Sheetal Chhabria
race and capital Chhabria

This paper asks how whether and how caste fits into a global history of racial capitalism? The misidentification of caste as custom has long misled analysts and thwarted solidarities. Drawing on the insights of two important literatures, this paper seeks to remedy that misdiagnosis and show that 1) caste abolition must be central to any effective anti-capitalist politics in South Asia, 2) a focus on ‘local’ systems of racialization like caste is necessary in any history of global racial capitalism. The two literatures I engaged with to achieve these aims are: scholarship on racial capitalism and scholarship on the Indian transition to capitalism. The result is an expanding of the geography of racial capitalism and the centering of caste-based unfreedoms as central to the history of capitalism in the Indian subcontinent. 

This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the Race and Capital special issue of Historical Materialism. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months, we ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.

Issue 32(2&3): Race and Capital

In 2001 at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, anti-caste and Dalit activists argued that caste should be understood like race, with dehumanizing violence and discrimination holding both systems up.[1] The Indian government countered that the caste problem should not be internationalized since caste was India’s unique cultural problem.[2] The contention that caste was a unique cultural feature of India and therefore unlike race served to protect casteism from international censure.

Safeguarding casteism by calling it a protected religious right was a tactic as old as at least colonial rule. In The Pariah Problem, the historian Rupa Viswanath has uncovered how in the 1890s colonial officials and missionaries sought to investigate what they referred to as “Indian slavery,” upper-caste landholders insisted that caste was not comparable to Atlantic slavery because it was a religiously sanctioned and therefore a gentler form of servitude which was mutually beneficial to upper and lower castes. Given that interference in native religion had already proven detrimental to colonial legitimacy during the 1857 uprising, rendering caste “religious” allowed landlords successfully to escape scrutiny and retain their hold on cheap labor. Caste was thus rendered religious, customary, and traditional not by transhistorical religious texts but because of the specific way religion was mobilized by upper caste elites and landholders.

In internationalizing caste in 2001, anti-caste and Dalit activists disrupted this manufactured separation between caste and race and tried to find common cause with African slaves of the new world, an effort that anti-caste thinkers had been making for a long time. Since the late 19th century, Ambedkar and Dalit workers looked to the American experience to understand their own situation as once-enslaved people. Subaltern actors – bonded laborers, low caste, untouchable or Dalit workers – invoked the American struggle with slavery as a resource for their own struggles.[3] Decolonization for these actors meant much more than the removal of “foreign rule”: it meant attending to the local structures of power and accumulation that subjugated them.

The misidentification of caste as custom has long misled analysts and thwarted solidarities. Studies of caste that do not engage class, political-economy, or the fact of the need for capital accumulation projects from land, labor, money, most often re-affirm the irrationality or arbitrariness of caste/casteism. Such studies do not help us understand the specific material basis of caste nor help us ally with concrete solutions that come from anti-caste actors on the ground, many of whom embraced both anti-caste and anti-capital ideologies simultaneously.[4] Drawing on the insights of two important literatures, this paper seeks to remedy that misdiagnosis and show that 1) caste abolition must be central to any effective anti-capitalist politics in South Asia, 2) a focus on ‘local’ systems of racialization like caste is necessary in any history of global racial capitalism. The two literatures I engaged with to achieve these aims are: scholarship on racial capitalism and scholarship on the Indian transition to capitalism. The result is an expanding of the geography of racial capitalism and the centering of caste-based unfreedoms as central to the history of capitalism in the Indian subcontinent.

In the former body of work, Black Marxist scholars like W.E.B. DuBois and Cedric Robinson have challenged conventional Marxist accounts of capitalist accumulation by showing the centrality of racialization and unfree labor in the operations of capitalism, which is too often understood as a domain of impersonal exchange and free labor. Drawing on the work of Black Marxists, I argue that the durability of caste—as a form of racialized unfreedom—is a feature of capitalism, not a bug, because capitalism relies on both free and unfree, impersonal and racialized labor. Caste, then, is not evidence of capitalism’s non-arrival or underdeveloped state because of colonial rule but rather itself a logic of racialization within capitalism. This implies that caste-oppressed workers must be part of any anticapitalist movement that seeks to win.  

The second literature this paper draw on is scholarship on South Asia’s transition to capitalism. Black Marxists’ work holds important insights but falls short in assuming that racial capitalism emerged in Europe and emanated outward from there. Looking at scholarship on South Asian ‘origins’ of capitalism, however, makes it clear that racial capitalism developed at multiple ‘origin’ points, only later subsumed within a European colonial frame. This makes it possible to understand race and caste as like-structures of economic and social domination, and lay the foundations for a truly internationalist movement against racial capitalism.

This paper is organized in the following manner. The first section establishes the basis of my argument by reviewing recent scholarship that has challenged the notion that caste is a traditional or religious system. The second section lays out the implications of studies of global racial capitalism for understanding caste, with a particular focus on the work of W.E.B. DuBois and Cedric Robinson. The third section uses scholarship on South Asia’s colonial transition to ‘globalize’ understandings of caste, positioning it in the same history of capitalism as race so as to make true internationalism imaginable. The final section concludes by sketching the implications of this paper’s argument for anti-capitalist movements both within India and around the world. What emerges is the need to see the Indian subcontinent’s history as one that is shot through with a fundamental antagonism between capital and unfree labor. Indeed, it is the distinction between peoples rather than distinction between places gives capital its power, everywhere.

Caste and Capitalism

As mentioned above, the mode of understanding caste as traditional and customary is a view that aligns with dominant caste interests. It is also the prevalent way of thinking about caste within the academy,[5] both in India and in the United States. (The caste-status of most academics might have something to do with this.) The anthropologist David Mosse has called this obfuscating scholarly framing an “enclosure” around caste: “the scholarly framing of caste mirrors a public-policy ‘enclosure’ of caste in the non-modern realm of religion and ‘caste politics’, while aligning modernity to the caste-erasing market economy.”[6] In this vein, far too many economic historians of India have blamed the prevalence of caste on India’s failure to progress through capitalism towards a sanitized version of modernity. Scholars have frequently confused caste’s longevity with a proof that it is rooted in tradition.

However, the longevity of caste has not to do with its moorings in tradition, but the powerful counterrevolutionary forces that have foiled caste emancipation again and again.[7] It is much more revealing to see the way caste is entangled with capitalism just as the way race is entangled with capitalism. Arguing to conceptualize caste in this way is not meant to create an analogy nor argue that race and caste are the same. Rather, it is meant to embed caste identity and caste-ism into the historical and material processes of accumulation.[8]

One of the earliest studies that questioned the narrative that colonialism had caused India to undergo a failed transition to capitalist modernity was that of the economic historian Dharma Kumar. In her 1965 publication, Land and Caste, Kumar showed that the creation of a large class of landless laborers was not the effect of colonialism as scholars had thus far contended, but a condition older than colonialism and one that mapped on to caste.[9] This was a profound challenge to conventions of colonial historiography, and Kumar’s insights became a truth mostly buried amongst subsequent histories.

It wasn’t until the 2014 book, The Pariah Problem, that Rupa Viswanath showed that land rights amongst mirasidars included land plus “all the natural resources” including the Pariahs on the land. In other words, rights over land and rights over hereditarily unfree laborers were one and the same; Pariahs were essentially property. Viswanath’s work deftly built upon but moved into a new frame what Dharma Kumar had recognized decades earlier. Kumar had  relegated the casteist-nature of peasantization to the realm of “social explanation” rather than economic, but Viswanath accomplished much by refusing to separate the social from the economic. Viswanath’s work demonstrated exactly why and how landless laborers preceded the process of peasantization and deindustrialization that most historians assumed characterized colonialism. Viswanath showed how appealing to caste as a religious right helped upper caste landholders avoid the consequences of juridical abolition that had materialized across the British Empire, explaining exactly why the poverty and precarity of landless laborers in India has been such a durable form of inequality.[10] Untouchable status, imbricated in both custom and contract all at once and therefore caste and class all at once, gave caste-based poverty its durability.

Caste rendered inequality durable in urban India as well. By the inter-war period, colonial liberal governance claimed to have empowered new Dalit publics to raise the “caste question,” but as Anupama Rao has shown, segregation in housing, education, public goods, and so on, was never overcome by a regime of liberal, anonymous, individuated property rights. Rather than a capitalist regime of property extinguishing caste, the “custom” of caste inflected property itself. As Rao incisively puts it: “In [an] incremental alignment of custom with the contract-inflected regimes of private property, a new foundation for segregation was produced.” [italics mine] Rao’s insights here challenge the notion that an extension of capitalist private property regimes overcomes caste, instead showing caste as constitutive of capitalist modernity.[11]

What we learn from these critical historians of caste and capitalism is that the history of caste is complicated but also kind of simple. Colonialism didn’t invent it, nor was it an aberration of a longer history of benign Hindu practice, nor was it limited to Hindu or even Indian communities.[12] Instead, caste has long been useful in the organization of materially hierarchical society before, throughout, and after colonialism. Certainly, more regional histories are required to rigorously analyse the local specificities of caste and capitalism’s entanglements. Nonetheless, the continuity of caste-based enslavement in the subcontinent is probably the most remarkable structural feature of capitalist modernity in the region.[13]

Once we start looking in this way, we see that caste-slavery, debt-bondage, and discriminatory spectral violence are not phenomenon so categorically distinct from the global trajectory of race-based oppression.[14] It is imperative to see the Indian subcontinent’s history as one that is shot through with a fundamental antagonism between the power of capital and unfree labor, an antagonism that is maintained by recourse to caste as an organizing feature of a deeply unequal society.

Caste & Black Marxism

  1. An Anti-Progressive History

One of the reasons it is profoundly difficult to see something like caste as a constitutive part of capitalist modernity is the very narrow way in which capitalism is understood in the first place. Dominant Marxist understandings of the history and process of capitalism are diffusionist and progressive. In such a story, places and peoples with unfree or “insufficiently proletarianized” labor are narrated as the “outside” of capitalism proper, which is located solidly in places where wage labor prevails. Such views come from Marx’s own understanding of slavery as “primitive accumulation,” and his accounts of industrialization as a progressive force towards world historical transformation.[15] Diffusionist views play a role in developmentalist paradigms, where peoples and places come to be seen as outside of “the economy” proper waiting to be brought in by modernization and technology. We can call this dominant view the “progressive” view of capitalism whereby capitalist relations lead to progress towards capitalism’s own undoing. It was in response to this progressivist view that Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism offered an anti-progressive view of capitalism. Black Marxism was exemplary but not alone in its criticisms of traditional progressive Marxism.

Published in 1983, Black Marxism was written against what Robinson himself called “the tradition” of Marxism that included Marx, Engels, and Lenin, despite the disagreements between them.[16] In Black Marxism Robinson reframed the history of capitalism as something quite different from Marx’s account.

While there were numerous insights in Black Marxism, one is particularly salient for understanding Robinson’s anti-progressive understanding of capitalism. Robinson argues that, contra Marx, “capitalism was less a catastrophic revolution (negation) of feudalist social orders than the extension of these social relations into the larger tapestry of the modern world’s political and economic relations.”[17] He argued that even within Europe, capitalist productive relations grew inside social relations that were precapitalist, racial, and feudal. Thus, the advent of capitalism did not overcome feudal social formations so much as extend them. Colonial processes of racializing and enslaving Africans in the sixteenth century were thus an extension of racial hierarchies internal to Europe, with Africans replacing the Irish and the Germanic peoples in the position of the enslaved.

One of Robinson’s key anti-progressive arguments is that not only is racialism a key component of capitalism, but so are the seemingly “feudal” labor regimes of slavery, informal labor, day labor, and bondage. Together, these form racialized capitalism, not because places or peoples were excluded from the full effects of a capitalist transition but because regimes of unfree and free labor working in tandem were natural to the system. Poverty, precarity, and informality was the correct outcome of racial capitalism because it was not a progressive force. If these things were accepted to be true, then one had to accept that the history of capitalism was not simply the march towards juridical freedom that mystified economic unfreedom, as Marx had argued, but the reinvigoration and wholesale creation of unfreedom itself.

  1. A New Revolutionary Subject

Robinson’s work was a profound rewriting of Marxist histories of both capitalism and industrialism. He showed that because it was embedded in racialized and feudal relations, “the Industrial Revolution…was never quite the phenomenon it has become in the hands of some of its historians and in the popular mind.”[18] As he explains, “the appearance of industrial production was [not] revolutionary (in the sense of a sudden, catastrophic change).” By the eighteenth century, the power of industry developed in an already racial context and did not eradicate forms of enslavement and bondage. Instead, industrial capitalism was born as one component part within racialism’s long and dynamic history. As such, it did not produce a particularly revolutionary proletariat. Instead, workers maintained their cultural, national, and racial identities and capitalized on those to find a footing in new pyramids of production.

This might be Robinson’s most significant interruption of Marxist histories. Understanding capitalism as always already racial is not simply an academic exercise for Robinson. Instead, it allows him to reconceptualize the anti-capitalist revolutionary subject. In traditional accounts, the (European) male factory worker was a privileged counter to the power of capital and became the principal subject of revolution. This was not simply a theoretical position but much organizing and labor activism poured its energy into the factory floor to the exclusion of other workplaces throughout the 20th century. Robinson challenged this at the outset, noting in his introduction that the industrial working classes of Europe never replaced their racial and national identity with their class identity. As such there was no way the industrial working classes could be a world historical force. In the preface to the 2000 edition of Black Marxism, Robinson began with a quote from Oliver Cromwell Cox: “The workers in the advanced nations have done all they could, or intended, to do—which was always something short of revolution.”[19]

For Robinson, the political counter to capitalism could not solely be the industrial proletariat. History showed otherwise. Reviewing the Indian mutiny of 1857 and the Boxer Rebellion, and other struggles against imperialism, Robinson underscored the importance of nationalist rebellions: “And in every instance, peasants and agrarian workers had been the primary social bases of rebellion and revolution. Nowhere, not even in Russia, where a rebellious urban proletariat was a fraction of the mobilized working classes, had a bourgeois social order formed a precondition for revolutionary struggle… The idiom of revolutionary consciousness had been historical and cultural rather than the “mirror of production.”[20] He argued that revolts by slaves who, even if temporarily, fled slavery, or slaves who foiled their oppressors and masters in other ways offered a political template with which to challenge racial capitalism. Such rebellions revealed the astute political understandings of those enslaved by a system that depended on their racialized and unfree labor.

Robinson was not alone in trying to reconceptualize the revolutionary subject who could overthrow capitalism. In the 1980s and 90s, many scholars in colonial studies, feminist studies, and studies of race and slavery challenged the valorization of the factory worker as the exclusive container of revolutionary struggle. Feminist Marxists, for instance, have shown how gendered, racialized, domesticated and unfree labor is in fact that on which capitalist development depends. Thus, gendered unfree labor not only survives the capitalist transition but thrives under it. Sylvia Federici has shown how the very creation of the industrial proletariat required a war on and against women. She showed that under capitalism, housework underwent “real” rather than “formal” subsumption, becoming central to capitalist accumulation even as it remained outside the wage.[21] By placing Robinson within this milieu of critique we can understand more clearly the limitations of Marxism in the traditional sense and how Robinson intervened interventions against the progressive story of capitalist development. Robinson and other scholars challenged the many myths of capitalism, including the notion that markets & capitalism are blind to race, gender, and nationality. The political counter to racial capitalism was not simply wage labor’s industrial strikes, but resistances of other kinds even from juridically unfree or domesticated laborers.

  1. Applying Black Marxists’ Insights to Caste

South Asianists’, postcolonialists’ and nationalists’ understandings of colonial racialism have only entered our study of colonial rule as that which installs a Manichean line as Fanon called it,[22] between the colonizer and the colonized. Rather than understand caste-ism as an older form of racialism inside of which the power of capital grew such that unfreedom and poverty were the inevitable outcome, caste is separated from the economy, imagined as a religious system that serves only to justify a distinctly colonial capitalism that underdeveloped India. That unfree forms of bondage and labor remain in South Asia is explained as simply because the subcontinent’s capitalist transition had been thwarted and that we failed to form a national bourgeoisie who could revolutionize the mode of production.

Robinson provided an account of the durability of unfreedom, the limited effects of industrialization even in England, and most especially the very exclusions on which England’s own story of revolutionary transition depended.[23] In Robinson’s analysis, Marx was not Eurocentric, rather he had made a more fundamental error. Marx had extrapolated from a very narrow experience even in England and used it to define in advance, even predict, what constituted true political engagement.[24] In contrast to this valorization of the revolutionary potential and promises of industrial labor, Robinson challenged it. The long history of factory labor’s compromises with capital, often on the backs of racialized and unfree labor, were best understood by understanding capitalism as racialized not just in its onset but even in the way it solved its crises.

“Racial capitalism” demands we investigate how racialization serves capitalist accumulation either by managing labor by disorganizing movements against capital or by creating networks of affiliation that motor newer and newer projects of expansion and accumulation. As such, race and racism, rather than rendered transhistorical or manifestations of group-based enmity, are historicized by connecting specific political economic conjunctures and the specific processes of racialization they depend on and produce to antagonisms between labor and capital. This process of racialization pertains to “cultures” or locations wherever the power of capital must revitalize itself in the face of its demise. By extension to the Indian case, we can identify caste and casteism as important component parts of capitalism’s processual nature. This caste-capitalism is a process prone to crisis and re-consolidation by the use of caste to solve capitalism’s problems.

In India for instance, as Stephen Sherlock shows, this progressivist version of Marxism came from Moscow and dominated communist parties who eventually amalgamated nationalism to working class demands. Sherlock shows that “In the colonies such as India this meant that the communists should all but dissolve themselves into the nationalist movement, regardless of its class character or anti-imperialist potential.”[25] The dangers of abandoning the class character of anti-colonial nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s are probably obvious, but especially damaging was the long term effect this had on the survival of the Left in postcolonial India where left organizers focused on organizing a declining mill-hand and industrial workforce rather than the growing sector of informal workers. In postcolonial India, a focus on the declining industrial workforce meant that the growing informal sector provided a constant reserve army of labor that prevented any limits on capitalist power. What’s worse, the “Left in India has most of its life striven to appear more nationalist than the nationalists.” This was and is so true, that, again as Sherlock notes, “Marxism became one of the tools of the Indian state in its developmental project.”[26] Indeed this diffusionist model of capitalism had a lot of power even amongst anti-capitalists. Placing the history and theory of racial capitalism against it was and is a powerful move with both theoretical implications as well as implications for praxis.

Caste & the Transition Debates

In W.E.B. DuBois’ 1935 text Black Reconstruction in America, DuBois observed that the legal abolition of slavery in 1865 didn’t end slavery. Rather, abolition began the movement of capital from “white to black countries where slavery prevailed.” In providing such an analysis, Dubois connected the downward mobility of the white farmer, the freed Black laborer, laborers across South America, Africa and Asia in a common system where agriculture, industry, and property worked in tandem to generate profits for the few. However, despite this astutely internationalist understanding of racial capitalism, it was unfortunate that in Dubois’ otherwise powerful story, “Asia,” “Africa” and “South America” appeared as undifferentiated masses, lands providing a geographic container or backyard for the northern capitalist’s greed. Rather than staging a longer history of racialized class conflict of their own, places named Asia, Africa, and South America entered history on an American timeline. Moreover, despite understanding the common system connecting free and unfree laborers, Dubois continued to see the non-Western world as a locus of unique, primitive forms of unfreedom. At one point, Dubois expressed his frustration at the degradation of the Black worker’s power in the US South by saying, “caste has been revived in a modern civilized land. It was supposed to be a relic of barbarism and existent only in Asia. But it has grown up and has been carefully nurtured and put on a legal basis with religious and moral sanctions in the South.”[27] The social system of “caste” appears here as a relic of the past and of “barbarism,” a system of unmoving status endorsed by tradition or custom rather than itself a system contingent upon particular political economic conditions and accumulation projects that had ever narrowing or widening geographic scales. It was thus difficult to conceive of caste as modern or Asia as having its own history of racial capitalist development.

Like Dubois, racial capitalism within the non-West remained a blind spot for Robinson. He provided a history of capitalism that was rather Eurocentric. In the introduction to Black Marxism, Robinson wrote, “Though hardly unique to European peoples, its appearance and codification, during the feudal period, into Western conceptions of society was to have important and enduring consequences.”[28] So even as he acknowledges that the history of racialism in which capitalism grew could occur in other societies, he himself focused on Europe alone. Robinson’s history of capitalism depended heavily on the work of Henri Pirenne, a Europeanist who believed so strongly in European exceptionalism that he placed medieval Europe singularly on a path to capitalist development – because of its invention of double entry bookkeeping ­– from centuries long before “capitalism” was even conceivable.[29] In following Pirenne, Robinson didn’t engage with the scholarship contesting this Eurocentric origin story of capitalism.

Not only DuBois or Cedric Robinson but numerous thinkers who depend on them have failed to challenge the Eurocentrism of Robinson (or American centrism of DuBois). To overcome these latent Eurocentrisms in the work of Black Marxists, we need to build upon Robinson’s own anti-progressive history of capitalism and expand racial capitalism’s geography to unmoor it from European soil. We need to ask what would a global history of racial capitalism look like that was neither Eurocentric nor so diffuse that it had no meaning? And what kind of internationalism would it allow us to think and imagine differently? Pointing to those mistakes also allows us to counter a dominant Eurocentric history of racial capitalism that has long held dangerous implications for internationalism. is it possible that what is called “racial capitalism” in North Atlantic modernity is a more geographically widespread process, a process that neither originates in a single location — not in Europe or the North Atlantic as is widely assumed — nor develops the same way everywhere?[30] Finally and relatedly, what is gained by expanding the geography of racial capitalism? But what would happen if we combined the insights of, for instance, Andre Gunder Frank’s ReOrient with Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism? In other words, what would happen if we extended Robinson’s insights into the “old world” and spaces of purported underdevelopment to show how even extra-European early modern commercial societies were structured on “internal” and external racialisms inside of which colonial capitalism grew?

Challenging the Eurocentric origins of capitalism had a bit of a career especially in the scholarship that challenged Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory and the transition debates that valorized English agricultural development.[31] When Wallerstein placed Europe at the center of the world economy already by the 1600s, South Asianists challenged Wallerstein’s Eurocentric temporality.[32] After the 1990s, much scholarship on South Asia, especially that produced in the United States, abandoned class-based analysis by dismissing “capitalism” as a western analytic construct that distorted more than it revealed. Thus, interest in the question of capitalism’s origins, capitalist transitions, and the role of colonial India in economic history waned. Barring a few important exceptions, it wasn’t until 2008’s financial crisis that a renewed interest in the history of capitalism in America brought along a similarly renewed interest in such histories of the subcontinent.

Before that dismissal, vibrant debates about the subcontinent’s history of capitalism took place. Much of this could be broadly characterized as debates over continuity and change with regards to European colonial power. In other words, what was new and what was old about European colonialism? Did European colonialism cause an irreversible break with the subcontinent’s past or were their older forms of power into which European power was grafted? Rather than rehearsing those debates here, I can instead point to some important summaries and state that at best these debates are best understood as abandoned and not solved, a feature that can be gleaned by reading Dipesh Chakrabarty’s posthumous concession to Chris Bayly upon Bayly’s passing.[33] A recent essay by Andy Liu in the Journal of Asian Studies does an excellent job connecting those older debates to contemporary forces of de-industrialization in the 1980s, signaling a shift from a Marxist story of production to an at least nominal Smithian story of commercialization.[34] Doing so, Liu asks scholars to more clearly integrate commercialization and production based stories of capitalism, rather than see them as linearly opposed. Such would enable the possibility of writing histories of capitalism firmly situated in China and India, amongst other places.

An important challenge to a Eurocentric history on the origins of capitalism emerged in those transition debates. Historians of South Asia provided accounts of continuity that were and sometimes still are about how “our” commercial classes were on par with or commensurable to Europe’s commercial classes up until the onset of colonialism. This parity was only to be thwarted and foiled by colonial exclusions later. But in the decades prior to the eighteenth century, the Indian subcontinent had ingenious merchants who crisscrossed overland trade and oceanic routes as cosmopolitan and rational economic actors.[35] The rule of property that institutionalized in the 19th century was a final outcome of long and gradual changes that entailed centuries of intensifying commercialization.[36] Thus it wasn’t until 1800 or even 1850 that India and Europe truly diverged, in other words this continuity thesis pushed the moment of divergence forward in time.[37] Until that moment, the subcontinent had potentialities to capitalism, or at the least, we could safely argue against Wallerstein that commercial capitalism did not originate in Europe in the 16th century and then incorporate India,[38] but rather had diverse local contexts of origin. As Frank Perlin, an advocate of the “proto-industrialization thesis,” once put it, “…events within India need to be recast as an inseparable part of an international forum of activities.”[39]

This idea of multiple origins was important for decentering Europe and challenging scholars like Henri Pirenne. What our version of commensurability followed by dependency accomplished was that it firmly placed the power of at least commercial capital on Indian soil, not as an imposition from outside that radically disrupted our history. Yet scholars often conceded that while there might have been capitalist potential in the subcontinent prior to European rule in the 19th century, such potential was thwarted by the colonial encounter. A version of the “dependency” thesis, in colonial India, the economy supplied the raw materials for industrial output in England and as such it was forced into a prior stage of development.[40] Peasantization and de-urbanization were the outcomes of colonial rule, as evidenced by the poverty and dependence on agriculture that the majority of Indians inherited. If India had industrialization, it was in select enclaves, the economy as a whole was not characterized by it.

Rethinking commercial capitalism in the “old world” or the colonial world was also important to countering Henri Pirenne. Jairus Banaji’s scholarship over the years has done this most forcefully, showing the expansion and generalization of the formal subsumption of labor, the persistence of commercial capitalism, and the power of merchant capital to dominate production relations rather than simply being a commercial transfer. Analyzing capitalist development from the colonies and in the Deccan countryside brought up a different set of problems and solutions. What was the history of capitalism if not the generalization of wage labor and industry? A powerful and much read essay by Banaji argued that indebtedness amongst the peasantry in colonial India was not a remnant of a prior mode of production but persisted through colonial commercial capitalism. Debt was paid in advance of a season of production and so this debt functioned as a wage.[41] In doing so, Banaji modernized our understanding of debt bondage and showed how it was central to colonial commercial capitalism.

In a more recent work, Banaji argues that what is considered commercial capitalism as an era prior to industrial capitalism persisted much further in time than Marx thought, closer to between 1880-1914. What’s more, merchant capital certainly dominated over production relations.[42] As such, attention to this commercial capitalism could reveal the plurality of capitalist relations of production. Banaji has elsewhere stated, “Capitalism is characterised by the drive to accumulate capital regardless of the specific form in which labour is dominated and surplus-labour extracted. To the individual capitalist it makes no difference whether the worker is free or unfree, works at home or in a factory, and so on. Those decisions are purely economic and technical; they relate to issues like costs of production, availability of labour, and whether a certain kind of worker (female, home-based) is more suitable for a certain kind of production. At this level (individual capital) even the construction of ‘skill’ is a highly subjective matter.”[43]

Yet the accomplishments of these arguments had a very important limitation. Such accounts made the same mistake Robinson accused Marx of making, namely ignoring the political capacities of all the informal and unfree labor that continued or was even created alongside the industrial transitions. Most importantly, neither such Marxist scholars of colonial India nor Marxist labor organizers on the ground drew out the political potential of anyone but the industrial working classes.[44] This was because challenging periodization or the exclusion of other kinds of labor besides wage-labor did not radically alter Marxian understandings of the history of capitalism, it simply added to Marx without challenging the fundamentally progressive qualities Marx attributed to industrial capitalism. At worse, ambiguity was maintained on whether anti-capitalist organization was even possible in colonial societies so long under the rule of commercial capitalism.

But we neither have to carve out Indian factories from their social mileu to prove that India had capitalism too nor must we find commercial men in the Indian Ocean to be equivalent counterparts to commercial agents working for European trading companies. Rather the structural continuities of labor exploitation, both free and unfree, continuities that traverse city and country, factory and plantation, and the wage and debt, are central components of capitalist logics, and they can be commercial, industrial, and slave-based.

In many ways Robinson’s argument in Black Marxism should have been the continuity thesis South Asia’s historians looked for. A theory of racial capitalism would have demanded that we recognize the necessary and causal link between the casualization of labor, deindustrialization, rising debt bondage, and the power of capital, everywhere. As a historical theory and method, this was not a question of connecting class and caste, but rather asking how they had come to be seen as distinct. We should have been answering the question so well-posed by Walter Johnson: By which historical processes had the “boundaries between slavery and freedom been drawn?”[45] While the impulse to demonstrate the persistence of commercial capitalism has created welcome historiographical insights on the role of the colonies in world capitalism writ large, it has been limited in its ability to engage the question of politics, of how specifically racialization is a political maneuver meant to both keep accumulation projects going and a potential force of its undoing.

Conclusion: On Internationalism

Once we accept the profound implications of Cedric Robinson’s disruptions of the myths of capitalist development, some of which even Marxists had bought into, we can start to see why caste is not an atavistic relic but rather institutionalized in caste-capitalism. By endowing political potential in a non-factory class and overcoming the progressive model of history, Robinson not only provided a historical retelling but a theoretical account of the history of the modern world, not one that added to or was deviant from the theory of capital created by Marx but one that ought to replace it. As such it wasn’t an “economic history” that bracketed off questions of politics but treated the political-economic as a single field of actions of exploitation and dispossession against which some rebelled.

Yet, his story of racial capitalism has a history not captured by a Eurocentric frame. Robinson was right that the history of capitalism necessarily and always entailed enslavement and unfreedom, but he was wrong that such a system originated singularly in Europe. Instead, racial capitalism has multiple origins and its geographic and uneven development cannot be understood by “west versus rest” paradigms. What we learn by extending racial capitalism’s history is that most places in the world have longer capital-labor relations that are themselves racialized and do not progress towards industrialization. These facts help us overcome many of the teleological anticipations of “development,” “modernization,” and even “globalization” that are offered up as anti-colonial. To overcome racial capitalism, a “Black Marxism” must inform internationalist projects in ways that don’t reify industrial labor to the expense of other forms of labor, but must also inform internationalist projects in ways that don’t simply ask for the removal of “foreign meddling” in domestic affairs such that Asian capitalists and developers, whether at the helm of native industries or heads of state, are propped up as the vanguard of Asian postcolonial liberation.

The story of Black Marxism, in spite of slave rebellions against the system of racial capitalism, is still one of unfreedom to unfreedom. Black Marxism was not a simple celebration of the power of revolt, counter-movements of property and labor exploitation found newer and newer tactics of control. Robinson said,

In the year 1877, the signals were given for the rest of the century: the black would be put back; the strikes of white workers would not be tolerated; the industrial and political elites of North and South would take hold of the country and organize the greatest march of economic growth in human history. They would do it with the aid of, and at the expense of, labor, white labor, Chinese labor, European immigrant labor, female labor, rewarding them differently by race, sex, national origin, and social class, in such a way as to create separate levels of oppression—a skillful terracing to stabilize the pyramid of wealth.[46]

This skillful terracing depended on ideological, “cultural” and local regimes of meaning-making that could justify and enshrine inequality as natural to certain peoples and places. This was the tactic of racial capitalism both in the United States and in India. If we take Robinson’s work to heart, we find the world we live in today is much more “feudal” than often recognized with coercive, non-economic, and filial-based networks driving production and extraction.

DuBois engagement with Indian politics and history was more sustained than the reading of Black Reconstruction that this paper opened with. Yet, producing the true internationalist political that was necessary to counter the fact that freedom anywhere negated freedom everywhere couldn’t exactly be found in DuBois other work. While India figured prominently in DuBois thinking on anti-colonial resistance as exemplary of the struggles of African Americans in the United States, India remained an ahistorical trope rather than a concrete reality with a history and politics of its own.

DuBois corresponded with Indian nationalist Lala Lajpat Rai, watched Gandhian agitations closely, and thought India showed a path forward. It was probably these views that led him to author the novel Dark Princess in 1928, a story of love and resistance. But scholars have questioned Dark Princess not only for its patriarchal and heteronormative positioning of colonized peoples as feminine, but also for its ahistorical understanding of India. Dohra Ahmad’s book, Landscapes of Hope: Anti-Colonial Utopianism in America notes the contrast of how realistic DuBois’ depictions of Chicago were in contrast to the almost fantastical princely figures that served as metonyms of Indian life. In fact, as Ahmad notes, the fantastical places in Dark Princess “staunchly and notoriously collaborationist” not anti-colonial. Ahmad further warns, “The romance of India, its ahistoricity, and the inconsistent analogy between colonized India and black America all demand that we approach the idea of a global South with caution.”[47]

Indeed, DuBois’ positioning of figures of old-world authority as exemplary of colored peoples’ pre-capitalist sovereignty was of a kind with some of the understandings of pre-colonial African history that are mobilized to challenge colonialism. A sustained focus on caste-based violence as class-based violence and exploitation within a longer history of what would become colonized lands has not yet been undertaken.[48] Doing such a project would require us to ask how caste and accumulation projects served one another from the 1400s onwards without starting with the assumption that Europe was already at the center of the world. It would require us to take Gunder Frank’s ReOrient much more seriously and yet move beyond it to criticize the labor exploitation practices on which Asian centrality in the pre-European economy was based.

Placing coercive labor at the center of capitalist dynamics allows us to “stretch Marxism” without falling into a new universalism. It allows us to make sense of India’s regionally specific forms of capitalist class power. Doing so should caution us against decolonization or national liberation projects that depend on more traditional Indian marxists as allies against colonial and neocolonial rule, and caution us against overlooking the concrete particulars of India’s class dynamics, coercive labor regimes, and the racialization that manifests as caste and religion. Racism is always about labor discipline; informal, precarious, gig, "traditional," feminized, etc. is the main form of labor everywhere, not a sign of economic stagnation or an incompleteness of the capitalist transition. The power of caste-capitalism has certainly continued into the present where the ongoing racialization of labor creates what Malini Ranganathan calls “environmental unfreedoms” that render life precarious all over again as housing evictions and ecological scarcity threaten urban communities.[49]

A fundamental insight of racial capitalism is that it is difference between peoples and not difference between places that keeps racial capitalism going, development discourse fails to recognize this. What would it take to build an internationalism that recognized the importance of class stratification everywhere? Unfreedom is metaphorically like a force of gravity, it pulls the power of all labor everywhere down. But this force of gravity functions in historically materialist ways; as long as there is cheaper unfree labor somewhere, easier to discipline and exploit, the power of labor everywhere to resist exploitation is reduced. To see this play out one doesn’t even need to oppose “first world” to “third,” one can see this in the way in which cheap prison labor in the United States has undermined the power of labor on “the outside.”[50] This is the point of Du Bois quote in the beginning, that unfreedom anywhere threatens freedom everywhere. As a problem it is always already an international problem. What would the implications be of analyzing unfreedom as a connected phenomenon across the old world and new? How can we understand both race and caste identity as outcomes of a single imperial dynamic relation between labor and capital?

By the 20th century, if not earlier, there are some remarkable parallels between how caste and how race function. One parallel is the way the question of whether there can be an anti-racist politics without anti-capitalism serves to clarify political struggles against race and caste. The answer to this question has formed an important line between liberal anti-racists and Black Marxists and allies; it informs the debates over reparations and the emancipatory role imagined for property.[51] About caste, we can ask can caste be annihilated, as Ambedkar asked for, without confronting capitalism? On the one had is demands for inclusion into the spoils of production, be it national wealth or private enterprise, and on the other is the radical dismantling of that production process itself. In postcolonial India, especially since the 1980s, inclusion in representation has more prominently replaced radical challenges to caste-capitalism.[52] We know, however, that there were Dalit Communists like R.B. More who gave the communist party whatever anti-caste leanings it had. But More was also constantly negotiating both the casteism of communist party members, many whom were upper caste, and their conception that caste was atavistic and therefore irrelevant to class struggle.[53] This problem has been most beautifully rendered in Sujata Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants, where Untouchables struggle to find a place in India’s burgeoning Communist movement, at times challenging and at times accepting the movement’s caste-blindness.[54]

Even the spectacular violence against Dalits has parallels to anti-black violence, rooted as they both are in retaliation against successful efforts towards emancipation. Anand Teltumbde has shown how casteist violence against Dalits is often retaliation against successful Dalit upliftment, as such it is rooted in specific conjunctures of political economy beginning in the 1970s when low-castes were pitted against untouchables for reserved positions — a dynamic similar to that between poor whites and Blacks in the United States. Teltumbde is currently jailed on state charges of anti-nationalism and has not received the attention he should in South Asian and postcolonial studies curricula. Teltumbde has shown in much of his work that upper caste bureaucrats, intellectuals, statesmen, police, investigators, educators, businesspeople, and even communists, more often than not foil and disorganize organized movements and actions against casteist-capitalist-structural violence.[55] More recently, even low caste groups classified as “other backward castes” have been very successful at disorganizing radical structural challenges to state-capital accumulation projects often because of the way they are enlisted as beneficiaries of both reservations and development projects.[56] The disparities and inequities experienced by other backward castes and Dalits should not be conflated either by policy makers or scholars. Both occupy different structural positions historically and in the present. Conflating the inequities experienced by both necessarily leads to sloppy solutions in which OBC upliftment hides further Dalit descent down a social and economic ladder.

Because of the assumption that capitalism began in the West and spread outwards through empire, an assumption even Cedric Robinson made in Black Marxism, scholarly accounts of decolonization and internationalism tend to celebrate national liberation projects of the mid-twentieth century as exemplary of formal severance from western powers. But this is a mistake. Conceptions of “Asia” as an ahistorical geographic container or caste as timeless status could easily morph into the broader category “global south,” a category so broad that it often limits rather than enlivens the internationalist imagination. In the “global south” problems can too easily be conceived of as problems of “backwardness” or “underdevelopment” due to colonization and a belated modernization. Even positive accounts of a “peripheral” capitalism can serve to undermine working class aspirations in the global south, implying that they must wait before their time for freedom has come. But this is a mistake. It is the distinction between peoples rather than distinction between places that gives capital its power, everywhere. Only through international working class-based solidarity, a solidarity that must traverse formal and informal labor, wage and day labor, domestic and industrial labor, and free and unfree labor, can internationalism truly overcome the power of racialized capital everywhere.


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[1] The author would like to thank the following scholars for their reading and deep engagement with many drafts of this piece: Charisse Burden-Stelly, Natalie Etoke, Navyug Gill, Aparna Gopalan, Mishal Khan, Andy Liu, Malini Ranganathan, Anupama Rao, Nate Roberts, Dwaipayan Sen, and most especially Rupa Viswanath.

[2] Natrajan and Greenough 2009.

[3] Several works have explored these resonances. See Visweswaran 2010; Loomba 2017.

[4] Gidla 2017; More 2020.

[5] Appadurai 2020.

[6] Mosse 2020.


[8] Ramnarayan Rawat’s study on Chamars, stigmatized now as caste-based leather workers, shows they were once agricultural workers, hence a once exalted people fallen through the transformations of Hindu dominated, colonial capitalism. Rawat 2011.

[9] Kumar 1965.

[10] Tilly 1998.

[11] Rao 2009, p. 81-82.

[12] The scholarship on caste that argues these things is rather voluminous but exemplary are Dirks 2001; Bayly 1999; Ahmad 1978.

[13] As has been found even in construction work of temples and motels in the United States: “Laborers From India Are Suing New Jersey Hindu Temple For Worker Abuse.” NPR, June 2, 2021:; Annie Correal, “Hindu Sect Accused of Using Forced Labor at More Temples Across U.S.” New York Times, Nov. 10, 2021.

[14] See Khan in Leroy and Jenkins 2021.

[15] For a discussion of the distinction between formal and real subsumption, see “Appendix: Results of the Immediate Process of Production” in Marx 2004. For discussions of Marx’s understanding of slavery and industry see Johnson 2004.

[16] Robinson 2020, “Introduction.”

[17] Robinson 2020, Chapter 1.

[18] Robinson 2020, Chapter 2.

[19] Cox 1964, cited in Robinson 2020, “Preface to the 2000 edition.”

[20] Robinson 2020, Chapter 9.


Federici 2004; Federici 2018; Federici 2021.

[22] Fanon 1963.

[23] Robinson discussed figures of unemployment, cycles of unemployment, cand even a criticism of Hobsbawm.

[24] Not only had Marx missed how de-industrial numerous forms of production and laborers were in England, but as Walter Johnson has shown, even in the choice of example in the discussion on commodity fetishism, “Marx's substitution of (British) flax [linen] for (American) cotton as the emblematic raw material of English capitalism enabled him to tell what in essence was a story of the commodity form artificially hedged in by British national boundaries.” Johnson, “The Pedestal and the Veil,” 301-2.

[25] Sherlock 1998, p. 69. I would like to thank Nate Roberts for directing me to this article.

[26] Sherlock 1999, p. 70–2.

[27] Dubois 2007, p. 694.

[28] Robinson 2020, “Introduction.”

[29] Pirenne 1956.

[30] Peter James Hudson shows how, “Racial capitalism has a lineage that predates Cedric Robinson” in “Racial Capitalism and the Dark Proletariat,”

[31] Wallerstein 1976; Wood 1999.

[32] For instance, see Washbrook 1990.

[33] Chakrabarty 2016. I would like to thank Dwaipayan Sen for pointing me to this article.

[34] Liu 2019.

[35] This literature is large but includes Chaudhuri 1978; Pearson and Das Gupta 1987; Subrahmanyam and Bayly 1988; Subrahmanyam 2001. For a long review essay of three recent works situating them in the historiography of Indian Ocean history see Chhabria 2019.

[36] Ludden 2005.

[37] Parthasarathi 2011.

[38] Wallerstein 1986. Wallerstein has modified his views and acknowledged a pre-European exchange network of which India was a part in some of his other writings.

[39] Perlin 1983, 34.

[40] Gunder Frank 1998.

[41] Banaji 1977.

[42] Banaji 2020.

[43] “Jairus Banaji: Towards a New Marxist Historiography” Interviewed by Félix Boggio Éwanjée-Épée and Frédéric Monferrand, Historical Materialism.…

[44] See my and Andy Liu’s interview with Jairus Banaji here:…

[45] This is a paraphrasing of Johnson 2004, p. 306.

[46] Robinson 2020, Chapter 9.

[47] Dohra 2009.

[48] Some works do make this start, see for example Guha 2013.

[49] Ranganathan 2021.

[50] Thompson 2011.

[51] Johnson 2016; Yamahatta-Taylor and Reed 2019.

[52] Teltumbde 2018.

[53] More  2021.

[54] Gidla 2017.

[55] Teltumbde 2018.

Teltumbde 2016; Teltumbde 2010.

[56] Teltumbde 2010. Teltumbde 2018.