Caste, Class and Race



“First published in 1948, this book is widely recognized as one of the most authoritative volumes of its kind. It analyzes caste (nature and origins, relationships with religion, occupations and family; class (the meaning of social, economic and political classes from their origins as “estates” down to modern times); and, in the longest section of the book, the concepts of race and the relation of race to caste and class. The book concludes with a hundred-page section on race in the United States.” 





CASTE, CLASS, AND RACE ARE SOCIAL CONCEPTS WIDELY EMPLOYED in discussions of current social problems, and yet neither the theoretical meaning nor the practical implications of these concepts, as they apply to concrete situations, have been satisfactorily examined.  In the past these terms have been used promiscuously and interchangeably, with the result that the literature on the subject is exceedingly involved.  Among these involvements two seem to stand out: that between caste and race relations, and that between social class and political class.

An understanding of the characteristics of a caste system is so important as a basis for an understanding of other types of social systems that we have devoted the entire first part of this study to it.  A distinction having been made, we could then discuss feudal, capitalist, and socialist systems without distracting suggestions about caste. To some readers this discussion on caste may seem too elaborate and labored.  When, however, we consider the hundreds of books written on this subject, the continued, almost universal, misconceptions about the sociology of caste, and the significance of these misconceptions to the student of the social sciences, the space given to it is likely to seem small indeed. Although the writer spent some months observing the partial operation of caste among the thousands of East Indians in Trinidad, British West Indies, his data have been taken almost entirely from published materials on the Hindus in India.

It is not ordinarily realized that, of all the great mass of writing on race relations, there is available no consistent theory of race relations.  The need for such a sociological explanation is so great that recently, when one author succeeded, with some degree of superficial logic, in explaining the phenomena in terms of caste relations, the college textbooks and social-science journals, almost unanimously and unquestioningly, hurriedly adopted his theory.  The situation appears to be similar with the concept class, especially in the sense of a power-group phenomenon.  With the exception of the contributions of some of the “radical authors,” the present writer could find very little material which discusses the modern class struggle realistically.  As a matter of fact, even the Marxian writers have not made very clear for us their meaning of class, and this is probably one of the reasons for their having been consistently rejected by the orthodox social scientists.  Yet, openly, the class struggle goes on with increasing fury.

There is no single hypothesis which serves to explain the functioning of caste, class, and racial systems; therefore, it has not been possible to state one in the beginning.  However, we should make it clear that this is no desiccated, academic dissertation.  In fact, it may be thought of as partly a reaction to that massive output on this subject which has little or no theoretical content and which is often irritatingly evasive and circuitous in style.  Since we have not followed this tradition of tentative expression, we may expect, from some very respectable quarters, the criticism of dogmatism.  To be sure, it is well to keep our heads while the world is in convulsions, yet we may become inane if we discuss them as if we were describing an Egyptian mummy.  At any rate, in the handling of these vital social problems we have deliberately tried to write clearly and unequivocally rather than tentatively and impressionistically.

Moreover, in an examination of the functioning of modern political classes one enters a field in which sides have already been taken; consequently it would be presumptuous to expect a unanimous acceptance of conclusions derived from even the most objective treatment of the data.  Surely we do not assume that the final word has been said on any of the larger problems considered in this study. Most of them are only beginning to become vital in the social sciences; thus we should expect views to remain fluid for some time.  In the words of Hans Kohn, “a work of this kind is never a monologue—it is an uninterrupted conversation with those of the past whose thoughts we study, and with those whose task it still is to build the future out of the heritage of the past.  And this conversation goes on after the work has been completed.”

In considering the behavior of “political classes” it has been practically impossible to ignore the work of Karl Marx and that of some of his associates; indeed, there should be no need to ignore them.  In capitalist societies, however, the very name of Karl Marx is ordinarily anathema; consequently, unless the writer takes a position opposite to that of Marx, he is likely not to be heard.  Nevertheless, it seems that interpretations of social data should be allowed to stand on their own merits—and this regardless of whether Marx ever lived.  If social science has any claim at all to be science, it should at least refrain from distilling social data through a context of designedly developed, popular prejudices.  We may be able, for instance, to demolish a certain chain of social logic merely by stereotyping it “Marxian,” yet this achievement shows neither that the reasoning is untenable nor even that we have taken the trouble to understand it.

…There are over six more pages of the preface in “Caste, Class and Race.”


Chicago, July 18, 1947                                                                     Oliver C. Cox


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