Ambedkarite Dalit Politics And Marxism

Pritha Chakrabarti

There are several objections raised by the traditional Left in India to the concept of caste and anti-caste politics who view these as either a pre-modern category in which people still are stuck in the “waiting room of history” or as a kind of identity politics perpetuated by the capitalist state. I would like to argue that to believe that caste is inimical to the progress of Marxism is an idea which corresponds to the belief that there is something inherent in anti-caste politics that is detrimental to the very communist idea of “withering away of the state”.

In vulgar Marxism, a common argument prevails that human history follows a progressive evolutionary trajectory—from primitive accumulation to mercantile capitalism to industrial capitalism to colonialism etc.—but any faithful reader of Marx or Rosa Luxemburg would know that these arguments are not grounded in any historical origin but a structural origin. The very process of capitalism produces its pre-capitalist Other since without that, it cannot exist. Marking caste as a pre-modern category is precisely the creation of this Other and it is an idea born out of post-colonial bourgeoisie anxiety. It has absolutely nothing to do with Marx who in his later writings hinted amply that India is not a place where one can replicate the model of Europe precisely because of its caste system.

The other commonplace argument posited by the Indian Left that caste will evolve into class is also faulty and non-dialectical because even by the most stringent dialectical dictum, if a caste evolves into class, it is still bound to contain its prior-caste identity as a negation within itself.

Anti-caste politics has also come under fire from the Indian Left who have dismissed or often denigrated it as identity politics. What is identity politics? If the Communist Manifesto envisioned the “withering away of the state”, let us first begin to think about politics in a non-statist way i.e. not about who gets better scrap from the state. Marxism is a philosophy of singular universality and nearly all radical politics after Marx have tried to align with this philosophy. What is singular universality? Let me first talk about ‘universality’. ‘Universality’ refers to a condition which is open for all to enter and open for all to criticize, from within and without. Democracy, for instance, is one of the biggest examples of universality that we see around us. However, the political principle of Marx doesn’t come from this ‘universality’, but from its singularity—the proletariat or following the present condition in India, what many of us call the ‘working people’. The ‘working people’ is therefore nothing but a relational ‘identity’ within a specific class system existing in a specific relation of production. It is the singular subject of Marxism and what the latter does is to abstract this relationship into universal political principles, while retaining the privileged position of the ‘working people’. This means that the basic insight of Marxism still has to come from the working people and not from the bourgeoisie intellectual whose colored world view always places him in a negative position which he can only transcend through the impossible process of declassification. So even Marxism doesn’t lose its rootedness in a particular identity and it begins and ends in the identity of the working people.

Now let me talk about Dalit politics. Ambedkarite Dalit politics which emerges from the philosophy of ‘Annihilation of Caste’, similar to Marxism, is also rooted in the singularity of dalit identity but doesn’t lose the universality of its principle. And that is why Ambedkar did not envision annihilation of Brahminism but annihilation of caste as a whole. He is in that way, the closest to Marx, who independent of any so-called Left politics conceptualized the annihilation of a category that is absolutely fundamentally generative of the society. This has been endorsed by Anupama Rao in her article “Stigma and Labour: Remembering Dalit Marxism”[1] where she says, “In Marx’s account, the proletariat, as living labour, compensates for a history of indifference and misrecognition of their dead labour—now congealed in the commodity—through the work of politics. Labour universalization is by definition antagonistic to the global and universalizing force of capital, though produced by it. Ambedkar engaged labour universalism in his famous 1917 essay in the Indian Antiquary, “Castes in India: Their Genesis, Mechanism and Development”, where he described caste as an ‘enclosed class’. Ambedkar held the regulation of female sexuality responsible for producing caste as a deformed version of class; it was this biopolitical element of caste that differentiated it from caste.” Further, comparing stigma with labour, the two central motifs in Ambedkarism and Marxism, Rao takes Ambedkar’s bio-political difference argument ahead by highlighting the impossibility of abstraction of stigma from the body, it being an inherently embodied concept, as opposed to labour which can be abstracted. It is this quality of abstraction and equivalence in Capitalism which provided a possibility to the dalits to transcend stigma—the reason why Ambedkar chose socializing capital and redistribution of resources over annihilation of the capitalist state.

However, 60 years after Ambedkar, we have seen how total entrenchment of the society, including the dalits, in capitalism has not helped the untouchables transcend their social stigma. A rich dalit doctor still doesn’t get patients for he is considered “not good enough”. Even the richest of DICCI businessmen find trouble getting loans or partners from the upper-caste society in India. Dalit professors still find it nearly impossible to enter the hallowed gates of Indian universities without reservation. In this situation, can the Left in India ignore caste? And when I say caste, I do not just mean caste politics which has posited itself as a mammoth challenge to the bourgeoisie upper-caste led parliamentary Left in the post-Mandal moment. If feminist Marxists can demand for a more gender-nuanced Left politics, why can’t Ambedkarite-Marxists envision a more open Left which could come together on the basis of universal political principles of fight against exploitation and oppression while retaining the interest of their singular subjects—the proletariat, the dalit or the working people? Zizek shows us in “A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” how universal principles like social justice, being open by nature, could be appropriated by the Right and Left alike. May be this moment of crisis of the Indian Left calls for a closer look instead at the singularities of identities, or for that matter, of subject-positions[2]—of women, of dalits, of the ‘working people’[3].

[1] Rao, Anupama; Stigma and labour: remembering Dalit Marxism; 2012; (last accessed: June 7, 11:45 p.m.)

[2] As suggested by Prof. Anup Dhar in his lecture on “Gender and Marxism” delivered on June 5, 2014 at “Summer School for Marxism” organized by SAU and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Ranikhet.

[3] Instead of “working class” since India is a country where unorganized sectors and informal labour exceeds formalized/organized enterprises. This was suggested by Prof. Pranab Kanti Basu in his lecture on “Capitalism and Activism” delivered on June 4, 2014 at “Summer School for Marxism” organized by SAU and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Ranikhet.


Pritha Chakrabarti is affiliated with English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad


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