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At the brink of a new world system: imperialism, race and caste

It is thus imperative upon us to look at the concept of race more closely, understand its link with imperialism and critically examine any comparisons with the system of caste. One can do no better than to turn to Oliver Cromwell Cox.

Caste, Class and Race by Oliver Cromwell Cox,

We live in very dangerous times, which carry within them crisis and opportunity. It is difficult to overemphasize the significance of the transition from what the Indian historian K. M. Panikkar called “The Vasco Da Gama Epoch”, or we could call the western epoch, to the epoch of humanity1. Such transitions are never smooth and we are seeing various manifestations of its difficulty including the attempts of a parasitic and oligarchic Western ruling elite to hold on to power. The caste school of race relations, which was recently re-popularized is one such attempt. It is no accident that this attempt comes at a time of intense crisis for the Western ruling elite. This elite seeks to define the concept of race on its own terms, divorcing it from its relationship to imperialism and poverty.

The fact that Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents was advertised on the billboards of Manhattan, and considered a must-read by various liberal and business outlets should give us a hint as to what purpose the book serves. And yet the book is not alone but is part of a broader and concerted effort of the ruling class, in which regrettably many so called “leftists” have joined in, to define the concept of race in a metaphysical way divorcing it from any struggle of the broad masses of people.

It is thus imperative upon us to look at the concept of race more closely, understand its link with imperialism and critically examine any comparisons with the system of caste. One can do no better than to turn to Oliver Cromwell Cox and his arguments against equating caste and race which retain continued relevance.

Cox, Caste and D.D. Kosambi

Oliver Cromwell Cox’s central argument in his book “Caste, Class and Race” was that caste is an ancient socio-economic system, which can not be compared with race.2 He argued that racial antagonism and exploitation had only arisen in modern times, and developed along with the rise of capitalism in Europe and North America. Modern race relations, whose origins he put in the years 1493-1494 were not to do with “an abstract, natural, immemorial feeling of mutual antipathy between groups, but rather a practical exploitative relationship with its socio-attitudinal facilitation”.3  Hence he saw race as a political class conflict, which involved the proletarianization of a whole people and which would be resolved only by the overturning of the present system of exploitation.4 This historical materialist understanding of race is essential for our times when it is being counterposed against a metaphysical, or as Cox would say “mystical” understanding of race which is attempting to save our current system.

The understanding of Cox’s insight is furthered by a study of D.D Kosambi who remedied the methodological problems in usual studies of caste in India, which started in the context of British justification of colonialism, and from which Wilkerson also suffers. The most important of these problems is to see caste as a static and fixed system of hierarchy against which Kosambi argued it was a evolving and dynamic system.

First, Kosambi argued that it is very difficult to study the history of India exclusively through a written record, particularly only of Sanskrit and English sources.5 This is because the written record is relatively recent, and ancient texts were passed through an oral and accretive tradition which makes any text very hard to date. For example, Ambedkar had argued that there was a later day forgery in the Purusha Sukta, which is a hymn of the Rig Veda often used in descriptions of caste.6 Most descriptions of caste in India refer to the Manusmriti, a text which gained importance for it was used in the colonial construction of Hindu law, but as Kosambi said “no written record exists of any case tried under this heterogeneous system”. 15th century saints like Kabir who were immensely popular among the people did not mention Manu or Manusmriti and only recently has attention been brought to the importance of this vernacular tradition.7

Kosambi argued that India had never had a slave-holding economy in the sense of Greece and Rome (as confirmed by Megasthenes). Thus, “caste is class at a primitive level of production, a religious method of forming social consciousness in such a manner that the primary producer is deprived of his surplus with the minimum coercion”.8 In its origination, caste played a progressive role and advanced production permitting the enrollment of new tribes into the Indian order. He said “The two major characteristics of the caste system—prohibitions against marriage outside the group and against acceptance of food from the hands of a stranger—are taboos that are typical of food-gathering tribal societies.”9

He further stressed the need to examine how the caste system evolved with the rise and decline of Buddhism in India. His examination of how Buddhism transformed Hinduism, but also transformed itself is complex and enlightening and goes against the caricature of a clash between the two. To the contrary, Kosambi suggests that Buddhism and Hinduism essentially converged. On the debates he argues, “It is difficult today to grasp just what the controversy was about, for the difference between the protagonists seems negligible in content.”10 As Kosambi points out, state support for Buddhism in India continued till the end of the twelfth century at the time of Turkish invasions of India. A similar argument, interestingly, was made by Rahul Sankrityayan, who was the preeminent authority on Buddhism in India.11

Kosambi later theorized that the social manifestations of the class struggle in India have found religio-philosophical channels of expression. The proper historical comparison of caste is therefore, as Cheikh Anta Diop studies, with African systems.12 A comparative treatment of Africa and India carries immense potential to properly bring out the role of European colonialism in underdevelopment while at the same time examining the evolution of pre-colonial societies. Prohibitions against marriage outside the clan and other taboos are also to be found in Africa.

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Of course the British, who incidentally came to India as a ruling race and not as a ruling caste, promoted a theory of a unique and spiritual unchanging order for they saw themselves as the bringers of civilization and history to India. What is beyond doubt is that after their two centuries of exploitation and degradation, the ruins of civilization which survived in India had taken on an extremely oppressive and degraded character. The anti-colonial struggle in India, and its leadership by Gandhi, attempted to retain elements of our old civilization and convert it into a modern revolutionary civilization. Furthermore it attempted the construction of a socialist government, and the combined task of fighting religious and caste prejudice while uniting the country and developing the economy. It served as an example of struggle to the rest of the colonized world.

Both the colonial readings of caste and imperialist readings of race are mystical. Both neglect to see the dialectical evolution of these concepts and both are designed to preserve society in a static mould, thus denying the possibility of revolutionary change. Their purpose in both cases is to hold the masses of working people as ultimately responsible for race or caste prejudice, and imperialist exploiters as progressive benefactors. They are thus meant as deeply conservative doctrines disguised as “radical“ ones.

Unfortunately, in our past two decades of counter-revolutionary assault, Indian intellectuals particularly in the West have completely consolidated their role as appendages of the Western ruling elite. They attack their own struggle and have become sophisticated justifiers of imperialism and colonialism, often repeating ideological claims that served as justification of colonial rule. These civilized representatives of the Indian peasantry are extremely reassuring to the Westerner particularly when they castigate their own people. It is not surprising then that Indian intellectuals will respond to the caste school of race relations either with applause or, since they must recognize its historical absurdity, with very polite disagreement.

Cox on Race and Democracy

This ruling elite needs its intellectuals as it seeks to defend a world system under the guise of defending “democracy”. Oliver Cromwell Cox writes “If it is recognized that the internal economy of the United States is inseparably tied into a world system, then not only its progressive dependence on military expenditures but also its relationship to the extremely low standard of living in the backward countries of the system would readily become apparent.”13 This world system today is at the brink. I suggest that Isabel Wilkerson’s book be put alongside Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist and Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility as well as more sophisticated endeavours like the 1619 project and even the ill-defined use of the term racial capitalism, all of which are gaining approval from the ruling class and are meant as part of the continuing attack against true democracy. While differing in details, all these theories tend to essentialize race and ignore its dialectic with class and its relationship with imperialism.

In Caste, Class and Race, Oliver Cromwell Cox theorizes the meaning of democracy which then, as now, had been a war-cry of the capitalist ruling class. Examining the British, American and Russian systems he had asserted “From the standpoint of degrees of development of democracy in the three great nations of the world, The United States is probably most backward and Russia farthest advanced.”14 He defined democracy as a modern social system which had its origins in the rise of capitalism and not in ancient social systems of Greece or Rome. True democracy was not limited to suffrage, or the theoretical right to become part of the bourgeoisie but rather was the control of the state by the masses of people. He clearly differentiated true democracy from liberalism and saw individualism and democracy as incompatible, “the process of democratic development may be defined as a continually increasing limitation of individual freedom (i.e., individualism) in favor of greater social equality and freedom for the masses.”15

This positive freedom of the masses, as opposed to the individual freedoms which have become the predominant concern of the contemporary western left, could only be won by a positive program of unity between the masses, black and white.16 Thus, Cox opposed both the conservatism and fatalism of theories which held that the black worker’s interest was more closely bound with the ruling class than the white worker. At a time when the white masses are rebelling against the ruling elite, it is naturally to the benefit of the ruling elite to promote any theory of race which forever precludes any possibility of united action. These theories and projects are an uninhibited and dangerous attack on poor and working people, on any possibility of their unity and of transcending the system of capitalism at a time when it is in grave crisis.  Today, the U.S. has degenerated further and is probably one of the least democratic countries, with an extremely powerful and undemocratic billionaire class, an entrenched bureaucracy and intelligence apparatus, a media which does not even pretend to be neutral and repeated attempts to completely render the masses powerless.  This “woke” American ruling class is thus attempting to both suppress its own working class, get moral legitimacy on questions of race, continue its endless wars and unleash vicious propaganda against the Chinese state and people. They have a truly ambitious plan consistent with the scale of the crisis which they are confronted with.

At this time of grave crisis, those who consider themselves to be left and on the side of the masses of people should return to Cox, who would have argued today that the Chinese state is more democratic than the American. They should return to Martin Luther King Jr. who would have argued for a poor people’s campaign against racism, war and poverty in the United States. It is this legacy of struggle, and not the careerism and individualism of journalists and academics, which offers hope for a brighter future and the establishment of true democracy in the world.


  1.  Panniker, K. M, Asia and Western Dominance George Allen and Unwin Ltd 1959 (1953).
  2.  Cox, Oliver Cromwell Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics Monthly Review Press 1959.
  3.  Cox, Oliver Cromwell Ibid. 332
  4.  W.E.B Du Bois had similarly tied the origin of race to the beginning of the trans-atlantic slave trade and in Black Reconstruction, had theorized the emerging conflict as a triad examining the dialectical relationships between the black worker, white worker and the capitalist. Du Bois, W.E.B Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 The Free Press 1998 (1935).
  5.  Kosambi, D. D. “Combined methods in Indology.” Indo-Iranian Journal 6.3-4 (1963): 177-202.
  6.  Ambedkar, B. R. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol. 7. Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, 1990.
  7.  Agrawal, Purushottam. Akath Kahani Prem Ki Kabir Ki Kavita Aur Unka Samay. Rajkamal Prakashan, 2009.
  8.  Kosambi, D. D. “Stage of Indian History.” in The Oxford India Kosambi. Oxford University Press, 2009.
  9.  Kosambi, D. D. “Living Prehistory in India” in The Oxford India Kosambi. Oxford University Press, 2009.
  10.  Kosambi, D. D. The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India. Vikas Publishing House, 1960: 180.
  11.  Sankrityayan, Rahul. “The Rise and Fall of Buddhism in India” in Selected Essays.People’s Publishing House, 2009 (1984).
  12.  Diop, Cheikh Anta. Precolonial Black Africa. Lawrence Hill Books, 1987.
  13.  Cox, Oliver Cromwell. Capitalism and American Leadership Philosophical Library, 1962: xvi-xvii.
  14.  Cox, Oliver Cromwell Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics Monthly Review Press 1959: 223.
  15.  Cox, Oliver Cromwell Ibid. 237.
  16.  Cox, Oliver Cromwell Ibid. 534.