India is a land of paradoxes. But no paradox may be as consequential as the divergent histories of the Dalit and the Communist movements. Both were born around the same time, spoke for or against the same issues, grew or splintered similarly, and find themselves equally hopeless today. And yet, they refuse to see eye to eye. A large part of the blame for wallowing in this attitudinal abyss is attributed to Ambedkar, simply because of his explicit critique of the Communists and Marxism. This is simplistic, if not grossly wrong.
Ambedkar was not a Marxist. His intellectual upbringing had been under the Fabian influence at Columbia University and the London School of Economics. John Dewey, whom Ambedkar held in such high esteem as to owe him his entire intellectual making, was an American Fabian. Fabians wanted socialism, but not as Marx had proposed. Fabians believed socialism could be brought about through evolution, not through revolution. Despite 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.
Ambedkar practised class politics, albeit not in the Marxian sense. He always used “class” even for describing the untouchables. In his very first published essay, ‘Castes in India’, written when was 25, he described caste as “enclosed class”. Without indulging in theorising, this reflected an essential agreement with Lenin, who stressed that class analysis must be done in “concrete conditions”, not in a vacuum. Castes were the pervasive reality of India, and hence could not escape class analysis. But the then Communists, claiming monopoly over Marx and Lenin, used imported “moulds” and relegated castes to the “superstructure”. In one stroke, they made a range of anti-caste struggles a non-issue. They were only reflecting a brahminical obsession with the “sanctity” of the Word, a la vedavakya.
One instance of Communists ignoring the discrimination against Dalits came from Bombay’s textile mills. When Ambedkar pointed out that Dalits were not allowed to work in the better-paying weaving department, and that other practices of untouchability were rampant in mills where the Communists had their Girni Kamgar Union, they didn’t pay heed. Only when he threatened to break their strike of 1928 did they reluctantly agree to remedy the wrong.
In the wake of the 1937 elections to provincial assemblies, he founded his first political party, the Independent Labour Party, in August 1936, which he declared was a “working class” party. Its manifesto had many pro-people promises, the word “caste” occurring only once, in passing. Scholars like Christophe Jaffrelot have termed ILP the first leftist party in India, the Communists until then being either underground or under the umbrella of the Congress socialist bloc.
During the 1930s, he was at his radical best. He formed the Mumbai Kamgar Sangh in 1935 which anticipated the merger of caste and class that happened with ILP. Despite differences, he joined hands with the Communists and led the massive strike against the Industrial Dispute Act in 1938. The Cripps Report in 1942, which excluded the ILP on the plea that it did not represent any community, impelled him to dissolve the ILP and form the seemingly caste-based Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF). However, his left leanings continued despite his being a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. It culminated in his writing States and Minorities, a blueprint for a socialist economy to be hardcoded into the Constitution of India. The Communists, however, saw his movement as dividing their proletariat. This is the attitude that precipitated in Dange’s vile call to voters to waste their votes but not to cast it in favour of Ambedkar in the 1952 elections. As a result, he was defeated.
His conversion to Buddhism is also read superficially as the spiritual craving of a frustrated soul or further evidence of his anti-Marxism. Although many scholars have refuted this misreading, it needs to be said this was almost his last reference to Marx. In comparing Buddhism with Marxism barely a fortnight before his death, he validated his decision as conforming to Marxism, minus the violence and dictatorship. Sadly, the folly of embracing Marx and jettisoning Ambedkar still persists.
(The writer teaches at IIT Kharagpur.)
This piece was edited to fix typos on August 15, 2012.