Labour Monthly

Book Reviews

India Past Present and Future

Source: Labour Monthly Vol. III, September 1922, No. 3.
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company Ltd., London.
Transcription/HTML: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). 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.

India in Transition, Manabendra Nath Roy.
Librairie B. Target. Geneva, 1922.

The Oppression of the Poor, C. F. Andrews.
Ganesh & Co., Madras, 1922.

Creative Revolution, Professor T. L. Vasvani.
Ganesh & Co., Madras, 1922.

The Wheel of Fortune, Mahatma Gandhi.
Ganesh & Co., Madras, 1922.

BETWEEN the first and last of these books there is a difference in outlook of at least a hundred years. While Gandhi, the religious nationalist, looks back to an ideal period long antecedent to British rule in India, Manabendra Roy, socialist internationalist, looks forward to a characteristically modern development of a class struggle inevitably following in the wake of capitalism. Which of them gives the better interpretation of the changes now taking place in India?

All writers agree that India is in rapid process of change, but it must be admitted that so far a satisfactory interpretation of what is happening has been lacking. Events that are still in progress are notoriously difficult to judge, and this is especially the case where the inter-relations of countries and classes are simultaneously concerned. It would be surprising if the Romans had understood the significance of the decay and break-up of the Roman Empire, and to come to our own day it is only necessary to mention the present intricate tangle of Irish affairs. The views of participants in Indian affairs reveal just as great a confusion. The most varied estimates are made of the forces at work, and the most divergent social-political theories invented to explain them. The last three books on this list are all part of this confusion.

The Wheel of Fortune is of course the Charka, or hand spinning-wheel, and it is sufficient to note that in the collection of Gandhi’s speeches and articles on the significance of spinning and weaving, one with the bold title of “Indian Economics” contains the characteristic utterance: “I claim for the Charka the honour of being able to solve the problem of economic distress in a most natural, simple, inexpensive, and businesslike manner.” This is the magnitude of his contribution to Indian economics.

Professor Vasvani is a typical disciple of the Gandhi cult. The book chosen (the title of which is borrowed, probably with complete unconsciousness, from the well-known work of Eden and Cedar Paul) is representative of his profuse outpourings on India’s spiritual civilisation, and may be taken as written in a more mundane spirit than the majority of his rapturous productions. He is an Indian professor, very fluent, and very ready in his examples and quotations, which range from the Indian bureaucracy to the Spectator and the Observer, from the Council of Delhi to the Sinn Fein courts. In their political application to the problem of India, however, they lead him to appraisements such as the following:—

Indian unrest is a natural inevitable outcome of the suppression of Indian Ideals under the present Environment. India’s unrest is the struggle of India’s race spirit to assert itself.

He recognises that “the Indian Problem cannot be solved if we regard it as a politcial political problem,” but by that he means only that “our politics must be charged with the Indian Ideal.” He is as insistent as Gandhi that by revolution he does not mean force or violence. It is “not of an anti-social character. That would involve of class conflict.” Heaven forbid! He even tackles the meaning of “Swaraj” and gets as far as this: “the Soul of India believes in the Doctrine of the Simple Life. That Doctrine is in the simple, single word—Swaraj.” And so on for pages and pages.

Mr. C. F. Andrews is an English Christian who has come into close contact with the poorest Indian workers, and therefore, although also a disciple of Gandhi he cannot remain at the ecstatic level of Professor Vasvani. He can have the same opinion that “Mahatma Gandhi’s movement is a religious one” and that it will be non-violent because “there is an innate love of peace in India that is not present in any other country.” But when he also says that “the revolution through which India is passing is not ultimately political “it is because he has caught a glimpse of a different social problem behind. “Far down below the turmoil on the surface lies the age-long problem of the sufferings of the poor.” But this very expression of it is also characteristic—“The poor ye have always with you.” He does not recognise the new elements in the situation, he does not understand what has been the process of historical development. He gives a curiously jumbled list of evils inherent in the present system covering untouchability, forced labour and oppression, “vices in personal character which are inherent in foreign rule,” “excessive military expenditure,” and an “industrial system of sweated labour.” How this sort of sympathy with the poor works out in practice may be judged by his condemnation of strikes, which he says “have done an immense amount of harm,” and his action in the recent strike of the East Indian railway workers, when he took it upon himself to attempt to break the strike, and succeeded in getting a section of the men to accept the terms which he had brought down from the Railway Agent.

To turn from the literature of sentimental nationalism to Mr. Manabendra Roy’s India in Transition is to feel once more solid ground under one’s feet. For once the facile emotionalism of ideals is replaced by an attempt to find out what is happening, to analyse the situation in the light of historical processes. The author has set himself the task of analysing the material forces which are pushing the various classes of the Indian people into the present struggle, and of explaining how these deep-seated social forces, which are responsible for the present unrest, are working themselves out in the growing mass movements.

The result is a notable achievement, and a very striking vindication of the Marxian method in unfamiliar surroundings. From the very first arresting sentence that “Contrary to the general notion India is not under the feudal system,” continues to throw new light on familiar facts and to build up an historical background which reveals in admirable perspective the true relations between the different factors now influencing the development of the struggle in India.

It is a method of treatment which requires a careful attention to facts, and especially to facts of economic conditions, property relations, and class antagonisms, which are very generally slurred over or unrecorded. The detailed statistical account of the development of a native Indian bourgeoisie, of the system of land tenure and the condition of the rural population, and of the rise of an industrial proletariat and of its present position, occupies more than half of the 240 closely printed pages of the book. Only with that knowledge of the development of the present economic structure is it possible to understand the growth and failure of the political nationalist movement.

The history of the phases through which the Indian National Congress has passed can be correlated with the stages in the development of Indian capitalism. The nationalist movement is essentially a bourgeois one resulting from the long-delayed appearance of an Indian middle class which immediately begins to contest the economic and political monopoly of imperial capitalism. Thus we get the paradox that Indian nationalism, worshipping at the shrine of liberalism and democratic institutions, is yet strongly protectionist; or still more remarkable, that even the Gandhist disciples, who base their nationalism on the superiority of India’s spiritual civilisation, prove themselves, politically, ardent defenders of the material interests of Indian capitalism.

The bourgeois nationalist movement, however, is bound to fail. It is not the struggle of a youthfully vigorous middle class against a decrepit feudalism. Owing to British interference the Indian middle class were long ago deprived of its historic rôle of freeing the productive classes from the fetters of feudal bondage. Consequently a revolutionary course is not forced upon it so long as it can obtain freedom for its development by compromise with British capitalism. “Capitalist imperialism will always readjust its method of exploitation in the way of making concessions to its native partner before risking the eventual conflict.” Such a readjustment occurred in 1919 with the acceptance by Indian capitalism of the Montagu-Chelmsford reform, leaving the field open to the reactionary nationalism of the lower middle-class intellectuals. But, as the author shows, Gandhism, in spite of involuntary services to the bourgeoisie, is a reactionary force which could not succeed without destroying its own basis. This power rests in the recent awakening of the masses under the stimulus of intensified economic exploitation and the attempt to use that mass energy for restoring a “spiritual civilisation,” when the condition for its exercise is the destruction of all the old traditions, is manifestly impossible.

A new cross current of increasing intensity has been introduced by the development of class antagonisms side by side with the national struggle. Neither the moderates nor the non-co-operators could run the risks of exciting a genuine mass movement. At the first signs of its appearance the moderates hastened to retreat into the arms of British capitalism, while the non-co-operators also abandoned their programme as soon as they discovered they could not canalise the activity of the masses in the channels of a religious movement.

The attempt to use the power of the fast-awakening masses for the ends of Indian capitalism or reactionary nationalism is now clearly failing. That is the explanation of the lull that is at present puzzling observers in India. The struggle is now preparing to take on a new character. There is a growing discontent with the programme of political nationalism. Strikes, Labour organisation, and the economic struggle more and more occupy the centre of attention. And so, as Roy concludes:—

The inevitable consequence of these tendencies is the eventual divorce of the mass movement from bourgeois leadership. In that case, bourgeois nationalism will end in a compromise with imperial supremacy and the liberation of India will be left to the political movement of the workers and peasants, consciously organised and fighting on the grounds of the class struggle.

C. P. D.