D.D.Kosambi And The Frontiers Of Historical Materialism
by Prabhat Patnaik
by Prabhat Patnaik
This article is reproduced from Pragoti.
D.D.Kosambi’s interpretation of Indian history from a Marxist perspective was path-breaking in a dual sense. It not only sought to provide an analysis of Indian history as a process, as distinct from a mere litany of names and dates, and thus to open up an entire “continent” for scientific exploration (to borrow Althusser’s phrase), but also, in doing so, contributed to an expansion of the frontiers of historical materialism itself. His contribution to the understanding of Indian history and to its being opened up for scientific analysis has been discussed extensively by historians. But his contribution to historical materialism has hitherto received scant attention. The present paper attempts in a small way to redress this balance, by focusing on only two aspects of his work, namely his account of the Magadhan State, and his theory of “acculturation”.
Usually in Marxist analysis, the State, which is an instrument of class rule, is seen to rest upon a class structure that has both ontological and epistemological priority. The usual pattern, both in history and therefore in Marxist theory, can be described as follows: the dynamics of social life bring about changes over time in the class structure and the balance of class strengths within any particular mode of production; the new class, as distinct from the extant dominant class, that progressively gains ascendancy within this mode of production, rallies other classes under its banner, and succeeds eventually in bringing about a change in the nature of the State; having acquired control over State power it then sets about establishing the sway of a new mode of production in which it is the dominant class.
In this entire story, the formation, the consolidation, and the gradual ascendancy of what eventually becomes the ruling class, occurs prior to, and independently of, its becoming the ruling class. Because of this, the State is always seen as a class-State, over which control is exercised by a class that has an independent and prior historical existence. There are of course important questions about what the term “control” means in this context, and about the degree of “autonomy” of the State, but these do not negate the basic point that the State is usually seen as an instrument of class rule by a ruling class that has an independent and prior historical existence.
The Magadhan State according to Kosambi was not such a State. “The Arthasastra state”, he wrote, “was not characteristic of a society in which some new class had already come into possession of real power before taking over the state mechanism” (1965, 143-4). It was of course a class-State, but not of a separately formed and independently existing ruling class; it was a State in which the king and his subordinate State functionaries themselves could be said to have constituted the ruling class. It was not a prior class with pretensions to rule that brought about the Magadhan State, but the State itself that ipso facto defined the ruling class.
The historical context for the emergence of such a State, the conditions for its dominance, and the methods employed by it to sustain itself in power (even as particular dynasties presiding over this State kept changing), are too well-known to need recounting here. The context was the extension of agriculture through the clearing of forests, and the development of commodity production on the basis of this growing agrarian economy. The conditions for its dominance lay in its control over mineral resources, especially iron, which it employed to clear vast tracts of jungles in the Gangetic plain and elsewhere; the surplus extracted from the producers settled on these “crown lands” was used to maintain a huge standing army and a flourishing urban life, where the capital city Pataliputra (Patna) became for a considerable length of time the largest city in the world. And the methods used by it to sustain its power, described in Kautilya’s Arthashatra, included, apart from this standing army, an extraordinarily centralized system of bureaucracy, regulations and espionage.
What is remarkable however was not just the highly centralized polity, but above all the highly centralized pattern of ownership of property in the hands of the State. The sitā lands, “settled as well as farmed directly under crown supervision”, “soon formed so great a proportion of the cultivated area that Greek visitors…believed all land belonged to the Indian king” (1965, 149). But it was not a matter of land ownership alone. The State had a monopoly of mining and engaged in commodity production on a large scale. There were of course private traders and merchants to whom minerals could be sold by the State, and agricultural produce by both the State and the peasants, but a whole array of restrictions and taxes upon such traders ensured that the overwhelming weight of the State in handling commodities persisted; and likewise the State’s domination in mineral processing heavy industry was never threatened.
In Kosambi’s words, the “Kautalyan state appears so fantastic today because it was the main land clearing agency, by far the greatest landowner, the principal owner of heavy industry, and even the greatest producer of commodities. The ruling class was, if not created virtually by and for the State, at least greatly augmented as part of the administration: the higher and lower bureaucracies, the enormous standing army of half a million men (by 300 B.C.) with its officers of all castes and diverse origins; as important as either, a second but hidden army of spies and secret agents- these were the main supports of the new state” (1965, 143). To be sure, since the State did not have a formal monopoly over either trade or land-clearing, a class of private traders, farmers and gahapatis which had come into being earlier, and whose need for security and safe trade routes had been answered by the emergence of the “unified monarchy”, continued to exist. But neither was this class represented in the major echelons of the State (Kosambi contrasts this with the position of merchants vis-a-vis the Chinese empire around this time), nor did the State become an instrument for this class to flourish. Instead, the State itself came largely to occupy the position that this class might have been otherwise expected to occupy; it became virtually the ruling class.
The idea of the State bureaucracy being the ruling class is by no means a new one. It may be invoked, and occasionally has been, to describe certain other instances as well, but the Magadhan State, as Kosambi sees it, was sui generis. Let us look at some of these other instances.
From Professor Irfan Habib’s (1999) account of the agrarian system of the Mughal empire, where the imperial bureaucracy appears to have appropriated the bulk of the surplus, the conclusion may be drawn that this bureaucracy constituted the ruling class of that period. But there are three obvious differences between the Mughal State and the Magadhan State: first, the imperial bureaucracy under the Mughal empire had to share the surplus with lower echelons (the zamindars), and represented in that sense a superimposition upon a pre-existing ruling class with whom it was enmeshed, rather than a separate new arrangement. Secondly, there was no single integral property right on land in the Mughal empire. Indeed Professor Habib (1995) examines the question of property right by looking at the right over the surplus produced on land. By contrast, in the Magadhan empire, according to Kosambi, the resettled peasants on “crown land” did not necessarily have even hereditary occupancy rights, which suggests something like a single integral property right on such land vested in the State. Thirdly, the Magadhan State, as analyzed by Kosambi, was engaged in a whole range of economic activities, including of course mining and forest clearing, which greatly augmented the productive base of the economy, compared to the primarily surplus-appropriating Mughal State whose apparatus of surplus appropriation was so well-developed that it was more or less taken over subsequently by the colonial State and employed with much greater ruthlessness (in so far as the Mughal tax on produce was substituted by a tax on land and enforced through a whole new paraphernalia of juridical property rights backed up by Courts of Law). It follows, for all these reasons, that the class status of the Mughal bureaucracy was vastly different from that of the bureaucracy of the Magadhan State.
The fact that the Magadhan State “owned” the bulk of the means of production and was engaged in a range of economic activities that augmented the productive base of the economy, may suggest that Magadha was an early instance of a situation that according to ultra-Left writers, characterized the Soviet Union at a later date. Several ultra-Left critics of the Soviet Union, including a section of the Trotskyists (though not Leon Trotsky himself) had persistently characterized the Soviet Union as a class-State where the State bureaucracy constituted a ruling class. They had called it by several names such as State capitalism, Bureaucrat Capitalism, Managerial Capitalism (this last characterization, authored by Burnham and Carter, being associated with a “convergence thesis” according to which both advanced capitalist countries like the U.S. and the Soviet Union were “converging” to “managerial capitalism”). And the question would naturally arise: to what extent does Kosambi’s characterization of the Magadhan State provide theoretical justification to all such characterizations of the Soviet State?
The simple and obvious answer to this question is: none whatsoever. The Soviet Union was formed as a sequel to a revolution in Russia where the working class, in alliance with the peasantry, seized State power and set up a dictatorship of the proletariat. Apart from saving the world from the horrors of fascism, the Soviet Union not only gave succour to anti-imperialist struggles all over the world throughout its existence, but largely contributed to the process of decolonization of the third world. And in addition it set up the most gigantic welfare state system for the workers that the world has ever seen. There were no doubt bureaucratic distortions in the Soviet Union, the prospects of which had been foreseen by Lenin and against which he had warned, but this is not the same as the bureaucracy constituting the ruling class. (Significantly, the protagonists of this view have never tried to explain, though they need to for the sake of completing their argument, why the Soviet bureaucracy was so committed to the anti-fascist struggle, so committed to the anti-imperialist struggle, and so committed to a Welfare State for the workers). It follows that Kosambi’s analysis of the State bureaucracy constituting a ruling class in Magadha cannot be used as an analytical prop for ultra-Left theories about the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union constituting a ruling class. And indeed Kosambi would have been horrified by any such use of his theoretical position. His theory, in short, is completely sui generis not just with regard to the historical situation it depicts, but also with regard to its own total structure in depicting that situation.
The question naturally arises: under what circumstances would the State bureaucracy be able to constitute itself as a ruling class? Or putting it differently, if it follows from Kosambi’s analysis that in certain historical situations, such as prevailed in the period between the 6th and the 3rd centuries B.C. in India, a State may come into being which does not reflect the hegemony of a pre-existing class that has been acquiring ascendancy, but whose personnel and bureaucracy itself largely constitute the ruling class, then what is the specificity of this historical situation?
Since the coming into being of such a State is bound to antagonize the pre-existing classes which get hemmed in by it, such a State can survive only if it has certain unique strengths. The access to mineral resources, especially iron, over which the State had a monopoly, and which could be used for cutting forests, and for bringing fresh land under the ownership of the State, provided the Magadhan State with such a unique strength (the post-Kosambi discovery of Megalithic sites where the presence of iron dating back to the second millennium B.C. has been archaeologically established does not necessarily negate his thesis about the importance of the role of iron for the Magadhan State): the cultivation of such land with the help of a re-settled population provided it with a substantial and growing surplus with which a massive standing army and bureaucracy could be maintained,. This was a sui generis situation mot easily replicable elsewhere (though certain parallel arguments have been made about the “absolute autonomy” of the Iranian State in certain periods of the twentieth century because of its control over massive oil resources); but Kosambi’s boldness in cognizing this phenomenon constitutes a major contribution to the expansion of the frontiers of historical materialism.
A class society of the conventional kind began to emerge from the pores of the centralized Magadhan structure as it started to decay (under the initial impact of a fiscal crisis, according to Kosambi). While empires sprouted up periodically, the last in this phase of Indian history being that of Harsha, these were now increasingly based upon a class structure where the oppressed classes, incorporated into the Vaisya and the Shudra castes, were kept down. But this expanding agrarian class society also absorbed into its fold the tribes and guild castes that were functioning outside of it. It did so through the penetration of Brahmins into their midst in order to assimilate them through a process of “reciprocal acculturation”.
The tribal deities were accommodated into the Brahminical pantheon, so that the tribes could worship the Brahminical gods together with their own deities, even as the rest of society also worshipped these transformed tribal deities. Matriarchal groups worshipping some mother goddess were assimilated through the “marriage” of the mother goddess with some male god of the Brahminical pantheon, such as Durga-Parvati (and a number of local variants) being made the wife of Siva, and Lakshmi that of Vishnu. Together with this there came new myths, new rituals and new places of pilgrimage.
Kosambi expresses the process as follows: “The mechanism of assimilation is particularly interesting. Not only Krishna, but the Buddha himself and some totemic deities including the primeval Fish, Tortoise and Boar were made into incarnations of Vishnu-Narayana. The monkey-faced Hanuman….with an independent cult of his own, becomes the faithful companion-servant of Rama, another incarnation of Vishnu. Vishnu-Narayana uses the great earth-bearing Cobra as his canopied bed to sleep upon the waters; at the same time the same cobra is Siva’s garland and a weapon of Ganesha. The elephant-headed Ganesha is son to Siva, or rather of Siva’s wife…This conglomeration goes on for ever, while all the tales put together form a senseless, inconsistent, chaotic mass. The importance of the process, however, must not be underestimated. The worship of these newly absorbed primitive deities was part of the mechanism of acculturation, a clear give-and-take” (1965, 170).
This acculturation however was a means of assimilation of tribes into the class society. The tribal chief, with the backing of a few important tribesmen, would become the ruler of the tribe, acquiring an upper caste, usually Kshatriya, status, while the rest of the tribe would get merged into the peasantry with a lower caste status. Sometimes the Brahmin would discover an upper caste lineage for the tribal chief in the epics or the Puranas, and would occasionally even marry himself into the tribe, creating progeny that would become the new tribal Brahmin. “All this amounted”, says Kosambi, “to keeping down a newly created set of vaisyas and sudras by Brahmin precept and kshatriya arms” (1965, 171).
What acculturation did was to assimilate tribes into the developing agrarian society without any explicit use of violence. Since it simultaneously achieved two distinct outcomes, namely the overcoming of the isolation of the tribe on the one hand, and the splintering of the tribe into two distinct classes in the process of overcoming this isolation on the other, each of which could have been a potentially violent process, the significance of the fact that acculturation obviated the use of violence should not be underestimated.
At the same time however Kosambi looks at the long-term damage it did to India’s intellectual and cultural life: despite overcoming the isolation of the tribe, it never fully overcame the isolation of the village society as a whole, and hence inhibited the scope of commodity production, and with it of cultural exchange; it promoted superstition; it led to the proliferation of a mass of senseless ritual; it discouraged codification and recording; it subscribed to the concept of a “logic” divorced from all reality; it thwarted scientific advance; and it privileged “hierarchy” over “equity” which was the original meaning of Ashoka’s dhamma.
Kosambi’s concept of “acculturation” again is something that falls outside usual Marxist analysis. While acculturation itself consists of the mutual acceptance of each other’s deities and rituals, through an act of locating them within a broader, fantastic myth, underlying it is the acceptance of the ideological hegemony of the Brahmins, not only by those being assimilated but also by those with whom assimilation takes place. In fact this assimilation which is the product of this dual hegemony also serves to buttress this hegemony further. Several aspects of it are striking from a Marxist perspective: first, while the acquisition of ideological hegemony following the violent assimilation of a group into society is not uncommon, the use of ideological hegemony prior to the use of violence and as a substitute for violence is not. Secondly, the fact of ideological hegemony exercised by an outsider being an instrument for the splintering of the tribe into the ruler and the ruled is itself quite remarkable. Thirdly, the fact of ideological hegemony exercised by the Brahmins over the outside groups serving also to buttress their ideological hegemony over their own society, is also both important and uncommon.
In short, what we have here is not a simple subjugation of tribes by the non-tribal society, but the simultaneous existence of several processes of “becoming”: the “becoming” of tribal society into class society; the “becoming” of tribal society into an assimilated segment of a broader agrarian society; the “becoming” of Brahminical ideology into a dominant force in the tribal society; the “becoming” of the Brahminical ideology into a dominant force in the broader society by virtue of this fact; and so on. Such a rich and complex process must be historically quite unique; and so is Kosambi’s theorizing of it within the literature on historical materialism.
This rich and complex process naturally begs the question: what were the historical specificities underlying it? How is it that acculturation of the sort described by Kosambi could occur in India? What was the basis on which it could occur? Let us construct an answer to this question on the basis of Kosambi’s analysis (though Kosambi himself, concerned more with underscoring the phenomenon of acculturation, does not, in my view, discuss it in as much detail as it deserves).
Having tribal deities accepted or “married” into the pantheon of the Brahminical gods could not in itself have been much of an inducement for tribes to get assimilated into the broader agrarian society. Even though the chiefs would have benefited from such assimilation, in so far as it helped them to get elevated from being mere chiefs to becoming rulers, and thereby presumably control a larger amount of surplus, the ordinary members of the tribes could not possibly have been tempted into such assimilation unless it contributed to an improvement in their economic position. Only such an improvement would have overcome their natural resistance to the introduction of class division within the tribe, to the abandonment of tribal law, and to the acceptance of the status of an inferior caste within an “alien” universe.
In short, acculturation as a means of assimilation in lieu of violence would succeed only in a situation where such assimilation is beneficial in a more substantive sense, by improving the material position of the assimilated. This could only have occurred in so far as settled agriculture yielded higher incomes than the traditional occupations of the tribes. This, Kosambi’s analysis suggests, must have been the case, in which case the Brahmin’s role in facilitating acculturation was founded upon an even more substantive role which he played, of bringing superior production practices, better technology, better knowledge of markets, and in general, higher income-earning possibilities to the tribal population. The Brahmin could play this role because he not only had a pre-eminent position in matters of education, culture and knowledge, but, not having to work for his subsistence and living off the surplus, was also free to move around throughout the country.
Kosambi puts the matter as follows: “The Brahmins here acted as pioneers in undeveloped localities; they first brought plough agriculture to replace slash and burn cultivation, or food gathering. New crops, knowledge of distant markets, organization of village settlements and trade also came with them. As a result kings or kings-to-be invited Brahmins, generally from the distant Gangetic basin, to settle in uopened localities” (1965, 172). It is this knowledge and skill brought to the tribes by the Brahmins that must have prepared the ground for the process of acculturation.
Concepts like the “Magadhan State” and “acculturation” contain deep insights into the process of Indian history and constitute major building blocks for constructing its totality. In addition however they push the frontiers of historical materialism outward. Kosambi could advance his novel Marxist interpretation of Indian history because he was not bound by a “closed” reading of Marxism, by a perception of Marxism as a “closed system”. His Marxism was not a “formed” theoretical system into which human history had to be fitted, as he felt S.A.Dange to be doing in his book India from Primitive Communism to Slavery, but a scientific approach to the concrete study of human history. Marxism necessarily had to be “open-ended”.
As he put it, “to remain a living discipline, Marxism must continue to work with newer discoveries in science (including archaeology), and must yield new valid results in history. Its importance lies not only in the interpretation of the past but as guide to future action. By its correct use, men can make their own history consciously, rather than suffer it to be made as helpless spectators, or merely to study it after the event” (1957, 2-3). The necessity of correct analysis of the past in Kosambi’s perception therefore derives from the fact that it aids correct praxis for changing the world. And correct analysis requires not closed minds but those which are open to new discoveries in science and which are alive to new facts: “The only successful way of dealing with adverse views presented in all good faith is a careful, detailed and factual answer” (1957, 3).
In talking of a “factual answer” Kosambi is not taking a naïve “scientist” view of “facts” and thereby reducing Marxism to a naïve “scientism”. On the contrary he says: “Marxism cannot be reduced to a rigid formalism like mathematics. Nor can it be treated as a standard technique such as work on an automatic lathe. The material, when it is present in human society, has endless variations; the observer is himself part of the observed population, with which he interacts strongly and reciprocally. This means that the successful application of the theory needs the development of analytical power, the ability to pick out the essential features in a given situation. This cannot be learned from books alone. The one way to learn it is by constant contact with the major sections of the people” (1957, 3-4).
But then if Marxism is “open-ended”, if it must continue to work with newer discoveries, then what exactly remains of Marxism? What is the “theory” whose application Kosambi is talking about? Kosambi’s understanding of Marxism is as clear and unambiguous as it is non-heterodox: Marxism accords centrality to social production and its categories. “The progress of mankind and its history thus depends upon the means of production, i.e. the actual tools and the productive relationships. Society is held together by the bonds of production” (1957, 2). These words of Kosambi could have been almost taken out of The German Ideology.
This brings us, finally, to Kosambi’s relationship with the Left. Kosambi was associated with the Communist Party during the war years when he wrote occasionally for the Party publications . Even though his association with the Party weakened subsequently, he was extremely active in the Peace movement organized by the Communists. The Sino-Soviet rift weakened the Peace movement, and Kosambi, increasingly disillusioned by the direction it was taking, finally severed his links with it in 1963. But he remained an ardent sympathizer of the Chinese Revolution till the end of his life in 1965, and had agreed to write for an Encyclopaedia that the revolutionary regime in Cuba had planned to bring out. (The project had to be abandoned because of Cuba’s economic hardships). Notwithstanding his differences with the Communists (the Communists themselves it must be remembered had differences among them which eventually led to a split in the Party), the fact that he was considered sufficiently close to them explains perhaps why his proposed Tagore Memorial Lecture at Harvard could not materialize, though the drafts he had prepared for his Encyclopaedia article and for the Tagore Memorial lecture became the basis of his Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline.
Kosambi’s political positions were not too distant from those of the dominant section of the Communists. Indeed his political analysis of the Nehruvian era in one of the essays in Exasperating Essays is scarcely any different from what the largest Communist party of today would say about that period. And his espousal of Marxism, and commitment to the cause of “men making their own history consciously”, were indubitable.
His main objection to what he called “Official Marxism”, propounded by his contemporary Communists in India, appears to have been that it treated Marxism as a “closed” system. This is implicit in his complaint that it considered his writings “controversial”, a criticism which would then exclude according to him “the main work of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and the best of Stalin and Mao-Tse-tung” (1957, 3). He decried the fact that Official Marxism “too often consisted of theological emphasis on the inviolable sanctity of the current Party Line or irrelevant quotations from the classics” (1957, 3).
None of this makes Kosambi a heterodox Marxist. It is surprising therefore to find no less a person than Professor Romila Thapar (2008) writing that Kosambi “insistently asserted his autonomy from the clutches of contemporary orthodoxies, both of the Left and of the Right.” There are two problems with this remark. First, it puts the Left and the Right, and Kosambi’s relationship with the two, on par. But, notwithstanding all his differences from the political Left, Kosambi’s relationship with even this political Left can never be considered to be on par with his relationship with the Right. Secondly, it considers “heterodoxy” and “openness” as synonymous. One can be a non-heterodox Marxist, and precisely for that reason, shun “closedness” of the mind, which is completely foreign to Marxism . Indeed it is Kosambi’s non-heterodox Marxism, which, far from preventing him from pushing the frontiers of historical materialism through novel concepts such as those discussed in the preceding sections, actually motivated him to do so.
Habib Irfan (1995) “The Distribution of Landed Property in Pre-British India” in Essays in Indian History – Towards a Marxist Perception Tulika, New Delhi.
Habib Irfan (1999) The Agrarian System of Mughal India (Second Edition), Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Kosambi D.D. (1957) Exasperating Essays, People’s Book House, Poona.
Kosambi D.D. (1965) The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
Patnaik P. (2008) “The Terrain of Marxist Theory”, Safdar Hashmi Memorial Lecture, organized by Jana Natya Manch, November 8, 2008, Delhi.
Thapar R. (2008) “Early Indian History and the Legacy of D.D.Kosambi”, Economic and Political Weekly, July 26- August 1.