Practice Question – Elaborate A R Desai`s perspective to the study of Indian Society. [10 Marks] [UPSC 2020]

Approach – Introduction, Give a context for Marxist approach in study of Indian Society and explain A R Desai`s contributions to it, Criticism, Conclusion.



Marxism has also been significant in the Indian academy, but its influence is greater in history, economics, and political science than in sociology. Within sociology, three scholars have had the most impact; all of them served as presidents of the Indian Sociological Society (or its predecessors).

The earliest of these was Dhurjati Prasad Mukerji. Mukerji was mainly interested in the Marxist method which was the subject of his book On Indian History: A Study in Method (1945). He called himself a “Marxologist” rather than a Marxist because of his reservations about Marxism and its doctrinaire tendencies that prevented it from addressing the specificities of the Indian context. Akshay Ramanlal Desai was arguably the scholar who did the most for the development of Marxist sociology in India. Desai’s argument that capitalist development had already begun in the colonial period ran counter to the party line of the CPI and the CPM who asserted that Indian society was still “semi-feudal.” Apart from nationalism, he also published books on peasant and agrarian struggles in India as well as book-length discussions on human rights and their violation by the state.  Dattatreya Narayan Dhanagare studied with the British Marxist sociologist Tom Bottomore at the University of Sussex and spent most of his career teaching at the University of Pune, India. Dhanagare’s best known works are on social movements, notably Peasant Movements in India (1983) and Populism and Power (2015). Through his writings and his graduate students, Dhanagare made a significant contribution towards promoting class analysis in Indian sociology.



Marxian meta-narratives are followed in India even to the present time. The kind of Marxian narratives that we have are largely doctrinaire: systemic, class war, dialectics, evolutionary and production relations. A little variation that we find in India is that here Marxism is also applied at micro-empirical level. The best example of such studies is that of Kathleen Gough who has studied rural social stratification in the Thanjavur villages. She has started from the traditional Marxist premises of the succession of the ‘Asiatic’, ‘feudal’ and ‘capitalist’ modes of production in India within the overarching system colonialism. Admittedly, the application of conflict meta-narratives to the understanding of Indian society has benefited us enough. There has also been increased conceptual and methodological cross- fertilization between Marxist and non-Marxist theoretical approach.



Classical Indian sociology had declined in the last 100 years of the discipline. Indian sociology was enriched by sociologists and social thinkers belonging to the Lucknow School—Radhakamal Mukherjee, Dhurjati Prasad Mukherjee and D N Majumdar, the Calcutta School—Akshay Kumar Dutta, Benoy Kumar Sarkar, Brajendranath Seal and the Bombay School—Patrick Geddes, G S Ghurye, A R Desai and scholars of subsequent generations.  Apart from the geographical region-based schools of social thought, there were several approaches of studying society like the Diffusionist School, the Indological School, the Historical or the Marxist School which began to subside gradually since independence of India leading to a remarkable development of sociology under the aegis of western ideas and pre-occupations.



D.D. Kosambi argued that, contrary to Marx’s own statements and to those of several Marxists, the Indian society did not witness a similar progression of various modes of production as happened in Europe. He said that the slave mode of production was not to be found in India. He also rejected Marx’s own schema of the Asiatic Mode of Production as inapplicable to India. He, however, thought that there was the existence of feudalism in India, even though he conceived it differently. He was aware that the medieval Indian society was quite different from that of Europe. One of the important characteristics of European feudalism, i.e., manorial system, demesne farming and serfdom, were not to be found in India.

Kosambi’s lead on this issue was followed by R.S. Sharma who made a comprehensive study of feudalism in India in his book entitled Indian Feudalism (1965) and in various articles. According to him, there were a decline in trade and increasing numbers of land grants to the state officials in lieu of salary and to the Brahmans as charity or ritual offering in the post-Gupta period. This process led to the subjection of peasantry and made them dependent on the landlords. Almost all features of west European feudalism, such as serfdom, manor, self-sufficient economic units, feudalisation of crafts and commerce, decline of long-distance trade and decline of towns, were said to be found in India.

According to R.S Sharma, the most crucial aspects of Indian feudalism was the increasing dependence of the peasantry on the intermediaries who received grants of land from the state and enjoyed juridical rights over them. This development restricted the peasants’ mobility and made them subject to increasingly intensive forced labour. The decline of feudalism also took the same course as in west Europe.

This view of the medieval Indian society and economy has been questioned by several historians who argue that the development of the Indian society did not follow the western model. They further argue that such a model of development cannot be universally applied to all societies. Harbans Mukhia, in a thought-provoking article ‘Was There Feudalism in Indian History?,  questions these arguments at several levels. He begins by arguing that there is no single, universally accepted definition of feudalism. It is because feudalism was not a world-system. In fact, capitalism was the first world-system and, therefore, all societies before that had their own peculiarities and profound differences from each other. Thus feudalism ‘was, throughout its history, a non-universal specific form of socio-economic organization – specific to time and region, where specific methods and organization of production obtained’.

Irfan Habib introduces another significant element for identifying the predominant mode of production in any social formation. He argues that although the social form of labour
defines a particular mode of production, it cannot be considered as the sole determinant.Thus although ‘Wage-labour remains the basic form of labour in socialism, but this does entitle us to identify the capitalist and socialist modes’. Similarly, petty peasant production may be found in several social formations. Therefore, another crucial element should be taken into account and that is ‘the form in which the surplus extracted from the producer is distributed’. Although Habib is doubtful about the existence of feudalism in pre-colonial India, he considers Mukhia’s arguments a little far-fetched. He thinks that Mukhia’s points about the existence of a ‘free peasantry’ and ‘relative stability in India’s social and economic history’ are untenable. Such conclusions, according to him, ‘presume a rather idyllic picture of pre-colonial India.



R.P. Dutt and A.R. Desai analysed it as a movement which was mostly dominated by the bourgeoisie. Although various classes, including the peasantry and the working classes, participated in it, its basic character remained bourgeois. This view of national movement remained quite common among the Marxist historians for quite some time. Bipan Chandra mounted a major critique of this view and this criticism became more comprehensive over the years. In his very first book, The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India (1966), he pleaded for according certain autonomy to the ideas as significant vehicle of action and change. Even though he accepts that ‘social relations exist independently of the ideas men form of them’, he feels that ‘men’s understanding of these relations is crucial to their social and political action’. Moreover, he argues that the intellectuals in any society stand above the narrow  interests of the class in which they are born. It is ‘sheer crude mechanical materialism’ to sort out the intellectuals only on the basis of their class of origins. It is because the intellectuals are guided ‘at the level of consciousness, by thought and not by interests’.

Sumit Sarkar is another Marxist historian who is critical of Dutt’s paradigm. In his first book, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, 1903-1908,  he terms it as a ‘simplistic version of the Marxian class-approach’. Contrary to the assertion by Dutt that the moderate phase was dominated by the ‘big bourgeoisie’ while the extremist phase by the ‘urban petty bourgeoisie’, he thinks that ‘a clear class-differential between moderate and extremist would still be very difficult to establish, and was obviously nonexistent at the leadership level’. According to him, this version of Marxist interpretation suffers from the ‘defect of assuming too direct or crude an economic motivation for political action and ideals’. He instead prefers to analyse the actions of the nationalist leaders by using Trotsky’s concept of ‘substitutism’ whereby the intelligentsia acts ‘repeatedly as a kind of proxy for as-yet passive social forces with which it had little organic connection’. He also uses Gramscian categories of ‘traditional’ and ‘organic’ intellectuals. According to Antonio Gramsci, the famous Italian Marxist activist and thinker, the ‘organic’ intellectuals participate directly in the production-process and have direct links with the people whom they lead. The ‘traditional’ intellectuals, on the other hand, are not directly connected with either the production-process or the people. However, they become leaders of particular classes by ideologically resuming the responsibility of those classes. According to Sarkar, the leaders of the Swadeshi movement in Bengal ‘recruited overwhelmingly from the traditional learned castes, and virtually unconnected after the 1850s with commerce or industry may be regarded perhaps as a “traditional” intelligentsia in Gramsci’s sense’. This view is quite close to that of Bipan Chandra in which he emphasises the role of ideology in the formation of the early nationalist leaders.



The deep interest of Desai with regard to the growth of Indian nationalism could snowball due to the contemporary social situation in the then India – after all, India also witnessed the weakening of British power over the colonies In Social Background of Indian Nationalism, he made a classical analysis about the genesis of Indian nationalism from a social perspective, by adopting the historical approach. 

The politics of “mass-line” was Gandhi’s definite gift to India’s freedom movement, which was unable to come across prior to Gandhi’s appearance in the scene of Indian politics.  But it needs to be borne in mind that the “politics of mass-line” did have its finest expression in the form of Bolshevik Revolution leading to the formation of socialism for the first time in the world in Soviet Union in 1917.  Gandhi perhaps borrowed the idea from Lenin and implemented in the Indian context by following peaceful means.  Desai did question the fundamental motive of Gandhian politics and expressed his candid doubt whether the class collaborationist approach of Gandhian politics could rescue the common Indian masses from the abject exploitation and misery, which, capitalism is bound to inflict upon.  Desai mentioned how Gandhi used to cajole the industrial workers to maintain peace and tranquillity despite being mercilessly exploited by the factory owners ie the industrial capitalists.  He used to say: “Look workers, you need to obey the factory owners as you obey your parents.  It is your imperative responsibility to develop the consciousness of common trusteeship by joining the hands of the factory-owners to ensure higher yield of your toil”.  However, Gandhi did not say anything about the rightful claim of the workers to get higher wage and perks in lieu of higher factory production. 

Desai in his book Social Background of Indian Nationalism (1948) did not discuss of the class-concerns of Indian nationalism that rendered the freedom movement elitist.  He had limitless trust in socialism and believed that socialism is the panacea to allay all social problems plaguing capitalism.  In his entire life, whatever he could write, his one-point obsession remained with the abolition of capitalism enabling the rise of socialism.  In his another well-known book Rural India in Transition (1979) or in his book titled State and Society in India: Essays on Dissent (1975) he analysed how the path of development and planning followed in Indian society.  In his yet another insightful work titled India’s Path of Development (1984) he showed how the role of the Indian government proved to be miserable and coercive. 



The Marxist historians have contributed enormously to Indian historiography. In all  field of Indian history, whether we divide it by periods or by topics, the Marxist historians have made significant contributions. The history of the dynasties was replaced by the history of the common people. More emphasis was now given to the study of economy and society in preference to the political history. The study of broad social and economic systems such as feudalism and colonialism were undertaken and the social, economic and political changes were considered not in the light of the actions of individual statesmen, but in terms of the  working out of economy and conflicts between classes. At the level of methodology, Marxists` works introduced an interdisciplinary approach to history which encompassed literature, archaeology, linguistics, anthropology, numismatics and statistics. Moreover, the Marxist historiography has made interpretation and explanation more important than narration or description.

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