Notes on Socialism & Caste
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Notes on Socialism & Caste

Notes on Socialism & Caste

Much of Anand Teltumbde’s work has been devoted to the understanding or rather critique of the relationship between Indian Marxism and the dalit question. Central to his argument is the privileging within Indian Marxism of the economic struggle with its emphasis on economic classes as against the social struggle around the concept of caste. What this led to within the history of Indian socialism was a focus on mobilizing the masses along lines of class but a lack of concern for the way in which the rules and social practices around the caste system impacted upon the sphere of mass politics. As in the case of Malaysian socialism the problem was one of identifying the primary contradiction, whether economic or cultural, and thus of identifying the role of cultural or social politics within socialist struggle.

“One instance” Teltumbde argues, “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.”

Trade unions were perhaps an expression more than any of the contradiction between economic and social exploitation. Challenging economic class oppression they remained spaces of cultural and social domination from forms which had a long history within Indian society.

Yet faced with such fragmentation of the labour movement the problem was how to interpret the existence of caste oppression. Was it secondary to economic oppression, was it an effect of colonial power or was it deep rooted within social relations in a way which overrode the economic sphere. And what then was the relationship between the economic and social which underlies this?

As Teltumbde has argued, central to the thought of B.R. Ambedkar is the belief that relations of caste supersede those of class and thus the belief that the politics of social reform integral to the politics of class struggle.

As Ambedkar would ask:

“Can the socialists ignore the problem arising out of the social order? The socialists of India, following their fellows in Europe, are seeking to apply the economic interpretation of history to the facts of India. They propound that man is an economic creature, that his activities and aspirations are bound by economic facts, that property is the only source of power. They therefore preach that political and social reforms are gigantic illusions, and that economic reform by the equalisation of property must have precedence over every other kind of reform.”

Social status he argues is nevertheless an important form of power in India.

“Why do millionaires in India obey penniless sadhus and fakirs? Why do millions of paupers in India sell their trifling trinkets which constitute their only wealth and go to Benares and Mecca?”

Ambedkar similarly gives the example of the plebians in Rome who attained political power only to have it denied to them by the Oracle of Delphi who held the power to deny an individual the right to their elected office. Yet this was effective notes Ambedkar only insofar as the plebians too accepted the rules of their domination.

“The fallacy of the socialist lies in supposing that because in the present stage of European society property as a source of power is predominant, the same is true of India.” Rather in India, over and above property, social status and religion continue to determine relations of power between individuals and if the goal is the liberty of individuals in such as case Ambedkar argues, more than economic struggle is required.

Indian socialists Ambedkar argued believed it sufficient to reform the economic order in order to bring about political and social change. But was not more than economic revolution required? Or rather Ambedkar would ask, is the possibility of economic revolution likely to be present without first addressing the question of social reform. Central here would be the figure of the proletariat. For the economic revolution to occur it would require the seizure of power by one class and the transformation of the economic order and yet this can only occur on the basis of a collective unity amongst such a class and a belief that revolution will bring about fair and just treatment of all. Yet would this be possible.

“Can it be said that the proletariat of India, poor as it is, recognises no distinctions except that of the rich and the poor? Can it be said that the poor in India recognise no such distinctions of caste and creed, high or low? If the fact is that they do, what unity of front can be expected from such a proletariat in its action against the rich?”

As Ambedkar goes onto ask,

“Suppose for the sake of argument that by some freak of fortune a revolution does take place and the socialists come into power, will they not have to deal with the problems created by the particular social order prevalent in India? I can’t see how a socialist state in India can function for a second without having to grapple with the problems created by the prejudices which make Indian people observe the distinctions of high and low, clean and unclean. 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”.

Here Ambedkar challenges directly the assumptions of Indian socialists that the main antagonism or primary contradiction of Indian society was that between the masses and the colonial power, nor between rich and poor, these argument are, he would argue in a manner analogous to that of James Puthucheary, insufficient to unite together the masses in a form of collective political action. Nor anti-colonialism nor class struggle will be sufficient to overcome divisions of caste, race and religion within the political body. What is required alongside the economic struggle is social and cultural struggle. What is required is social reform.

What he is also challenging Teltumbte will argue is the model of base-superstructure prevalent within Marxist discourse which sees the economic process as the determining moment and social and political stuctures as determined through the economic base. Against this dualism what Ambedkar is arguing for is an immanence between economic, social and cultural power and thus the placing of political action within this immanent plane.

As Ambedkar notes this question went also to the heart of Indian nationalism. The nationalist movement was initially split between political and social reformers, between those who believed that social reform must occur prior to political change and those who believed that political reform could bypass a programme of social reform. Yet as Ambedkar shows in his use of Mill’s maxim that no country is fit to rule another country, transforming it into the idea that no class is fit to rule another class, the problem of domination which political reform seeks to challenge remains inseparable from forms of social, cultural and religious domination.

Yet why then did the project of social reform fail? It was Ambedkar argues because the kind of social reform envisaged was the reform of the high-caste Hindu family, of issues of marriage and female equality within the family, and not of wider social reform, not the reform of caste. What resulted then from this failure to truly reckon with social reform was the victory of political reformers and the Communal Award, the alliance between the poor and the bureaucracy. A process of passive revolution which in a limited manner incorporated excluded classes within the Colonial/Post-Colonial system.

Yet how is one to envisage this cultural or social revolution? Ambedkar argues that Marx’s injunction to the Proletariat that they had nothing to lose but their chains was quite useless in the fact of caste, “Castes form a graded system of sovereignties, high and low which are jealous of their status and which know that if a general disolution came, some of them would stand to lose more of their power and prestige than others do”. It offers a supple form of social differentiation and fragmentation. For this reason Ambedkar believes that it is not reformable from within.

“The wall built around caste is impregnable, and the wall around which it is built contains nothing of the combustible stuff of reason and morality. Add to this the fact that inside this wall stands the army of Brahmins who form the intellectual class … and you will get the idea why I think that breaking up of caste amongst the Hindus is well-nigh impossible.”

What is needed is for the destruction of the embedded rules and practices which reproduce the reality of caste within India. What this implies for Ambedkar is a regulation of religious practices, aligning religion with other practices and professions and the reform of religious customs in order to transmit onto future generations the best of Hindu practice. What Ambedkar perhaps aimed towards was a process of modernization which challenged the partial and uneven modernization of the Colonial and post-Colonial state.