D. D. Kosambi

Exasperating Essays


Occasional letters show that these essays (and the short story) still continue to attract some readers. Re-publication has been undertaken at their request in the hope that the demand is not restricted to those who voiced it. At any rate, the journals of the first publication are not readily accessible. Emendation, restricted to a minimum, was necessary because proofs were generally not shown to the author by the periodicals concerned. Substantial additions are given in square brackets. A note at the end contains a reference to the original publication and, where necessary, supplementary remarks to illustrate the main theme. Had the analysis not stood the test of time, had an occasional passage, which first read like an unlikely forecast of things to come, not been justified by the event, there would have been no point in dragging these writings out of their obscurity. The essential is the method followed, which is the method of dialectical materialism, called Marxism after the genius who first developed its theory and used it systematically as a tool.

Dialectical materialism holds that matter is primeval, and the properties of matter are inexhaustible. Mind is an aspect of matter, being a function of the brain. Ideas, therefore, are not primary phenomena, but rather the reflection of material processes and changes upon human consciousness which is itself a material process. Therefore, ideas are formed ultimately out of human experience. Matter is not inert, but in a constant state of interaction and change; it is a complex of processes rather than an aggregate of things. In every stage, there resides an inherent quality of challenge, an "inner contradiction", which leads eventually to a negation (not necessarily unique) of that stage or condition. The negation, quite naturally, is again negated, but this does not mean a simple return to the original condition, rather to a totally different level. There is thus a fundamental unity of opposites. Mere change of quantity must eventually lead to a change of quality; quite often, this is an abrupt change after the quantity reaches some critical ("nodal") value. Finally, life is a mode of existence of certain forms of matter, particularly those containing organic compounds such as proteins. Its characteristic mode of existence is that, to preserve its special quality as living matter, it has to interact with a suitable environment in a specific manner, at a certain minimum rate. Then, for non-isolated complete organisms, there is normally an increase in numbers (change of quantity) to a critical level. Non-living matter, on the contrary, retains its characteristics best, the less it interacts with the environment.

On the level of human society, the environment is furnished to a considerable extent by the society itself. The rate and the quantity of interaction with natural surroundings depend upon the instruments of production, and the technique employed: food-gathering, the pastoral life, agriculture, machine production. The distribution of the product among the various members of society is a matter for the relations of production, such as class division, ownership rights etc, whereof the forms are not determined simply by the economic level, nor immediately by the tools, but depend also upon the previous social history of the particular group of men. However, the tools are basic; feudalism or a bourgeoisie is not possible for stone- age people any more than is an atomic pile, or the differential calculus. 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. It is not the purpose here to prove these elementary principles all over again, but rather to show how they can be and have been fruitfully applied to a certain class of important problems. To remain a living discipline, Marxism must continue to work successfully 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 a 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.

Certain opponents of Marxism dismiss it as an outworn economic dogma based upon 19tb century prejudices Marxism never was a dogma. There is no reason why its formulation in the 19tb century should make it obsolete and wrong any more than the discoveries of Gauss, Faraday and Darwin which have passed into the body of science. Those who sneer at its 19th century obsolescence cannot logically quote Mill, Burke and Herbert Spencer with approval, nor pin their faith to the considerably older and decidedly more obscure Bhagawad Gita. The defence generally given is that the Gita and the Upanishads are Indian; that foreign ideas like Marxism are objectionable This is generally argued in English the foreign language common to educated Indians; and by persons who live under a mode of production (the bourgeois system forcibly introduced by the foreigner into India.) The objection, therefore seems less to the foreign origin than to the ideas themselves which might endanger class privilege. Marxism is said to be based upon violence, upon the class-war in which the very best people do not believe nowadays. They might as well proclaim that meteorology encourages storms by predicting them. No Marxist work contains incitement to war and specious arguments for senseless killing remotely comparable to those in the divine Gila.

From the opposite direction, the Indian Official Marxist (hereafter called OM) have not failed to manifest their displeasure with, an interloper's views. These form a decidedly mixed category indescribable because of rapidly shifting views and even more rapid political permutations and combinations. The OM included at various times several factions of the CPI, the Congress Socia1ists, the Royists and numerous left splinter. Their standard objection has been that such writings are "controversial". If consistently pressed this would also exclude the main work of Marx, Engels, Lenin, the best of Stalin and Mao Tse-tung. The only successful way of dealing with adverse views presented in all good faith is a careful, detailed, and factual answer. The OM Marxism has too often consisted of theological emphasis on the inviolable sanctity of the current party line, or irrelevant quotations from the classics.

Marxism cannot, even on the grounds of political expediency or party solidarity, 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 factors 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. For an intellectual, this means at least a few months spent in manual labour, to earn his livelihood as a member of the working class; not as a superior being, nor as a reformist, nor as a sentimental "progressive" visitor to the slums. The experience gained from living with worker and peasant, as one of them, has then to be consistently refreshed and regularly evaluated in the light of one's reading. For those who are prepared to do this, these essays might provide some encouragement, and food for thought.

It is a great pleasure to thank the editors of the original publications. My thanks are also due to Mrs. V. V. Bhagwat and Mr. R. P. Nene for the trouble they have taken over this edition.

Deccan Queen,

October 2, 1957


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