Historical Writings: Excerpt

Apologies to readers for the long delays between posts. My work has been unstable for the past year and a half, and has been keeping me from writing. I have also been engaged in other political education projects over at especifismostudies.org. That said, I have been continuing to plug away at a full length draft which narrativizes my historical research on Buddhist Anarchism. Moving from the classical period of anarchism into the modern day has proved difficult but rewarding. It is far from done but I would like to share a few paragraphs which summarize some of the developments in this post-war transitional period:

Following the Allied victory in WWII, the balance of powers and movement in the world had again shifted. The old European colonial powers began abandoning their projects of direct colonial governance, but maintained much of their economic domination of the rest of the world. The United States of America and the USSR struggled for hegemony on all fronts as the superpowers of the cold war. New post-colonial states were born in much of the world, often founded in the image of the European nation states they had so recently fought against, either along socialist or capitalist lines, and beholden to the same international forces of wealth, war, and power that kept the old system running under a new coat of paint. 

By this time the socialist world had also changed dramatically. Leninism in the USSR had long since given way to Stalinism. Now, after Stalin’s death, successive Soviet leaders began to criticize and undo some of his more draconian domestic and belligerent foreign policies. The Chinese Communist Party which had prevailed in its struggle with the nationalist Kuomintang, ending the long civil war in China and assuming control of the country, saw the USSR’s de-Stalinization as an act of revisionism and compromise with the capitalist Western bloc, leading to the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960’s, after which Maoism emerged as a more distinct communist tendency. Cold war proxy conflicts between major communist and capitalist blocs raged around the world from Cuba to Vietnam, Angola and Afghanistan.

During all of this, anarchism had been marginalized as a revolutionary ideology. Caught between the capitalist right and the soviet left, and losing their base in a declining labor movement, anarchists had very little room to maneuver. However, within the ideological stagnation of the cold war, anarchism, from its marginal position, began to inspire people who were dissatisfied with the options on the table to seek out an alternative. In a world of ICBMs and mass consumer culture, people sought out answers from neither left nor right wings of the ruling class, but from below. 

This crisis of authority  and meaning played out not only on a political level, but on a cultural and ideological level. Dissatisfied with old norms, ideas, and beliefs, and increasingly more educated and connected to the rest of the globe, young people began to experiment. New social movements began to emerge, from seemingly spontaneous revolts like those beginning in France during May 1968, to movements based on environmental concerns, feminism, and struggles against racism. In the West, many looked to the East (and in the East, they often looked West) for ancient ideas which could be adapted for these new circumstances, helping to make a definitive break with conservative morality and religious ideology. It was in this rich ferment of ideas that Buddhism began to catch on with a great number of countercultural youth throughout the West, who began a second wave of so-called Western Buddhism in Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States.

In the anglosphere, much of the initial enthusiasm behind this conversion movement came from a relatively small circle of highly influential poets, known as the Beat Generation, many of whom already held libertarian and socialist cultural views, particularly Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder, who both promoted class struggle, and criticized racism, colonialism, and war in their writing. This highly unusual transmission has colored the perception of Buddhism in the West ever since. The reality of convert communities is often dramatically at odds with this countercultural Californian image, but it is important to understand how we got from fanatical Ikko-ikki warrior monks and austere political patriarchs to the mindful, granola munching vegan Buddhist liberal-left stereotype of today. Of course, this stereotype is just a stereotype, and obscures the more traditional class dynamics at play. Western Buddhism is predominantly something practiced by the upper middle class and above, with a particular aesthetic and political sensibility which is decidedly liberal, pacifistic, but decidedly elite, and often dominated by white people and cultural norms. There is of course a working class presence, but the bourgeois ideology makes it difficult to draw class lines. But it is clear that the people with the free time and money to attend lengthy meditation retreats are not the same people who have to put in forty plus hours a week to make rent, raise the kids, pay for health insurance and more. Class lines are drawn by the relative absence of working class and oppressed peoples in those individualistic religious environments.

Pulling away from the developments of Western Buddhism for a moment, we should return to important post-war Buddhist political movements in the global South once more. 

In India, where Buddhism was born but had all but died out, a radical revival was taking place. This movement was emerging from the very bottom of India’s social hierarchy, among the Dalits or so-called “untouchables”, long treated as practically sub-human by the Hindu caste system. Seeking a way out of the ideological fetters of Hinduism which had kept them oppressed, Dalit leaders began looking to other faiths and philosophies, and among them, Buddhism, which had been maintained by their Himalayan neighbors to the North and by Burmese and Sri Lankan Buddhists to the South and East. Foremost among these Dalit anti-caste radicals in the post-war years was Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar was certainly no anarchist — he was a gifted lawyer and statesman almost single handedly responsible for drafting the Indian constitution — but is nevertheless important for us to consider when understanding the modern construction of a Buddhism of the oppressed. Ambedkar famously led a mass conversion event weeks before his death, during which he formally converted to Buddhism and encouraged his Dalit followers to do so as well, pledging their resistance to Hindu casteist practices and ideology. 

Prior to his official conversion, Ambedkar had engaged in years of comparative religious and philosophical study. During this period, as his interest in Buddhism grew, he began to reinterpret elements of its doctrine and mythology in ways which reflected modern social concerns. In his account of the Buddha’s origin story, for example, the prince Siddhartha’s decision to leave home is a distinctly political choice. Rather than go along with the decision of a majority on the Sakyan tribal council to prosecute a war with their neighbors over water rights, Siddhartha protests, and goes into exile rather than fight. The Buddha as told by Ambedkar is clearly a social reformer if not a socialist outright just as much as he is a spiritual teacher. For Ambedkar’s Buddha, personal and social transformation cannot be thought of separately. Through his theology Ambedkar hoped to impart to his people the importance of obtaining radical self-knowledge in order to throw off the ideological shackles of caste. His best remembered slogan “Agitate, Educate, Organize!” will be familiar to any student of the socialist tradition, as would his insistence on the underlying principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, which he claimed to also represent the core of the Buddha’s social doctrine. Ambedkar goes further, however, drawing ties between this programmatic slogan and the teachings of the Buddha, proclaiming in a 1954 radio address, “Let no one, however, say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my Master, the Buddha.”

Following his untimely death, the Dalit Buddhist movement struggled to maintain direction and momentum, but has steadily built itself up since then through a decentralized network of neighborhood religious centers, student groups, educational institutes and political parties. Some of these organizations were quite radical, one well known example being the Dalit Panthers, a social movement founded in 1972 in Maharashtra which modeled itself on the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in the United States.

Political anarchism has never had a prominent role in Indian social movements, and to this day, though growing in various corners, remains marginal on the Indian political scene. Anti-colonial anarchists like Har Dayal, Bhagat Singh or M.P.T. Acharya are remembered more now as nationalists, and without roots in the struggle against caste. The resurgence of Buddhism in India, both through the Ambedkarite movement and through foreign missionary efforts must also face the tidal wave of Hindu nationalist supremacy currently sweeping the country. Indeed, why would today’s Indian radical not take stock of the social landscape and roundly reject religion in all forms as oppressive? Ambedkar’s reinterpretation of Buddhism, following the modernist model, is atheistic and highly egalitarian, to be sure, but what does it add when an atheistic Marxism in all its sectarian diversity remains quite popular? What do two marginal ideals, neo-Buddhism and anarchism, have to lend each other in this context? The question remains open. Talking with contemporary Indian anarchists, I get the impression that among their small community, Dr. Ambedkar is still highly respected, much like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is among anarchists in the United States. It seems clear that anarchism, like Buddhism already has, could lend powerful ideological tools in the fight to annihilate caste on the subcontinent and beyond.

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