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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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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