When [BR] Ambedkar and others in the anti-caste movement called attention to “Brahmanic philosophy” or Brahmanism, communists were uneasy with the usage. To them, Brahmanism was, at best, a historical tendency which, in the past, had sought to justify a birth-based social order, and they did not think that the term served a critical purpose in the present. By refusing to grant it analytical significance, they sidestepped questions to do with the historically specific expressions of ruling ideologies and interests in the Indian context.

To Ambedkar, their reluctance to do so was of a part with a more general reluctance to engage with the terrain of religion. His own understanding of religion…was complex and layered, but in this instance, he wished to draw attention to the role of the brahmin class in perpetuating inequality, and rendering it sacerdotal, in and through the roles they had historically assigned to themselves: they were both religious preceptors and intellectuals.

Among other things, he interrogated the details of brahmin self-making: throughout history, brahmins had actively ensured that none but they had access to the study and knowledge of scripture, and the laws that derived from it, so that they remained sole custodians of these traditions of learning.

This not only rendered them self-assured purveyors of ideas and arguments, whose terms they came to set, but it also made for a static conception of knowledge, which had proved dangerously consequential: “If on any point we have attained to certainty, we make no further inquiry on that point; because inquiry would be useless, or perhaps dangerous. The doubt must intervene, before the investigation can begin. Here, then, we have the act of doubting as the originator, or, at all events, the necessary antecedent, of all progress.”

Ambedkar’s point was not that the brahmin class was not assailed by doubt, but that, in wanting to sustain their vision of the sacred and the social as enduring and timeless, they subverted changes wrought by time and history, in ways that were always already conservative. Thus, every moment of historical disjuncture – for example, the revolution wrought by Buddhism – was reworked as a moment of transition that only affirmed what already was. Theirs, Ambedkar warned, was an “acquisitive politics” that enabled them to hoard spiritual and intellectual surplus through an appropriation of diverse sorts of thought to their purpose, and in order to naturalise social inequality.

Ambedkar’s sorrow was that in India, the intellectual class had not only failed to “lead” – a term that he freighted with pedagogic and political resonance – but had insinuated itself into public consciousness in ways that rendered it worthy and worshipful simply because it proclaimed itself to be so: “The Hindus are taught that the Brahmins are Bhudevas (gods on earth) … [and] that Brahmins alone can be their teachers.”

In effect the brahmins’ claims to knowledge were not tested, and neither were they expected to prove their worth. To Ambedkar this seemed a veritable travesty of the intellectual vocation, which, he held, ought to have “no limitations arising out of any affiliations to any class or to any interest”.

Such limitations appeared particularly acute, given that the brahmins had arranged knowledge systems within a gradation such that knowledge of the practical arts and crafts, of labour and production was not granted the same valence as intellectual and philosophical speculation. This meant that the productive and working classes that intuited these other knowledges could not aspire to produce intellectuals.

This was in contrast to societies where each strata had its educated class and to Ambedkar this was consequential for there was “safety … if no definite guidance, in the multiplicity of views expressed by different educated classes drawn from different strata of society.” Thus, there was “no danger of Society being misguided or misdirected by the views of one single educated class drawn from one single class of society…” This creation of different groups of organic intellectuals had not happened in India even in modern times, when learning was open, notionally at least, to all, and much of society remained bound by world views validated by the brahmins.

The Indian left’s relationship to religion and its understanding of the intellectual class were of a different order. Generally speaking, communists held religion to be a constituent of the superstructure, and an engagement with the religious realm therefore was not viewed as significant as struggles carried out on the shop floor or the field. On the other hand, the many uses of religion in the modern period – Gandhi’s politics, for instance, or those espoused by Hindu and Muslim groups – appeared to them to be politically significant, since they looked to distract attention away from the “real” economic struggle.

In addressing this paradox, the left resorted to a somewhat ambivalent politics. For instance, the Meerut defendants noted that, as communists, they were irreligious but they had not set out to demonstrate the validity of their understanding, for “religion is not the central fact of the present situation… we are not concerned now primarily with anti-religious propaganda, though we do not exclude it…”.

They added that they sought to combat religion by “pointing out its reactionary role in political and social affairs and its historical roots in exploitation and subordination of class to class.” However, this must not be taken to mean that they would not cooperate with people who hold religious beliefs or even preach religion. But, since they held the economic and political struggle to be paramount, “questions relating to religion” were to be “subordinated to it”.

In practice this meant that the CPI criticised the use of religion to further ruling class interests, and propagated for unity amongst workers on the basis of a shared experience of economic injustice, but when they encountered religion in the flesh, so to speak, they realised that it could not be easily put away. For, in many contexts, religious expressions associated with Hindu, Muslim as well as Sikh sacred and cultural narratives constituted cultural common sense, and as happened in Bengal during the agrarian struggle of the 1940s, communists ended up drawing on the rich repertoire of local cultural resources to communicate their political ideas and mobilise people into protest actions.

In urban India too, religious festivals and holidays were central to the everyday lives of workers and multiple religious and cultural organisations were active in working class neighbourhoods. Communist organising had to reckon with the worker’s keen interest in these matters, and as important, ensure that it did not lead to inter-religious strife. In many instances, unions did mitigate sectarian uses of religion, especially the rivalry that sometimes bedevilled Hindu and Muslim worker interactions.

The left’s understanding of Hinduism bears consideration in this regard. Very early in his political life, SA Dange sought to grapple with Hinduism critically, but apart from a few sporadic articles in the Socialist, nothing came of his efforts, until much later, when he took a historical lens to the distant past.

MN Roy was interested in matters to do with religion and philosophy and more generally with the history of ideas. Through the 1920s his critique of religion was voiced not only with reference to the Hindu-Muslim question, but also with regard to the persistence of the religious world view in modern Indian political and public life and consciousness. He was critical of Gandhi’s saintliness and, equally, of tendencies in the public life of the time to have recourse to religious rhetoric.

In the 1930s and after, in the context of fascism’s advance in Europe, he wrote a great deal on the relationship between religion and the political imagination in India. Roy’s critique of Hinduism, in this context, was quite similar to Ambedkar’s: he pointed to the philosophical stranglehold exerted by Brahmanic traditions of thought on all subsequent history, the limits of Hindu moral philosophy and the unfortunate retreat of Buddhism from the role it essayed in its heyday.

He also drew parallels between Nietzsche’s ideas and those expounded in Brahmanical texts, and pointed to how Hindu society was fertile ground for the growth of fascist thought. However, Roy did not offer a critique of the brahmin class and its role in the modern period, though in his latter day writings, he did indict the orthodox among the nationalists for harbouring protofascist ideas.

As far as the role of intellectuals or of the brahmin class was concerned, left thinkers speculated on the intellectuals and their presence in colonial society, but not in relation to the brahmin class. For instance, in an extended note on modern intellectuals, SA Dange referred rather sweepingly to what appeared to him a putative social group that comprised “salaried employees” who functioned as the “office machinery” of capitalism in colonial India.

Comprising clerks, office workers, journalists and teachers, this educated and self-conscious group seemed an “intellectual proletariat” but it was yet not a class, since there “was no solidarity in the very base of its economic position between the two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat”.

As a consequence, the consciousness of its constituents was shaped by “caste, community and province” and in the event, these men were unable to rise beyond their immediate and often limited political and material demands. They wanted better salaries, more Indians in government and were prey to clever propaganda. Dange did not consider it germane that these men were mostly brahmins and Hindus.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and the Question of Socialism in India

Excerpted with permission from “The Prerequisites of Communism: Rethinking Revolution in Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and the Question of Socialism in India, Part of the Marx, Engels, Marxisms series, V Geetha, Palgrave-Macmillan/Springer International.