The Making of the Indian Working Class
by Vinay Bahl



Book Review

Vinay Bahl, The Making of the Indian Working Class. The Case of the Tata Iron and Steel Company, 1880-1946 (New Delhi & London: Sage Publications, 1995). 432 pages. Rs. 395.

Vinay Bahl's The Making of the Indian Working Class offers a wide and refreshing discussion of the trials of colonial capitalism and, most particularly, the national industrial bourgeoisie's attempt to develop an industrial sector. Her specific case study is the Tata Iron and Steel Company located in Bihar, India. The Indian bourgeoisie, unlike the Chinese, was able to negotiate with a hostile colonial state and foreign capital (which itself only entered the country in productive areas with a low organic composition of capital or else into non-productive areas like finance, insurance and trade) and produce an industrial base as well as a resilience which transformed revolutionary energies into mass mobilization to produce a bourgeois state. Bahl very adroitly explains the geo-political reasons for the colonial state's accession to the national bourgeoisie (notably, the decline in British industrial productivity in comparison to the American, Belgian and German concerns) as well as the national bourgeoisie's push towards a renegotiation of the naturalized ideas of comparative advantage (which was itself an ex post facto justification of imperialism after the deindustrialization of India). Bahl's book is a salutary reminder that too much economic imperial history is wont to forget the racist-political ideologies at work alongside the profit-motives of capitalism. Just for this, The Making is a worthwhile read.

On the terrain of proletarian consciousness, Bahl is less useful. Eager to demonstrate that the proletariat dispenses with ties of ethnicity, religion and gender, Bahl writes that "caste had little relevance with respect to the outcome" of the workers' struggle (109) or elsewhere, "during their struggle these workers were not engrossed in community or ethnic identities all the time" (303). Lapsed European Marxists (such as Melluci and Laclau) promote certain social identities (race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality) in order to delegitimize proletarian identity and consciousness; their form of post-Marxism leads to an erroneous naturalization of social identities. To combat them by saying that social identities do not matter and that proletarian struggles are able to continue despite social differences is to lose the organizational tension inherent in the workers' movement. Bahl's polemics against the Subalternists overshadows the nuanced dialectics of organization which have once more entered the framework of labour history-writing, notably since the publication of Dipesh Chakrabarty's Rethinking Working-Class History (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989). Rajnarayan Chandavarkar's monumental study of the Bombay workers, The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India (Cambridge: CUP, 1994) and Dilip Simeon's The Politics of Labour in Late Colonial India (Delhi: Manohar, 1994) lead us into a fundamental reconceptualization of the story of the construction and struggles of the industrial workers of India. These books, supported by articles from Chitra Joshi among others, offer us a novel way to approach the question of working-class organization and consciousness: the argument which joins these books follows from the orthodox Marxist position that the production process impacts upon the consciousness of the workers and that the workers themselves enter the workplace along with the histories and ideologies from their various pasts. If Marx, in the Holy Family, sketched out a model of the imputed class consciousness (zugerechnetes Klassenbewusstein) or one which is logically appropriate to the workers' context, he was also cautious to inform us not to "regard the proletarians as gods." Rather, the proletariat, he wrote, "go through the stern but steeling school of labour" in order to clarify their world-historic role which is not in what they believe, but in "what the proletariat is," as the sufficient contradiction of capitalism in their very being (Moscow: Progress, 1975, 47).

Simeon, for instance, argues that the workers articulated their proletarian identity through ethnicity; at many points in her book, Bahl shows the same thing. The subalternists, notably Chakrabarty, do not quite argue that the "culture of workers" is the only determinant for working-class history (18): in my understanding, Chakrabarty emphasized the "experience" of the workers in order not to leave out what Thompson in The Poverty of Theory (171) called the "affective or moral consciousness," that part of the worker's being which is often abstracted out by those who believe that the imputed class consciousness is the necessary and natural ideology of the proletariat. Chakrabarty's book has its failings, but it cannot be dismissed in the service of the false dyads put in place by new social movement theory.

Despite the forays into a misleading debate against the subalternists, Bahl's book should be highly recommended for those interested in imperial history, in the dynamics of global capitalism and in South Asian history. The debate on consciousness needs to happen, but before it begins we might dispense with the binary of certainty (this is how it is) and cynicism (who cares?): it's about time intellectual labour went about its own exercise with a measure of doubt. The salvation of the Left will be our capacity to damage the naturalization of the Right from our own measured dialectical capacity to doubt our own standpoints.

by Vijay Prasad
Assistant Professor, International Studies, Trinity College, Hartford, CT.

[Reproduced from: Labour/Le Travail, 1997].

This page is maintained by Vijay Prashad

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