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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 47, November 13, 2010

Nehru Legacy for Socialism

Tuesday 16 November 2010


by Puran Chandra Joshi

Dr Arjun Sengupta’s article on ‘Nehru and Indian Socialism’ is full of new insights and understanding which deserve wide discussion among socialists in India.

Dr Sengupta has made an important methodo-logical departure. He suggests that to judge Nehru’s contribution to socialism from the yardstick of “scientific socialism” would be a mistake. Indeed, this doctrinaire approach has for long been a source of great confusion and error. Nehru was significant not as a theoretician of socialism, but because he was superior to other socialists in contributing to a better understanding and grasp of the real social-historical processes in Indian society and in achieving a certain degree of success in changing them.

One has to keep the fundamental aims of the socialist movement in view and not the classical doctrine and strategy of socialism in evaluating the role of Nehru, and for that matter any other individual or social group. It is pertinent to recall, in this connection, a galaxy of individuals claiming to be greater pundits of socialism who ended up in total ineffectiveness, nay, self-disintegration, while Nehru, no master of the socialist doctrine, did have a real impact on Indian history.

Grasp Over Indian Realities

HERE it is necessary, however, to treat the two aspects of Nehru’s contribution separately, namely, (a) his understanding and grasp of social processes in India, and (b) his contribution towards changing them in a socialist direction. Dr Sengupta has not made this distinction very explicit. He has contributed fresh ideas on the first aspect but has left the second aspect, by and large, untouched.

The first aspect needs some further elabo-ration. Nehru showed a better grasp of the Indian realities by clearly recognising the primacy of nationalism over socialism in pre-independence India and by unreservedly identifying himself with Indian nationalism. Orthodox socialists also recognised this primacy. They were, however, inhibited from joining the mainstream of the national movement as unreservedly as Nehru because of their mistaken understanding.

Orthodox Socialists’ Isolation

THEY thought that nationalism other than that led by the working class had a dual character and, with the sharpening of conflicts with imperialism, it was bound to surrender, thus bartering away the country’s independence. This led them to attach greater importance to fighting against the reformist tendency of the national movement led by the Congress. It prevented them from joining wholeheartedly the mainstream of nationalism and fighting its weaknesses from within (as Nehru did).

The logical outcome was their isolation from the real processes to such an extent that they landed themselves in the odd position of denying Indian freedom, when it came, as fake. They also remained blind to the potentialities of Indian freedom as an instrument of far-reaching social and economic transformation in India.

In recognising these potentialities and in working step by step for their realisation, Nehru again showed a greater wisdom and insight. His sense of history, his deep grasp of world developments and his acute sensitiveness to India’s past conditioning and present require-ments enabled him to rule out the prospect of both the classical capitalist and the socialist pattern of development in India. One had to work for changes in the peculiar, real conditions of independent India.

To Nehru it appeared futile, perhaps rightly, to open up a doctrinaire debate on the meaning and definition of socialism so very characteristic of orthodox socialists. It appeared to him equally futile to try imposing a wholesale socialist programme on the national movement and its major instrument—the Congress. The more fruitful and effective course was to work step by step for a series of reforms in the Indian social structure which would set India on the socialist path suited to its conditions. This is the objective significance of the various resolutions adopted by the Indian National Congress, the special landmarks being the Avadi, Nagpur and Bhubaneshwar resolutions of the Congress.

The Nehru Strategy

THE chief characteristic of the Nehru strategy lay in working for social transformation, not in the orthodox way, by wholesale nationalisation of the private sector, but by working for a frame-work of planned development in which the State assumed a strategic role. It would do so by determining the main dirction of growth of the economy through control of its commanding heights (State control over banking and trade, growing public ownership of key and heavy industries etc.) In the field of agriculture, his emphasis was on evolving a cooperative frame-work through a process of liquidation of the feudal vestiges followed up by other institutional reforms. In the social sphere, it was to be a campaign against communalism, casteism and regionalism and for secularism, science and rationality.

This programme corresponded to the require-ments of progress in Indian society in the present stage of its development. In orthodox socialist jargon, the programme is directed primarily against the survivals of feudalism and colonialism in the Indian society, and not against the bourgeosie, though it is not intended to open the way for full-fledged capitalistic growth. The bourgeosie will, however, try to influence it in the direction of its untrammeled growth.

Nehru, the realist that he was, did not engage in speculation about the future and concentrated his attack mainly on immediate impediments to Indian progress (landlordism and stubborn forms of Indian social backwardness). His programme, however, clearly implies the prospect of a rapid strengthening of the socialistic elements in the economic social and political structure for a “qualitative transformation” to occur in the direction of socialism and not capitalism.

Doctrinairism of Socialists

IT is again noteworthy that doctrinaire socialists showed an utter blindness to the creative potentialities of this programme. Once again they were guilty of the same error, namely, the doctrinaire approach of evaluating these developments from the standpoint of the classical model of socialism, divorced from the concrete realities of the Indian society. They began by denying any prospect of Indian economic development and by predicting a semi-colonialist status for India under the bourgeois dispensation. Later the process of development under the Five Year Plans began unfolding itself and producing certain tangible results, even though somewhat distorted in its scope and effects by the influence and action of powerful interest groups.

The socialists switched over to concentrating their criticism one-sidedly on the latter (that is, the distortion of the reforms in the process of implementation) with supreme indifference to the former (that is, the total process of development and its potentialities). Even this was done only to expose the Congress programme as “bourgeois” in its content under the garb of a socialist phraseology. A fanatical campaign to expose the Congress brand of socialism became an obsession with them.

The doctrinaire approach was again a barrier—a confusion between the fundamental aims of socialism and its classical strategy and forms, a search for the socialist path in its pure forms. Furthermore, according to the book-model, capture of state power by the working class party was a precondition to any step towards socialism. A campaign to throw the Congress out of power thus became the creed of many socialists.

What is most striking is that all along there has been a growing divorce from life and its potentialities, a tyrannical grip of dogma becoming a dead weight on new understanding and creativeness and a total incapacity to have any influence and impact on the real course of developments. The logical outcome of this trend has been a disintegration of these socialist forces and their degeneration into sects of various shades divorced from life. (Well, theory grows grey, my friend, the tree of life is green!)

One has a better measure of Nehru’s superior contribution if one contrasts it with that of his contemporary socialists. What Nehru said on Gandhi’s role aptly applies to him: “The time was ripe for it and world conditions worked for this change. But a great leader is necessary to take advantage of circumstances and conditions.”

His comments on the Left groups are equally valid today: “… groups with a more advanced ideology functioned largely in air because they did not fit in with these conditions and could not, therefore, evoke any substantial response from the masses.”

Implementation of Programme

THERE is now the second and much more vital aspect of the question: how far Nehru contributed to implementing the reforms and to changing the Indian social structure in a progressive direction? For, whether a socialist is of the ‘subjectivist’ or of the ‘Marxist’ variety, the contribution of either has to be evaluated on the basis of an objective yardstick, namely, the success in altering social relations in the objective world. Socialists in India have concentrated too much on doctrinal discussion rather than on appraising real changes.

It is not possible to go into detail on this question here. On the basis of available evidence, however, it can perhaps be said that the basic position and direction favourable for socialist development in India still remain unassailed. The most important is the continuing commit-ment of the Congress to the national goals accepted under Nehru’s leadership.

Dr Sengupta has pointed to definite achievements and successes which are an asset to the socialist forces. Still it is difficult to ignore that the programme has been only partially implemented. Certain negative features have developed and it would be wrong to ignore their implications for future development.

In the industrial field, big business interests have enormously strengthened their position. No serious dent has been made into trading and mercantile interests in the interest of develop-ment. In the field of agriculture, which continues to be a weak link in the Indian economy, remnants of landlordism combined with usurious and trading interests continue to be a drag on the rural economy and impede its progress.

Changes in the economic sphere have their reflection in the social sphere where the spirit of acquisitivensss, power lust and the gap between the affluence of the few and the misery of the many are associated with a new capitalistic class differentiation.

Reasons for Failure

WHAT are the reasons for these failures? Dr Sengupta’s observations in this respect are extremely perceptive. He ascribes these to the limitations of the Congress organisation, the absence of a purposive mass movement in support of the socialistic measures and, consequently, the reliance on state bureaucracy for the implemen-tation of policies. He rightly suggests that much of the blame for these developments has to be shared by other socialist organisations.

This is the crux of the problem—the somewhat mixed character of the Nehru legacy to the socialist forces in India. To miss the significance of the Nehru programme and all that he stood for would be as harmful as to ignore the negative developments. Nehru articulated the aspirations of India’s millions when he fought for the acceptance of his ideas by the national movement. He did not, however, organise the decisive supporters of this programme to ensure its implementation. He did not, built as he was, seek the decisive, organised sanction of these classes in Indian society—the workers and peasants, who have the maximum stake in socialism and have, therefore, to be the bulwark of this programme. But in this Nehru was not alone.

Middle Class Dilemma

THIS is the crisis of the entire Indian “middle class”—the Westernised Indian intelligentsia which by its urban and upper-caste roots, upbringing, and education is divorced from the basic masses of the Indian society. Its humanism and enlightenment draw it towards the masses. Its class and caste limitations, however, stand in its way of firmly identifying itself with them, and in communicating with the masses in an idiom intelligible to them. Sengupta is totally wrong when he ridicules the suggestion that the style of living of a leader may affect his effectiveness in a mass-poor, and predominantly peasant society. An ambivalence towards the masses, an apathy towards organisation and collective action, a Brahmanical faith in the power of words (or technical models) often unsupported by down-to-earth, matter-of-fact orientation, a glamour for ‘the slick, the smart and the sophisticated’ in preference to ‘the rough and the rugged’—these tendencies have characterised the middle class leadership in recent years. No political party or social organisation can claim immunity from them. Nehru symbolised some of these traits with true poetic grandeur. When the middle class criticises Nehru, it seldom cares to see that it is only attacking its self-image with masochistic fervour. The masses with their innate wisdom understood him better and loved him in spite of his weaknesses.

But then, Nehru might have been led to compromises by the compulsions of circumstances or by the limitations of his own personality. He never lost the perspective. This awareness of the limitations of his generation is so very candidly expressed in his well-known paper, Whither India.

“In India as in other Asiatic and colonial countries, we find a struggle between the old nationalistic ideology and the new economic ideology. Most of us have grown up under the nationalist tradition and it is hard to give up the mental habits of a life time… there is a hiatus, a lag. We try to bridge this hiatus, but the process of crossing over to a new ideology is always a painful one… But the crossing has to be made unless we are to remain in a stagnant backwater, overwhelmed from time to time by the wash of the boats that move down the river of progress.”

Here was then the chief source of tension. Those who had to implement the programme were still rooted in the conservative aspect of the nationalist tradition and had not made that crossing over so as to wholeheartedly commit themselves to the socialist goals. Nay, some of them were even indifferent, if not hostile, to these goals.

Firmer Measures

IN the pre-independence period when political freedom was the overriding necessity, those rooted in nationalism could escape from the painful choice of making a crossing. Conditions are more favourable and pressing for making this choice in free India, specially after 14 years of development. The compulsions of life itself (that is, the aspirations of the people coming into conflict with the present pace of progress) indicate towards firmer socialistic measures as a way out. Politics is said to be the art of the possible. It is for the socialists of all kinds to transform this possibility into a reality by winning over, for socialism, vast numbers of nationalists who still are the determining factor in the country’s politics. Sengupta rightly concludes that the judgment of history on Nehru will also be a judgment on the socialist forces in India.

(Mainstream, November 28, 1964)

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