REPORTS & ESSAYS
Marx in Ambedkar’s Thoughts
August 28, 2017
This is an excerpt from the valedictory address of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar at the study camp of All India Trade Union Workers held from 8-17 September 1943. The title of his speech was “Labour Parliamentary Democracy”. He further said, “But the labouring classes will not give them the attention they deserve. Instead, labour has taken delight reading false and fabulous stories of ancient kings and queens and has become addicted to it.”
This excerpt is ample proof, if any is needed, that Dr Ambedkar was not at all anti-Marx. If the Communists accused Dr Ambedkar, who said that the Communist Manifesto is a must-read for the labouring classes, of weakening their movement, it only shows that they did not deem it necessary to even read Ambedkar. They expect the Dalits to read Marx and to associate themselves with Marxism, but they themselves neither want to read Ambedkar nor understand him. It is due to this attitude that the Communist movement has failed to strike roots in the country.
Among the socialists, Madhu Limaye was probably the first person to appreciate Ambedkar’s role in the socialist movement. He considered Dr Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste on a par with the Communist Manifesto. He wrote that Dr Ambedkar insisted on annihilation of caste, without which, neither classes could come into existence nor caste struggle ensue.
Dr Ambedkar had studied Marxism in depth. He had also studied the theorizations of Indian and Western socialists. During his stay in Europe, he had seen capitalism and its oppressive machinery from close quarters. Born a Dalit, he had firsthand experience of the cruelties of the caste system. He saw any theory, philosophy or norm from the perspective of the millions who were oppressed, untouchable, exploited and poor. That was why his concept of socialism was a bit different from that of the others. He once said, “Had Karl Marx been born in India and had written his famous treatise Das Capital sitting in India, he would have had to write it in an entirely different fashion.” This shows how seriously and diligently he had studied Marx.
Dr Ambedkar acknowledged that Communism is the theory of emancipation of the proletariat. If proletariat is defined as a class that earns its living only through the sweat of its brow and not from profit accruing from accumulated capital, the lowered castes in India are definitely the proletariat. Friedrich Engels’ formulation that the proletariat is the class born of the industrial revolution that began in England towards the end of last century does not apply to India, though it may be true of England, Germany, France or other nations of the industrialized West.The Indian proletariat, ie the poor, labouring class, is born of the Varna system. The proletariat came into existence in India with the Varna system. It is not the product of any industrial revolution. It is a class that is proletariat by birth, which is lowered-caste by birth, in other words a slave by birth.
The new social system envisaged by Marxism wants an end to private ownership of industry. It wants to build a society where the means of production are owned and employed by society as a whole and the fruits of labour are distributed among or shared by all with their consent.
Differences with the Marxist view
Ambedkar agreed with the premise that elimination of private ownership of industry is essential. But the question is how to go about it. Dr Ambedkar did not agree with the Communist view that a revolution by the proletariat would achieve it gradually and the private ownership of the means of production would end when they suffice to fulfil the needs of all.
In India, private ownership is a part of Manu’s justice system, which has been given the veneer of religion. Here, the history and concept of private ownership is quite different from how Marx and Engels saw them. In India, the Varna system gives the right to own and run industries and businesses only to the Vaishya caste or class. Thus, the centralization of capital is the gift of the Hindu economy, which, in turn, is the product of the Varna system – the soul of Hinduism. Unless the Varna system is obliterated, private ownership cannot be eliminated. That is probably why the Indian capitalists are doing everything they can to preserve and perpetuate the Varna system.
Marxism wants to do the following to end private ownership and strengthen the hands of the proletariat:
1.Put an end to the system of succession of property and limit private ownership by, for example, making loans mandatory.
2.Give the owners of land, industries, railways, shipping companies, etc, tough competition through the public sector and buy off their stakes little by little with cash
3.Take away the property of those who undermine the cause of the majority.
4.Unite the industrial workers so as to force the owners of factories – till they are around – to pay wages as high as those paid by the State.
5.Till private ownership is eliminated, make it mandatory for all members of society to work.
6.Close down private banks and replace them with public-sector banks.
7.Increase the numbers and size of public-sector factories, workshops, railway networks, ships, etc. Bring uncultivated land under cultivation and improve the land under cultivation.
8.Provide education linked with production to all children in national institutions at state expense.
9.Centralization of all means of transport in the hands of the State.
Marxism contends that once a concerted assault is launched on private ownership, the private owners will be forced to hand over their entire capital, agricultural land, industries and all the means of exchange to the state. Once the entire capital, production and exchange come into the hands of the State, private ownership will be eliminated automatically.
It may be possible to build such a people-oriented system in Western countries but no such attempt can hope to meet with success in India without taking on the caste system. However, if taking away the property of those believing in the Varna system and caste-based discrimination is added to the above list of proposed actions, then, may be, a revolution can be expected to unfold in India.
Questions from the soviet revolution
Dr Ambedkar had raised some searching questions concerning the Soviet Revolution. Sohanlal Shastri in his book Babasaheb Ke Sampark Mein Mere Pacchis Varsh quotes Ambedkar as saying that if Communists succeeded in establishing their rule in India, they would need civil servants for operating the administrative machinery, military and workers to run the nation. They would have to make do with the civil servants, military and workers in employment at the time, when savarna Hindus dominated the administration and the military. These savarna Hindus wielded power during the British Raj. They were wielding power during the Congress Raj. They would wield power in the Communist Raj. The Untouchables, Tribals and Shudras were deprived of power previously and they would continue that way in the communist rule.
Dr Ambedkar said that the third class, ie the workers, included the untouchables who were then sweeping roads, lifting garbage, toiling in the fields and factories and working as small-time artisans. In the communist rule, they would definitely get better wages and better housing but they would have no say in the administrative and military set up. They would continue to do what they were doing then, though their economic status would improve. When any member of this class would demand that their children be given a share in power, the communist government would reply that in its eyes, the administrative officer and the person sweeping the streets were equals; those who had the experience of sweeping the roads would be better off doing just that. The ultimate fallout would be that the Untouchables and other lowered castes would continue to languish in third place in society, and savarna adherents of the Varna system would continue to wield the power. Untouchability would wither away in the communist rule but the Untouchables would continue to wield the broom.
Ambedkar quoted the example of Telangana to buttress his point. In Telangana, the untouchable farm labourers fought shoulder to shoulder with the communists in snatching land from big landlords. Hundreds of untouchable labourers were killed in the struggle. But when it was time to divide the land, the upper-caste Communists told the Untouchables, “We will double your wages but you cannot be made owners of land.” The land was then divided among the Reddy and the Kamma landlords. Ambedkar asked whether this would not be replayed if Communists ruled India.
Those among Dr Ambedkar’s contemporaries who were communists did not give any thought to his reservations about a communist revolution. Even now, they are not ready to even consider them. Until the communists decide to attack the oldest imperialistic system in the world – the Chaturvarna system – and make annihilation of caste the mainstay of their movement, Indians can never even hope to see a revolution like the one that took place in China and Russia.
Dr Ambedkar used to describe India’s communists as a bunch of Brahmin boys. He rued that a revolutionary movement for the emancipation of the poor and the workers had been rendered impotent because its leadership was in the wrong hands. He thus thought well of Marxism itself.
Influence of Marx…
In fact, Dr Ambedkar was deeply influenced by the Communist Manifesto. He was in agreement with the formulation that in a capitalist society, capital is free and has a personality but a living person is fettered and does not have any personality. He was in favour of uprooting capitalist personality, capitalist freedom and capitalist liberty. He admired Marx’s slogan: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!” But Ambedkar was convinced that in India, Varna and caste differences would not allow the workers to unite, for here, the savarna workers had no chains to lose, and they had their privileges that they would not have liked to lose.
The influence of the Communist Manifesto on Ambedkar is apparent in his views on the emancipation of the workers. But he was not in favour of extinguishing eternal values like freedom. He agreed that the proletariat should first win political dominance and emerge as the dominant class in the nation. He said, “The country needs a lead and the question is who can give this lead. I venture to say that Labour is capable of giving to the country the lead it needs. Correct leadership, apart from other things, requires idealism and free thought. Idealism is possible for the Aristocracy, though free thought is not. Idealism and free thought are both possible for Labour. But neither idealism nor free thought is possible for the middle-class. The middle class does not possess the liberality of the Aristocracy, which is necessary to welcome and nourish an ideal. It does not possess the hunger for the New Order, which is the hope on which the labouring classes live. Labour’s lead to India and Indians is to get into the fight and be united. The fruits of victory will be independence and a New Social Order. For such a victory all must fight. Then the fruits of victory will be the patrimony of all, and there will be none to deny the rights of a united India to share in that patrimony.”
… And of the French Revolution
The French revolution equally impressed Dr Ambedkar. He had borrowed the slogan of liberty, equality and fraternity from the French Revolution. In a broadcast on All India Radio in 1942, which figures in his collection of writings titled Why Indian Labour is Determined to Win the War, he said that labour needs liberty, equality and fraternity. He looked at these three principles from labour’s perspective. Labour’s ideas with regard to these principles are clear. He said that for labour, “Liberty involves the idea of government by the people. Government by the people, in the opinion of labour, does not mean parliamentary democracy. Parliamentary democracy is a form of government in which the function of the people has come to be to vote for their masters and leave them to rule. Labour wants a government that is government by the people in name as well as in fact. Secondly, liberty as conceived by labour includes the right to equal opportunity and the duty of the State to provide every individual, according to their needs, all facilities for growth.”
Similarly, he said, “By equality, Labour means abolition of privileges of every kind in law, in the civil service, in the army, in taxation, in trade and in industry: in fact the abolition of all processes which lead to inequality.”
What does fraternity mean for labour? Ambedkar says, “It means an all-pervading sense of human brotherhood, unifying all classes and all nations, with ‘peace on earth and goodwill towards man’ as its motto.”
The Second World War was raging when Ambedkar had delivered this speech. Ambedkar had described the war as a “public war”, though the Marxists accepted this truth much later. He said that Labour knows: “It is a war on both the Old Order and the Nazi Order. Labour is aware that the only compensation for the cost of this war is the establishment of a New Order in which liberty, equality, and fraternity will not be mere slogans but will become facts of life.”
Recalling the French Revolution, he said, “The New Order, which is the ideal of labour, has its roots in the French Revolution. The French Revolution gave rise to two principles – the principle of self-government and the principle of self-determination. The principle of self-government expresses the desire of the people to rule itself rather than be ruled by others whether the rulers are absolute monarchs, dictators, or privileged classes. The principle of self-determination expresses the desire of a people united by common ideals and common purposes to decide, without external compulsion, its political status – whether independence, interdependence, or union with other peoples of the world. This is called nationalism. The hope of humanity was centred on the fructification of these principles. Unfortunately, after a lapse of nearly 140 years, these principles have failed to take root. The old regime has continued either in all its nakedness or by making sham concessions to these two principles.”
He said that the nationalists are the enemies of Labour. He said, “Labour is not prepared to make a fetish of nationalism. If nationalism means the worship of the ancient past – the discarding of everything that is not local in origin and colour – then Labour cannot accept nationalism as its creed. Labour cannot allow the living faith of the dead to become the dead faith of the living. If nationalism stands in the way of this rebuilding and reshaping of life, then Labour must deny nationalism.”
Ambedkar added, “Labour’s creed is internationalism. Labour is interested in nationalism only because the wheels of democracy – such as representative parliaments, responsible executive, constitutional conventions, etc – work better in a community united by national sentiments. Nationalism to labour is only a means to an end. It is not an end in itself to which labour can agree to sacrifice what it regards as the most essential principles of life.”
Is there any substantive difference between this and the Marxist views on labour? Of course, Ambedkar’s concept of revolution was different from that of the Marxists. Dr Ambedkar believed in democracy while Marxism has the concept of dictatorship of the proletariat. Initially, Dr Ambedkar was of the view that parliamentary democracy cannot solve the basic problems of the people. In a speech delivered at the concluding session of the All India Trade Union Workers’ Study Camp held in Delhi from 8 to 17 September 1943, he gave a speech titled “Labour and Parliamentary Democracy”. The speech is still meaningful and relevant for the trade unions of India. In his speech, he dwelt at length on why parliamentary democracy had failed. He said, “The causes for this failure may be found in wrong ideology or wrong organization, or in both. He added: “All political societies get divided into two classes – the rulers and the ruled. This is an evil. But the unfortunate part of it is that the division becomes stereotyped and stratified so much so that the rulers are always drawn from the ruling class and the class of the ruled never becomes the ruling class. It is because of this that parliamentary democracy has not fulfilled the hope it held out to the common man.”
But this speech of Ambedkar is not a declaration of the failure of democracy, as Ramvilas Sharma and some other thinkers would like us to believe. It underlines the circumstances in which democracy fails to fulfil the hopes of labour. The ruling class, not democracy, has created these circumstances.
Further, Ambedkar analyzed these circumstances in economic terms. He said that if parliamentary democracy has failed to benefit the poor, the labouring and the downtrodden classes, it is also these classes themselves who are responsible for it. “In the first place, they have shown a most appalling indifference to the effect of the economic factor in the making of men’s life.”
At the time, Peter F. Drucker wrote a book titled End of the Economic Man. Referring to the book, Ambedkar said, “We cannot really talk of the end of the economic man for the simple reason that the economic man was never born. The common retort to Marx that man does not live by bread alone is unfortunately a fact. I agree with Carlyle that the aim of civilization cannot be merely to fatten men as we do pigs. But we are far off from that stage. The labouring class far from being fat like pigs are starving, and one wishes that they thought of bread first and everything else afterwards.”
Commenting on Marx’s doctrine of Economic Interpretation of History, he said, “A great controversy has raged over its validity. To my mind, Marx propounded it not so much as doctrine as a direction to labour that if labour cares to make its economic interests paramount, as the owning classes do, history will be a reflection of the economic facts of life more than it has been. If the doctrine of Economic Interpretation of History is not wholly true it is because the labouring class as a whole has failed to give economic facts the imperative force they have in determining the terms of associated life.”
In his speech, at the outset, as quoted above, he advised the labour class to read the Communist Manifesto. He made another important point in the speech. He said, “There is another and a bigger crime which they (labour) have committed against themselves. They have developed no ambition to capture government, and are not even convinced of the necessity of controlling government as a necessary means of safeguarding their interests. Indeed, they are not even interested in government. Of all the tragedies which have beset mankind, this is the biggest and the most lamentable one.”
He was also critical of labour organizations turning into trade unions. He said, “I am not against trade unions. But it would be a great mistake to suppose that trade unions are a panacea for all the ills of labour. Trade unions, even if they are powerful, are not strong enough to compel capitalists to run capitalism better. Trade unions would be much more effective if they had behind them a labour government to rely on. Unless trade unionism aims at controlling government, trade unions will do very little good to the workers.”
At the end of his speech, Dr Ambedkar gave two pieces of advice to the labour class that are so revolutionary that even Marxist thinkers won’t find it easy to reject them. He said, “If the working classes have to live under a system of parliamentary democracy then they must devise the best possible means to turn it to their benefit. Two things are necessary if this object is to be achieved. First thing to do is to declare that its aim is to put labour in charge of government. For this it must organize a labour party as a political party. Such a party must equally dissociate itself from communal or capitalistic political parties such as the Hindu Mahasabha or the Congress.” He also said that such a party would have to be “free from the narrow and cramping vision of trade unionism”.
Just have a look at the communist organizations and communist parties in the pre- and post-Independent India. What do we find? Didn’t they join hands with the Congress? Weren’t they close to the rabidly communal BJP? An even bigger irony is that even Dalit organizations and Dalit politics did the same. What arouses hopes, though, of a course correction in the future is the fact that some radical leftists and Dalit thinkers consider this anti-people, shameless conduct lamentable.
Ambedkar said was that the labour would have to prove positively that it could govern better. He said, “When a labour party is formed in India and when such a party puts forth its claim to be installed on the gaddi before the electorate, the question, whether labour is fit to govern, is sure to be asked. It would be no answer to say that labour could not govern worse than the other classes. Let it not also be forgotten that the pattern of labour government is a very different one than that of the other classes. Labour government must essentially be based on a system of control. A system of control needs a far greater degree of knowledge and training. Unfortunately, labour in India has not realized the importance of study. All that labour leaders in India have done is to learn how best to abuse industrialists. Abuse and more abuse has become the be-all and end-all of his role as a labour leader.”
Ambedkar's mature economic and political vision
Dr Ambedkar had led the life of an Untouchable and a labourer. We do not know for certain whether Gandhiji was an indentured labourer. But Ambedkar had definitely worked as a coolie and he had lived in a “chawl” meant for coolies. It is not a coincidence that Ambedkar was as ardent an opponent of rural economy (in other words, the Varna system) as Gandhiji was its advocate. For Gandhiji, villagers were the ideal; for Ambedkar, they were laboratories of the Varna system. Ambedkar saw the development of India in the annihilation of the villages. That was why he favoured urbanization of villages. For that, India needed to be industrialized. In his speech on “Post-War Development of Electric Power in India” on 25 October 1943, as the Labour Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, he said, “The poverty of India, to my mind, is due entirely to its being made dependent upon agriculture.” He had discussed the same issue in his essay “Small Holdings in India and their Remedies” (1918).
He argued that, in India, there is enormous pressure of population on land. This leads to division of land and big holdings get smaller and smaller. He did not believe that the law of succession was the main culprit in this regard. But the result is that a large part of the agricultural population is superfluous and idle. “Labour, earning or not, consumes in order to live. Idle labour is a calamity; for if it cannot live by production as it should, it will live by predation as it must. This idle labour has been the canker of India gnawing at its vitals. Instead of contributing to our national dividend it is eating up what little there is of it.”
He said that only giving agriculture the status of an industry could solve this problem, adding that only consolidation of holdings and regulation of agriculture couldn’t bring about the desired results. He said, “The cumulative effects of industrialization, namely, a lessening pressure and an increasing amount of capital and capital goods will forcibly create the economic necessity of enlarging the holding … Industrialization by destroying the premium on land will give rise to few occasions for its sub-division and fragmentation.”
That was why, in a memorandum submitted to the Constituent Assembly on behalf of the All India Scheduled Castes Federation in 1947, Dr Ambedkar demanded rapid industrialization of India and status of a “state industry” for agriculture. The memorandum, titled “States and Minorities”, elaborates on the concepts of state socialism, nationalization of land and a separate electorate, which he wanted to make a part of the Constitution. However, despite becoming a member of the Constituent Assembly and the chairman of its drafting committee, he could not succeed in it, owing to the opposition of status quoists.
The socialist Ambedkar is fully evident in this memorandum. It is a pity that Dalit politics and Dalit movements did not develop his socialist ideology and take it forward. Probably the failure of the Dalit movement to adopt Ambedkar’s socialist ideology led to it losing its way.
The Article 2, Section 2, Clause 4 of the draft constitution proposes that for protection against economic exploitation, the Constitution will have the following provisions:
1. That industries which are key industries or which may be declared to be key industries shall be owned and run by the State;
2. That industries which are not key industries but which are basic industries shall be owned by the State and shall be run by the State or by Corporations established by the State;
3. That insurance shall be a monopoly of the State;
4. That agriculture shall be State Industry.
The programme for organizing agricultural envisaged that:
1.The State shall divide the land acquired into farms of standard size and let out the farms for cultivation to residents of the village as tenants (made up of groups of families) to cultivate on the following conditions:
(a) The farm shall be cultivated as a collective farm;
(b) The farm shall be cultivated in accordance with rules and directions issued by Government
(c) The tenants shall share among themselves in the manner prescribed the produce of the farm left after the payment of charges properly leviable on the farm;
2. The land shall be let out to villagers without distinction of caste or creed and in such a manner that there will be no landlord, no tenant and no landless labourer
3. It shall be the obligation of the State to finance the cultivation of the collective farms.
Thus Ambedkar’s concept of state socialism, with its emphasis on state ownership of agriculture and industries, is quite close to the Marxist concept. But there are two points to note. First, he wrote that the period of operation of this model would not be extended beyond ten years from the date of enforcement of the Constitution. He did not clarify as to why he wanted to implement this model only for a limited period. Second, he also did not say what would happen after this period. Would the earlier system, which left the poor, the Dalits and the labourers at the mercy of capitalists, be restored? He did not say anything on this issue.
He did explain, though: “The main purpose behind the clause is to put an obligation on the State to plan the economic life of the people on lines which would lead to highest point of productivity without closing every avenue to private enterprise and also provide for the equitable distribution of wealth.” This means that Ambedkar wanted to keep the avenues open for the private sector. What can private sector mean except private capitalism? But in his explanation, Ambedkar further said, “State Socialism is essential for the rapid industrialization of India. Private enterprise cannot do it and if it did it would produce those inequalities of wealth which private capitalism has produced in Europe”.
It is clear that Ambedkar believed that capitalism and socialism couldn’t co-exist. Obviously, his support for private enterprise points to an internal contradiction in his concept of socialism. Of course, there is no contradiction vis-à-vis agricultural sector and basic and key industries, which he wanted to be entirely state-owned. (Editor’s note: For Gail Omvedt’s views on this subject, read her article published in the November 2012 issue of the Forward Press magazine.)
The key and unique speciality of Ambedkar’s concept of state socialism is that he did not leave it to the discretion of the legislature but wanted to implement it through Constitutional provisions, so as to ensure that neither the legislature nor the executive could tinker with it.
He knew very well that parliamentary democracy is the rule of majority. One election may throw up a government in favour of state ownership of the agricultural and industrial resources. The next election may install a government averse to the idea. That is why, for Ambedkar, socialism could not be left to the discretion of the legislature, which can end it any time through brute majority.
“What is the alternative?” Dr Ambedkar himself answers the question: “The alternative is dictatorship.” Here, he favours dictatorship but adds: “Those who believe in individual freedom strongly object to dictatorship … They feel that freedom of the individual is possible only under parliamentary democracy … However much they may be anxious to have state socialism, they will not be ready to exchange parliamentary democracy for dictatorship even though the gain by such an exchange is the achievement of state socialism.” The solution to the problem is “to prescribe state socialism by the law of the Constitution so that it will be beyond the reach of a parliamentary majority to suspend, amend or abrogate it”.
Ambedkar said, “The soul of democracy is the doctrine of one man, one value. Unfortunately, democracy has attempted to give effect to this doctrine only so far as the political structure is concerned.” He added: “It was equally essential to prescribe the shape and form of the economic structure of society if democracy is to live up to its principle of one man, one value. Time has come to take a bold step and define both the economic structure as well as the political structure of society by the Law of the Constitution.”
Ambedkar’s concept of state socialism, especially with respect to agriculture, is revolutionary. No other socialist thinker of India – not Nehru, not even Lohia – favoured state ownership of agricultural land. Nehru only emphasized land reforms while Lohia wanted status quo as far as the farm sector is concerned. Even M. N. Roy had not envisaged any systemic changes to change the economic structure. It was only Ambedkar who demanded industrialization of agriculture.
The most striking aspect of Ambedkar’s concept of socialism is that it is centred on the poor and the workers. It does not differentiate between the Savarna and the Dalit, between the Hindu and the Muslim. He saw workers of all religions, communities, castes and of both the genders only as workers. Ramvilas Sharma has rightly said that in his avatar as the labour leader, Ambedkar gave no consideration to caste. He only talked of classes and wanted to hand over the leadership of the country to the labour class.
Today, when the economy of the country is in the hands of the upper, middle and aristocratic classes, which, in collusion with the rulers, have made life miserable for the huge poor, Dalit and labour population, labour leadership is not merely an academic and intellectual issue. But who will approach the people with this issue? Is it not the responsibility of the Dalit and leftist thinkers to draw up a common programme to deal with this issue?
First published in Forward Press
Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.