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Understanding Nehru, the visionary 

Nehru’s socialism was evolutionary, inclusive, and not based on class

He was attracted to Marxism but found it irrelevant to programmes for progress

February 12, 2022 04:15 pm | Updated February 13, 2022 05:55 pm IST

Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt, and Josip Broz Tito, President of Yugoslavia, were the forerunners of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s.

Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt, and Josip Broz Tito, President of Yugoslavia, were the forerunners of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s.

It is a curious paradox that Nehru was a socialist who consolidated capitalism. But capitalists do not thank him for it; the left consider him inadequate; and the right have equated his socialism with the ‘Licence-Permit Raj’.

His socialism was evolutionary, not revolutionary, and it was inclusive, not based on class. It was democratic and comfortable with heterogeneity, egalitarian without levelling, committed to welfare and affirmative action, co-operative to contain destructive competition, oriented to rational planning to overcome anarchic individualism, stressed the need for the government to lead through an advanced public sector, valued local democracy and local management of utilities, and mobilised local initiative in every way. Globally, he viewed it as a movement rather than as a military bloc. In all these respects, if it was to prevail, it would be by democratic recognition rather than by bureaucratic imposition. Above all, he saw it as providing a direction, a momentum, and a value system rather than a final goal.

He was attracted to Marxism as a means to historical explanation, but he found it irrelevant to programmes for progress and even for socialism. It is doubtful whether Marxism contributed significantly to his interpretation of history, even if he obliged by peppering his Glimpses of World History with accounts of class struggles. What he understood by class reads more like social hierarchy; and he did not employ the concept of the mode of production — that magnificent obsession of so many Marxists.

United against imperialism

As a social democrat or socialist, he was liberal to his fingertips and opposed to both communism and the Soviet system. During the agony of liberal Europe in the 1930s, when fascism blanketed the continent, communism seemed the only hope, and Soviet Union the dawn of a new civilisation, as he declared at the Lucknow Congress in 1936. Thereafter, he drew the line clearly; and while the Soviet Union fascinated him for its short cut to industrialisation, its methods were appalling and the human cost hideous. He could not accept them for India.

He found many reasons to reject the communist option. The first was class war, so beloved of communists. He did not hold a brief for capitalists and landlords, but class war led to unspeakable atrocities, bitterness, and material and human destruction. Second, his objective was to unite the nation against imperialism, not to divide it between classes and leave an opening for the machinations of the imperialists. When he was tempted to class war, Gandhi restrained him.

Third, the class war pursued the interest of a class at the expense of the individual, which was anathema to the liberal Nehru. Fourth, communism was undemocratic, communist states ran one-party systems with non-competitive elections, and they deleted the fundamental rights, which Nehru so cherished. Ironically, India supplied the exception, with communists coming to power through democratic elections. Fifth, he found the communists deplorably subservient to Moscow. As he reasoned, he was not throwing off the British colonial yoke to replace it with the Soviet communist one. Sixth, communists sought a global confrontation with capitalism. He refused to participate, preferring instead an independent role that he called non-alignment.

Nehru felt India could be delivered from imperialism only by unshackling from its capitalism through some form of socialism, and from its dictatorship through some form of democracy

Well before Independence, he saw the world dividing and the need to take a position between the communists and the imperialists. During World War II, he rejected the Axis on ideological grounds and found it bad strategy to join the enemy of the enemy without ideological affinity. Hence, Subhas Chandra Bose’s grand design of joining with the Axis against British imperialism was ruled out. He was prepared to cooperate with the imperialists as a bargain for independence; and while he detested the imperialists in the Empire, he endorsed the liberal democracy in Britain.

By the same token, he could identify with the goals of communism while finding the Soviet regime odious. But both imperialism and communism wished to recruit Indian nationalism to their strategic purposes without giving anything in return. His only option was to anticipate Non-Alignment, to preserve independence of choice and to keep out of others’ wars.

Socialism provided the ideological basis for such independence. A purely nationalist position without further ideological depth could have led him either way. He cited the example of nationalist Poland in 1927 driven into the imperialist fold or of an independent Bolivia in 1928 trapped in debt to the United States and its “economic imperialism”. Promoting capitalism for growth after Independence would have sucked India back into the web of global capitalism led by Britain and America and unravelled the independence so painfully achieved. He discerned the possibility of an independent communism in China in the 1950s, but he had good reasons for rejecting communism of any kind.

Global socialism

His socialism was independent even of European socialism. He was deeply distressed to find European socialists, especially the British species, more than complicit with imperialism, and he reserved some of his harshest comments for Ramsay MacDonald, the British Labour Prime Minister. Nehru thought of socialism in global terms, but had to seek an independent trajectory for socialism in India. He did not go to the extent of positing a necessary relation between his socialism and non-alignment, but he spoke as if true independence entailed the one and the other.

But Nehru’s socialism was a minority position within the Congress and the national movement. Gandhi merely tolerated it; the principal leaders like Patel, Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad, and B.C. Roy were opposed; and only Subhas Chandra Bose was a companion-at-arms for radicalising the Congress. But Bose veered away, breaking with Gandhi and allying with the Axis during the War. The Congress Socialist Party led by Jayaprakash Narayan and Narendra Deva, among others, was Nehru’s natural constituency, but they were impatient with compromise and left the Congress in 1948.

Given his isolation, Nehru had to satisfy himself with promoting an ideal rather than framing specifically socialist policies. He advocated socialism, not as an ideology but as a pragmatic necessity for eradicating poverty, reducing it to administration and problem-solving. For nearly a quarter of a century, from his socialist moment in Europe in 1927, he had on every important occasion proclaimed his socialist faith, decreed its inevitability, and reassured everybody that it was not a programme for implementation.

Welfare capitalism

In the Constituent Assembly, he refused to include socialism in the resolution on Aims and Objects, disparaging it as “theoretical words and formulae”. He even accepted the socialists’ charge of his having “sided with the capitalists”. But he felt India could be delivered from imperialism only by unshackling from its capitalism through some form of socialism, and from its dictatorship through some form of democracy. Only a democratic socialism made meaning. He did so even if that democratic socialism was in effect no more than a welfare capitalism of the kind that defined Europe in the post-War years.

Welfare capitalism was projected as an independent and democratic socialism for 40 years by its progenitor and it enjoyed a successful career thereafter until the 1980s. To expert observers like I.G. Patel, sometime governor of the Reserve Bank of India, socialism was distinctly the subordinate partner in that Nehruvian compound of capitalism and socialism: “ this uneasy coalition, irrespective of who presides officially, the strident voice is undoubtedly that of the capitalist majority.” But far too many have expected of it a socialism of the textbook or, more ignorantly, have regarded it as of ill-omened Soviet provenance, and have variously shamed it for its inadequacies, vilified it for trying to be itself, and bemoaned its intellectual incoherence and political ineptitude.

Prosaic as ever, Nehru’s critics have not noticed the rhetorical use that he made of socialism for the moral glow that it imparted to two generations after Independence. But, most of all, his independent socialism was one of his devices to maintain India’s independence from global capitalism with its imperialist offshoot, from communism, and even from European socialism to the extent that the latter aspired to a universal role.

The writer is the editor of Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru . This is the fourth in the essay series on Nehru in the Magazine .

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