Marx touched on the caste system in a number of places. See particularly his well-known description of the Indian village community in Capital (Vol. I, Part IV, Chap. XIV, Section 4) which, along with related passages from Marx’s writings, is discussed and evaluated by Indian Marxist economic historian Irfan Habib in his essay on “Caste in Indian History” (1987) and also in his “Marx’s Perception of India” (1983).
Marx saw the Indian caste system as a special solution to the problem of the division of labor before the rise of capitalism. Outside of the village community--in towns or in the trade of surplus goods between villages--castes traditionally functioned as hereditary guilds. Inside the village community, where Marx understood there to be no commodity trade at all, castes functioned as an “unalterable division of labor” providing for those necessary crafts and services too specialized to be done in individual peasant households (and which therefore could not be supplied by the domestic “blending of agriculture and handicraft”). These service castes--the barber, the washerman, the potter, and so on--were “maintained at the expense of the whole community.” So the caste system allowed each village to be self-sufficient, while at the same time maximizing the surplus that could be extracted in the form of rent by the state.
The need for some such system to guarantee the minimally necessary division of labor in agriculturally based class societies that lack the basis for a labor market is explained in Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth’s study “The System of Social Stratification in Swat” (published in Leach, 1960)--Swat being an outlying region in northwest Pakistan. Barth points out that agricultural activity peaks twice a year: at planting and harvest times. To get the most out of the land, all the technical resources of the community need to be mobilized to act in coordination with each other and the work going on in the fields. If a hoe breaks, a smith needs to be ready to mend it promptly, and that would never happen if the village smith needed to devote his time and energy to his own plot at these peak seasons. Barth explains that while in a monetary economy the necessary specialization and coordination between specialists (between the smith and the carpenter to repair the hoe, for example) could be achieved through wages or cash payments between individuals, in an essentially non-monetary economy production teams need to be assembled on some other basis. In Swat, “[i]n the definition of its boundaries, and in its system of sharing profits, each team is hierarchically and centrally organized. The landowner [that is, an upper-caste landlord] is the pivot on which the organization is based.” Members of dependent service castes are obliged to work for the landlord in return for a traditionally apportioned share of the harvest. Thus caste duties serve to organize production.
What is particularly interesting from a materialist perspective about this example is that the peoples of Swat are all Sunni Muslims who not only find no warrant for hierarchical caste distinctions in their official religious ideology but a good deal against them. What this says about the purely supplementary place of ideology in the caste system, limited to reflecting and reinforcing the basic material relations, need not be underlined.
The production relations described by Barth, as he points out, closely resemble the system of patronage which continues to exist throughout the subcontinent in a more or less advanced state of decay. First described in the 1930s, it’s been called the jajmani system by anthropologists. Under this system, families belonging to low and untouchable service castes (the potter caste, the barber caste, the caste of agricultural laborers, and so on) hold the coveted "right" to perform that hereditary duty for a particular family of upper-caste landholders in return for certain basics of subsistence such as a place to live and a traditionally defined share of the harvest. Such rights held by the low-caste clients, or jajmans, to serve their upper-caste patrons, or kamins, was typically passed on within the family from one generation to another but could also be transferred or sold to another family of the same caste. A comparative analysis of the studies of the jajmani system published up to 1963 was usefully carried out by the American anthropologist Pauline Kolenda in “Toward a Model of the Hindu Jajmani System,” which includes an extensive bibliography.
When first described by Western observers in the 1930s (or possibly a couple of decades earlier), this arrangement was thought to be an ancient one. But in an important 1966 paper, the Japanese historian Hiroshi Fukazawa established that for the Deccan region he studied, the jajmani system in the medieval period only applied to the priestly caste (brahmins); families of other service castes (brahmins being a service caste of an exceptional kind) did not owe their duties to individual landowning families but were servants of the village as a whole, as described by the nineteenth-century sources Marx had relied on. Fukazawa speculated that modern jajman-kamin relations represented not the survival of an age-old tradition, as had been presumed, but a transitional arrangement issuing from the decay of the traditional system under the impact of colonialism. This thesis has been confirmed and extended by the American historian Peter Mayer in “Inventing Village Tradition: The Late 19th Century Origins of the North Indian ‘Jajmani System’” (1993).
For an exposition of the contemporary decay of the jajmani system, see Patronage and Exploitation (1974) by Dutch labor sociologist Jan Breman.
Possibly relevant to the analysis of the Indian caste system is the concept of a “people-class” developed by the Belgian-Jewish Trotskyist Abram Leon in his materialist study of the Jews, whom he argues “constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function.” Leon describes how this special function necessarily operated in the context of a larger, alien political economy (“in the pores” of European feudalism, as Marx put it), and notes that Jewish communities were set apart from the surrounding society by language, religious custom, and internal social organization. The Jews were defined as a caste by Max Weber and, in the Marxist tradition, by Kautsky; then-Trotskyist Max Shachtman in the 1933 document published as Race and Revolution notes that it was Lenin’s preferred term for them. Dozens more such economically specialized, socially isolated “self-reproducing but not self-sufficient communities” around the world and throughout history are listed by historian Yuri Slezkine in the suggestive first chapter of The Jewish Century (2004). Not all of these groups are commonly called castes, but they could be; all the groups I know of that are commonly called castes have a traditional occupation or economic role, be it current or historical.
On how and why the peoples of South Asia organized themselves into the caste society par excellence, see Caste: The Emergence of the South Asian Social System by the American anthropologist Morton Klass. Klass proposes that the caste system was originally formed through the combination of individual primitive egalitarian clans into a class-stratified settled society with the rise of agriculture. In this view, each former clan was forced to find its own economic niche inside the new society as either a group controlling access to the land or one providing services to (primarily) the landed groups; these groups meanwhile retained the kinship boundaries that kept them socially separate. Although Klass describes his theoretical approach as “eclectic,” his basic argument is actually historical materialist. His identification of the local marriage-circle as the basic functional social unit of the caste system is particularly clarifying.
Irfan Habib, Essays in Indian History, Tulika Books, New
Fredrik Barth, in E.R. Leach (ed.), Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon and North-West Pakistan, Cambridge UP 1960.
Pauline Kolenda, Caste, Cult and Hierarchy, Folklore Institute, 1983.
Hiroshi Fukazawa, The Medieval Deccan, Oxford UP 1991.
Peter Mayer, “Inventing Village Tradition: The Late 19th Century Origins of the North Indian ‘Jajmani System,’” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May 1993).
Jan Breman, Patronage and Exploitation: Changing Agrarian Relations in South Gujarat, India, University of Califronia Press, 1974.
Abram Leon, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation, Pathfinder, 1970.
Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century, Princeton UP, 2004.
Morton Klass, Caste: The Emergence of the South Asian Social System, Institute for the Study of Human Issues (ISHI), 1980.