History:a challenging social science!

Some thoughts on the history of our times

Eric Hobsbawam, the Marxist historian and yet otherwise a fine historically- insightful thinker and writer of some of the widely read volumes spanning almost the modern Europe  calls the 20th  century as the “short 20th century”. (A history of the world, 1914 – 1991) And a”bloody century” with two world  wars and too many dictators as human monsters: Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and then Mao, who among themselves helped to butcher  a huge humanity of  innocent people! May be, because of so much brutalities he traces the  birth of the 20th century from the beginning of the first world war, that is from 1914. And the end of it with the fall of  Communism in 1989.

Yes, the old world, the old world order of imperial powers, most notably the Austro-Hungarian Empire that lasted for nearly four centuries effectively ended when its heir was assassinated by a Serb nationalist youth in 1914.
The subject of the origins and the consequences of the First World War had been widely written about and debated.
One outcome of that war, for Indians, was our innocence (or ignorance?)   displayed by our then nascent nationalist leaders.

Gokhale to Gandhi

From Gokhale to Mahatma Gandhi, to cite only the two great Indian minds, the First World War didn’t give any mental agitations to them.They simply didn’t realize the implications for the Indian people. Indians, the soldiers and others were merely used as expendable human species!

How many Indians were sacrificed in the then Mesopotamia? The subject is worth investigating and taught in schools and universities. Gandhi organized support for the war! Nehru was too young? The old guard also didn’t show much understanding of the world then existing. The Russian  Revolution took place and Communism was hailed as a new political   ideology that was seen as a hope for India by some sections of the Indian opinion. Yet, the breakup of the old imperial order and the emergence of nation states in Europe gave rise to in nationalist awakening in India.

So, in a way, the First World War triggered the rise in national consciousness in India. By 1918,when the war officially ended, India was in a great nationalist ferment. That was one gain from the international developments. But Gandhi was so immune to such larger world picture.

Indian history

We Indians seem to be blissfully living without  a sense of history. We  read history in our schools and colleges. But what history we read? Indian  history? World history? Indian history is not so easy. Indian past had  been a troubled past. There is much that is shameful, we have been  repeatedly invaded and plundered for nearly 1,000 years,  aren’t we? There had  been  long periods of famine and hunger and thousands, no millions  perished! What is so great about our past? These questions trouble me a  lot. As a result of our past history, it is my firm view, that I find the  average Indian as a timid, subservient and non-assertive type. Many thinkers have given thought to this side of the Indian character. The  latest   is Prof. Amartya Sen who had come out with his own peculiar, in my  view  quite  untenable, view of Indian thought having some  sceptical streak, as  against Sen’s false view of Indian thought to be always submissive to  authority.  Anyway, Sen’s new discovery is no great discovery and doesn’t help to understand our past nor helps to know our present standing as a  nation, as a distinctive  identity.

My point is that Indians certainly need to re-write their history from  the point of view of how our present failings as a distinctive nation, as  a peace-loving people, is a bit self-deluding. We are in fact yet to come  to terms with the everyday reality of the world. How the world  events shape  and how India as an independent nation fit into the emerging world realities.

So, any study of history, more so Indian history must be written and lots  of the present day standard history writing, be it by Leftist historians  or the more untenable rightwing Communalists, all must tackle note of the  need to give Indian people a new sense of purpose and a new set of  insights into our past failings and our present day opportunities to shape our nation and our own character in a new sense of national  Identity.

More  important is the world events, world history and how we Indians  have understood the world history.
Our leaders  were all, yes, earnest  seekers of a just social order but only  within the British society. In a way, knowing the British rule! as I do, the Brits had, in my opinion, this  jealousy of the upper classes, the British society is highly class-conscious, the   deep divides in economic inequalities and class divisions based on  wealth and privileges. The really ancient families, owning vast tracts of  lands and also diamond mines or other big landed properties in the  colonies, as in South Africa, and also enjoying all the high offices like the Vice-roy and Governors, besides privileged postings like District  Collectors etc in India. I used to meet some of the descendants of these India-served British families. One was a Braborne but now an ordinary  youngman. I can go on and  on!

So, the socialist middle class intellectuals were vaguely debating  theoretical solutions to what was an impossibility in the then world! They  were, as I now see, seeking better jobs in government for themselves! They   were in fact not champions of the proletariat for seizing power. They never had any such notion. It was all a Marxist fantasy. Even what the  Webbs did when they, like others in the establishment, intellectuals like  Bertrand Russell, who all went to Russia to see the Communist” experiment” didn’t  fully expose the many cruelties imposed on ordinary Russians.

Nehru : we need to criticise

Even Nehru, with  all his generosity of mind, I can now see, didn’t bother to mention the  reservations he might have had when he knew Stalin’s excesses. In a way,  he  fell in line with the then prevailing international Communist movement’s  doctrinaire line! He spoke much about the imperialist powers but never  did a serious introspection as a follower of Gandhi he must have done. This he didn’t do.Nor he mentioned such Stalin atrocities to his  fellow Indian followers, either to the fellow Socialists or to his Communist friends who were too many, inside and outside India. May be Nehru also fell for the line adopted by the British middle class  socialists and his friends like Laski and Kingsley Martin might have influenced his thinking, in his crticial understanding and the poltiical line he took about the Soviet Communist experiment.

The much more important question for me now is why the British socialist  intellectuals didn’t think of India’s question? Indians under Gandhiji were fighting for freedom.Yet, there is no clear idea or concern about India in  Britain among the so-called Socialists. Yes, the British Communists were interested in India. But they too were trying to build up the Indian Communist party. Unfortunately, the Indian Communists didn’t have any  independent thinking. They fell for the Soviet line and even took  anti-nationalist  stands at critical junctures. Even as late as 1945 when the second world war ending the British  establishment wanted to hold on to India.

May be it was the pressure from  Roosevelt and the uncertainties of the outcome of the world war forced  Churchill to send the Cripps Mission. Inside India, the Muslim League was  winning and they became adamant and Partition became a reality!

Gandhi needs a re – evaluation

So, Gandhiji’s role needs to be studied more objectively and as we can  see now, our leaders, Gandhiji, Nehru, Azad and Patel, Rajaji and others couldn’t visualise the larger picture or were capable of rising up to  the challenge posed by the British to divide India.We became  captives in the hands of our masters, also in the internal divisions  in  the Hindu-Muslim divide.  Why  look at the past? What lessons we can have for the present? All historians wrote that the 20th century was the bloodiest century in man’s history! Two world wars, too many upheavals, rise of Hitler, too much massacre, then Russian revolution, again, too much bloodshed,  Stalin’s own quota of humna massacre, then came Mao with his own cruelties and massacres!

21st century

Do we ask any questions about the new century? Will it be different from the 20th? Or, more violent, more massacres, more bloodshed? Yes, the new terrorism doesn’t give much hope for a more peaceful world. There is no point for India by simply being led by an American vision, whatever it is! India has to have some pro-active role for helping to shape world events. At least to establish a Gandhian legacy of peace, by networking with many civil society groups, NGOs, peace promoters, disarmament   campaigners, anti-nuclear weapons lobbies etc.

What shape new century?

So, what would be the shape of the new century? Already we have had two  wars, in Afghanistan and now in Iraq. 2000 American soldiers alone killed  so far in Iraq. Things look more grim for the new century if we make any  cursory survey of events across the globe.  Just now I read about Iran’s the new President and his threat to “wipe out Israel”.Yes, his seemingly revolutionary agenda is fraught with so many unknown factors. Iran is a religious state, Islam its creed as interpreted there.Yet, the Iran’s late nuclear ambitions had already invited a swift vote from the international community with India voting with the USA. Iran can become another North Korea? It is extremely difficult to predict at this point of time. There are also economic and religious factors in the new Iran’s postures. An extremist agenda is what is threatening.

Hot spots

There are also such hot spots in the Middle East, Syria and also the oil-rich spots. USA itself is now on an unpredictable future  agenda with George Bush, in his second term, had already become the most unpopular world leader, not only inside America, in the Latin Americas and also in much of Europe.  With UK going along with the USA in the Iraqi war, it is not clear when the war will be brought to an end and when the UN will gain some legitimacy to play its role in  preserving the world from dangerous wars. Will there be a Third World War? Such a question must be agitating the minds of all thinking sections in the world considering the many new uncertainties that we notice in the behaviour of old countries as well as new countries with extremist agendas. Unfortunately, the old powers, USA  and UK are no more positive forces  for a peaceful world. A former British envoy to the US when the Iraqi war started says Tony Blair, the UK premier was “seduced by the proximity glamour of US power”and even as a junior partner, UK got the megalamania to be seen as a world power  So,UK premier didn’t even “bargain with Mr.Bush and didn’t try to influence US policy and now it is proving fatal”.
Bush without his swagger!

Bush for his part faces opposition at home and abroad when he went to Latin America he had to cancel his programmes to cope with the public protests wherever he went! One more agonising aspect of the new century is the shape of the  economic development and the sort of society that are getting the levers of power. In Iran itself we see the new President, a puritan of sorts, determined  to curb the many interest groups that had controlled the levers of  political power, economic privileges, a sort of cronyism, crony capitalism  etc. He is determined to redistribute wealth among the less privileged  peoples. This disillusionment with the ruling classes, we see everywhere in the  post-Communist world. From USA to Russia to China to India too.


Cronyism, the new dominant political trend? It is here we have to make some in depth study and reflection on the nature and shape of a new coherent political ideology (if we can still employ such a term)in this age of globalisation. That is globalised capitalism, liberalisation and ecvonomic reforms that have all brought into positions of privileges many new classes, some might even say the new parasitic classes  closer to levers of power.

India : new cynical politics?

Political corruption, another trend. Is it not that India these days had emerged as a highly corrupt society, corrupt  power elites too? The latest CBI raids in 198 places in 51 cities booked  59 highly placed officials like Commissioners of Income Tax. Central  Excise.. the list is long.In the Iraqi ‘oil for food’ programme, how   Natwar Singh and the Congress had been implicated.  So, what sort of a political culture we have been  fostering? Who can answer this question?  In the current Natwar Singh episode what emerges, rather too starkly, is  the fact that you have an one-time official, an IFS officer  finally   becomes  the  Foreign Minister and he is also close to the ruling  dynasty. His own family members are also close associates with business  firms, often export houses, dealing with the former Soviet Russia and  also with  long time friendly countries like Iraq. there is a long  history of the ruling party dabbling in taking funds from foreign  intelligence agencies! Now, how you have so many such export firms run by  figures who are at once in bureaucracy, also in politics and also have  the access to power and influence that such characters manage to own  huge properties in posh localities of New Delhi like Jor Bagh, Defence Colony and Vasant Enclave?

It is no secret how this parasitic class grows in power and influence  in successive governments? In Russia too we see a new kind  of  oligarchies controlling much of the economic power and also media power  and also float political parties. So, we are back to the question: is the fall of known political ideologies  and political belief systems (like Socialism and Communism or even any  one of the many versions of Liberalism or democratic socialism ) the  cause for the rise of these new parasitic classes? I don’t have an  immediate answer but I  believe, have a question that needs an adequate answer.

France and Germany

Old societies,  new challenges. France witnessed recently a violent uprising. Germany has now a woman president! Europe’s two great nations. Now, in deep charges. France has had a long history of revolutionary politics. Starting with  the French Revolution, there is always a strong emphasis on liberty and  equality. France has a great tradition of Socialist governments, even the  current rightwing Gaullist President Chirac has to operate  with  Socialist  Premiers. is an indication of the coming social unrest. The new development  has shaken the entire Europe. With the largest Muslim  immigrants, ageing native population, and an outdated 35-hour working week, state control of public sector economy etc had made France vulnerable to the  globalisation and WTO international trading order. Germany, also a country with a long  past.
Till the  rise and fall of  Hitler, it was Germany which dominated Europe by a series of wars and  diplomacy and  only now Germany has a democratic socialist government, a coalition government under a new generation woman leader.

France had its own Napoleonic past. Russia was always feared. A new book, an American style book, “The Culture of Freedom” by  one Di  Fabio who served as a judge on Germany’s highest court.  He traces the  current problems to the pursuit of individual freedoms to the neglect of equality or duties.  Ageing population, not enough population growth, the  rise of immigrant labour and a society that is confused about the new  values that must give their society and governance new strengths.

So,  he advocates a sort of right of centre  doctrine, more bourgeis conventions  so that good manners, the negelct of which had produced bossy bureaucracy, newer hypocrisies.  Something we can see in our politicians and the bureacracy  itself? The rise of middle classes, the middle class values, welfare state had  produced an inefficiency in the economy, public services.  So,  more private  sector-driven economic growth can accelerate economic growth and wealth  creation.

Gandhi and Nehru

Need a critical evaluation today

Today’s India and Indians would find in Gandhi not that old type of high moralist but a confused mind caught up in an India that was emerging into an independent country.  A recent biography and interpretation of Gandhi and his life (The Un-Gandhian Gandhi by Claude Markoits) gives what were his strengths and his limitations. Every Indian must read this new little, but highly insightful book. So too Indians must read some of the other new books on Gandhi and Nehru. On Nehru, there is this new biography by the Oxford historian (she had also authored a book on Gandhi)  Judith Brown. But I will always suspect British writers or experts on India. We need to do the work ourselves, now we have to shed much of the prejudices of foreigners writing and interpreting India. More so if they do so for Indian’s own benefit. So much prejudice is there in the  West, in UK and  USA in particular, to restrain and even subdue India to stand up as an independent power.

UK’s middle class socialism

British Labour Party is now pro-rich!

What has come as a great surprise when I leaf through these pages of the old socialist tomes is the stark truth that there is no word or concern  for the British “colonies”like India! The great many intellectual  debates these highly gifted socialist minds (there were so many like Hugh Dalton, R.H.Tawney, Stafford Cripps, besides other great Labour men  who  came from the  working class ranks (the proleriat, like Anuerin Bevan, Ernet  Bevin, Herbert Morrison(they all held great political offices).The  intellectuals were all typical middle class, most went to good schools  and Oxford.  Even the humble-looking Atlee and many others had never  spelt out their views on the British “colonies”!

What is history?

History is series of accidents

Big events have no big causes!

Marxists believe history has a pattern or lessons. Non-Marxists like Alan Taylor (who taught me history) thought history is a series of accidents. As  Taylor had said many a time the first war was triggered because  on the  “fateful July 28 1914,all the six assassins at Sarajevo missed their  mark; Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot only because his driver had taken a wrong turning and stopped, enabling Princip, the assassin to step on  the running side-board and take a second shot” (A.J.P.Taylor, A biography (page 226). So too, in Taylor’s view other great events: Hitler’s “seizure of power “in 1933. Also Lenin’s “seizure of power” in 1917. Here too Taylor gives new insights, other than the brainwashing tomes on the topic! Some  of the latest books on such dictators and human monsters like Mao and  Hitler show us new insights. One new book on Hitler (The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939 by Richard Evans) gives us in India new insights how even now fascism, Nazism can turn state power into police states!

Denial of freedoms by democratically elected leaders!

Police States in today’s India!

A people can be traumatised  by the fear of the state. Even now in states like Tamil  Nadu under the Dravidian ideology, Shivsena in Maharashtra and also under Lalu in Bihar the “democratically-elected leaders have turned dictators by more subtle and pernicious methods. An awe and a fear of the leader as a demi-god is created and carefully built up, cadres fall at  the feet of the leaders and worship as gods! In TN no society will talk freely, openly of state affairs. Teachers, government servants, why even the  entire middle class and upper classes are cowed down by this all-pervasive power of the leaders, in office and also in Opposition!

There can’t be more telling an example of how some pernicious doctrines, Nazism and fascism, permeate into even  changed times and transformed societies! In  TN, the police is transformed into a semi-Gestapo like feared force! “The  Nazis were at their most efficient in establishing a climate of fear  and convicing average Germans that even chance criticisms would be  picked up by the Gestapo”. Attacks on the media is another new trend in  these states. So too the utter contempt for all norms of governance. No  doubt, corruption is all pervasive. So, citizens live in freedom? Or fear?

One important lesson for Indians is to realize that history is not a  remote academic study. Nor, it has no lessons for the present living. History  is, in this all important sense, a living  reality! It is time we give up our prevailing notions of great men shaping history. Great men often commit great blunders. For their blunders, people pay a heavy price. Not once. But generation after generation!  Great events really don’t have great causes. They just occur as everyday events. So, we Indians also must learn to look at  much of our recent past, our winning Freedom  etc as events that forced  upon us, or some folly committed by our own leaders!

Hugh Gaitskell

The Labour Leader I admired most

When Democractic Socialism was at its best phase Under Gandhi’s influence we can say now that the rest of the nationalist movement was under an unclear mindset about our Independence. We were still made to  believe in the benign rule of the British government. It was the  emergence of Hitler, we in India too began to think of the threats on the   lines of what the British thought of the events in Europe. Just now I was going through a book on Hugh Gaitskell (1906-1963), a book  by admirers and friends of the  much-admired Labour Party leader in Britain.  Some of the contributors to the volume, Maurice Bowra,  John  Betjeman, Margaret Cole, Douglas Jay, Roy Jenkins, Clement Atlee are all known names. In a personal sense I also knew them  all while I was at  Oxford. In a much more personal way I knew Hugh Gaitskell himself!  Yes, he was a New College man and I used to see him in the New College  Quad or at the dining hall where he would come after an overnight stay in the College rooms. I happened to occupy the very rooms he had once  occupied as a student in the College. In fact, this fact was revealed to  me by my scout(the English  servant who kept my room ).He would chat with me occasionally and it was he who first told me about Gaitskell and  what a wonderful student he was and how he had then become the most  admired Labour Party leader. In fact, it was 1959 and there was a General  Election and all my Oxford College was in a sort of buzz over the  outcome of the elections. We all eagerly expected debated the prospects of  Gaitskell  becoming the Prime Minister.

But alas! He lost the elections. The book before me is a collection of  tributes by those who knew him so intimately. Now, reading it after so  many years, I was particularly drawn towards the personality of Gaitskell  for his family members were all once government servants in India. The  very first photo in the books is he as a child held by his Indian aye! A white child with a black Indian maid!

He went to the best public school and Oxford’s New College. My College  had the reputation of nurturing a large number of labour personalities. What  the young Hugh Gaitskell growing as an young man out in the world  and talked all about the growing social inequalities in UK. In the background of the rise and consolidation of Communism under  Stalin, there was this intellectual debate of creating a just world,a just social order. In UK, there was already the socialist movement, the  founding of the Fabian Society in 1885 itself.In 1887 Fabian Tract Facts  for Socialists were published.In 1889 Fabian Essays published. The  duo, Beatrice  Potter,a well-off girl from a merchant family met a low born and yet a  bright man, Sidney Webb(“she adjusted her sights to the scruffy, rather  ugly little man in the shiny suit”)and she married him in 1892.

Fabian Socialism

What I learned from Harold Laski?

He shaped my political beliefs in my younger days. My another favourite writer and thinker was Harold J.Laski (1893-1949). I must have  read and re-read almost all his volumes at one time. Now, as I read his  biography (Harold Laski: Isaac Kramnick and Barry Sheerman, 1993), I felt  inspired and also sad. What a brilliant mind and yet what a sad end to  his otherwise brilliant career and impact. Laski was a close personal  friend of Nehru and Nehru, strictly speaking, became a socialist, less by the Soviet experiments,more because of his friendship with Laski and also the many Labour leaders  and also writers and journalists like Kingsley Martin, the editor of the  New Statesman. This weekly magazine was a socialist organ, founded by the  Webss, they also founded the London School of Economics.I became an  ardent reader of this magazine all through my years in England and used  to invite its editor, Mr. Martin to speak to the Indian students  association at Oxford, of which I was president for some time. Mr.Martin’s  editorial writing had a slant and a style(“the cut of the jibe”)influenced  my own style of writing the English language!

Harold Laski

One reason why Laski is important to Indians is the fact that he was so  famous only in India,thou8gh he was a well-known name in UK and USA and  also known in the then Russia as a chief exponent of Marxism while being   committed to Parliamentatry Democracy.His interpretation of Communism  had many takers in the West and also in India.Laski was teacher of V.K.Krishna  Menon as he was to so many later leaders of Asian and African countries.He  was a professor at the London School of Economics for 30 years and was  chairman of the British Labour Party when it won the general elections in 1945 that unseated Churchill as a war time leader!Becuase of his  peculiar skills of intllectual exposition of Socialism and attack on the  sort of Capitalism that was in vouge he was largely suspect to be a Red  Professor. In India, his version of socialism was almost what Nehru  propounded,though Nehru had to balance his socialism, democracy and economic planning carefully while keeping his special friendship with  the Soviet Russia.

His famous books are:”Grammar of Politics”,1925(I bought the hardcover  edition inChennai in 1953!).Liberty in the modern state, The Dilemma of  our Times,1952, Faith, Reason and Civilization,1944, Karl Marx, An Essay (Fabian Society)’Reflections on the Revolution of our Times,1943. I have given  only the titles I consider very original and  of lasting value. When an  Indian edition of the “Grammar of Politics” was brought out Nehru wrote  an introduction. Laski would be remembered as one of the seminal minds of the 20th century and one who gave liberty, personal freedom a central  place in our democratic beliefs and actions.

Hugh Gaitskell

The Labour Leader I admired most

When Democractic Socialism was at its best phase

As they say the rest is history. That is the history of the rise and  growth of the British version of Parliamentary Socialism, as an  alternative to the Soviet Russian Communism.
As I now  look into the dusty volumes on the subject, as I was an ardent  Fabian Socialist since my Oxford days and I used to collect all the  books and writings and biograpies of the so many finest thinkers of the  period, my mind wanders forth and back!  The Webbs were a prodigious couple, they  write much and it was they who, in spite of being strict democrats, wrote  such volumes like “Soviet Communism: A new Civilisation?”(1935).

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