Marx Against Buddha
This review of “Buddha or Karl Marx” by Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (writer of the Indian constitution) is being written at the request of an Anti-Capital reader and School of Marxist Fundamentals participant. She feels that this work is quite popular in India and that a critical review may help to clarify the positions of Marx. The copy of this work that I am referencing can be found here, anyone more familiar with the work can reach out to us and let us know if this is a poor translation which renders the below critique misdirected. In reviewing this work I will disclose that my knowledge of the Buddha and Buddhism is very nearly non-existent. I will take Dr. Ambedkar at his word when it comes to Buddhism. My perspective will be solely and exclusively a Marxist perspective interested in the subordination of production to meeting and expanding human need. Lastly, I will not be subjecting Buddhism as presented in this work to any sort of religious criticism.
“Buddha or Karl Marx” begins with a brief biographical account of Karl Marx which I find it necessary to correct. When Dr. Ambedkar says that Marx was a “philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist,” he is not strictly correct. Marx was a critic of philosophy, political-economy, not sociology because sociology was not yet a field, and history, though he was a journalist and revolutionary socialist. This distinction is critical because Marx was not interested in engaging in the practice of philosophizing, but in overcoming philosophy. Marx recognized that philosophy, like economics and the study of history, was a field in need of demystification, that what was really being talked about in all of these fields was the life process of the human species as it is carried out by individuals trying to meet their needs. This is important because it brings to the fore the question of revolutionary practice; if Marx was not engaged in creating a theory meant to explain capitalism what he must have really been doing was constructing a plan of war based on the existing class struggles. For instance, Marx was capable of using the critique of political-economy constructed in Capital to provide political and economic support to workers going on strike for higher-wages all across Europe through the body of the International Workingmen’s Association. The theory of surplus-value, as argued against Citizen Weston in Marx’s Value Price and Profit, tells us that the workers can effectively attack the capitalists by driving wages up without suffering a subsequent rise in prices. To call Marx a philosopher and economist brings to mind the image of a man distantly studying economic statistics and metaphysical tracts to be presented in a university hall or corporate board meeting rather than someone actively engaged in the struggle to overthrow the production relations of capital.
Dr. Ambedkar also makes the claim that Marx “began to work out his theory of dialectical materialism” during the time “he wrote for a radical newspaper in Cologne,” which is another fairly common misunderstanding. Marx never laid out a theory of dialectical materialism in the same way that he laid out a theory of surplus-value, or a labor theory of value. Marx had a dialectical method, but the theory of dialectical materialism is a Leninist, or, if you prefer, a Stalinist, invention attributed to Marx after the fact.
Dr. Ambedkar writes that Marx “hold[s] that human societies progress through class struggle: a conflict between an ownership class that controls production and a dispossessed labouring class that provides the labour for production” however, a dispossessed labouring class is a very modern phenomenon historically speaking. In fact, the revolutions that led to the domination of the production of capital was primarily a struggle between the interests of the burghers, nascent bourgeoisie, and feudal aristocrats; a struggle between two ‘owner’ classes. Dr. Ambedkar also holds with the common misconception that Marx considered socialism/communism to be inevitable when, in fact, Marx wrote the following in the Communist Manifesto,
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (emphasis mine).
Marx understood the possibility that humanity might fail to take advantage of the opportunity capitalism has offered us, that instead we could all suffer a “common ruin” which some of us may even live to witness. I’m also going to push back when Dr. Ambedkar refers to the USSR and PRC as socialist states, earlier he refers to a classless society as being called either socialism or communism, and a classless society cannot, by definition, have a state apparatus, so either the USSR and PRC were not states (they were) or they were not classless societies (they were not).
II. The Original Creed of Karl Marx
Much is made of Marx’s desire to set apart his brand of socialism as being scientific in this section, but what makes Marx’s socialism scientific is poorly understood. I have already outlined the fact that Marx did not understand communism/socialism to be inevitable in a fatalistic sense, so this cannot be the sense in which Marx understood his socialism to be scientific. Marx’s socialism was scientific because it was rooted in existing conditions. For the Utopian socialists, socialism was something to be enforced upon the world by great thinkers who had constructed perfect plans for an ideal society. For Marx, socialism was to be brought about through the inclination of the working-class to fight for better conditions of existence which would inevitably bring them in to direct confrontation with the capitalist state power and demand of the workers to crush this state power and substitute their own state power in order to begin the arduous task of re-organizing existing production such that human labor could finally be done explicitly and solely in the interests of meeting and expanding human needs.
“(i) That the purpose of philosophy is to reconstruct the world and not to explain the origin of the universe.”
I have already addressed the use of the word ‘philosophy’ as it is applied to Marx so I will not do so again here, but I would like to take slight exception with the use of the word ‘reconstruct’ in this context. To reconstruct something, in this case the world, is to demolish and then start anew. This is only true to the extent that the capitalist state power must be demolished, the movement which leads to this demolition extends from already existing conditions and does not require a clearing away of conditions. The poverty of the working-class is a revolutionary condition which compels it to action.
“(ii) That the force which shapes the course of history are primarily economic”
Two points merit mentioning here. This is only true when we consider ‘history’ properly speaking, that is, a history of class societies. Classless societies cannot be shaped by economics simply because economics cease to exist as the mystification surrounding humanity’s relation to its own labor disappears. Secondly, if this statement is to be true then ‘economic force’ must be very broadly interpreted, the violent expropriation of workers from their means of production is a fact which shapes the course of history, but it is somewhat difficult to consider it as a purely economic act.
“(iii) That society is divided into two classes, owners and workers.”
This statement is false no matter how you choose to interpret it. Society in a broad historical sense has seen many different classes, some of which are owning classes without working, some of which are owning classes engaged in work, some of which own nothing and engage in work. Under capitalist society specifically we can say that there exist the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as the two main classes, but there is also the petty-bourgeoisie, peasantry, and lumpen-proletariat. Marx also more than occasionally makes reference to a landlord class as existing distinctly from the bourgeoisie.
“(iv) That there is always a class conflict going on between the two classes.”
While there is nothing objectionable in this thesis, if you take it with the above caveat about there being more than two classes, it is worth noting that the conflict varies in intensity and is not always a sharp struggle.
“(v) That the workers are exploited by the owners who misappropriate the surplus value, which is the result of the workers’ labour.”
I’ll add only that, strictly speaking, the appropriation of surplus value is not a misappropriation, is not theft. The capitalists are in adherence to the laws of exchange when they purchase labor-power at its value, and they remain in adherence to the laws of exchange when they sell the product of labor at its value and pocket the additional value added by the workers above the cost of their wage. This is important because the problem is not simply that workers need to be paid a higher wage which corresponds to the value of their labor-power, but that the entire system must be fundamentally torn down and rebuilt on the basis of meeting and expanding human needs rather than production of capital.
“(vi) That this exploitation can be put an end to by nationalisation of the instruments of production i.e. abolition of private property.”
But since capital secures its dominance by fashioning a “national market” and a national working class to serve its international dominance, the exploitation logically and historically cannot be ended nationally, by nationalization, or even expropriation within the limits of the nation. The proletariat’s revolution has to become international or it will be nothing, as the former Soviet Union and the current People’s Republic of China prove, proved, have proven.
The abolition of private property can only be understood as “nationalisation” if the ‘nation’ is constituted by organs of workers’ power, but those organs of workers’ power will rapidly disintegrate if they remain trapped within the boundaries of any given nation making the term “nationalisation” meaningless at best and serving as cover for a capitalist developmentalist project at worst. What occurs to abolish private property is not the nationalisation of factories, but the sovietization of production, the conscious control and direction of production by organs of working class power.
“(vii) That this exploitation is leading to greater and greater impoverishment of the workers.”
It should be noted that, in the course of the class struggle, it is possible for a section of the working-class to win higher-wages and materially improve their circumstances to a limited extent, but on the whole this thesis is correct. Even if the absolute material wealth of the working-class were to increase as a result of class struggle and progress of industry, the relative wealth of the working-class as compared to the bourgeoisie always diminishes.
“(viii) That this growing impoverishment of the workers is resulting in a revolutionary spirit among the workers and the conversion of the class conflict into a class struggle.”
It cannot be said that this is true in an absolute sense. Sometimes crushing poverty simply results in a population of crushed paupers rather than militant working-class fighters. Nothing is inevitable in class struggle, the conscious actions of the participants can shape the course of events to a great extent.
“(ix) That as the workers outnumber the owners, the workers are bound to capture the State and establish their rule, which he called the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
The simple numerical superiority of the workers is not the real source of their power, though it is an advantage to which we should be aware of. The source of working-class power lay in their relations to the means of production. The workers need only to organize themselves appropriately and they can stop production completely if they like, but more revolutionarily they can begin running production to meet their own needs rather than the needs of capitalist production. The fact that the bourgeoisie, a tiny minority, has been capable of ruling planet Earth for as long as they have should tell you that a numerical advantage is far less important than proper organization.
“(x) These factors are irresistible and therefore socialism is inevitable.”
These factors are inherent, immanent to capitalism. They make socialism necessary, not inevitable.
I hope it is clear, from the above, that Marx would have seriously disagreed with this conclusion.
III. What Survives of the Marxian Creed
Dr. Ambedkar makes much of the fact that quite a bit of what Marx propounded has been disproved either in theory or in practice, but the things he winds up saying have been disproved (that socialism is inevitable, that only economics explains history, that the proletariat can only experience worsening conditions) are simply misinterpretations of Marx’s project by people like Plekhanov, Kautsky, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and others. Earlier in the text Dr. Ambedkar makes the identification that communism/socialism is a classless society, but in this section he identifies communism with the dictatorship of the proletariat which clearly stands in contradiction with the notion of communism being a classless society. If the proletariat is in power, then it exists as a class and cannot rule over a classless society. This is what makes the historic mission of the proletariat so marvelously unique. It must abolish itself and thus destroy its own power over society. Dr. Ambedkar mentions that the dictatorship of the proletariat could only be established in Russia with much bloodshed, and this is only true to a degree. The October Revolution which put the soviets in control of Russia was an extremely bloodless revolution. The bloodshed only began upon the initiation of the counter-revolution and Russian Civil War by the Committee for Salvation of Country and Revolution, and the Russian Civil War was a very bloody affair. I reproduce below the four theses that Dr. Ambedkar believes remains of Marxism, commentary has already been given on these theses.
“(i) The function of philosophy is to reconstruct the world and not to waste its time in explaining the origin of the world.
(ii) That there is a conflict of interest between class and class.
(iii) That private ownership of property brings power to one class and sorrow to another through exploitation.
(iv) That it is necessary for the good of society that the sorrow be removed by the abolition of private property.”
IV. Comparison Between Buddha and Karl Marx
In the comparisons between Buddha and Karl Marx, Dr. Ambedkar starts out by highlighting the fact that Buddha recognized the existence of classes, class conflict, and the misery that class conflict brings about. This is, clearly, not a viewpoint unique to Marx, in fact, in the now well famous letter to Weydeymeer, Marx has this to say:
“And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic economy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production (historische Entwicklungsphasen der Production), (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”
For Marx what is important is not merely that classes exist and struggle, but that these classes exist within unique relations of production and that the struggle of classes is bound up with the expansion of these conditions of production. Marx is also unique in propounding that the victory of one particular class, the working-class, can lead to a classless society. Most classical bourgeois political-economists held that the natural progress of capitalism would lead to a massive expansion in the means of production leading to a state of plenty for all, and that the poverty the working-class experienced was merely a temporary sacrifice so that industry could be propelled forward to new heights. The viewpoint was simply that what was good for the capitalist class must also be good for the working-class, and that their interests were ultimately in harmony with one another.
V. The Means
Dr. Ambedkar uses this section to give a lengthy account of Buddhist teachings, but for our purposes we can simply sum it up by quoting the conclusion (which contains the entire content dedicated to ‘discussion’ about communist means).
“It is clear that the means adopted by the Buddha were to convert a man by changing his moral disposition to follow the path voluntarily. The means adopted by the Communists are equally clear, short and swift. They are
(1) Violence and (2) Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
The Communists say that there are the only two means of establishing communism. The first is violence. Nothing short of it will suffice to break up the existing system. The other is dictatorship of the proletariat. Nothing short of it will suffice to continue the new system.”
There is nothing new in the method advocated by Dr. Ambedkar through the Buddha. Instead of calling for a revolutionary struggle for a human existence, he says simply that we must begin to live according to a certain set of maxims now in order to reach a human existence later. In effect, the question of communism has become a question of trying to persuade the whole human population to become Buddhist. The proletariat is blamed for its own poverty with the statement “A part of the misery and unhappiness of man was the result of his own misconduct.” Presumably Dr. Ambedkar has the bourgeoisie in mind when he writes “A part of the misery and unhappiness in the world was according to the Buddha the result of man’s inequity towards man.” But even with the recognition of class struggle, the remedy is simply to adhere to a particular religion. The problem with this is simple as to be painful to even point it out. The bourgeoisie benefit from the current state of affairs. They have no reason to change their behavior, and without a change in their function, no amount of righteousness and abstinence on the part of the proletariat will bring about a human society. No one is simply going to ‘decide’ to live humanly after adopting a Buddhist creed.
Dr. Ambedkar claims the communists know only violence and the dictatorship of the proletariat, and I have already pointed out that the violence is almost universally initiated by the bourgeoisie against the working-class and that the working-class only responds in kind out of an instinct for self-preservation. It is more than possible to break up the existing system with no violence if the bourgeoisie simply go along with the actions of the organs of workers’ power, but the bourgeoisie will never do this and have never done this. The bourgeoisie, on the contrary, are always actively sniffing out potential organs of workers’ power and brutally and bloodily breaking them up. Greece in 1967 and Chile in 1973 are excellent examples of this.
The entire fallacy of the “Buddhist” position is in this “convert a man to follow a path voluntarily.” That fallacy is the deliberate ignorance of “a man” as a social being; that “man” is a social product who reproduces the conditions of society in his or her labor. Ignoring that fundamental social connection allows the cycle of exploitation to reproduce itself without obstruction.
VI. Evaluation of Means
The greater part of this section is devoted to a discussion of violence and justifying means by their ends. We have, however, already seen that the bourgeoisie are perpetually the instigators of violence against the proletariat, rendering the entire conversation irrelevant. The only novel point brought up in this section concerns some confused commentary about the dictatorship of the proletariat.
“Dictatorship is often defined as absence of liberty or absence of Parliamentary Government. Both interpretations are not quite clear. There is no liberty even when there is Parliamentary Government. For law means want of liberty. The difference between Dictatorship and Parliamentary Govt. lies in this. In Parliamentary Government every citizen has a right to criticise the restraint on liberty imposed by the Government. In Parliamentary Government you have a duty and a right; the duty to obey the law and right to criticise it. In Dictatorship you have only duty to obey but no right to criticise it.”
Consider: capitalist society is reproduced through the reproduction of the bourgeoisie as expropriators of labor power and the proletariat as providers of labor power. The expropriation is achieved through what appears as a free exchange, but in reality originated in the dispossession of millions from their original means of subsistence as small agricultural producers. That violence, historically necessary to the bourgeoisie (and does it really take a person residing in the US to tell a person residing in India that the violence of dispossession in the service of capitalism PERSISTS and ACCUMULATES?), is the method by which labor is created as “free”– meaning detached, meaning unencumbered by any means to resist the compulsion to present itself for exchange, as a value to be exchange for a value.
Dr. Ambedkar has failed to understand the basics of Marx’s class analysis of society. Capitalist society is primarily composed of two classes the capitalists (bourgeoisie) and workers (proletariat). We currently, today, and during the time Dr. Ambedkar was writing, live under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Dictatorship is a fact of capitalist life no matter which way you slice it. The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is a class dictatorship, it is run in the interests of the capitalists. How they choose to structure this class dictatorship is largely irrelevant to the class content of their state power. A Parliamentary Government remains a capitalist dictatorship. On the flip-side, the dictatorship of the proletariat is a dictatorship of working-class interests. What makes the proletarian dictatorship more monolithic than the capitalist dictatorship is simple. The unity of the working-class is a necessary goal for any successful working-class movement. As such, there will be no different sections of the proletariat in a successful proletarian state. The capitalists, on the other hand, compete with each other as a basic facet of their existence. They need a plurality of state power in order to mediate between the different sections of bourgeois interests. The proletariat has a unitary interest, and its form of state power is monolithic as a result.
VII. Whose Means Are More Efficacious
This section consists entirely of a very long fable told by Buddha about the different consequences between ‘government by force’ and ‘government by moral disposition.’ The implication, naturally, being that the former is the communist method and the latter is the Buddhist method. The trouble with this, of course, being that so long as class society exists force as a method of compulsion is necessary. The bourgeoisie have their hands stained with the blood of literal hundreds of millions of dead workers and peasants. Additionally, as we have discussed, the dictatorship of the proletariat is only ever violent in situations of self-preservation, seeking otherwise to simply subordinate production to meeting and expanding human need rather than generating profit. Government by “moral disposition” is an abstraction. All governments are governments of ‘moral disposition,’ in that morality follows power. Government by moral disposition is nothing but the hand maiden to government by the exploiting force.
VIII. Withering Away of the State
This section is dedicated to two questions that Dr. Ambedkar poses to the communists about the dictatorship of the proletariat.
“When will it wither away? What will take the place of the State when it withers away?”
Dr. Ambedkar claims the communists have no answers to either question, but then proceeds to answer the first question. I will give a more precise answer. The dictatorship of the proletariat withers away as its task of destroying organs of bourgeois power nears completion. With nothing to do, the proletarian state ceases to exist. The fundamental task of the proletarian revolution is to subordinate production to meeting and expanding human needs, one of those needs is the need to live free of the tyranny of the bourgeoisie and their private property, so the proletarian state smashes them. Once it has done this job, it simply fades out of existence. The project is complete. It is little different from producing a film. Once the film is made and released, the job is over and the production crew dissolves. But, of course, the state is different than a production crew. It holds real military power in its hands, so I will raise a question Dr. Ambedkar does not. What is to guarantee that those individuals in control of the state and military power willingly step down and resume normal civilian life? The same thing that guarantees a rational administration of production, frequent and conscripted rotation of duties. No one is to be permanently given the role of military officer. There is to be a definite training period, service period, and then enforced retirement. The military is to be of the workers, by the workers, and for the workers. It is, in essence, to be dissolved into the entire population.
This also serves to answer the second question. There is nothing to replace the State when it withers away, the task for which it was created is solved and there is no need to maintain an organized body of armed people (assuming there’s no immediate threat of armed alien invasion). Dr. Ambedkar understands this situation to be akin to Anarchy which simply betrays his lack of understanding of Marxist terminology. The State is not synonymous with government or administration in general. The general administration of production is still a function which factory, coordinating, and production committees must see to, but this is not a State power, merely an organizational network.
Instead of the State, Dr. Ambedkar would have us turn to Religion. Here again Dr. Ambedkar misunderstands the Marxist ‘opposition’ to religion. We oppose religion like a firefighter opposes smoke, the real problem to be combated is not the smoke, but the flame. Clearing out the smoke without vanquishing the flame leads to an endless battle against evermore smoke. Similarly, the extinction of the flame leads to the smoke clearing up, with or without any further intervention. Nevertheless, Marxists cannot be religious insofaras religion denies the necessity of winning the class struggle in favor of changing the moral character of humanity under capitalism. The general ‘moral character’ of humanity can only change in the active struggle against, and victory over, capitalism. The failure of our good Buddhist doctor is not a failure of moral disposition. It is not a failure of recognition. It is instead the product of a) deliberate denial– that human beings live not in a world of nature or spirit, but in a society fashioned by the conflict by the condition of labor, how society organizes production and reproduction, with the needs of the laborers (and all others dispossessed, marginalized, oppressed) themselves and b) that this deliberate denial is but one more weapon in the exploiters’ quiver of arrows. Marx referred to religion as a “sigh”– the heart of a heartless world; but religion, including Buddhism doesn’t even measure up to those meager standards. Religion is as it functions: to impose and reinforce the means of suffering as the inevitable lot of those in the material world. No matter what the good doctor would like it to be, it is what is: an ideology in service to the ruling classes.
Dr. Ambedkar closes this work talking about the relative value of fraternity, liberty, and equality and complains that communists overvalue equality and neglect the other two principles. The ‘principle’ governing the working class struggle against capitalism and for social revolution is that of necessity. What is necessary for the organization of the working class so that it can defeat the organization of the capitalist class? Absolute principles about liberty, equality, fraternity are hypocritical when the ruling class has access to and can deploy violence in a thousand different ways, official and unofficial to suppress the freedom of the workers, the fraternity of all workers, the equal opportunity and access of workers. Is it fraternity, equality, liberty, when the bourgeoisie utilize the police to defeat strikers? To break up protests by the small agricultural producers who are dying slowly and not so slowly at the hands of financing and debt. The French Revolution proclaimed “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality” and those fine sentiments did not prevent the French governments from re-imposing slavery and sending its army to attack the anti-slavery revolutionists in Haiti. Indeed, in the epoch of capitalism, and the French Revolution is undeniably of that epoch, the “principles” of “morality” are worse than abstractions: they are distractions, diversions, misdirection; designed and utilized to disorient and disorganize those whom capitalism needs to subjugate, whether those be slaves in Haiti, artisans in the faubourg Saint-Antoine in Paris, or copper miners in Arizona. Yes, such principles may be the apotheosis of the bourgeois order, but that’s because the apotheosis of the bourgeois order, its highest principle is hypocrisy.