The renowned French sociologist, Raymond Aaron, proved, at least to his own satisfaction, that classes had ceased to exist in the modern advanced societies due to the high degree of social mobility. He also denied the existence of capitalism, asking how could one speak of capitalism today, when, at the holiday resorts, young metal workers (jeunes metalaux, according to him), slept with the daughters of their bosses? One imagines he did not mention “young bosses” sleeping with the daughters of the metal-workers because they always had access to the working class women, Friedrich Engels being a prominent example.
But apparently they are not so defined. An individual member of a class may be temporarily disconnected from the means of production. But if his class of origin retains a permanent and well-defined relationship with those means, and this relationship is indispensable for the existence of a particular mode of production, the unemployed individual is deemed to enjoy the same relationship with the means of production and, consequently, being a member of his class of origin.
The term “Dalit”, a Sanskrit word for the “oppressed and exploited”, does not define a modern class. It is a social category of the peripheral capitalism, in which capitalist relations have been superimposed upon the existing pre-capitalist classes and strata. Some of them have been distorted in the process, others frozen. In the case of India, where the caste system has survived into the modern times, the social disabilities and hereditary low wages prescribed by it for lower castes reinforce the oppression brought by capitalism. This particular remnant of pre-capitalism also rejects the principle of interclass mobility, which is so central to capitalism.
Lastly, the labour-power expelled by the agriculture and now in transition to either the industrial reserve army or marginalisation, forms an important element among the Dalit.
Herein lies the problem posed in any definition of class. In the course of a general transition of society from one mode to another, as in the case of some societies today, the fragments of the receding classes are gradually absorbed by the new leading class or its peripheral strata. However, this is not an automatic process in the Third World, as the change there is long and almost never complete. Here these fragments form into a social conglomerate, whose constituents are derived from various historical epochs.
It is, therefore, unable to form a class and act politically as one. It can in practice be only a pressure group, expressing itself in populism. Its tendency is that of sub-class political activism descending frequently into violence. It lacks a coherent social outlook. The impasse of its situation can be broken only when the road to capitalist transformation is cleared by the organised action of the capitalist class itself.
n The writer is a retired ambassador.