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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 51 New Delhi December 7, 2019

Statues of Clay

Sunday 8 December 2019

by Murzban Jal

There is a famous saying that when two fight, the third profits. The Brahmans thus divided the shudras and the atishudras and now are enjoying themselves at the cost of the shudras.

—Jotiba Phule, Slavery

There is a great need for someone with sufficient courage to tell Indians: ‘Beware of parliamentary democracy; it is not the best product as it appears to be’. 

—B.R. Ambedkar, The Failures of Parliamentary Democracy 

Alienation as the Terrible Future of India

 The tragic condition where universities are turning into graveyards of both reason and humanity propels us to look into this question with justifiable philosophical rage. But this philosophical rage cannot be reduced to the mere muttering of angry phrases against the dominant violent order. Instead one turns to the theoretical problematic of alienation that the young Marx had outlined, coupled with his ideas of reification and fetishism.

At the outset one defines (1) “alienation” as the “loss of one’s self” along with the “loss of self-hood itself”, while by (2) “reification” one means a form of dehumanisation where people are considered as mere things, and (3) by “fetishism” one implies the uncanny and bewitched attachment of a non-existing object—an object that truly does not exist, but is made to feel that it really exists.

The question of alienation-reification-fetishism (categories central to Marx’s understanding of capitalism), despite being in the mainstream of Marxist discourse at least since Georg Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness and the discovery of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 by David Ryzanov in the mid-1920s, has not found sufficient space in Indian social sciences. And in relation to the understanding of the Indian caste system there is almost a complete neglect of this articulation. This present essay is, in contrast to the dominant trend within Indian sociology, a reminder of the problematic of reification in the understanding of caste. By “statues of clay”, we mean firstly the statues of slavery constructed by the traditional Hindu order and secondly the commodity character of Indian liberal demo-cracy (or should we say “feudo-liberalism) and how liberal democracy has converted social formations in India into statues of clay—statues that have totally estranged humanity, and converted commodity fetishism into the discourse of community fetishism, where caste is made to lose its terror-driven character of domination and servitude and transformed into a some sort of innocent signifier. But caste is not an “innocent signifier”. Instead we understand caste as the “signification of the Great Terror” where not have so-called ‘traditional’ elites ruled in India, but where liberal democracy has ruled through this “Terrible Signifier”. This essay “Statues of Clay” deals with both the Hindu order as well as modern liberal democracy.

The Statues of Slavery

The first rendering of traditional Brahmanical literature on caste is undoubtedly the 10th mandala from the Rg Veda where the ideal picture of Brahmanical ideology is drawn. The picture of the Brahmans being the wielders of the Ideological State Apparatus (the mouth of the god Brahma) accompanied by the Repressive State Apparatus is that of a statue—the statute of Indian slavery. That this statue remains within the Indian unconscious even today despite the many anti-caste reform movements is a course of great concern. One could with jest say that if the Yankees have their statue of liberty; India has the statue of slavery. The Yanks converted liberty into a statue; the Brahmans converted people into slaves and then erected statues of slavery. What they accomplished is what Jotiba Phule called “mental slavery”.1 The statues of slavery are about this very uncanny form of mental slavery.

Allegory and the Return of the Barbaric Egoist


The question of caste continues to play a very important role in the social production of Indian life. And with fascism that has already knocked down the doors of India, the understanding of caste as a machine for the production of Indian fascism cannot be underestimated. For a number of reasons, from the perspective of radical politics, the understanding of caste continuously eludes scientific precession. One factor lies with the ruling elites from the time of Gandhi and Nehru for whom caste was almost a form of romantic vision of the happy peasants, happy till they were mysteriously disrupted by what Gandhi called “satanic Western civilisation”. The other factor was that Marxists (for whom the project was to be a project of emancipation) completely misjudged both the understanding of Indian history as well as the understanding of Marx’s original repertoire. For one, they mechanically read Marx’s Capital, especially the chapter on the “the Primitive Accumulation of Capital” which “trace(s) the path which in Western Europe, the capitalist economic system emerged from the womb of the feudal economic system.”2 Second, they completely forgot that for Marx caste-based “idyllic village communities” were always “the solid foundations of Oriental Despotism”, where caste “restrained the human mind within the smallest compass”, celebrating what Marx called “barbarism egotism”.3 It is this mind of the barbaric egoist that is inhabited within the smallest compass that shall concern us here.

It is unfortunate that the brutal nature of this barbaric egotism was not fully understood. And since this barbaric egoist has returned once again a decade after creating genocide, however now dressed as the Minister of Development, we are compelled to recall Marx on the repetition of history—the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.4 Let it be known that it is this repetitive type of history that shall concern us, a logic of repetition that mimics the Freudian register of the neurotic’s compulsion to repeat. It is this neurotic repetition that we call the “cunning of historical reason”.5

Our theory is grounded in Marx’s original idea of the Asiatic mode of production, a theory highly ignored. Though there have been theories that allowed this mode of production to exist, by and large the mechanical theory of history that talked of the unilinear theory of historical progression: there was only one type of history from primitive communism via slave society, feudalism and capitalism, which finally culminates into communism; has hitherto prevailed. Georgi Plekhanov’s The History of Russian Social Thought followed by Leon Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development was sympathetic to Marx’s original (yet ignored) formulation. Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins is the latest work in understanding an alternative understanding of Marx’s perception of non-Western societies.

However, it must be noted that the Asiatic mode is a complex genre (one could call after Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Louis Althusser’s For Marx: “overdetermined” genre) and cannot be reduced to a reductionist under-standing or a Unitarian mode of production, the type that Edward Said thought it to be. It takes different forms in different societies. In India it is caste that will be the crux of this mode of production. In the Indian variant of the Asiatic mode we put caste (and not class devoid of caste) as central to a Marxist radical imagination of Indian society. And that is why we repeatedly emphasise Marx’s statement that caste has been “the solid foundation of Oriental despotism”6, celebrating the “wild aimless, unbounded forces of destruction”7, based on “a sort of equilibrium, resulting from a general repulsion and constitutional exclusiveness, resulting between all its members”8. And that is why I have said that not only is it the foundation of what I insist on calling “Oriental despotism”, it is also the solid foundation of the “inherited evils”9 that yet possess and haunt modern India.10

And for those who think that the idea of “Oriental despotism” was in contrast to “Western rationality”, it must be noted that for Marx, there is within the capitalist mode of production what he calls “despotism in that of the workshop”.11 However with this idea of the Asiatic mode of production with caste as its base, we bring in Jotiba Phule and B.R. Ambedkar’s radical critique of both caste and the Hindu religion and link this with Freud’s idea of neurosis. In fact Marx’s statement that castes “constantly reproduce themselves in the same form and when accidentally destroyed, spring up again on the spot and with the same name”,12 is reflection of this neurotic character of the caste system. Like the neurotic’s compulsion to repeat, caste is destroyed only to be composed once again.

And it is this theme that I link to the tragi-farcical understanding of Indian history. Indian Ideology (as we draw out from Perry Anderson’s title of his most recent work) or the dominant ideology of the Indian elites is constituted within this above stated logic of caste-despotism and

it is with this tragi-farcical understanding of history that we turn to the understanding from three perspectives: (1) the reification of consciousness (Georg Lukacs), (2) Trauerspeil or mourning play and the dominance of allegory in contemporary capitalism (Walter Benjamin) where the continuing of caste even the age of late capitalism crates a form of melancholia, and (3) technological reason (the Frankfurt School) where human reason is devalued for reason as purely as will to bourgeois power. It is imperative that the idea of Trauerspiel or mourning play will govern our analysis of caste in modern society and the tragi-farcical understanding of history. We relate this Benjamin inspired idea with Marx’s critique of alienation. Our central thesis is that the general mechanism of caste gets veiled such that revolutionary critique eludes popular perception. What we mean here is that that there is a “unseeable” element especially with relations to caste, where the traditional form of untouchability has been reified into the new domain of unseeability.

We claim here that modern capitalism in India involves an element of “unseeability”. What we imply here is that the form of untouchability is transformed into this very strange form of unseeability. Here Freud’s idea of “hysterical blindness’ and Marx’s phenomenological character of commodity production is used whereas Marx says: “existence as a material thing is put out of sight”. And it is this putting existence (of caste) out of sight where a certain form of psychosis occurs where one involves a complete withdrawal from reality. For the ‘modern’ bourgeois Indian citizen, caste appears only as statues of clay, forgetting that caste even in the ‘glorious’ days of bourgeoisdom functions as (1) class, albeit as “enclosed and reified class”, (2) race (and consequently as racism), and (3) neurosis-psychosis. We call it “neurosis-psychosis” since like the neurotic compulsion to repeat, caste involves an eternal recurrence of this offensive system; and we call it psychotic since it involves a complete withdrawal from reality. And in this realm of “neurosis-psychosis” not only caste, but entire social reality appears as these strange statues of clay and what Lukacs once called “a charnel-house of long-dead interiorities”. A scientific study of caste, coupled with the very philosophical question: “How is free humanity possible?” proceeds into the domain of this charnel-house of long-dead interiorities.13

The tragedy is that we live not in the world of humanity, but in the dreaded world of long-dead interiorities.


1. Jotiba Phule, ‘Slavery’, in G.P. Deshpande, Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule (New Delhi: Left Word, 2010), p. 45.

2. Karl Marx, ‘To the Editorial Board of the Otechestvenniye Zapaiski, London, Nov., 1877’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Correspondence (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 293

3. Karl Marx, ‘The British Rule in India’, in On colonialism

 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), pp. 40-41.

4. Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 96.

5. See my The New Militants (Delhi: Aakar Books, 2014), pp. 15-21.

6. Karl Marx, ‘The British Rule in India’, in On Colonialism

 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), p. 40; and Marx, ‘To Engels in Manchester, London, June 14, 1853’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Correspondence (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), 80.

7. Karl Marx, ‘The British Rule in India’, p.41.

8. Karl Marx, ‘The Future Results of the British Rule in India’, in On Colonialism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), p. 81.

9. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), p. 20.

10. See my The New Militants, p. 35.

11. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 337.

12. Ibid., p. 338.

13. Georg Lukacs, Theory of the Novel (London: Merlin Press, 1971), p. 64.

Prof Murzban Jal is the Director, Centre for Educational Studies, Indian Institute of Education, Pune.

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