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Nigel Harris

Indian Summer

(February 1970)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.42, February/March 1970, p.38.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Emergence of Indian Nationalism
Anil Seal
Cambridge University Press, 70s

Problem of Empire: Britain and India, 1757-1813
P.J. Marshall
Allen and Unwin, 35s

Mr Seal’s much-heralded book is an important contribution to the analysis both of a period of British imperial rule in India, and of the rise of the independence movement. The book is well researched, sensitive in its treatment of issues, and lucidly written. It is particularly skilful in analysing the relationships between different groups in the developing opposition to British rule (cf. in particular, Seal’s account of the Muslim relationship to Congress Chapter 7).

However, it also needs to be said that the book is marred by certain factual errors and, more substantially, by some most troublesome theoretical assumptions which only become fully explicit in the last chapter. Mr Seal is fighting battles against both Indian nationalist historians and Marxists. He sees his book as evidence against the thesis that class issues were involved in the rise of the independence movement. But his view of class is so odd, that he cannot see the class issues present in the material he uses. The ‘evidence’ follows from the way he presents his material, not from the material itself. He has no account of what was happening to India as a whole, the course of the Indian economy, and the events which created the driving force of opposition. He describes the growing frustration of educated Indians in the three main imperial cities, and does so with skill, but that frustration would have had no significance at all unless matched by changes on a wider scale than this. As it is, Mr Seal returns inexorably to the British imperial interpretation of the opposition – it was just a group of Bengali politicians on the make. For Mr Seal, classes dissolve into groups, and groups into individuals, driven by ‘self-interest’ – like the Utilitarians, he wishes to say that all human action is ‘selfish’ (which, of course, in one meaningless sense of ‘selfish’, it is). With such a crude methodology, it is marvellously ingenious of Mr Seal to have produced so interesting a book.

The second book provides two things. A long introduction describes the important transition in the relationship between Britain and India from being one where Britain imported manufactured goods from India, to one where India imported manufactured goods from Britain (and exported primary commodities). Second, the author presents a series of extracts from important documents of the period. The introduction is interesting, although almost exclusively concerned with the British end of the relationship, and, in particular, the political and financial history of the East India Company. The documents are less useful, except for specialist historians who need to refer to official documents (12 of the 45 extracts are from the texts of Parliamentary Bills or Acts). The particular extracts chosen are not always of much interest – for example, a rhetorical passage from Clive’s defence before the Commons, 1773, is included. More interesting would have been some account of what was happening in India and of the views of the private British traders who were eroding the position of the East India Company.

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Last updated: 27.12.2007