Ambedkar And Communists
By Anand Teltumbde
16 August, 2012
India is the land of paradoxes. But no paradox may be as consequential to her as the divergent histories of the Dalit movement and the communist movement. Both these movements were born around the same time, spoke for or against the same issues, grew or splintered similarly, and find themselves today in equally hopeless state but still reuse to see eye to eye with each other. They could be seen in the company of rank reactionaries and crass neoliberals but never together. Much of this attitudinal abyss is attributed to Babasaheb Ambedkar, simply because of his open critique of the communists and Marxism. But it is too simplistic to think so, if not grossly wrong.
Ambedkar was not a Marxist. His intellectual upbringing has been under Fabian influence in Columbia University and London School of Economics, the institution founded by the Fabians. John Dewey, whom he held in such high esteem as to owe him his entire intellectual making, was a known American Fabian. Fabians as is well known wanted socialism but not as Marx proposed. Bernard Shaw one of the pillars of Fabianism famously wrote, “Marx’s Capital is not a treatise on socialism; it is a gerrymand against the bourgeoisie”. Fabians believed socialism could be brought in an evolutionary manner not through revolution. Notwithstanding these influences, Ambedkar without agreeing with Marx, took Marxism not only seriously but also used it as the benchmark to assess his decisions throughout his life.
Contrary to the commonplace notion, Ambedkar’s was class politics, albeit not in Marxian sense. In his very first published essay, he had defined castes as the enclosed classes. He always used ‘class’ even for describing the Untouchables who constituted his focus. Without indulging into theorizing, it reflected an essential agreement with Lenin who stressed class analysis to be done in ‘concrete condition’ not in a vacuum or with any formula. Castes were the pervasive reality of India that conditioned peoples’ lives, their life world and hence could not escape by any stretch of imagination the Marxian class analysis. But the then communists claiming monopoly on Marx and Lenin used the imported ‘moulds’ to measure Indian society, and relegated castes to the ‘super structure’, making entire anti-caste struggles a non-issue with their mechanical interpretation of the Marxian metaphor. They were only reflecting Brahmanist obsession for ‘purity’ and the ‘sanctity’ of the word, a la ved vakya.
One concrete instance of the communists ignoring the discrimination of Dalit workers in not being allowed in the better paying weaving department and other practices of untouchability rampant in the textile mills where they had their Girni Kamgar Union was pointed out by Ambedkar. But they refused to pay heed. Only when he threatened to break their strike of 1928 had they reluctantly agreed to remedy the wrong.
In the wake of 1937 elections for the provincial assemblies, he founded his first political party, the Independent Labour Party in August 1936, which as he declared was a ‘working class party’. Its manifesto had many pro-people promises; the word ‘caste’ occurring there only once and that too in a passing manner. Some scholars like Jaffrelot have termed ILP to be the first leftist party in India, the communists until then being either underground or under the umbrella of the Congress Socialist Block.
During 1930s he was at his radical best. He formed Mumbai Kamgar Sangh in 1935 and waged many struggles indicative of the merger of caste and class under the banner of ILP. Despite differences he joined hands with the Communists and led the massive strike against the Industrial Dispute Act in 1938. This phase reflected deep attraction of Marxism in him albeit not without tension. The Cripps Report in 1942 which excluded the ILP on the plea that it did not represent any community impelled him to dissolve ILP and form seemingly a caste based Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF). Even then, his left leanings continued despite being a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. It culminated in his writing States and Minorities, proposing a blueprint of a socialist economy to be hardcoded into the Constitution of India.
Communists however refused to see him as an ally. His movement was seen as dividing their proletariat. This is the attitude that precipitated in Dange’s vile call to the voters to waste their votes but not to caste it in favour of Ambedkar in the 1952 elections. As a result, he was defeated.
His conversion to Buddhism is also mistaken superficially as the spiritual craving of a frustrated soul or an evidence of his anti-Marxism. Although many scholars have refuted this misreading, suffice it may be to remind of his almost last reference to Marx. Even in comparing Buddhism with Marxism barely a fortnight before his death he validated his decision as confirming to Marxism, minus violence and dictatorship in the latter.
It is unfortunate that this folly still persists!
Dr Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst and civil rights activist activist with CPDR, Mumbai
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