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 equalisation 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 recognise 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 the social order if he wishes to realise 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 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 realised 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 realise, 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 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
‘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
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 recognised this fact. The SCF’s considerable mobilisation 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 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 strategic masterstroke as it made the Constitution to be upheld by the lower strata that would be its biggest victim.
‘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
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
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.
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 recognise 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.
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, but 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 realising his vision of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’.
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, realised 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 an educationist, civil rights activist, political analyst and a prolific writer who has written several books with particular emphasis on Left and Dalit movements.
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