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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 23 New Delhi May 26, 2018

Socialism and Nehru

Saturday 26 May 2018

by K.N. Raj

The following is the text of the paper read by the distinguished economist and Director of the Delhi School of Economics at the symposium held in New Delhi to mark the first death anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, May 27, 1965. Dr K.N. Raj, who passed away sometime ago, subsequently became the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Delhi.

Socialism, like democracy means now different things to different people. Almost everyone in India calls himself today a socialist. This appears to be the price socialism has paid for its mass appeal.

The reason for the present confusion is however not just the mass appeal of socialism and the indiscriminate use to which it has been put. There are other more substantial reasons for loss of clarity, and it is important to understand what they are.

Two Streams

Historically, socialism is the product of two streams in Western thought, one associated with the emergence of humanism from the fifteenth century onward following the Renaissance and the other with the development of modern science and technology. In the earlier stages the humanistic element was more promi-nent in the formulations on socialism but later, more particularly after Marx, the emphasis on science and technology became so pronounced as to almost obscure the underlying humanist impulse.

In this latter phase the development of socialist thought got also very closely interw-oven with the conditions existing in the countries in which science and technology were develo-ping most rapidly. These were the industrial nations of Western Europe, more particularly Germany, France and Great Britain. Capitalist development had proceeded far enough in these countries for the emergence of a numerically large industrial proletariat. The gains of technological progress were also evident, though even more so was the exploitative character of capitalism and the misery of the industrial workers.

Removing Contradictions

It was natural in this kind of setting to concentrate attention on the impact of the new technology of the Industrial Revolution on two classes, the owners of the instruments of production and those employed by them. Significantly however the emphasis in this more modern phase of socialist thinking was not on the mere elimination of economic inequality (as it was when the sole impulse was humanism) but on the removal of certain contradictions in capitalist society which were believed to have come in the way of the full use of the productive powers released by science and technology.

An interesting distinction Marx drew in this context was between what he called ‘forces of production’ (meaning thereby the known range of technology) and the ‘relations of production’ (by which he meant the specific institutional arrangements concerning production in a given social structure). It was the contradiction between the two which, according to him, found expression in conflict between social classes and became the mainspring of revolutionary change.

The emergence of capitalist relations was itself seen therefore as a revolutionary change in response to the technology of modern industry and the inability of the earlier pre-capitalist forms of organisation to cope with it. Indeed no one had greater praise for the achievements of capitalism than Marx himself, as will be evident from the following extract from the Communist Manifesto drafted in 1848:

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground—what earlier century had ever a presenti-ment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?

In course of time, it was however argued, capitalism would in turn become incapable of absorbing changes in technology because there would develop an incompatibility between their growing capital-intensive character and the motivation of private profit on which their adoption would depend. Conditions would then be ripe for its displacement by socialism.

Thus the case for socialism was not that it was the only way of satisfying the urge for equality and social justice in a growing, developing economy. Socialism was simply inevitable because capitalism as an economic system would cease to be technically efficient and progressive and begin to disintegrate from within.


In actual experience the capitalist society has shown considerable resilience and capacity for adaptation and growth, more particularly in the last three decades. It is of course possible to say, as some do, that the threat of socialist revolution and preparations for war have them-selves contributed to the survival of capitalism. It is also possible to argue that the capitalist society has been transformed so much during this period that in fact a social revolution of more or less the kind foreseen has already taken place. Did not Engels pointedly refer to Marx’s belief that in England at any rate “the inevitable social revolution might be effected entirely by peaceful and legal means”?

But that capitalist societies (or whatever else one might like to call them) have survived so far, retaining most of their distinctive features such as private ownership of the means of production, is a question of fact and not of opinion. They have not only managed to survive but have continued to show fairly impressive results in terms of technical progress and growth.

However, the societies in which capitalism has shown impressive results are those in which either the earlier pre-capitalist forms of organi-sation had been transformed over a long period of history when science and technology were not taking very rapid strides or, as in the United States, where an altogether fresh beginning could be made without any carry-over from the past. The impact of capitalism in the last century on societies still in the early stages of transition from pre-capitalist forms of organisation has been of a very different character.

If the case for socialism is to be stated in a form that has relevance to contemporary reality and political action, it must take account of these and other facts thrown up by experience. It is because of the failure to do so explicitly that there is so much confusion today as to what socialism stands for.

The experience of the last century has underlined not so much the inability of capitalist societies to be technically efficient and progressive but the sharp inequalities and concentration of economic power which capitalist development seems to almost inevitably promote. This is evident not only on the national but on the international plane. The case for socialism rests today therefore not so much on the considerations which Marx and others focused attention on but on essentially humanistic grounds.

Pre-capitalist Societies

It is also important to realise that, to societies still largely in the pre-capitalist stages of development, the challenge of modern science and technology presents itself very differently from the way it did to the more advanced societies of the West in the nineteenth century. To them it comes as a challenge from outside, not one that has naturally emerged from within. For that reason the institutions and attitudes required to meet the challenge are also lacking in these societies, which was not the case in Western Europe. Indeed the existing social and economic institutions in the now backward countries are not only more exploitative in character than any known in capitalist societies but, what is worse, inhibit development and progress of any kind. Their first need is therefore to transform these pre-capitalist relations so as to make their economies responsive to innovation and change. They have also to meet the competition of the already advanced countries—a problem not faced to the same degree by developing countries in the nineteenth century—and so they must not only catch up but catch up quickly.

That the capitalist pattern of development is not the most satisfactory or the most efficient way of accomplishing these tasks is fairly obvious. The socialist path appears by far the more promising. But it is easier to find a nomenclature for an alternative path than to lay down the precise contents of a programme that will meet the requirements of societies. This is the problem which faces socialists today.

It is clear that a socialist programme in the context of the developing countries of today, cannot mean in its detail the same things as it did to Marx and others who had in mind the conditions in Western Europe some decades ago. Thus, when production is still based largely on pre-capitalist forms of organisation, and has to continue being so for some time since modern industry on the required scale can be developed only over a period, social ownership of the means of production is not necessarily the most effective way of promoting the absorption of modern science and technology in all sectors of all the economy.


There is a strong case for social ownership in sectors in which large investments are required and in which the technology and the organi-sation corresponding to it make possible both economies of scale and concentration of economic power. But when, as in the case in agriculture, the units of production are themselves small, the population is large relatively to the land available for cultivation, and foodgrains are a serious bottleneck to development, that form of organisation which promotes the most efficient application of labour and other inputs to the available land is obviously to be preferred whether or not it goes along with private ownership of property. There is a great deal of scope here for both differences of opinion and experimentation. Failure to recognise this fact is responsible for most of the acrimonious and sterile controversies among socialists today.

Nehru’s Historical Sense

It is a measure of the vision and historical sense of Jawaharlal Nehru that he had a clearer understanding of these facts and tendencies of the contemporary world than almost anyone else of his generation. Nor was it something he acquired towards his later days. His reserva-tions on the earlier Marxist formulations of socialism and what it involved were not the result of any kind of disillusionment and did not therefore have the quality of sourness or negation which the writings of many who call themselves socialists have displayed in recent times. His was a positive but non-dogmatic approach, and this he maintained to the very end.

Thus Nehru made the following observations as early as 1936 in his Autobiography:

Socialists and communists in India are largely nurtured on literature dealing with the industrial proletariat. In some selected areas, like Bombay or near Calcutta, large numbers of factory workers abound, but for the rest India remains agricultural, and the Indian problem cannot be disposed of or treated effectively in terms of the industrial workers. Nationalism and rural economy are the dominant conside-rations, and European socialism seldom deals with these.... (The) path we take is not merely a question of what we like or dislike or even of abstract justice, but what is economically sound, capable of progress and adaptation to changing conditions, and likely to do good to the largest number of human beings... The emotional appeal of socialism is not enough. This must be supplemented by an intellectual and reasoned appeal based on facts and arguments and detailed criticism....the whole value of Marxism seems to me to lie in its absence of dogmatism, in its stress on a certain outlook and mode of approach, and in its attitude to action. That outlook helps us in understanding the social phenomena of our own times, and points out the way of action and escape.

Nehru also quoted with approval Lenin’s statement: “Nothing is final; we must always learn from circumstances.”

Reluctant to Define

For these same reasons he was very reluctant to offer a precise definition of socialism. Speaking in 1956 on the objective of socialism to which the Congress party and the government had already been committed, he said:

I do not propose to define precisely what socialism means in this context because we wish to avoid any rigid or doctrinaire thinking. Even in my life I have seen the world change so much that I do not want to confine my mind to any rigid dogma.

Underlying all this caution and wariness was really a certain view of the role of science and, more specifically, of the impact of science on social evolution. Emphasis on science and its significance was indeed a dominant and recurring theme in almost everything Nehru said and wrote. In 1959 he stated his view of how science and technology governed social and economic organisation and why, in his judgment, ideology played a secondary if not a passive role in social change:

It is not so much ideology which is changing human life, but the growth of science and technology which are constantly changing social and economic structures. Function influences form. This is so in architecture. It is equally so ultimately in social structures, the form of that structure following its function. Science and technology are constantly changing functions, and so the social structure has necessarily to adapt its form to these new functions.

There were thus important, even crucial, differences between Nehru’s view of the actual process of social change and adaptation and the Marxist view. Marx emphasised “the contradic-tory, mutually exclusive, opposite tendencies in all phenomena” and this determined his approach to the form of the struggle for achievement of socialism. Nehru was willing to recognise the reality of class affiliation and conflict based on economic interests as well as the necessity for coercion, but he was unprepared to commit himself to any particular form of action and was on the whole inclined to stress the possibility of peaceful change through democratic methods of coercion. In fact the more aware he became of all the facets of a pre-capitalist society, more particularly of the divisions based on caste, religion and language in the Indian social structure, the more he emphasised the importance of peaceful change.

Function of Socialism

Though Nehru refused to offer a precise definition of socialism, and also emphasised the need for achieving it through peaceful methods, he was very clear in his mind about the function of socialism and its necessity in the context of Indian conditions.

In India we have entered, belatedly, into the phase of industrial revolution. We have done so at a time when parts of the world are in the jet and nuclear age. We have thus, in effect, to proceed simultaneously with both these revolutionary changes and this involves a tremendous burden. We have accepted socialism as our goal not only because it seems to us right and beneficial, but because there is no other way for the solution of our economic problems. It is sometimes said that rapid progress cannot take place by peaceful and democratic methods and that authoritarian and coercive methods have to be adopted. I do not accept this proposition. Indeed, in India today any attempt to discard democratic methods would lead to disruption and would thus put an end to any immediate prospect of progress.... The mighty task we have undertaken demands the fullest cooperation from the masses of our people. That cooperation cannot come unless we put forward an objective which is acceptable to them and which promises them results. The change we seek necessitates burdens on our people, even those who can least bear them; unless they realise that they are partners in the building up of a society which will bring them benefits, they will not accept these burdens or give their full cooperation.

Far-sighted View

Thus, to, Nehru, socialism as a goal offered the best prospect of meeting the requirements of humanism and the challenges of modern science and technology in a society which was at least two centuries behind times. One does not know whether this far-fighted view and all its impli-cations are adequately understood and will be translated into action by those who follow him, particularly if such action clashes with the self-interest of classes which are in a position to exercise influence and coercion on the political plane. It is not unlikely that all that Nehru said and stood for will be reduced to empty words and symbols by a society which has really not had a deep humanistic or scientific tradition and often attaches more importance to form than substance. But the more widely the rational basis of Nehru’s advocacy of socialism is under-stood, and the more quickly it is followed by concrete action, the greater are the chances of preserving and building further on the rich legacy he has bequeathed to us.

(Mainstream, June 5, 1965)

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