My Oxford years : crowded by philosophers and historians!
A.J.P.Taylor, Isiah Berlin, James Joll
Indians need to learn to distrust much of British written history. The immediate provocation for this essay is the reading of A.J.P. Taylor (1906-1990), the well-known British historian, for the second time. I had the good fortune to attend his history lectures in Oxford in the prime of his performance, though I didn’t join any history course.
I had a paper in modern European history for my PPE and for this paper I had as my tutor James Joll, then Sub-Warden of St. Anthony’s and later Joll became a professor at Lodon School of Economics. Joll was one of my favorite tutors and I learnt a lot from his rather friendly disposition towards me and we argued a great deal.
When I last visited England in 1989 I tried to meet him in London and though we corresponded off and on, I didn’t have the chance to see him for the second time. Even when he was my tutor he was already a known name, he made a name for himself as a modern European history scholar, he presented me one of his printed lectures, appropriately titled as “The end of the Second World war and the End of Europe”. Something like that, the title remains in my memory and also what I remember about him was his interest to know more about India. More about Joll eleswhere. In European and British history I had read a lot, mostly the rise of modern Europe since the French Revolution and more specifically the rise of Socialism. Among my favourite historians I would mention surely R.H Tawny, the author of such titles like ‘Equality’, “The Acquisitive Society”, of course G.M. Trevelyan, J and L. Hammond couple, I learnt a lot about the history of the English poor from their books, most of the Fabian Society-related names, too long to name here, I had devoured. The Webbs were of course my favorites, Harold J.Laski I worshipped as my intellectual god!
Now, history teaching and history writing is a favourite British academic sport! Yes, there were too many historians at Oxford and too much talk of history too! Only in later years I learnt to read the greats of history writing, Edward Gibbon, in so many editions and illustrated versions, Thucy dides’s” Peloponnesian War” was a bible for any serious-minded Oxford student.
I never became an expert in any history, no professional competence, but yes, I can claim myself as a gentleman amateur! May be, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru also, you can call him like that! Now, before we proceed further I must narrate my attending the great history lecture of my time, the late A.P.J.Taylor. His reputation was such that anyone who was at the time (1959-61) studied at Oxford must have been attracted by his rather ‘popular’ type lecturing on a subject that was otherwise thought to be rather dull or low key in the Oxford scheme of things. I was fascinated by the PPE (philosophy, politics and economics).
In these subjects there were still more colourful personalities. A.J.Ayer, the philosopher, Isiah Berlin (originally from Riga, Russia) a philosopher of ideas and Sir John Hicks( later a Nobel winner in economics) besides other stars. Like Sir Roy Harrod and Prof.Gilbert Ryle and many other younger tutors who even then were very promising and later went on to earn names for themselves.
In fact, the list seems to me even now too long! In this galaxy of professors as “performers” A.J.Ayer and Taylor stood out. It was the beginning of the TV age and there was the much-rated “brains-trust” on which leading thinkers were participating. Besides such TV shows, Ayer and Taylor were themselves much sought after TV personalities. Thus, the reputation of these two were widespread and in Oxford it doesn’t mean anything whether you attended the lectures are not, they were not compulsory, though your subject tutors might recommend some lectures. So, it was the standing of the lecturers that drew the crowd.
Thus Isiah Berlin was a hit. His non-stop monologue-type discourses in a mix of heavily Continental/ Russian/ English accent was an additional attraction! His expositions of obtruse ideas simply stimulated the young curious minds. Berlin was not everything a traditional Oxford don was! He won’t pause or search for the right word or phrase or would feel ashamed if the audiences won’t follow his electric fire delivery of complex ideas. Here was not a lecture, there was the very historical processes in a stream of consciousness! But there were others like the extremely sensitive Hicks who on one occasion felt the thread of his argument (on the theory of demand) disturbed by a student’s query. And simply he gave up the lecture telling”let us continue next time where we have left now ”and walked off the lecture hall!
Taylor, the historian, was in a class altogether himself. His very persona gave rise to some curiosity about the man. He simply looked through his specs in your face as if you are about to be surprised by his remarks. And let me tell you it was this unique, rather unorthodox observations and insights that made him a totally different class of historian or historical scholar.
Now, I learn about his family background, he was no aristocrat in the true British sense but he was born into an upper class cotton trading family for two generations and Taylor grew up in the midst of some considerable affluence. But he was all his life a” humble” Oxford history don,he didn’t get any of the prized professorships, though he was eminently suited, because he was seen as a maverick. Too uncomfortable to the Oxford conservative academic community.
But what he missed out by academic distinctions he made up by his remarkable style of lecturing, his BBC history lecture series is now in a class in itself. John Irwin, the producer of’The News’, ’Free Speech’ of the BBC was in attendance in Oxford to listen to Taylor’s lectures, Here is what he says:” I’ve seen nothing like it. That audience was hypnotized by Taylor’s dynamic personality, his passionate sincerity, his wit, his command of words, his brilliant sense of timing, his complete mastery of the subject-without a single note”. Before the TV camera Taylor “did it live, in one take many series, spoke without notes, developing his thesis on his feet”!
Some of his well-known and widely read volumes are: The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918, The Origins of the Second World War. Besides he wrote his autobiography which I bought later in India in an antiquarian bookshop. It is the autobiography and his collected essays that often turn to whenever some questions in modern history come up. More than writing history, as popularly understood, Taylor has much to say on the prejudices in writing history by fellow historians or others like Winston Churchill and it is these particular observations that make an enduring pleasure to read and re-read. In fact, just now I have been re-reading his one such collection of essays that cover fields vast and controversial. In the volume before me two chapters cover such themes like “how wars begin”, “How wars end” and one long review of Churchill, as Prime Minister and also as a subject of a five volume biography. Besides such illuminating issues like” History lessons We cannot ignore”, ‘’Historical wisdom:” ,”History in a changing world” and” The use and abuse of history”.
Churchill image devalued
I was very keen to refresh my memory of what he has got to say on Winston Churchill. I have been writing on Churchill for sometime now and one of my current projects is to demystify the larger-than-life image of Churchill as if he was a demi-god. He is no god ever and he was of course a great war time leader and Indians know him as one who called Gandhi a “naked fakir and used such abusive terms to describe India’s struggle for freedom. He had utter contempt for Indian demand for freedom! Indians of the past generation knew Churchill’s penchant for using such abuses and yet I often wonder that Indians of that time, why including Gandhi and Nehru and others, couldn’t do much but had to adopt a low key approach to be on the side of England that was fighting a war. This much I concede. But what I can’t concede is the continuing hero-worship of an Englishman who is nobody for me, for Indians. He was for me not a typical English gentleman in the first place. Readers must know that I had had moved with some of the finest specimens of human beings in England and personally I had enjoyed the company and friendship of some of the old families, the country gentlemen class, I have so many English friends even now and I know well that if they read what I write they might feel a bit uncomfortable. For all of them I would only say that I am an Indian, living in India and I am an Indian patriot and patriotism is no more a badge for one’s commitments to one’s country. Churchill is not any leader for me. He is not a hero, he is a villain, he didn’t understand history, he didn’t know there were worlds outside the British islands, he was a typical John Bull, a perfidious Albion and that is all to it! He didn’t understand India and when the world war events got out of his hands and when the American pressure mounted he lost much of the war propaganda halo and the leadership passed on into the hands of the Americans, Roosevelt and soon after Truman came to decide the outcome of the war’s ending. Atlee and Truman are seen in the further negotiations, thanks to the TV age, I saw in the History Channel, the dramatic change of the persons who eventually decided the course of world events. Only in India, I am amazed to find educated Indians are still mentally tied to Churchill’s war time propaganda speeches. Of course, Indians are always carried by too much rhetoric, it is another Indian failing. But here I am and what I am and what I am called upon to do my duty is to give my countrymen the changed realities of the world.
Recently, in May, 2005, there was this celebration of the 60th year of ending the scent world war. There was Bush, in the Baltics and in Moscow and there were debates on whether Russia won the war and saved the Baltic states from Nazis or whether Russia continued the oppression, by killing in total, some 80 million in the name of Communism. Nazism is all the British talk about. It is Communist authoritarianism is all the rest of Europe talked about. Bush, as an inheritor of the legacy of Wilson and Roosevelt didn’t display much historic sense but the world debated that America became the super power after the second world war. After the first, Wilson became an American president as a world hero. After the second, it was Roosevelt who dictated the terms of war and peace too!
Now history writing has changed a great deal. History writing is now historiography and there are any number of views on history as there are number of historians. Indianhistorians,though quantitatively, the largest in number, are mere mass, no distinguished names to take on the deeply-held Western biases towards India History writing for long was a glorification of a hero. In India we have hagiography, too many books on two few individuals, too many on Gandhi and Nehru, too neglectful towards other players like Nethaji. I read in Nethaji’s autobiography (An Indian Pilgrim, Nethaji Publication Society, Calcutta, 1948):” While I lay in bed the Great War Broke out” (page 83).” The war had shown that a nation that did not possess military strength could not preserve its independence ”(page 87).Much more moving is his lines ”I have written to father and to mother to permit me to take the vow of poverty and service” (page 129). I would say that more than any other national leader during that relevant time, it was Bose who had clear conception of history and what life is for. A truly lost hero, an unsung hero even now! This is still the unstated dominant mindset of any average historian. More so the Indian historians to the present day. India, we are told by a noted Indian historian, has the largest number of working historians!
Yet, we don’t have historian of the front rank we can compare with any of the Western historians of some competence. Taylor says insightfully that though historians write long books, they, the historians are usually inarticulate about themselves. They find it hard to explain what they are trying to do or what they hope for the outcome after reading their books by others! So, there is also a view history writing, unlike for Karl Marx, has no other purpose than history’s sake. No, this view now no one takes seriously. His tory writing always had some purpose or other. In the Renaissance history was a search for the illuminating example, says Taylor, the Enlightenment used history to justify the present over the past.
In the case of Taylor, we are now able to say that the world wars didn’t start was world wars. The first world war was called a great war, then only it became the first world war. As for the second world war, Taylor would dispute even the dates as we in India now take it to be.
A.J.P.Taylor on Winston Churchill
Taylor greatly admired Churchill (1874-1965), as any other British historian would have done, before or after him. Churchil” was a saviour of his country at the most critical moment in its history” That is all is to it. But then why should others, say, Indians must have to share this admiration? The world wars were not a concern for India at any point of time. This is what I wanted to convey to Indians, historians as well as the common Indian now. All the six major wars since the French Revolution were fought in Europe. Except India was a colony of the British India didn’t have any concern for these wars. So, why Indians must read the accounts of European historians about their own ‘internal’ wars and bloodsheds. Indians have much to concern about their own country and my plea is that we Indians at least now turn our attention to looking at our own past and the present and learn to think for ourselves what concerns us and what we can do to build an independent minded India.
Why Indians died in the two wars?
Bangalore : Whenever I walk past the war memorial in Bangalore’s Cantonment area my blood boils, I must confess! Why, I used to wonder, Indians were butchered for no fault of their own? Why our leaders, I like to examine those times, the records, were not educated and sensitive enough to look at India’s problems in a different way. I am sorry to say this for even now whenever I look back at the two world wars, in the light of what Taylor had got to say, I can’t but question the simplistic way in which Mahatma Gandhi looked at the world or understood history and took part in mobilising workers for the war efforts. Even, seen in this light, Jawharalal Nehru comes out poorly, in spite of his reading and writing history at length. My hope is that at least from now onwards we should learn to look at history as mere assembly of facts or a mere narration of events, we have to learn to question the wisdom of the particular historian who wrote a particular history. James Mill wrote a history of India to downgrade Indians. I am shocked that to this day no one Indian or UK/USA based Indian intellectual had openly denounced Mill. The same view holds good for much of what the white historians are writing about India and who the new Indian historians are writing about India today. Taylor is right when he says historians might write long books, but historians are inarticulate or in the Indian scenario historians, like other acedemics behave like humble government servants and are afraid of and deferential to the incumbent governments to express themselves openly on some of the actions that would have long term historic implications.
Before we proceed to the Indians and the Indian perspectives, I like to make one or two remarks on how history was taught at Oxford and what the students generally benefitted or how I benefitted. There is a brief essay of Taylor on how historians are seen by the history teaching and writing profession as well as the general reading public. The essay is titled as “From Amateurs to Professionals”. Taylor is stimulating in that he is at once brilliant and also gossippy! He didn’t get the coveted Oxford Chair, the Regius Professor of history. And this I think rankles in much of what he says on his fellow professionals.” Men have been writing history in England since the days of Venerable Bede”. And the British are great history writers and readers as well. In the process we Indians were also greatly influenced by what the British historians told us about ourselves. We in fact believed in how white historians portrayed us, the brown, coloured people. Yes, the British always had this stiff upper lip! So, I want readers to be extremely sceptical of what the older and even the present day white men write of us, Indians! Anyway, here Taylor divides two types of historians, the amateurs and the professionals. Edward Gibbon is the famous amteur. Gibbon, along with Thucidides and one or two modern historians like E.H.Carr (What is history?) are, I would say, three great modern historians without reading them I feel our knowledge of history and the world we live in would remain incomplete! This is my personal view. Taylor gives some more amteurs: Carlyle (the author of the French Revolution), and one or two more amateurs and semi-professionals like Macaulay and Lord Acton. Among the professional historians Taylor mentions too many, known and unknown (to Indians) and I would only mention that these professional historians, most of them didn’t rose beyond simple lecturers and tutors, at Oxford and Cambridge and yet they were real scholars, each an expert in his chosen period or subject. Some of the choice abuses historians threw at each other! The point is as Taylor himself says that no historian is wholly reliable! Thus, there is nothing like established and universally accepted historical truths as such. We have to read widely as far as possible and make our own judgements. In the case of Taylor too, he is at best a provocative authority on the European wars. The Napolean wars. The two world wars. Without reading him you can’t really come to grips with the rise of modern Europe. There were semi-professionals and great visionary historians, like Karl Marx, Spengler, Toynbee and I would add others like Karl Popper and the living great Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm.
As I was contemplating what Taylor had to say on the two world wars, I also was going through the 60th year celebrations of the ending of the second world war and the comments that evoked in the world press. There was a celebration in Moscow for which the Indian Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh went. There were 59 heads of states, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor historical events as such later generations don’t remember many events. Certainly, the world wars, now seen from the Indian point of view, I don’t rate of much significance for us. Also seen today even our Freedom Struggle didn’t get much impacted by these two world events. Yes, during the first world war, Gandhi was already in his middle years of 40 plus. Nehru was still an young man. During the second world war, Gandhi and Nehru were in leadership roles. The first world war was triggered by the rise of nationalism everywhere in Europe. So, the nationalist consciousness swept through the Indian continent too? Yes, it must have been. During the second world war? No it was the hegemony of the British Empire which was struggling to save itself? We were mere pawns?
Yes, Gandhi didn’t show much historic sense. He was rather immune to any such great thoughts of historic visions. His reading was very patchy. Nehru?
He was reading much and he had a sense of history, yes. But his historic musings were again very vague, in a general sort of way. He didn’t seriously ponder over the choices before the Indian people. Rajaji? Simply out of the great forces.
He was more a small player on history’s stage! The one person who suddenly came on my historic radar, was surprisingly, Nethaji Bose! Why, I was forced to think of him as I was reading through the pages of Taylor’s own musings or loud thinkings on the great events in Europe. May be Bose, among the Indian leaders alone of the time, thought in a more historic terms! Such historic thoughts only might have given him ideas of taking on British Empire’s own selfish ends through a historic, heroic step of going out into the open world and aligning with historic opportunities thrown up by the world events. At the relevant times I am talking about Germany or Japan were clearly not in any bad light. They had their own” patriotic ”panges to find justice for their own perceived wrongs by victors, whoever they were. So, in my view,Bose had this sense of history,historic vision and made a brave attempt to seize a historic opportunity. Now, I read from Bose’s biographer Mihir Bose that Subhas Bose met Hitler to seek help to get rid of the British. Yes, there was the realisation in India, among the Indian nationalists like Nehru as to what was the biggest danger: Nazism or the British. But there cant be an argument that the British held on to India with a rather Indian collaboration. As Mihir Bose says”the majority of the Indians collaborated with the British. The British could never have ruled India for a single day without Indian help and it was only after INA trials, when the loyalty of the British Indian Army became suspect, did the British realise they could not hold on to India” Another point. Almost 2.8 million Indians fought for the British during the Second World War. As Mihir Bose remarks, even soon after Bose left India and reached the Afghan territory, he got an Indian coin, from his guide,Bhagat Ram and tossed it to the ground and stamped it with his feet and shouted”Here I kick George VI, here I spit in the face of the Viceroy”.Let Indian historians redress the imbalance in our narration of who all won the Indian Freedom! At least ,let us from now on, learn not to glorify one or two persons or one family to the exclusion of others.
Another thought that crossed my mind when I was reading the 60 year celebrations. Indians didn’t respond to these celebrations, may be rightly too. India for the past sixty years is a new country. And yet, when we look back, Indians must date their historic events, from Tipu Sultan’s defeat in 1799 as a decisive historic moment. India lost its first historic opportunity to defeat the British or halt its progress it had soon after. Then, the second great historic opportunity was in 1857 when Indian princes and the ”sepoys, united irrespective of Hindu/Muslim divide and fought the first war of Indian Independence.
Between 1815 and 1857, after the defeat of Napolean in Waterloo in 1815).” The British didn’t have a rival power. So, Tipu Sultan, alone among the Indian princes had the knowledge of the outside world, the historic vision to understand the historic significance of the 1789 French Revolution, he planted a freedom tress in Srirangapattinam, he wanted to align with Napolean and take on the British. But, alas, he was all alone, isolated, Indian princes were fools of men, just human beasts, as the British wanted them to be, Indian public steeped in darkness, the English educated elite, a parasite class and India sank further in disintegration,in mind and geography, further for another century and half. Much more damning is the thought for me, neither the European Enlightenment nor the French Revolution’s republican ideas spread to India. Who prevented them? We need to study. Also, unfortunately, the Russian Communism impacted Indian intellectuals for the part in a negative manner. Thus, we inside India were pleading for British wars efforts, then suddenly for someone else (Russian) ”Patriotic War”! Indian people narrowly were lucky under Gandhi’s unrelented leadership. Though this later led to a bloodbath in Partition! Yes, history has so many ironies and ironic twists and turns. That is the one lesson anyone reading history, more so history teachers must keep before them whenever they try to understand the world before them.
Going up to OxfordStudying history at OxfordProf James JollPicking up an argument with my history tutor!
What is history?
A sense of history makes a man and a leader! This is a fascinating question. If you don’t ask such a question, then, history is just dry facts. Facts don’t make history. History is an intellectual quest and discovery of lessons from the past experiences and doings of men. History is about the past and the future. History is about the individual and society. History is what future generations choose to remember about their past generations. History decides your worth in the long-run. History would decide what would remain as worthwhile deeds and thoughts. An individual, a rebelbecomes a leader when he gathers the masses around him.
When people assemble for a leader or a cause then that leader or that cause becomes historically significant. Yet, some great men are remembered, Alexander the Great. Socrates, Julius Ceaser, the rise of Greece, Rome,Renaissance, French Revolution etc.
There is one book, simpply named: What is history?
This is 150-page lectures by a reputed historian, E.H.Carr. I must have gotten the entire pages by heart at one time! Such is its typical Oxford (or Oxbridge, for Carr was a Cambridge historian) intellecutal brilliance at its best. This book can be read as history, or a piece of prose poetry. Yes, the prose, the arguments scintillates, every page. I just now had gone through the pages again. Yes, it still retains its youthful, quarrelsome nature of arguments. There are every names here: Plato, Edward Gibbon,the author of the” Decline and the Fall of Roman Empire”, there are so many of my contemporary Oxford greats: Isiah Berlin, Karl Popper, A.J.P. Taylor and other Oxbridge historians who put up so many views of history. Yes, history could be ‘great man’ history, rebels in history,’ accidents in history like Cleopetra’s nose! The typical British wit engages you page after page. The large number of references in this short books are only to three names: Hegel, Karl Marx and Edward Gibbon. Because the rise of Communism and Nazism is directly traced to Hegel and Marx, there is this reference. Otherwise, in my own opinion, Edward Gibbon,is perhaps the greatest historian. He remains my hero, I bought all his eight volumes years ago and I continue to read him in several abridged versions. He was not a professional historian ,he was a gentleman amateur and reading him is a real literary aesthetic experience even if you read a few pages. He shows much philosophical wisdom, shows much global view of civilization, how the world after Roman civilzation didn’t achieve much. History gives us this long sweep of human life, human achievements.A historic sense. a historic wisdom, or an acute sense of history defines, in my view, the worth of an individual or a leader. Greece and RomeWhat I read and what I gain Greece and Rome had become my mental makeup, my mental outlook had been conditioned by my reading of these two civilizations. At Oxford I got to read bits and pieces of Aristotle, his politics was a text in my santiniketan political course. At Oxford he became a text for philosophy, logic and ethics. Oxford education is nothing if it is not Plato and Aristotle. So too the history.