Socialism is a widely prevalent idea across the globe. Leaders saw the dream of a society where equality really exists and social production will go under the ownership of the government for public welfare. The world witnessed great socialists e.g. Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Friedrich Engels.
Socialism became a global phenomenon by the late 19th century and India too witnessed the socialist movement in the form of Communism, and Gandhian way of Socialism led by Jayaprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and others. Ambedkar’s Democratic Socialism remained unimplemented. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar has been one of the greatest economists and socialists of his time. His views on the socialist model and his economic ideas are least discussed among the intellectual class of India.
In his book Annihilation of Caste, Dr. Ambedkar questions the working methods of Socialists of India and the way they adopt the methods of Europe while ignoring the Brahminical caste system. He asks ‘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 recognize no such distinctions of caste or creed, high or low?’.1
His disagreement with Communists of India was on the perspective of caste which they always ignored. That is why he further says in the same book that the ‘Caste System is not merely a division of labour. It is also a division of labourers.’ Caste being a very rigid system, it has always brought destruction on local industry, unemployment, lack of choice in the job sector because of untouchability and a permanent labour class thrust under poverty.
Babasaheb Ambedkar was also inspired by the National Equal Rights League in the US which had its base in socialism. The league was vocal on the voting, educational and civil rights of Blacks. The civil rights movement had been against capitalism which was perceived as the real enemy of equality among Americans. In 1946, Babasaheb wrote a letter to the prominent Afro-American socialist and civil rights activist, Prof. W. E. B. Du Bois and expressed his wish to work together and file a petition with the UNO on behalf of untouchables of India, similar to the one for Black Americans.2
Dr. Ambedkar gave the slogan of ‘Educate, Agitate, Organize’ at the All India Depressed Classes Conference on 18-19th July, 1942 in Nagpur (Maharashtra) in favour of the working class who happened to be mainly from Dalit and backward caste backgrounds, to unite them in the fight for their rights to establish a socialist society. He was against capitalism and was always vocal for establishing a socialist economy in India through nationalization of land and industries. His slogan ‘Educate, Agitate, Organize’ matches the text of ‘Socialism Made Plain’ – the social and political manifesto of the Social Democratic Federation (UK). They explained the meaning of Educate as ‘We shall need our all intelligence’; Agitate as ‘We shall need all our enthusiasm’; and Organise as ‘We shall need all our force’.3
It was also used as the cover page of ‘Chants of Socialists’, a poetry book by William Morris, a Socialist, and also in the pamphlets of the Pennsylvania State League of Republican Clubs. It tells us that the socialist movement across the globe, including Babasaheb’s ideas on socialism, had similar elements.
Also it’s no secret that Indian Communists were biased against Dr. Ambedkar. After the creation of the Independent Labour Party, the Communists became worried about losing their grip among the Dalits of Maharashtra. This hostility never led them to form a pan-India socialist movement which was beneficial for the most deprived sections of India. In 1930s, Dr. Ambedkar fought against the Khoti system, held a strike in 1938 against the Industrial Disputes Act 1929, proposed the Indian Trade Union (Amendment) Bill 1943, talked about smaller landholdings and their problems and as Labour Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council sanctioned river valley projects and extended rights of coal mine workers. His socialist activities made an impact during those years.
He was not a fan of Communism and the dictatorship it brought in Russia but agreed with the changes they brought under their revolution. He wanted to make political democracy a social democracy and believed that without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. He said:
‘Society has been aiming to lay a new foundation as summarised by the French Revolution in three words, Fraternity, Liberty and Equality. The French Revolution was welcomed because of this slogan. It failed to produce equality. We welcome the Russian Revolution because it aims to produce equality.’4
Even while being influenced by socialism, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar rejected the amendment to add the word ‘socialist’ to the Constitution of India. During the Constituent Assembly Debates on 15 November, 1948, Prof. K. T. Shah (Bihar: General) made a proposal to insert ‘Secular, Federal Socialist’ into Clause (1) of Article 1 so that the amended article or clause would say ‘India shall be a Secular, Federal, Socialist Union of States.’ To this Dr. Ambedkar replied ‘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.‘ He also pointed towards the policies under Articles 12 to 35 which are socialist in nature and argued that the socialist principles are already embodied in our Constitution.5
Ambedkar, being an opponent of capitalism, promoted socialism as a means of public welfare using constitutional measures, e.g., Clause (2) of Article 1, protects citizens from discrimination by government officers and employers and Clause (3) protects the rights of employees or workers by promoting key industries, insurance, agriculture, irrigation, etc. to be undertaken by the state and land to be let out to the villagers without caste discrimination.6
Ambedkar wanted constitutional methods for achieving social and economic objectives. In my view, his socialism had an impression of the Buddha and also his former teacher Dr. John Dewey, whose pragmatic ideas had been his tutor for life. His way of socialism needs to be experimented with in the 20th century for public welfare, along with the ongoing resistance against caste, to beat capitalism.
Mrinal Kumar is from Jharkhand and has a Diploma in Electrical Engg. from PSBTEIT (Chandigarh) and Bachelors in History from BBMKU (Dhanbad). He is a podcaster and host of Ambedkarite Central Podcast and also the founding member of Maitri – The Mental Wellness Corner, a mental health support & facilitation group for SC/ST youth.