Ambedkar’s socialism: some reflections
Babasaheb Ambedkar experientially and pragmatically looked at Indian society as structurally unequal because of the caste system that governed what a person born in a particular caste would get. He was naturally attracted to socialism as a system of property equalizer. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the first conscious attempt of mankind towards a socialist future, was welcomed by him as reflected in the publication of a series of articles in all his journals – Mooknayak, Bahishkrit Bharat and Janata. But in India, he thought, emulating such an example would be like putting the cart before the horse.
In ‘Annihilation of Caste’ where Ambedkar provided an elaborate diagnosis, he engaged with the communists who were pushing for a Bolshevik like revolution in India. He thought that without destroying the caste system, it was not possible to bring about a socialist revolution in India. From this perspective, he asked the socialists, ‘Can you have economic reform without first bringing about a reform of the social order?’ and thought that the socialists had not considered that question.1
Affirming his belief in socialism, he writes:
‘I do not believe that we can build up a free society in India so long as there is a trace of this ill-treatment and suppression of one class by another. Believing as I do in a socialist ideal, inevitably I believe in perfect equality in the treatment of various classes and groups. I think that Socialism offers the only true remedy for this as well as other problems.’2
Then he questions the understanding of socialism by the socialists:
‘To say that such a belief is enough is to disclose a complete lack of understanding of what is involved in Socialism. If Socialism is a practical programme and is not merely an ideal, distant and far off, the question for a Socialist is not whether he believes in equality. The question for him is whether he minds one class ill-treating and suppressing another class as a matter of system, as a matter of principle and thus allow tyranny and oppression to continue to divide one class from another… the economic reform contemplated by the Socialists cannot come about unless there is a revolution resulting in the seizure of power. That seizure of power must be by a proletariat.
‘The first question I ask is: Will the proletariat of India combine to bring about this revolution? What will move men to such an action?… Men will not join in a revolution for the equalization of property unless they know that after the revolution is achieved they will be treated equally and that there will be no discrimination of caste and creed. The assurance of a socialist leading the revolution that he does not believe in caste, I am sure, will not suffice. The assurance must be the assurance proceeding from much deeper foundation, namely, the mental attitude of the compatriots towards one another in their spirit of personal equality and fraternity.’3
He further elaborates:
‘If Socialists are not to be content with the mouthing of fine phrases, if the Socialists wish to make Socialism a definite reality then they must recognize that the problem of social reform is fundamental and that for them there is no escape from it. That, the social order prevalent in India is a matter which a Socialist must deal with, that unless he does so he cannot achieve his revolution and that if he does achieve it as a result of good fortune he will have to grapple with it if he wishes to realize his ideal, is a proposition which in my opinion is incontrovertible. He will be compelled to take account of caste after revolution if he does not take account of it before revolution.’4
In course, he came to define his vision in terms of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, insisting that all three of these values should be realized in optimal fashion. The French Revolution, which this slogan is identified with, emphasized liberty which, he saw, degenerated to mean liberty for the rich and powerful to exploit the poor and power-less. Equality, as pursued by the Russian communists, negated liberty. And both ignored the third, fraternity, which he reckoned by the Deweyan term, ‘social endosmosis’,5 the essence of democracy. Therefore, he added that he had not taken them from the French Revolution but from his master, the Buddha. Literally speaking, it was anachronistic to imagine Buddhism, more than two millennium before, could contain these bourgeois concepts. However, he saw that such a precept could only be conceived and realized in a religion.
In his schema, both religion and the state occupied an important place. Within the frame of liberalism, as I see, he used them as a control mechanism for people; religion exerting primary control over individuals by shaping and controlling their mind and the state, with its coercive force, ensuring that their outside conduct confirmed to law.6 Because of this fixation, he could not imagine the world without either religion or state, one of the reasons for his reservations about Marxism was that it (Marxism) hated and discarded both. As a pragmatist, he could not imagine a Marxian utopia where all of these ideals – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – could be realized together, not in the optimal manner but to the fullest extent without any need of religion or the state.
Ambedkar gave concrete expression to his socialist vision in ‘States and Minorities’, the memorandum he wrote on behalf of the Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF) to be submitted to the constituent assembly (CA). It was prepared in the context that SCF would not find any representation in the CA as it did not have enough numbers to elect any. ‘States and Minorities’ contained a proposal for ‘state socialism’ the CA should adopt in a future constitution. He came to realize, unlike in the days he wrote ‘Annihilation of Caste’, that unless economic equality is guaranteed, political equality would be superficial and fragile. He imagined that the socialist structure could be hard-coded into the constitution as an unalterable feature.
The salient points of his plan were: (i) Industries which were, or might be declared to be, key industries should be owned and run by the state; (ii) Industries which were not key, but basic industries, should be owned by the state and run directly or by its corporations; (iii) Insurance should be a monopoly of the state, and the state must compel every adult citizen to take out a life insurance policy commensurate with his wages as would be prescribed by the legislature; (iv) Agriculture should be a state industry; (v) The state should acquire agricultural land held by private individuals, whether as owners, tenants or mortgagees, and pay them compensation in the form of debentures equal to the value of their right in the land, with an elaborate provision of how these debentures would be treated; (vi) The agricultural land so acquired shall be leased out in standard sizes to the farming collectives of villagers, formed without distinction of caste or creed, which would cultivate them in accordance with rules and directions issued by the government.
The state would provide finance, implements, and requisite inputs such as water, manure, seeds, etc. against the payments to be recovered from the produce. The collective would share the produce among its members in the prescribed manner after settling the payment of charges to the state.7
Later, he managed to enter the CA with the help of Jogendranath Mandal from the Khulna-Jessore constituency. He was invited to speak on the Objective Resolution presented by Nehru on 13 December 1946. In his speech made on 17 December, while criticizing Nehru for his empty rhetoric, he hinted at his plan of state socialism:
‘Sir, there are here certain provisions which speak of justice, economical, social and political. If this Resolution has a reality behind it and a sincerity, of which I have not the least doubt, coming as it does from the Mover of the Resolution, I should have expected some provision whereby it would have been possible for the State to make economic, social and political justice a reality and I should have from that point of view expected the Resolution to state in most explicit terms that in order that there may be social and economic justice in the country, that there would be nationalisation of industry and nationalisation of land, I do not understand how it could be possible for any future Government which believes in doing justice socially, economically and politically, unless its economy is a socialistic economy. Therefore, personally, although I have no objection to the enunciation of these propositions, the Resolution is, to my mind, somewhat disappointing.’8
The last sentence of this passage, however, was surprising. He said ‘I am however prepared to leave this subject where it is with the observations I have made.’ Why might he have added that? Was it signalling some kind of rapprochement between him and the Congress as subsequent developments indicated? When his membership came to an end with the announcement of the Mountbatten Plan of Partition of 3 June 1947, with which his constituency went over to Pakistan, the Congress decided to get him elected from the Bombay province before the next session of the CA would convene. The Congress had shelved its plan to get G.V. Mavalankar elected to the CA when Barrister M.R. Jayakar resigned to be its chairman. Thus, Ambedkar was brought back to the CA by the Congress and elected to the drafting committee on 29 August 2047 and subsequently chosen as its chairman. This volte face on the part of the Congress is typically explained as a change of attitude by the Congress leaders because of the constructive approach he took in his speech.
For instance Gail Omvedt writes:
‘The speech helped change the attitude of leaders like Nehru with regard to Ambedkar. Ambedkar was opposing Partition, he was speaking up for a united government, he supported a strong centre and his left sympathies were well known. Whatever claims that the Congress might have made to be the sole representative of the Untouchables, however thoroughly the SCF had been defeated in the general election, it had established its base firmly in the Marathi speaking areas, in much of the Tamil speaking areas and even in parts of Uttar Pradesh. Leaders like Nehru and Sardar Patel recognized this fact. The SCF’s considerable mobilization power, not to mention the voting pattern of Dalits themselves, was clear to political leaders. With this background, when Barrister M.R. Jayakar resigned his position in the Constituent Assembly from Bombay province, Nehru and Sardar Patel suggested Ambedkar’s name to fill the vacancy in July 1947.’9
This observation is not convincing for multiple reasons. First, Ambedkar himself was pleasantly surprised at being called upon to speak out of turn on the Objective Resolution, which made his speech possible. Second, Ambedkar’s views on some of the issues Omvedt mentions had not become known only then. Third, the argument regarding the mobilizing strength of the SCF is not valid. Because not much earlier, the call for direct action given by the SCF against the Cabinet Mission report, had evoked a response in only a few pockets and did not pose a threat to the government. Moreover, the Congress was not worried about votes then as it had almost no rival left after Partition. This vote bank consideration would arise only in the late 1960s with the rise of regional parties.
This volte face had far-reaching consequences and could not have been based on such facile reasons. None other than Gandhi was capable of such a strategic feat; only he commanded the force to prevail upon not only Nehru (who was never well disposed towards Ambedkar) and Patel, but the entire Congress to comply. Associating Ambedkar with the Constitution as its framer was a stroke of an extraordinary strategy for the Constitution to be upheld by the lower strata that would be its biggest victim.
There was no trace of his state socialism in the entire Constitution. During the CA debates, on 15 November 1949, K.T. Shah, who like Ambedkar was an alumnus of the London School of Economics and founding President of the United Trade Union Congress, a leftist labour organization established in 1949, wanted to include the words ‘secular, federal, socialist’ in Article 1 of the Constitution. He inter alia said:
‘And last is the term "socialist". I am fully aware that it would not be quite a correct description of the state today in India to call it a Socialist Union. I am afraid it is anything but Socialist so far. But I do not see any reason why we should not insert here an aspiration, which I trust many in this House share with me, that if not today, soon hereafter, the character and composition of the State will change, change so radically, so satisfactorily and effectively that the country would become a truly Socialist Union of States.’10
Ambedkar, who in his proposal to the CA vide ‘States and Minorities’ as well as in his debut speech in the CA, wanted the Constitution to spell out the structure of the economy as socialist rejected it. In reply he said,
‘…I regret that I cannot accept the amendment of Prof. K.T. Shah. My objections, stated briefly, are two. In the first place the Constitution …is merely a mechanism for the purpose of regulating the work of the various organs of the state. …What should be the policy of the state, how the society should be organised in its social and economic side, are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself, because that is destroying democracy altogether. If you state in the Constitution that the social organisation of the state shall take a particular form, you are, in my judgment, taking away the liberty of the people to decide what should be the social organisation in which they wish to live.11
Not only that, he also called Shah’s amendment ‘purely superfluous’. He said:
‘…apart from the Fundamental Rights, which we have embodied in the Constitution, we have also introduced other sections which deal with Directive Principles of State Policy... What I would like to ask Professor Shah is this: If these directive principles… are not socialistic in their direction and in their content, I fail to understand what more socialism can be. Therefore my submission is that these socialist principles are already embodied in our Constitution and it is unnecessary to accept this amendment.’12
To equate directive principles to socialism was absolutely unreasonable. But such was the character of the CA that Shah’s amendment was defeated. We do know now, as Ambedkar himself realized within just two years of the implementation of the Constitution, that the directive principles, far from being socialist, were the most ineffectual part of the Constitution. What Shah wanted would ironically be added to the preamble of the Constitution during the Emergency vide the Constitution (Forty-second amendment) Act, 1976. India, the second most unequal country in the world, hitherto would live with that oxymoron.
On 2 September 1953, during a debate on the role and power of the governor in the Rajya Sabha, he retorted to the charge that he was the architect of the Constitution, saying, ‘My answer is I was a hack. What I was asked to do, I did much against my will. …Sir, my friends tell me that I have made the Constitution. But I am quite prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out. I do not want it. It does not suit anybody…’ When someone interjected commenting, ‘But you defended it,’ Ambedkar shot back saying, ‘We lawyers defend many things…’13
One more instance may be cited. It is basically his argument against Marxism which might help us to discern the source of his version of socialism. On 20 November 1956, at the 4th World Buddhist Conference at Kathmandu, where he delivered the penultimate speech of his life, ‘Buddha or Karl Marx’, he acknowledged the goals of both to be the same, but the method of the former to accomplish it were superior to the latter’s. He faulted Marx on mainly two counts: one, his reliance on violence and two, his advocacy of dictatorship. Without getting into the issue whether the distortions of both Buddha as well as Marx were reasonable or not, it is important to note for our purpose that Ambedkar wanted socialism to be achieved through reform and not through violent revolution.
From the above discussion, one thing is clear – though Ambedkar had an abiding interest in Marx, he had serious reservations about his theses. He did not believe in his seemingly deterministic approach towards history; he also did not agree with Marx’s description of communism as one without state, religion or god. He would not accept that in order to achieve socialism revolutions are inevitable and imagined that it (socialism) could be achieved even through reforms by enlightened elements deploying democratic means.
This is exactly what the Fabians thought of socialism. One does not have to belabour in searching for the source of this intellectual orientation of Ambedkar as many scholars – Eleanor Zelliot,14 K.N. Kadam,15 Dinkar Khabde,16 Meera Nanda,17 Arun Prabha Mukerjee,18 Scott R. Stroud,19 Keya Maitra,20 just to name a few – have identified the deep-rooted influence of one of his professors, John Dewey, had on him while at Columbia. Ambedkar himself would generously acknowledge it in 1952, when he himself was counted amongst the greats, saying that he owed his entire intellectual being to Dewey.
Dewey, the progenitor of a philosophy that he called instrumentalism, his version of pragmatism, was also the foremost American Fabian socialist. Instrumentalism or Pragmatism does not recognize any a priori truth; they maintain that the truth of an idea is determined by its success in the active solution of a problem, and that the value of an idea is determined by its function in human experience. In simple language, it is about being practical, getting things done, doing things a step at a time following a sequential principle, not allowing the best to be the enemy of the good, taking account of others’ views, not being hung up on unattainable principles and yielding on some issues in order to make progress on others.
These philosophies had their echo in Fabianism born in England just after the death of Marx in 1883. The Fabians believed that socialism could be achieved not through revolution, through an uprising of the workers, but through indoctrination of young scholars. They believed that eventually those intellectual revolutionaries would acquire power and influence in official and unofficial opinion-making and power-wielding agencies of the world. After acquiring control of these organizations, they would quietly establish a socialistic one-world order.21
Marxist socialism today is considered a failed project because all attempts to achieve it in practice have been unsuccessful. One may have to look at the extent the practice conformed to the theory of Marxism as, despite the motivated efforts of the capitalist block to denigrate it, its fundamental theoretical foundations remain credible. Fabian socialism did not make any such theoretical claim and inevitably degenerated into its antithesis, the worst type of laissez-faire capitalism. Notwithstanding that, a section of Ambedkarites (Dalit bourgeoisie) may disclaim that Ambedkar was a socialist, and their Dalit capitalism may appeal to upwardly mobile Dalit youngsters, the fact remains that Ambedkar was a socialist. His ideas were, however, acutely constrained by the framework of liberalism and, within that, the impact of Deweyan pragmatism and Fabianism, which is intrinsically incapable of realizing his vision of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’.
Given the worsening situation of the vast majority of Dalits, the people for whose emancipation he devoted his entire life, it is time for all who crave for radical change in India to review Ambedkar’s ideas, particularly of socialism. The issue of caste that he raised and brought to the fore, as well as the vision of society he advocated, cannot be dismissed. It is the methods, the ideological apparatus that informed them, which need a serious review. It is also an undeniable fact that barring a miniscule section of the Dalits, the vast majority continue to suffer from age-old untouchability, discrimination, depravation and, in addition, increasing atrocities that have been a post-Ambedkar phenomenon but not entirely unconnected with the making of the state that claims his legacy.
If one leaves aside identitarian obsessions, Ambedkar himself lamented many of the outcomes of his methods – the Dalit legislatures elected on reservations, as also educated Dalits and Dalit employees in whom he reposed high hopes – and at the fag end of his life, realized that the measures did not benefit the rural Dalits. One could claim the same about his advocacy of Marxism, as that too suffered serious distortion at the hands of Marxists everywhere, and more so in India. But it nevertheless can still claim theoretical integrity, which is incomparably superior to pragmatism-Fabianism, provided it can open up to accommodate the emerging reality.
* Anand Teltumbde is the author of The Persistence of Caste: The Khairlanji Murders and India’s Hidden Apartheid. Zed Books, 2010.
1. B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Annihilation of Caste’, in Vasant Moon (ed.), Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol. 1. Government of Maharashtra, Mumbai, 2014, p. 46.
4. Ibid., p. 47.
5. Ibid., p. 57.
6. Anand Teltumbde, ‘Ambedkar’ in and for the Post-Ambedkar Dalit Movement, http://www.angelfire.com/ak/ambedkar/BRanand1. html. Last accessed 29.11.2017.
7. B.R. Ambedkar, ‘States and Minorities’, in Vasant Moon (ed.), Vol. 1, op. cit., p. 397.
8. Vasant Moon (ed.), Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol. 13. Government of Maharashtra, Mumbai, 2014, p. 9.
9. Gail Omvedt. Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India. Penguin, Delhi, 2008, p. 67.
10. Constituent Assembly of India – Volume VII (Monday, the 15th November, 1948), http://parliamentofindia.nic.in/ls/debates/vol7p6.htm. Last accessed: 29.11.2017.
13. Rajya Sabha Debates, 2 September 1953, col. 877.
14. Eleanor Zelliot, Ambedkar’s World. Navayana, New Delhi, 2013, p. 69.
15. K.N. Kadam, The Meaning of the Ambedkarite Conversion to Buddhism and Other Essays. Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, 1997, p. 1.
16. Dinkar Khabde, Dr. Ambedkar and Western Thinkers. Sugava Prakasha, Pune, 1989, p. 34.
17. Meera Nanda, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India. Rutgers, New Brunswick, NJ, 2003, pp. 200-202.
18. Arun Prabha Mukerjee, ‘B.R. Ambedkar, John Dewey and the Meaning of Democracy’, New Literary History 40(2), Spring 2009, pp. 345-370.
19. Scott R. Stroud, ‘Pragmatism, Persuasion, and Force in Bhimrao Ambedkar’s Reconstruction of Buddhism’, The Journal of Religions 97(2), April 2017, pp. 214-243. https:// utexas.academia.edu/ScottStroud, fn. 36, p. 222.
20. Keya Maitra, ‘Ambedkar and the Constitution of India: A Deweyan Experiment’, Contemporary Pragmatism 9(2), 2012, pp. 301-20.
21. Dewey and the Fabians, http://www.asis. com/stag/starchiv/transcriptions/NWO/NWO2_Education.html. Last accessed: 29.11.2017.