The Wretchedness of Caste – Ambedkar, Fanon, and the Blocked Indian Revolution, part two by Vijay Prashad

This is part two of a three-part blog post. Read also part one and part three.

Ambedkar and Fanon

So, that is the attitude to have when turning to the work of BR Ambedkar (1891-1956) and Frantz Fanon (1925-1961). Marxism is the ink in the pens of Ambedkar and Fanon. Marxism had to be ‘slightly stretched’, Fanon said, its concepts stretched to take the measure of different places and different times (That is essential, or as Lenin put it – ‘the most essential thing in Marxism, the living soul of Marxism, the concrete analysis of concrete conditions’). Ambedkar, like Fanon, drew deeply from Marxism (in September 1943, he said that the Communist Manifesto is the most important text alongside Rousseau and Mill). Later in his life, Ambedkar wrote an unfinished text – India and Communism – where his notes show him to engage deeply with Marxism and its necessity in our times.

Neither Ambedkar nor Fanon knew of each other, and few have written about them together. In 1981, the Indian communist leader Hiren Mukerjee delivered the BR Ambedkar Memorial Lecture in Delhi. In the first of two lectures, Mukerjee said that the ‘scheduled castes’ or the Dalits are ‘in the predicament of what Franz Fanon described in celebrated words as the wretched of the earth’. Mukerjee pulled no punches. Of untouchability, he said, ‘It is gangrene in the body politic that has to be rooted out by hot iron, a kind of cancer that can only yield to social surgery, a malignity malleable to no moderate measures’. In South Africa, he said there is apartheid. Now it is important to recall that India played an important role in the fight against apartheid, and that the Indian communists helped stiffen the spine of a weakening Indian State on these issues. ‘While practitioners of apartheid, even in its hideous South African haunts, are at least shame-faced about the principle (though cruel and callous in practice), some of us in India are even now not incapable of ferreting out of the Shastras or what have you, arguments in favour of the dehumanisation of millions of our own people’. The comparison in 1981 was terrifying – Indian Brahmanism was worse than South African apartheid.

Mukerjee came to Ambedkar and to Fanon – whose books he had reviewed at length – because they struggled to find a way to conceptualise the link between social hierarchy and class. This meant something to Mukerjee, who felt the need to draw their thinking into Indian Communism, where there was too frequently a hesitation to directly attack social hierarchy. Mukerjee was writing just after two other Indian Communist leaders – B. T. Ranadive and E. M. S. Namboodiripad – had frontally attacked the caste system as an impediment to the Indian Revolution. But the canal that they had tried to dig into Indian Revolutionary thought remains incomplete. More thinking – drawing from the experiences of the anti-caste movement of our times – needs to be done.

Ambedkar and Fanon are divided by a generation, although they died five years apart, and they are certainly divided by continents. Ambedkar was born in Maharashtra during the rule of the British, and he emerged through his remarkable life as a leader of the untouchable community. Apart from his many important texts, Ambedkar formed the Independent Labour Party and the Scheduled Castes Federation – two political platforms to unite the working-class and peasantry as well as the untouchable, who comprised a considerable section of these key classes. A lawyer, Ambedkar drafted India’s Constitution in 1950, but was bitterly disappointed with the direction of the new country. He, along with half a million of his supporters, converted to Buddhism in 1956. He died shortly afterwards. Fanon was born in Martinique, under French rule. He trained as a psychiatrist, wrote several key works, and then became a part of the Algerian National Liberation Front. Fanon struggled with the idea of race, eager to understand it and eager to find the mechanism to transcend it. He died very young – at 36 (Ambedkar lived three decades longer). It is remarkable how much Fanon achieved in his brief life.

Both Ambedkar and Fanon studied the long material history of oppression, one through the historical method and the other through the psycho-social method. Ambedkar’s studies of caste showed him how this form of social hierarchy was created both to control the majority of the population and to utilise its labour. The crushing weight of oppression and exploitation had a neurological impact, entering the bodies of people, breaking humanity into pieces, making it impossible for people to recognise themselves in each other. The burden of this history was kept alive through structures of oppression and exploitation that went from generation to generation. What is key in their analyses is that they did not allow the psychological and the economic to be set apart from each other. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon writes that the psychological interpretation of this history is ‘crucial, yet the effective disalienation...entails an immediate recognition of social and economic realities. If there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process: primarily, economic, subsequently, the internationalisation or the epidermalisation of this inferiority’.

Ambedkar had drafted India’s constitution, which abolished untouchability. And yet, inside the sinews of the Indian economy, untouchability continues unfazed. There are now two hundred thousand people in India who go into sewers, their bodies oiled, their mouths covered with cloth, to clear blockages. They stand in knee deep sewage, handing buckets of it to their colleagues outside the manhole, who throw it onto the street. Each year, many of these sewage workers die – at least one of them every five days since 2017. In 1993, the Indian government banned this form of manual scavenging, and yet it continues – even though there are technological fixes for this (robots that can enter sewers and clear them). Most of the sewage cleaners come from untouchable castes – such as the Balmikis of northern India. To believe that laws in a liberal democracy are sufficient to emancipate the Balmikis from such abhorrence is to have not read Ambedkar.

Liberalism takes refuge in political democracy – hoping that the law and the policymakers will be the pathway to liberation. Over the course of the last century, it has become apparent that liberalism is insufficient; indeed, it has opened its doors wide to neo-fascism. Marx had already come to this realisation in his early writings – the texts we call collectively, Critique. So did Fanon and Ambedkar decades after Marx’s death. The liberal horizon had its historical advances, but it was not capable of going forward. It was a barrier. In 1949, in his last speech to the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar offered a strong warning about the limits of political equality, which is – in a bourgeois democracy – reduced to electoral equality. In the realm of politics, the principle is ‘one man, one vote’, but in the realm of social and economic life there is not the principle of ‘one man, one value’. ‘How long’, asked Ambedkar pointedly, ‘shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?’ In other words, Ambedkar suggests that unless the shackles of capitalism are broken, equality would be impossible. ‘If we continue to deny [these limitations] for long’, he said, ‘we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy’. This is the door to neo-fascism, a warning seven decades ago but still as fresh now as then.

The wretchedness of social hierarchy and the calcification of social order by class degraded humanity. It is impossible to be human in a world such as this, a world of poverty and war. A young Marx wrote, ‘Every emancipation is a restoration of the human world’. Whether a restoration or a creation, it is undeniable that a fractured humanity is not humanity. The word used in India by the movement of untouchables to describe itself is dalit, broken men. The point was never – as Ambedkar wrote so many times – to remain at the level of brokenness, but to emancipate oneself from the situation of brokenness, to create a world of humanity. But how does one get there?

In 1951, Ambedkar wrote a long book – Untouchables or the Children of India’s Ghetto – which he did not publish. In this manuscript, he wrote that Dalits must strive for knowledge and power. Knowledge is important, he wrote, because the ‘power of the privileged classes rests upon lies which are sedulously propagated among the masses’. These lies must be debunked. Power is more complex. Ambedkar sets aside military power. His discussion on economic power is important. Dalits, he wrote, are ‘part of the working class’ and therefore their only economic power ‘is the power inherent in the strike’. This power is eroded, he writes, by ‘legislation and made subject to injunctions, arbitrations, martial law, and use of troops’. Without military and economic power, the Dalits must strive for political power ‘as much as possible’. But even here, Ambedkar hesitates. ‘whatever degree of political power’ the Dalit acquires, Ambedkar wrote, ‘it will always be too little’ in comparison to the ‘vast amount of social, economic, and political power of the Hindus’.

If not military power, if not economic power, if not political power, then what?

Fanon, who died so young, was for the last part of his life involved in precisely the kind of military struggle that Ambedkar mentioned. As Fanon ailed in November and December 1961, the FLN and the French government negotiated the way forward, with independence of Algeria almost a certain fact. On the day that Fanon died (on 6 December 1961), the French government disbanded the Organisation Armée Secrète (Secret Army Organisation). In his major work, published the year of his death, Wretched of the Earth, Fanon indicated that colonialism’s destruction of society had created a morbid form of social life. It is the harshness of the settlers and the colonial State that created in the colonised a ‘tonicity of muscles’. It is because of this toxicity and this tonicity that the ‘native’s muscular tension finds outlet regularly in bloodthirsty explosions – in tribal warfare, in feuds between sects and quarrels between individuals’. Attempts to create political platforms are met with devastating force by the colonial State. It – the State – leads the frustration into violence of a general kind. Without any way to canalise this tonicity of muscles, terrible violence was inevitable.

Fanon knew that colonialism would fall. All the signs were there. The third chapter of the book is called Pitfalls of National Consciousness. It is a warning about the post-colonial state, the limitations of flag independence, the dangers of reliance upon the national bourgeoise to be the leaders of emancipation. Like Ambedkar, there is no faith that political power would be sufficient.

The national bourgeoise had class obligations that would draw it eventually into the camp of imperialism. Ambedkar – echoing Marx – wrote that liberal democracy was not enough and that the ‘labouring classes have to be raised to the status of a governing class’. In his 1960 notebook, Fanon wrote, ‘We must once again come back to the Marxist formula. The triumphant middle classes are the most impetuous, the most enterprising, the most annexationist in the world’. In Fanon’s library the most popular author is Mao. Distrust of the middle class and the bourgeoisie was essential to both Fanon and Ambedkar. The working-class had to take power. A revolution was necessary.

But what is the way ahead? Who are the key sectors that will lead the way? Marx, in his Critique, suggested that this was the proletariat. This was an abstract idea based on Marx’s understanding of social production, on the alienation of workers, on the eventual self-realisation of the working class as the class for itself, on the development of revolutionary activity, and then the revolution. But outside the abstraction, inside the world of social production, the workers had to negotiate the concrete.

Ambedkar argued that the caste system was the barrier to the Indian Revolution. Unless it is attacked, there is no way for the proletariat to move the agenda forward. Fanon’s investment in the anti-colonial struggle, against the racism of the French colonial project, mirrors Ambedkar’s hope. This is a position that is easily adopted, but hard to put into practice. Fanon had this in mind, saying that this kind of politics is not transparent. Think, he quoted from Hegel, of ‘the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the negative’.