Nos. 70 & 71, April 2018

Nos. 70 & 71 (April 2018)
India's Working Class and its Prospects

India's Working Class and its Prospects


We planned this issue of Aspects when we realised that three important anniversaries were to follow in close succession: namely, the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Marx’s magnum opus Capital, the centenary of the October Revolution, and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx1

We decided to mark these three anniversaries by providing, in the form of the present issue, some glimpses of the present state of the working class of India; for the working class occupied a key place in Marx’s theory and his practical activity, and it played the key role in the October Revolution.

Today, some might find it puzzling that anyone is still talking about workers, not as an object of sympathy and concern, but as a class capable of exercising political power and shaping its own future. In the present climate, the latter is considered a thing of the past. Indeed, it is frequently predicted that the working class itself will soon be a thing of the past, with the growth of automation on the one hand, and multifarious forms of independent, individually contracted work on the other. Why should we give special attention to the working class rather than to all working people, or all humanity?

Let us leave aside for the moment the dire (and premature) predictions of the disappearance of the working class. We are interested in the condition of the working class not because workers as such are to be valued more than the rest of humanity. We are interested because the questions which face humanity, some of which have acquired even greater urgency today, can only be addressed collectively. And historically the working class has shown the capability to acquire a collective consciousness and act collectively, rather than act as individuals for competing individual gain. We need to explore whether that potential for collective thinking and action still exists, and what obstacles come in the way of it realising that potential. If it no longer exists, the world will be poorer for it.

In the following piece, we begin by outlining the features of the ‘proletariat’, as Marx saw them, and we indicate how far these features were borne out in the world historical developments thereafter.

Secondly, we provide a brief summary of some of the main themes of Capital, as well as a few of the criticisms made of it, touching on themes picked up in the subsequent sections.

Thirdly, we note how in India the dividing line between workers and other working people is not clear, because families struggle to obtain a subsistence from multiple occupations.

Fourthly, as a result of the above, the ‘modern’ sector of the Indian economy actually extracts a tribute from the agrarian sector. This comes at a political price for the workers.

Fifthly, we look at wage levels in Indian industry in relation to the subsistence needs of the working class.

Sixthly, we remark on how stratified India’s labour market is, and how it is shaped by multiple social oppressions.

Seventhly, underlying all this is the fact that an integrated capitalist economy never came into existence in India. Different forms of capital continue to exist, un-integrated, and this is reflected in the structure and consciousness of the working class as well.

Finally, we consider whether, despite all the handicaps they face, the various strata of the Indian working class can, in a composite way, play the historical role that in Marx’s view belonged to the proletariat.
Marx’s own writings are voluminous, and hitherto unpublished materials continue to be published and studied by Marx scholars. There is a vast body of writings on Marx, which would fill libraries. We do not claim to be Marx scholars, even less claim to be scholars of writings on Marx. Our effort here is to apply certain central insights of Marx to the question of India’s working class.



1. The first volume of Capital was published in German on September 14, 1867.The ‘October Revolution’ took place on October 25, 1917 by the Julian calendar, i.e., November 7, New Style. Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818. (back)



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