R. Palme Dutt

Book Review

Left Nationalism in India

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 12, October 1936, No. 10, pp. 635-638
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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Jawaharlal Nehru: An Autobiography
(John Lane.)
pp. 618.; 15s.

The Indian Struggle, 1920-1934
By Subhas C. Bose.
(Wishart and Co.)
pp.353.; 12s. 6d.

A new awakening is developing in Indian Nationalism. While the right wing is moving to co-operation with imperialism on the basis of the new constitution the left wing is advancing, under the increasing influence of socialist ideas, to a new conception of basing the national struggle directly in the masses, in the mass organisations and in the fight for the social economic and political interests of the masses, and on this basis realising the united Anti-Imperialist People’s Front in India. The general conception: underlying the new programme may be studied in the article “The Anti-Imperialist People’s Front in India,” which appeared in the March LABOUR MONTHLY. Nehru’s Presidential Address at Lucknow in April (reprinted in the May LABOUR MONTHLY) marked a historic turning-point in proclaiming the new outlook and programme on the basis of a wide survey of the situation and development of the movement and calling specifically for the collective affiliation of the trade unions, peasants’ unions and other mass organisations to the National Congress. Sharp controversy has followed Nehru’s Address throughout the Indian national movement, and it is evident that a process of differentiation is developing of extreme significance for the future.

In this situation exceptional interest attaches to the appearance of Nehru’s book, which in the form of autobiography surveys the experience and problems of the Indian national struggle and explains the author’s philosophy and outlook on a wide variety of questions. With Nehru’s book may be usefully considered Bose’s book, which appeared last year and covers the same ground, though more superficially, up to 1934. Nehru and Bose have been the two best known leaders on the left wing in the Indian National Congress, although they have represented varying tendencies at different times. A valuable service is achieved by the appearance of both these books, which help to make close and living for the first time the experience and problems of the Indian national movement to English readers, as well as to assist the growth of self-consciousness of the Indian movement.

The autobiographical form of both books has its advantages and disadvantages. It has its advantages in giving by this means a survey and valuation of the experience and development of the struggle in India since the war up to the present stage. Such a survey and self-critical analysis is the essential condition for further advance. But it has its disadvantages in that it prevents a consistent fully worked out political treatment of the problems and encourages that subjective, psychological, introspective approach which is still unfortunately extremely marked in Indian political discussion and is a source of weakness. It is therefore to be hoped that in future books the political leaders on the left in India will advance to more definite, positive expositions and programmes, as well as to more detailed examination of the many urgent special questions.1

The first stage, however, to mastery of the future is a correct valuation of the past. The eighteen post-war years in India, the years of the civil disobedience movements and of the rise of the working class forces, have been rich in experiences and lessons. They have seen gigantic struggles, heroism and sacrifice; hundreds of thousands have been imprisoned alike under Conservative and under Labour Governments; British Imperialism has gone forward in an ascending tempo of violence and repression. The tale of these years is told in these books; and it should be studied by all in the British Labour Movement to learn the truth of how British Imperialism rules, to learn the shame of the past two Labour Governments; its study may above all be recommended to those in the British Labour Movement, the Citrines and the Morrisons, who boast of British Imperialism’s “democratic” methods and dare to read lectures against “dictatorship.” If Citrine is so anxious to journey on his missions of “impartial” inquiry, let him journey to India and there record under whose rule is the heaviest oppression, misery and suffering in the world.

But for the Indian national movement these years are rich with lessons for the future. On the anvil of history the methods of passive non-resistance, of “non-violence,” have been tried out with a completeness never before equalled and never likely to be repeated, and have ended in complete failure. Not without reason, Nehru quotes the model of British Liberalism, Gladstone:

I am sorry to say that if no instructions had been addressed in political crises to the people of this country except to remember to hate violence, to love order and to exercise patience, the liberties of this country would never have been attained.

Again and again the mass movement has swept forward, only to be checked at its height by a sudden capitulation of the existing national leadership, who sought to bring the masses into play as a threat to British Imperialism, but in ,the end at each critical point feared the masses more than Imperialism) Chauri Chaura in 1922, the Delhi Pact in 1931, the Poona surrender in 1934, have repeated this history. Nehru and Bose alike record the “consternation,” “anger,” “resentment” and “disgust” throughout the ranks of the national movement at the “staggering blow” of these capitulations, first exemplified in Chauri Chaura:

To sound the order of retreat just when public enthusiasm was reaching the boiling point was nothing short of a national calamity. (Bose, p.90.)

It is possible that this sudden bottling-up of a great movement led to a tragic development in the country. The suppressed violence had to find a way out, and in the following years this perhaps aggravated the communal trouble. (Nehru, p.86.)

Nevertheless, the analysis of these experiences and their lessons is still only incompletely carried out. Nehru speaks frankly of his own weakness in the past in too readily accepting at critical moments the line of retreat of Gandhi and the right wing leadership, and allowing his name to be identified. with it (“as was not unusual with me, I allowed myself to be talked into signing” p.197), especially with regard the responsibility of leadership in a personal subjective fashion; to have declared opposition to the Delhi Pact and refuse to sign it, he considers, “would have soothed my personal vanity,” but it was “better to accept gracefully what had been done and put the most favourable interpretation upon it” (p.260). It is as against this line that his stand at Lucknow marks a big advance. Bose sees the issues in very narrow personal terms and throws all blame on the personal leadership of Gandhi. There is still lacking a Marxist analysis of the class forces at work, exemplified with classic clearness in the process of the Indian struggle. Nehru analyses with marked skill the reactionary ideology of Gandhi, and shows how it becomes in reality the protection of the interests of the landlords and upper classes under a cover of religion, non-violence, brotherly love and the doctrine of “trusteeship.” Yet he believes that “Gandhiji does represent the peasant masses of India” (p.253), although later he is compelled to present Gandhi as the open defender of the big zamindars or landlords, the exploiters of the peasants (“what upset me was Gandhiji’s defence of the big zamindari system” p.477). He quotes Gandhi as directly identifying himself with the propertied classes:

Supposing that there is an attempt unjustly to deprive you of your property you will find me fighting on your side. (p.535.)

Similarly he quotes Gandhi with regard to the British General Strike and miners’ struggle in 1926, which awoke in Nehru, who was present in the mining districts and describes eloquently the police repression he witnessed, a passionate sympathy with the British workers and sense of unity of the class struggle, and aroused in Gandhi the following typical reflections:

If the miners had no children, they would have no incentive for any betterment and no provable cause for a rise in wages. Need they drink, gamble, smoke?

Nevertheless Nehru, while accepting the Marxist theory on a world scale, objects to the Marxist analysis of Indian politics, and in particular of the rôle of the hitherto dominant right wing leadership of the National Congress, which uses the ideology of Gandhi as its emblem to reach the masses as reflecting the interests of the Indian bourgeoisie, and therefore at critical points vacillating towards imperialism and betraying the mass struggle. He objects to this analysis because he sees it only in an abstract simplified caricature; “the Indian capitalists are supposed to sit behind the scenes and issue orders to the Congress Working Committee.” There is here a misunderstanding of Marxism; but this misunderstanding is frequent in the criticism of Marxism in all countries, and is partly caused by too abstract simplified propaganda.

With regard to the future, both Nehru and Bose are convinced of the necessity for a radical change in the policy, organisation and leadership of the national movement in order to realise the aim of independence; but there is a noticeable difference in their outlook and approach. Nehru turns increasingly to the workers and peasant masses; he desires to combine national liberation with social liberation; he is enthusiastic over the achievements of the Soviet Union, even though still hesitant over some of the necessary methods of struggle; he accepts in general the Marxist world outlook, and regards the Indian struggle in unity with the world forces of Communism and the popular front against fascism and reaction;

As between fascism and communism my sympathies are entirely with communism. As these pages will show, I am very far from being a communist. But still I incline more and more towards a communist philosophy. (Nehru, p.591.)

Bose, expresses, although in very confused form, an alternative trend in Indian nationalism and criticises Nehru’s communist sympathies. The living pictures of the conditions and struggle of the peasant masses which play a marked part in Nehru’s book, and contact with which realities first opened his eyes; as he vividly describes, in 1920 from the old abstract nationalism, play no part in Bose’s book. Bhose attacks communism as anti-national, anti-religious, and atheistic; he looks for salvation, not primarily to the masses, but to “a strong party bound together by military discipline)” (p.345), “the future of India ultimately lies with a party with a clear ideology, programme and plan of action” (p.349); he admires Mussolini with whom he has been in been in personal contact and praises Gandhi’s meeting with Mussolini as a “great public service (p.261)—it may be noted that Nehru refused Mussolini’s pressing invitation to meet him); he holds up the aim for India as “synthesis between Communism and Fascism,” and regards the Independent Labour Party as the party closest to his views in England.

The trend here expressed, though not with full consciousness of its significance, reflects certain tendencies among some of the younger bourgeois and petit-bourgeois national elements in India who look with admiring eyes to fascism; although Hitler’s speech glorifying the white man’s rôle to rule the coloured races and contemptuous reference to Indians as an inferior race has begun to open their eyes to the true character of fascism. It is evident that this trend may prove a dangerous and disorganising influence in the rank of left nationalism in India if it is not corrected in time. It is to be hoped however, that the influence of Nehru’s presidential lead at the Lucknow National Congress and the active advancing fight of the socialists and communists in India, may counteract these dangers and provide a common platform for all the militant national forces in India to unite in building a powerful Anti-Imperialist People’s Front, based on the mass organisations and the mass struggle, and leading the way to national liberation, and through national liberation to the advance to social liberation.




1. A further statement of Nehru’s positive views and programme is now available in his newly-issued book “India and the World” (Allen and Unwin, is.), a collection of essays and addresses, although this is still unfortunately only a miscellany and not yet a continuous statement