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Book Review: A Marxist Analysis of the Class Structure of Pakistan

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By Ishtiaq Ahmed *

Insofar as the industrial sector is concerned, Rahman points out that population growth accompanied by hectic urbanisation have been transforming it in significant ways

Dr Taimur Rahman’s book, The Class Structure of Pakistan (Oxford University Press, 2012) is an impressive undertaking in Marxist scholarship. Through painstaking research combining a skilful discussion and elaboration of key concepts — mode of production, class, private property, and so on — with systematic treatment of vast empirical data, he sets out to shed light on the class structure of Pakistan.

Karl Marx identified primitive communism, slave society, feudalism and capitalism as successive, distinct modes of production that had unfolded in western Europe. Marx lived when capitalism was forging ruthlessly ahead. He asserted that the capitalist class and the industrial wage earners — the proletariat — were locked in an unresolvable class conflict and in due course capitalism would be superseded by socialism, which in turn would culminate in the unending Age of Plenty: communism. He christened his theory as historical materialism.

There was a problem, however: this European scheme did not applyuniversally. Non-European societies seemed to have stagnated since millennia. Based on the information Marx had about Asia and to some extent of other parts of the world, he propounded the Asiatic mode of production (AMP). Private property was absent in the AMP. Under the AMP, the state collected land revenue through its agents from autarkic village communities, which used the land collectively but without owning it. State agents such as the mansabdars who were assigned the duty to collect land revenue did not own the land though they were in charge of it on behalf of the state. Moreover, the state provided very limited services such as irrigation canals, but extracted the surplus comprehensively. Upon such an unequal system despotism thrived. At times, Marx subscribed to the prevalent Eurocentric imperialist view that India had no history. Although he deplored the exploitative role of the British, he did recognise a dialectical role that colonialism played: ‘“England has to fulfil a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating — the annihilation of Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.”

Scholars have been debating if Marx maintained a consistent position on the AMP and colonialism. A number of studies on India claimed that private property in land did exist during the time of the Mughals and even earlier, and trade in some goods thrived before the British arrived. Nationalist historians were attracted to Lenin’s theory of imperialism, which identified only an exploitative and inhibitive role of British colonialism. Some went to the extent of claiming that India was moving towards industrial production when British imperialism thwarted it.

Orthodox Indian communists even argued that historical materialism was a universal law of social change and India too had gone through the same historical stages as western Europe. Additionally, and more problematically, they began to apply the feudal mode of production to Indian conditions, especially after the British introduced private ownership of agricultural land and created a ubiquitous class of landowners.

Rahman examines such standpoints critically and concludes that they are unsatisfactory. Most centrally, he rejects out of hand any suggestion that feudalism existed in South Asia either before the British took over or afterwards. He points out that under feudalism, land was private property regulated in law and the landowners drew rent from the land through the serfs, who were tied to the land. Serfdom existed neither in pre-colonial India nor during the colonial period. The British did introduce private property in land in India and fostered a class of landowners, but the AMP was perpetuated, albeit with commodity production and a market economy increasingly being fostered in the agrarian sector.

Having prepared a case against feudalism and a one-sided view of colonialism, Rahman retrieves a pristine AMP propounded by Marx and combines the notion of ‘Asiatic capitalism’ to it. This I believe is original theorisation. How well it is received by the scholarly community remains to be seen but one cannot deny that he has arrived at his standpoint after a very thorough review of the relevant literature. He asserts that historically capitalism took different paths of development and the path it had taken in South Asia was Asiatic capitalism. It was characterised by three peculiarities: foreign domination, siphoning of surplus externally and capitalism planted on the AMP. Asiatic capitalism, for him, is a transitory path that took birth within the womb of the AMP and not a new mode of production.

Rahman then proceeds to demonstrate how under the AMP, Asiatic capitalism permeates and shapes the Pakistani class structure. With regard to the agrarian class structure of Pakistan, he asserts that between 1846 and 1870, private land ownership was introduced by the British in areas that became part of Pakistan. After Pakistan came into being, the class structure that evolved included landlords, rich peasants, middle peasants, sharecroppers and wageworkers, constituting the differentiated agrarian class structure. He observes that permanent wage labour, which is the hallmark of capitalism, accounted merely for four percent of the overall labour force. About 40 percent of farms employed casual labour. He makes an interesting connection between class and caste and suggests that caste may have played an important role in the stagnation associated with the AMP.

Insofar as the industrial sector is concerned, Rahman points out that population growth accompanied by hectic urbanisation have been transforming it in significant ways. His findings show that while merchant capital has been transforming into industrial capital, large-scale production and wage labour were still a small portion of the total industrial output. Petty commodity production and small-scale capitalism account for some 70 to 80 percent of the industrial labour force that was employed in enterprises of less than 10 employees each. Such informal production, including family inputs, includes those of women and children.

He accounts for the very significant role US economic aid and the IMF have played in the industrialisation of Pakistan but also contributed to the national debt burden. Additionally, massive inflow of foreign exchange because of the Afghan jihad and the more stable remittances of overseas Pakistanis have to be counted in as sources of national wealth. All such peculiarities underscore the peculiar Asiatic transitory path to capitalism within the AMP.

The empirical evidence on class structure in the agrarian and industrial sectors of Pakistan is illustrated with a large number of charts and graphs. The author has wisely confined his investigation to the economic foundations of the class structure of Pakistan. Now, he can venture into identifying connections between the economic structure, politics and culture. One would also like him to ponder a meta-theoretical and philosophical question: given the evidence from the former Soviet Union and China, is the Marxist teleology about the final triumph of communism still tenable?

* The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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