MN Roy

Socialism and the Empire

Date: February 1928
Published: Labour Monthly, pp.85-94
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Mike B.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2010). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


If there was a revolution required in this world, it was a revolution that would upset the existing conditions in a country where all working class people were living only on one meal a day. — A. A. PURCELL in a speech delivered in Calcutta in the beginning of December, 1927.

The other method (for the Indian people to attain self-government) is by the constitutional weapon. To adopt this method means acknowledging that India is part of the Empire, and that its constitution must be obtained from Westminster. — JOHN SCURR in The New Leader, January 13.

Mr. Purcell went to India as the official representative of the British Trades Union Congress. His task is to investigate the conditions of the working class in India. If the object of Mr. Purcell's investigation were not academic, to acquire knowledge for the sake of knowledge, one should expect the British Labour Movement to accept his report as the basis for its actions concerning India. Mr. Purcell has not yet reported. But it is generally known from the speeches he made in India what he has seen there. If he will report what he has seen and his report will contain a correct conclusion and recommendation, its main theses cannot be other than what is expressed in the quotation above. The conditions of the Indian working class are revolting. They can be changed only by a revolution. Consequently, what the British Labour Movement must decide is whether it should support a revolution in India or not.

The other quotation above, which represents the official and considered views of Eccleston Square, is frankly hostile to a revolution in India. It is not maintained that Mr. Scurr is the authoritative spokesman of the headquarters of the political and industrial Labour Movement. But the above quotation from him, chosen at random, puts in a nutshell the official point of view. The authoritative leaders, both right and "left," can be quoted at length expressing similar opinions. Mr. Scurr's succinct formulation of the official opinion may, therefore, serve as the text of this discussion.

If one of the gentlemen quoted above represents the British Labour Movement, the other does not; because there cannot be two other views so mutually exclusive. One view is that India needs a revolution; and the other is that India must ever remain inside the British Empire. The two views can be reconciled only by admitting that a social revolution can take place in India without disrupting the British Empire. India needs a social revolution. Anybody who knows anything about the conditions in India knows that she is in the throes of a social revolution. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Purcell will have the eye to detect this basic feature of the Indian situation and boldly recommend the British Labour Movement to adapt its policy to the reality. As it is, he has only spoken hypothetically. He is not sure if a revolution is at all required in this world. But he does admit that if it were, India is the place where it is most needed. On the other hand, the spokesman of the official view, Mr. Scurr, while waiving off the very possibility of a revolution in India, admits almost in the same breath that it is imminent there. In the letter to the New Leader from which the quotation at the head of the article is taken he writes: "A fierce economic struggle between the classes is bound to break out with fierce intensity during the next decade." With better information about India he could have seen that "a fierce struggle between classes" is not a future issue, but it is there, developing under the very nose of those political quacks who prescribe all sorts of constitutional concoctions to avert the disaster of a revolution in India. And Mr. Scurr is one of them; for he says that "at present the workers are taught that the British Raj is the enemy. The granting of Home Rule will dispel the illusion." Thus Mr. Scurr unbelievably maintains that British imperialism is not responsible for the present economic conditions of the Indian workers which are driving them to revolt. Further, he recommends the grant of Home Rule as the measure to thwart the revolt of the Indian working class.

The complete united front of the Parliamentary Labour Party with the Tory government on the subject of the Indian Commission has been justified on the ground that the interests of the Indian masses cannot be defended by supporting the demands of the bourgeois nationalist leaders. On the face of it, it is quite plausible plea; but it cannot stand the test of scrutiny. The Indian bourgeois nationalist parties do not represent the interests of the working class; but do the British imperialist bourgeoisie rule India, and insist on continuing ruling, as "guardians of her dumb millions," as they pretend? Can any leader of the British Labour Movement answer this question in the affirmative? Still the policy of the British Labour Party in connection with the Indian Commission, indeed on all vital questions concerning India's relation to the Empire, has been such an affirmative answer. The Tory government denies India the very elementary rights of self-determination on the pretext that neither the nationalist parties nor the elected members of the Legislatures represent the interests of the masses who must be protected by the benevolent British Raj; and, it does not matter on whatever pretext, the Labour Party supports the Tory government. Can this position be maintained as in conformity with the principles of Socialism which the leaders of the Labour Party profess?

It has been made abundantly clear that the leaders of the Labour Party, of the Right and Left, are of the opinion that India must remain inside the British Empire. So, if we should believe that as Socialists they are concerned with the economic conditions of the Indian working class, they think that the Indian working class can free themselves from capitalist exploitation while remaining subjects of the British Empire. They propose that within the Empire India should be raised to the status of a Dominion. Supposing that sooner or later India will be granted that status, will that liberate the Indian working class from capitalist exploitation? Obviously not. The working class of those parts of the Empire which became self-governing Dominions decades ago are still victims of capitalist exploitation. It may be argued that it will be a great advance for the Indian working class to reach the standard of living enjoyed by the Australian or Canadian or New Zealand workers. Quite true. But the question is, will Dominion status inside the Empire raise the standard of living of the Indian workers to that level? The comparatively higher standards of living enjoyed by the workers in Canada and Australia are not due to the fact that they live in a British Dominion; it is the result of special conditions in those countries which India does not have. The conditions of the Negro workers in South Africa prove that the fate of the Indian workers will not be much improved when their country becomes a self-governing British Dominion. There are economic reasons why the granting of Dominion self-government will not essentially alter the conditions of the Indian working class. We shall come to these reasons presently.

The leaders of the Labour Party refuse to support Indian Nationalist demands (although they do not want anything more than self-government within the Empire) on the ostensibly Socialist pretext that they do not think it would be a wise policy to deliver the Indian working class to the native capitalists. MacDonald maintains that the inclusion of a few Indian bourgeois Nationalist politicians will not make the Indian Commission more representative. He also does not think that elected members of the Indian Legislatures can speak on behalf of the entire people; therefore, the Labour Party does not support the nationalist demand that the future constitution of India should be framed by a Round Table Conference with representatives of the elected members of the Legislature. In short, the Labour Party pretends that as a Socialist body it approaches the Indian problem only from the point of view of working-class interests. How can this ostensibly pure Socialist policy be reconciled with the remedy of Dominion status which, according to the Parliamentary Labour leaders, will cure all evils in India? Grant of Dominion status will mean that British imperialism agrees to share political power with the Indian bourgeoisie. Further, how could the leaders of the Labour Party calm their ostensible Socialist conscience when they welcomed the Montagu reforms, which enfranchised less then 2 per cent, of the Indian population, as a great step of constitutional advance for India? Then, the advice that MacDonald wisely gives the Indian Nationalists is that a committee set up by the elected members of the Legislatures should draw up a constitution and present it to the Simon Commission. He is assured that the suggestions made by this committee set up by the elected members of the Legislature will receive serious consideration from the Simon Commission and the British Parliament. Thus, the representative character of the elected members of the Indian Legislatures is not altogether disputed. They should be given a hearing only if they will submit themselves to the superior authority of the imperialist Parliament, and act as a docile adjunct to the "God's Seven Englishmen" appointed to judge India's fitness to govern herself. This is the meaning of the policy of the British Labour Party as represented by its Parliamentary section. It is not a Socialist policy. Far from it. It is not even a democratic policy. It is an imperialist policy pure and simple.

To grant India self-government within the British Empire is the policy of enlightened imperialism. The application of this policy will not be beneficial for the Indian working class. It will strengthen and broaden the basis of imperialism. This we will show presently. But before that it can be stated that the Liberal leaders of the British Labour Party do not seriously advocate even this. Why do not they demand that India should be granted Dominion status immediately? In that case they will at least demonstrate the honesty of their purpose. If they do not think that the present Legislatures are representative, why do they not demand that Indian constitutional reform should start from the establishment of a Constituent Assembly elected by universal adult suffrage? If they did that, they would at least be democrats. Instead, they support imperialist absolutism, and do it shamelessly with a Socialist gesture. They visualise even Dominion status for India as a future issue which should be reached by India through successive stages of probation. India's fitness for self-government should be judged by the imperialist Parliament.

By no stretch of imagination can this policy be connected with Socialism. The denial of the right of self-determination to India is dictated by the interests of British capitalism. It will not advance the cause of Socialism in England or improve the conditions of the Indian working class. In defence of this frankly imperialist policy the leaders of the Labour Party like parrots repeat the hackneyed arguments about the communal, religious, and sectional antagonism and other features of social backwardness prevailing in India. It is not for us to deny that such antagonism is there, and that India must get rid of antiquated social customs some of which are utterly indefensible. But if the Labour leaders think that these justify the British domination in India, they are, then, believers in the doctrines of "white man's burden" and "civilising mission." These are doctrines of colonial conquest. The deplorable features of Indian political and social life, that are so often cited to prove India's unfitness for self-government, are the result of foreign domination. Religious and communal antagonism has its historical background. Which country was free from such antagonism in mediaeval conditions? Allowed a normal social development, India would have outlived the mediaeval conditions as other countries did. Or do the "Socialists" of Eccleston Square believe in racial inferiority -- that the non-white races are ethnologically unfit for a higher stage of civilisation? Anyone reading Indian history of the last hundred years without preconceived notions can find how much foreign domination has contributed not only to galvanise, but sharpen these antagonisms. The Hindu-Moslem question is in reality more political than religious. This has been adroitly fomented by administrative favouritism. The undemocratic system of communal representation sponsored by the Liberal Morley and endorsed in the Reforms of 1919 has contributed to shift the Hindu-Moslem question from religious to political ground. The ugly religious appearance that this question assumes now is only the reflex of its more serious political side which is the creation of British imperialism.

The responsibility for the communal antagonism and other forms of social backwardness lies more fundamentally with imperialist domination. Social progress of a country depends upon its economic growth. British domination obstructed the economic development of India, thereby condemning her to social backwardness. In addition to economic stagnation, for more than a hundred years India remained in a state of complete intellectual isolation. The revolutionary thoughts of the nineteenth century could not penetrate India. Firstly, because British conquest prevented the creation of material conditions suitable for those thoughts; and, secondly, because imperialist rulers, for their own benefit, encouraged the reactionary social ideology. India could have intellectual connection with the outside world only through Britain where the youths from her well-to-do classes went to imbibe only the superficialities of modern civilisation. This intellectual isolation did not really break down until after the world war.

The undeniable social backwardness of India is not an argument against, but in favour of, her need for political freedom. It is indeed curious logic to condemn the Indian people to perpetual imperialist subjugation, because as a result of this subjugation they are to-day in a comparatively backward condition. It is not surprising that the imperialist bourgeoisie should use this fallacious logic. They base their claim on a much stronger logic -- the logic of force. Therefore, they cannot be argued out of India. Their logic must be met with similar logic. But it is remarkable that people calling themselves Socialists should mouth the arguments of imperialism -- that pacifists should use a logic which in the last analysis is the logic of force.

Now let us see how India will fare if she accepts the advice of the British Labour leaders. Their Socialist conscience does not permit these to deliver the Indian working class to the mercies of the Indian Nationalist bourgeoisie. How are the interests of the Indian workers going to be protected when India becomes a self-governing British Dominion, and in the intervening period of probation which promises to be rather long? Let it be taken for granted that in a year or two India will get some sort of a constitution. The Indian bourgeoisie will have more political rights in addition to the considerable economic concessions that have already accrued to them as result of the post-war crisis of imperialism. In those circumstances who will guarantee any protection for the Indian workers? Lately the British Labour leaders have shown some concern about the fate of the Indian workers. They have come to see how the brutal exploitation of the Indian, indeed all colonial, workers affects the conditions of the proletariat at home. They propose to organise the colonial workers in resistance to imperialist exploitation. Some of them went out to India with the emission. Their proposition obviously is to organise trade unions in India for "collective bargaining" on the British model.

This desire, which is apparently plausible, cannot be realised. There are great difficulties in the way. Cheapness of colonial labour is the foundation of imperialism. Consequently there is a limit to the standard of living of the workers of India as long as she remains inside the British Empire. There must be sufficient margin for super-profit. Otherwise it will not be worth while for the British bourgeoisie to undertake the arduous mission of civilising India. Here the Socialists of Eccleston Square may come with their theory of gradualism, and say that constant elevation of the standard of living of the Indian worker will eventually encroach upon the margin of super-profit and imperialist exploitation will cease to be. This theory of gradualism can be maintained only upon the supposition that the imperialist giant would meekly submit itself to the operation recommended by the Steinachs of Eccleston Square. But the realities are against this supposition. As modernisation of Indian economy is the present policy of imperialism, the conditions of the Indian working class will gradually rise above the lowest level of primitive capitalist exploitation. But under no circumstances will it come anywhere near the margin of super-profit, unless the political power of imperialism is challenged and overthrown by the working class in a revolution.

The second difficulty is that the conditions in India are not the same as those in which British trade unions developed with the programme of "collective bargaining." Success of "collective bargaining" pre-supposes capitalist prosperity. Industrialisation of India is expected by imperialism to help it overcome the present crisis. Therefore it cannot but have upon the Indian working class the same effect as it had in Britain half a century ago. Industrialisation of India under the hegemony of imperialist finance cannot appreciably improve the standard of living of the Indian working class. For in that case it would not have the expected relieving effect on the crisis in which British capitalism finds itself. If the cost of production in India is not considerably lower than in Britain, industrialisation of India will not produce the desired result. The perspectives, therefore, are rather for the standard of living of the British proletariat to be reduced to meet the slightly raised Indian level than vice versa. Then, Indian workers do not possess the political liberties that obtained in Britain when trade unionism developed there on the basis of "collective bargaining."

It has been made quite clear that, just for asking, British imperialism will not give India even the least amount of political freedom. Even Dominion status will not drop upon a gratified India as a gift from Westminster. Under the present unequal relation, any concession, political or economic, made to India is in the interests of imperialism. These concessions are made and will be made to the Indian bourgeoisie in order to win them over to the side of imperialism as against the danger of revolution. British imperialism will buy the co-operation of the Indian bourgeoisie with a share of the profit that it makes by exploiting the Indian workers. It will permit the Indian bourgeoisie to draw upon the reserve which until now has remained a British monopoly. Industries developed in India with native capital cannot possibly be expected to provide the workers a decent living. Their ability to compete with the older, more developed and better organised industries of other countries depends upon cheap labour. That means that the eventual collaboration between the Indian bourgeoisie and British imperialism, the political expression of which collaboration is self-government within the empire, can take place only on the basis of the exploitation of cheap labour. The textile industry of Bombay is a glaring example. With the support of the British Government the Indian owners have reduced wages by stages almost to the pre-war level. A third attack has now begun. This has had its disastrous effect upon the Lancashire workers. Neither the visit of Mr. Tom Shaw nor of the Secretary of the International Textile Workers' Federation to India could find a way out of this vicious circle. Pious speeches were made. Indian workers were asked to organise themselves. They were promised help. But the attack upon the workers in Bombay and in Lancashire continues. While the competition of Bombay textile industry, owned almost entirely by Indian capital, is making havoc in Lancashire, the British Government found it necessary to revoke all the disabilities placed upon the former and even to go to the extent of granting it a considerable degree of protection. If the Bombay workers could attain a standard of living equal to that of the Lancashire workers, imperialist policy would be defeated. It will be naÏve to believe that the British rulers would allow such a thing to take place as would frustrate all its plans.

India will attain self-government within the Empire when it will be profitable for the imperialists to raise her to that status. A condition, under which the Indian working class will be obliged to produce surplus value for the Indian capitalists in addition to what they are already doing for the imperialist rulers, cannot be conceivably conducive to their interests. Stabilisation of British imperialism with greater profit from India and with the collaboration of the Indian bourgeoisie will hardly render the prospect of Socialism brighter in Britain.

The answer of the leaders of the Labour Party to this can be easily anticipated. They will say: the next Labour Government will grant India Home Rule, and help her working class defend their interest against capitalism. This is easy to say, but hard to believe. The Labour Party may come into office next year. The pretext on which the Labour leaders to-day support the Conservative Government's refusal to grant India the elementary rights of self-determination will still hold good, providing the Labour Government with sufficient pretext for not granting self-government to India.

The next Labour Government will not grant India self-government, because India cannot have self-government until it will suit the interests of the British bourgeoisie. The Labour Government will not have the power to act against the will of the bourgeoisie. The Labour policy towards India does not reflect the interests of the working class. It is in conformity with British imperialist interests. If the Labour leaders' insistence upon India's staying inside the Empire is not in defence of the British capitalist interests, why do they not support India's right of complete national independence? The defence of imperialism with a haughty gesture of Socialism does not deceive people with knowledge of the situation. It will not for long deceive the British proletariat, which must fight for Socialism as capitalism has brought them into a blind-alley; and the fight for Socialism cannot be reconciled with the defence of imperialism. The Empire must be burst before Indian people can be really free and the British proletariat can realise Socialism. Alliance with imperialism must force the Parliamentary Labour leaders to drop their mask of Socialism. Snowden has blazed the trail. MacDonald and others will follow. The British proletariat will join hands with the colonial masses in a revolutionary struggle against imperialism, as the only road to Socialism.


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