturing of the ownership of means of production in the hands of revolutionary state, also does not mean automatic dissolution of the caste system.  

Relevance of Dialectical Materialism

Struggle against the caste system initiated prior to success of revolution will have to be continued in the post revolutionary period as well. The revolutionary state of socialism in India will have to create economic and social structures with the consideration of destroying the caste system. Without the efforts of the state of socialism backed by a strong post revolutionary movement against it, the caste system cannot be permanently abolished in India. 

So the struggle to establish socialism which is the goal of Dialectical materialist method is a struggle not of the workers and peasants alone, it is a struggle of the oppressed castes as well. It is a struggle of  all the oppressed sections including women and of the entire humanity. It is the proletarian class that suffers the most, if any form of social oppression is not dealt with. Proletariat has in its ranks, all the oppressed sections of the society besides the oppressed castes. Unless all these sections win the struggle against their specific oppression, proletariat as a class, cannot claim to be freed from oppression. Therefore in the theory dialectical materialism proletariat is expected to play a crucial role. 

Here, the term proletariat refers to the proletarian class which is conscious of its revolutionary role and not just an aggregation of individual workers. Capitalism in contemporary India is firmly entrenched in fields of ideology and economic relations. It has also taken the caste system in its firm grip. As such Indian struggle against caste system cannot be won over without dealing with capitalism and waging a class struggle against the semi-feudal ruling class and the capitalist class. Victory of such a struggle in India is possible only by following principles of Dialectical materialism.

Critique of the Approach to Degrade Marxism in Favour of Buddhist Approach to the Caste Struggle

Dialectics in Buddhism as implicit in Praman Samuccaya (compendium of means of valid knowledge) written by Dignaga is in its preliminary form where the ever-changing and impermanent nature of things and phenomenon are identified as dialectical quality and termed as anitya wad (theory of impermanency). Dialectics in Marxism does not stop merely at accepting change and impermanency as characteristics of phenomenon or things, it goes beyond them to enunciate the element of revolutionary qualitative change resulting out of quantitative changes in the process of dialectical development.

According to the Sautantrik method followed in Buddhism, individuality of things is also marked by the distinctive process of change unique to them and as such no general principle of change can be applicable to any individual thing or phenomenon (which are characterised as Ananya). Marxism on the other hand, without negating the individualities of things and phenomenon identifies the principle of dialectical development of matter as a principle of change common to all. 

From the Marxist perspective, Dignaga’s assertion that there are only two means of knowledge: direct perception and inference, misses out another important source, that of application of theory in practice. Understanding of the real world in Dignaga theory is only realised in its conceptual cognition and material world is supposed to exists independent and separate from it. Thus, though rejecting the existence of supernatural it does not see unity in matter and consciousness as acknowledged in developed form of dialectical materialism. Thought and consciousness are not in the sphere of material things in the Buddhist theory. Whereas Lenin wrote, “Matter is primary nature. Sensation, thought, consciousness are the highest products of matter organized in a certain way. This is the doctrine of materialism, in general, and Marx and Engels, in particular.”

“Matter is...the objective reality given to man in his sensations, a reality which is copied, photographed, and reflected by our sensations.” Lenin points out. The Buddhist theory has an opposite perspective. It is said that the ‘real’ that is reality of the matter cannot be grasped through sense organs and exists independent from human perceptions, theories, and constructs. That which is perceived by our sense organs is devoid of conceptual knowledge and since concepts are formulated in mind, they are limited in their capacity to grasp the reality in its entirety. Such is the understanding in Dignaga’s theory. However, basing itself on advances in scientific field, Dialectical materialism rejects such a dualistic approach to reality, meaning to matter and consciousness. 

Lenin points out that perceptions as given to the human being in his or her sensations, can give correct impression of things. Here the mental activities relating to consciousness too are identified as having physiological bearings in the human body. Thus dialectical materialism treating thought process as materialistic neurological activity driven by chemical substances, does not separate matter from consciousness. It does not see a separation between direct perception through external sense organs and conceptual perception in mind as understood in Dignaga’s Buddhist theory. The whole process of perception according to dialectical materialism is a continuous process occurring through senses.

Theory of exclusion called ‘Apoha’ by Dignaga seeks to explain how it is possible for words to refer to categories of objects even if no such categories have an objective existence apart from their existence as words. For instance, the word cow does not mean a particular cow. Such a category as cow, is the formulation of the brain. Hence the category of cow is only in mind and does to have objective existence like the existing cows in the world. Dignaga’s thesis is that such categories do not refer to positive qualities that their members share in common, also meaning that we do not recognise cows for their aspects of commonality as a category. On the contrary, according to ‘Apoha’, categories are exclusions. As such, the term”cows”, for example, is composed of all exclusions which are common to category denoted by the word cows : like all non-horse, non-elephant, etc. Cows are recognised as not being horses or elephants. (not because they have some common qualities as cow family of mammals.) 

Applying this theory to the social reality in India, caste as a category can be understood only as what it is not. As such understanding of caste cannot take place in the context of class and since caste is not class these two distinct categories cannot be understood through a common perspective. As different categories caste and class are supposed to have different principles of change unique to each of them. The Buddhist logic implicit in Dignaga theory is each thing is unique and the process of change in each ting is different and therefore general rule for change is not acceptable. Following this logic, universal method common to caste and class is rejected and a joint method for changes in class and caste structure is followed in the name of ‘Sautantrik Marxism’ as an alternative method of analysis for by some in the left movement in Maharashtra. They are very clear in their assertion that Marxism is not valid enough for Indian situation. 

Alternative to a clearly defined and scientifically justified universal method of dialectical materialism can be found only in another such method with a genuine universal approach. No region specific method suitable only for India or any other society (like euro communism) can replace the universal method of philosophical investigations. However, the post modernist compulsion of negating the single universal theory undermines the need to find an alternative universal method itself. But a truth can be negated only by a clear theoretical justification of the alternative newer truth replacing it on the basis of newer scientific knowledge. Similarly a correct universal method can have an alternative only in another newer method based on universal criteria and not in a combination of methods following different principles.

While attempting a postmodernist fusion of Indian traditional methods and the so called European Marxism, neither dialects nor materialism is seen in its developed form. It is only a rejection of a wholistic approach to Indian reality of caste and class without a valid alternative. Distinctions rather than the commonality is emphasised in this approach to gain knowledge about class and caste in the joint method proposed by these critiques. Dialectical Materialistic approach on the other hand seeks to find the common thread in these two categories in order to find solution to the resolution of these two specific woes of contemporary Indian society. It finds class struggle as a common thread and key for the resolution of the caste struggle. 


The purpose of this note is to point out that attempts to celebrate indigenous traditions which is a prominent part of post modernist approach to social phenomenon is at the root of negating Marxist view of the caste reality of India. Traditions do play an important role in the social development of a society and also they have bearing on the understanding of the present. However to reject modernist theory of Marxism one can not overlook the limited understanding inherent in the past traditions developed in comparatively elementary form of progressive ideas. Dialectical Materialism based understanding of history and contemporary society never ignores the progressive role played by the various humanist trends in the Indian philosophy. In fact it seeks to build a syncretic progressive movement deriving force from various such anti caste movements deriving inspiration from Buddhist ideas, Ambedkarism, rationalism and various soofie or Bhakti traditions to strengthen the class struggle against the caste system. Progressive ideas of the past cannot be pitted against Marxism in the name of an alternative approach to the struggle against the caste system. We therefore have to depend on Dialectical Materialism to study and work out tactics and strategy of our struggle against the caste system in India.


Dialectical Materialism and Modern Science- JD Bernal, Summary of Dialectics

Source: Lenin’s Collected Works, 2nd English Edition,

Dialectical Materialism (A. Spirkin) Philosophy and Science

Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason by Dr. Martin J. Verhoeven

The Communist movement in India has a history of almost a century after the salvos of October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to the people of India who were engaged in the national liberation struggle against the British colonialists. It is a complex and chequered history.