Saturday, March 31, 2018

Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru

I dislike very much boys and girls learning the history of just one country, and that, too, very often through learning by heart some dates and a few facts. But history is one connected whole and you cannot understand even the history of any one country if you do not know what has happened in other parts of the world. I hope that you will not learn history in this narrow way, confining it to one or two countries, but will survey the whole world. Remember always that there is not so very much difference between various people as we seem to imagine. Maps and atlases show us countries in different colours. Undoubtedly people do differ from one another, but they resemble each other also a great deal, and it is well to keep this in mind and not be misled by the colours on the map or by national boundaries.

This comes early in Nehru’s first letter to his daughter, and it very well summarizes what he will do over the next two and a half years in a total of 196 letters.

Wait. Let me back up. You may not know what I’m talking about. Jawaharlal Nehru was the first prime minister of democratic India. His daughter was Indira Gandhi, the woman who succeeded him as prime minister and was eventually assassinated. But those things haven’t happened yet. The letters, later gathered together and published in the 1,100+ page book Glimpses of World History, were written in 1931-33, when Indira was between 14 and 16 years old, and her father was serving time as a political prisoner.

Partly to help keep his mind active, and, as described above, to help his daughter develop an appropriate appreciation for world history, Nehru wrote these letters without notes or other reference materials, relying primarily on his own knowledge and beliefs of what had created and shaped the world around him -- thousands of years of history, from the beginnings of civilization, to the aftermath of the First World War and the initial stirrings of the Second.

Reading his words, is, unequivocally, a remarkable experience. He has a point of view. He is clearly a socialist, and that may turn some people off, but the fact that he is writing to his daughter gives his prose a warmth and a simplicity that it likely wouldn’t otherwise have.

New and quicker ways of producing food and other things have been discovered in history from time to time. And you would, of course, think that if better methods were used for production, much more would be produced, and the world would be richer and every one would have more. You would be partly right and partly wrong. Better methods of production have certainly made the world richer. But which part of the world? It is obvious enough that there is great poverty and misery still in our country, of course, but even in a rich country like England this is so. Why? Where do the riches go to? It is a strange thing that in spite of more and more wealth being produced, the poor have remained poor. They have made some little progress in certain countries, but it is very little compared to the new wealth produced. We can easily see, however, to whom this wealth largely goes. It goes to those who, usually being the managers or organizers, see to it that they get the lion’s share of everything good. And, stranger still, classes have grown up in society of people who do not even pretend to do any work, and yet who take this lion’s share of the work of others! And -- would you believe it? -- these classes are honoured; and some foolish people imagine that it is degrading to have to work for one’s living! Such is the topsy-turvy condition of our world. Is it surprising that the peasant in his field and the worker in his factory are poor, although they produce the food and wealth of the world? We talk of freedom for our country, but what will any freedom be worth unless it puts an end to this topsy-turvydom, and gives to the man who does the work the fruits of his toil? Big, fat books have been written on politics and the art of government, on economics and how the nation’s wealth should be distributed. Learned professors lecture on these subjects. But, while people talk and discuss, those who work suffer. Two hundred years ago a famous Frenchman, Voltaire, said of politicians and the like that “they have discovered in their fine politics the art of causing those to die of hunger who, cultivating the earth, give the means of like to others.”

Throughout all the letters in this long book, I think it is important to remember that, whatever the reader’s own political and economic beliefs, the words he is reading the simple and straightforward prose of a loving father writing to his daughter.

The Heyday of Socialism

One of the most fascinating parts of the book for me was reading Nehru chronicle and lionize the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the rise of the U.S.S.R. For him, at that time (the early 1930s) it must have seemed like the last, best hope of earth.

The whole of northern Asia is part of the Soviet Union, and is absorbed in planning and building a new world and a new social order. It is strange that these backward countries that civilization had left behind in its march, and where a kind of feudalism still prevailed, should have jumped forward to a stage which is ahead of the advanced nations of the West. The Soviet Union in Europe and Asia stands today a continuing challenge to the tottering capitalism of the Western world. While trade depression and slump and unemployment and repeated crisis paralyse capitalism, and the old order gasps for breath, the Soviet Union is a land full of hope and energy and enthusiasm, feverishly building away and establishing the socialist order. And this abounding youth and life, and the success the Soviet has already achieved, are impressing and attracting thinking people all over the world.

Remember, it is the 1930s. A crippling depression has seized the capitalist world. Amidst that misery, the relative success of the Soviet experiment must have been exhilarating for Nehru. But he makes, with the hindsight of seventy more years of history I think, one crucial mistake.

The success of capitalism dazzled people, but still there were some radicals or people with advanced views, or humanitarians, who were not happy at its cut-throat competition and the suffering it caused the workers in spite of the country’s growing wealth. In England and Germany and France these people considered various alternatives to it. Several solutions were suggested, and they are all grouped together under the name of socialism or collectivism or social democracy, each of these words vaguely meaning the same thing. There was general agreement among these reformers that the trouble lay in the private ownership and control of industry. If instead of this the State could own and control this, or at any rate the principal means of production, like the land and the chief industries, then there would be no danger of the workers being exploited.

And there it is. In an ideal world, perhaps State ownership of the principal means of production would guarantee that no workers would be exploited, but that guarantee does not exist in the real world. Even in Nehru’s misty-eyed example of the Soviet Union, there are plenty of examples of the State -- or perhaps the Soviet, as Nehru helped me better understand what that term means -- exploiting the very workers that first gave it rise. If not in Nehru’s own time of the 1930s, then clearly by the time of its demise in the 1990s.

A People’s History

But as off-putting as it may be to some, it is actually Nehru’s socialism, I think, that partially sours him on the traditional view of history.

Real history should deal, not with a few individuals here and there, but with the people who make up a nation, who work and by their labour produce the necessaries and luxuries of life, and who in a thousand different ways act and react on each other. Such a history of man would really be a fascinating story. It would be the story of man’s struggle through the ages against Nature and the elements, against wild beasts and the jungle and, last and most difficult of all, against some of his own kind who have tried to keep him down and to exploit him for their own benefit. It is the story of man’s struggle for a living. And because, in order to live, certain things, like food and shelter and clothing in cold climates are necessary, those who have controlled these necessities have lorded it over man. The rulers and the bosses have had authority because they owned or controlled some essential of livelihood, and this control gave them the power to starve people into submission. And so we see the strange sight of large masses being exploited by the comparatively few; of some who earn without working at all, and of vast numbers who work but earn very little.

It is often called the “great man” view of history, and Nehru clearly wants little to do with it, rather more interested in telling the people’s history. But that is a difficult struggle for a lone political prisoner writing without reference materials in jail. His letters frequently recount the exploits of these “great men,” and they leave the reader with a sense that, even for a socialist, this is the only rational way to engage with our history.

And indeed, there are times when Nehru comes tantalizing close to truly revealing this people’s history. Although he leads off one of his letters on 18th Century Europe with this…

To understand these changes we shall have to pry underneath the surface of things, and try to find out what was passing in the minds of men. For action, as we see it, is the result of a complex of thoughts and passions, prejudices and superstitions, hopes and fears; and the action by itself is difficult to understand unless we consider with it the causes that led up to it. But this is no easy matter; and even if I were capable of writing pertinently about these causes and motives which fashion the outstanding events of history, I would not think of making these letters duller and heavier than they already are. Sometimes I fear that in my enthusiasm for a subject, or for a certain point of view, I rush into deeper water than I should. You will have to put up with that, I am afraid. We cannot therefore go deeply into these causes. But it would be exceedingly foolish to ignore them; and indeed if we did so we would miss the fascination and significance of history.

...I suspect he is using a bit of reverse psychology on young Indira. Because you might find it boring I will give short shrift to the best part of history? For just two pages later he provides this deep and complex analysis.

Right through the Middle Ages religion was the dominant factor in Europe. Even afterwards, during the days of the Reformation, this continued to be so. Every question, whether it was political or economic, was considered from the point of view of religion. Religion was organized and meant the views of the Pope or the high officials of the Church. The organization of society was rather like caste in India. The idea of caste originally was a division according to professions or functions. It was this very idea of social classes according to functions that lay at the basis of the ideas of the Middle Ages on society. Within a class, as within a caste in India, there was equality. As between two or more classes, however, there was inequality. This inequality was at the very basis of the whole social structure and no one challenged it. Those who suffered under this system were told to “expect their reward in heaven.” In this way religion tried to uphold the unjust social order and tried to distract people’s minds from it by talking of the next world. It also preached what is called the doctrine of trusteeship -- that is to say, that the rich man was a kind of trustee for the poor; the landlord held his land “in trust” for his tenant. This was the Church’s way of explaining a very awkward situation. It made little difference to the rich man, and it brought no comfort to the poor. Clever explanations cannot take the place of food in a hungry stomach.

The bitter religious wars between Catholic and Protestant, the intolerance of both the Catholic and the Calvinist, and the Inquisition, all resulted from this intense religious and communal outlook. Think of it! Many hundreds of thousands of women are said to have been burnt in Europe as witches, mostly by Puritans. New ideas in science were suppressed because these were supposed to be in conflict with the Church’s view of things. It was a static, an unmoving view of life; there was no question of progress.

We find that these ideas begin to change gradually from the sixteenth century onwards; science appears and the all-embracing hold of religion lessens; politics and economics are considered apart from religion. There it is, it is said, a growth of rationalism -- that is, of reason as opposed to blind faith -- in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The eighteenth century, indeed, is supposed to have established the victory of toleration. This is partly true. But the victory really meant that people had given up attaching as much importance to their religion as they used to. Toleration was very near to indifference. When people are terribly keen about anything they are seldom tolerant about it; it is only when they care little for it that they graciously proclaim that they are tolerant. With the coming of industrialism and the big machine, the indifference to religion grew even more. Science sapped the foundations of the old belief in Europe; the new industry and economics presented new problems which filled people’s minds. So people in Europe gave up (but not entirely) the habit of breaking each other’s heads on questions of religious belief or dogma; instead, they took to breaking heads on economic and social issues.

Forgive me for transcribing Nehru at such length, but I find this kind of analysis fascinating. I agree, the social currents of great masses of people are a far more interesting subject to explore that the traditional dates and heroes that populate most history textbooks and classes.

And as a quick aside relating to his championing of rationalism over dogma, I can’t resist including this short passage from Nehru’s letter on the religious tolerance of the fourteenth century Indian ruler, Akbar.

Akbar’s question was a very pertinent one, but it annoyed the Jesuits, who say, in their book, that

“Thus we see in this Prince the common fault of the atheist, who refuses to make reason subservient to faith, and, accepting nothing as true which his feeble mind is unable to fathom, is content to submit to his own imperfect judgment matters transcending the highest limits of human understanding.”

If this is the definition of an atheist, the more we have of them the better.

The Role of Religion in World History

And that long transcription referencing the power of religion during the Middle Ages isn’t Nehru’s only mention of this powerful and thorny subject. Indeed, from Nehru’s telling, religion has been one of the great history-shaping forces of the human civilization.

Religions and their founders have played a great part in the history of the world, and we cannot ignore them in any survey of history. But I find some difficulty in writing about them. There can be no doubt that the founders of the great religions have been among the greatest and noblest men that the world has produced. But their disciples and the people who have come after them have often been far from great or good. Often in history we see that religion, which was meant to raise us and make us better and nobler, has made people behave like beasts. Instead of bringing enlightenment to them, it has often tried to keep them in the dark; instead of broadening their minds, it has frequently made them narrow-minded and intolerant of others. In the name of religion many great and fine deeds have been performed. In the name of religion also thousands and millions have been killed, and every possible crime has been committed.

Nehru profiles the history of several religious traditions -- Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam -- treating each appropriately with regard to their roles in world history. In doing so, he identifies a recurring juxtaposition of orthodoxy and toleration. Each religion, inevitably, it seems, eventually divides into sects, at least one adhering to a strict orthodoxy of “original” beliefs, and at least one other moderating with new information, beliefs and practices. He first describes this in relation to a separation of Hindu sects in India, hundreds of years before Christ.

Walls are dangerous companions, he writes, referring to the metaphoric walls the orthodox build around their rigid societies, but perhaps, also, about the prison walls then surrounding him. They may occasionally protect from outside evil and keep out an unwelcome intruder. But they also make you a prisoner and a slave, and you purchase your so-called purity and immunity at the cost of freedom. And the most terrible of walls are the walls that grow up in the mind which prevent you from discarding an evil tradition simply because it is old, and from accepting a new thought because it is novel.

Nehru is clearly not an orthodox, far more interested, it seems to me, in a historical narrative that has man evolving towards higher and higher levels of political thought. Religion, he admits, is a big part of that story, but much more for its philosophical leaps than for the dogmatic chains that often accompany them.

As Christianity grew, violent disputes arose about the divinity of Jesus. You will remember me telling you how Gautama the Buddha, who claimed no divinity, came to be worshipped as a god and as an avatar. Similarly, Jesus claimed no divinity. His repeated statements that he was the son of God and the son of man do not necessarily mean any divine or superhuman claim. But human beings like to make gods of their great men, whom, having deified, they refrain from following! Six hundred years later the Prophet Mohammad started another great religion, but, profiting perhaps by these instances, he stated clearly and repeatedly that he was human, and not divine.

The point, Nehru seems to be saying, is not whether or not Jesus was divine, but what Jesus had to teach us about ourselves and the world we lived in.

So, instead of understanding and following the teachings of Jesus, the Christians argued and quarrelled about the nature of Jesus’ divinity and about the Trinity. They called each other heretics and persecuted each other and cut each other’s heads off. There was a great and violent controversy at one time among different Christian sects over a certain diphthong. One party said that the word Homo-ousion should be used in a prayer; the other wanted Homoi-ousion -- this difference had reference to the divinity of Jesus. Over this diphthong fierce war was raged and large numbers of people were slaughtered.

It seems to Nehru that nearly everyone who calls themselves Christian seems to have forgotten the true value of the religion they purport to follow. As a non-European and a non-Christian, Nehru’s insights into these dynamics seem especially sharp.

Christianity is politically the dominant religion today, because it is the religion of the dominant peoples of Europe. But it is strange to think of the rebel Jesus preaching non-violence and ahimsa and a revolt against the social order, and then to compare him with his loud-voiced followers of today, with their imperialism and armaments and wars and worship of wealth. The Sermon on the Mount and modern European and American Christianity -- how amazingly dissimilar they are!

But, interestingly, Nehru seems to back away from these very conclusions when it comes to explaining to his daughter the European “Dark Ages” that followed the fall of Rome.

Some people say that the Dark Ages in Europe were due to Christianity -- not the religion of Jesus, but the official Christianity which flourished in the West after Constantine, the Roman Emperor, adopted it. Indeed, these people say that the adoption of Christianity by Constantine in the fourth century “inaugurated a millennium” (that is, 1000 years) “in which reason was enchained, thought was enslaved, and knowledge made no progress.” Not only did it bring persecution and bigotry and intolerance, but it made it difficult for people to make progress in science and in most other ways. Sacred books often become obstacles to progress. They tell us what the world was like at the time that they were written; they tell us the ideas of that period, and its customs. No one dare challenge those ideas or those customs because they are written in a “sacred” book. So, although the world may change tremendously, we are not allowed to change our ideas and customs to fit in with the changed conditions. The result is that we become misfits, and of course there is trouble.

So far so good. But, he continues.

Some people therefore accuse Christianity of having brought this period of darkness over Europe. Others tell us that it was Christianity and Christian monks and priests who kept the lamp of learning alight during the Dark Ages. They kept up art and painting, and valuable books were carefully preserved and copied by them.

Thus do people argue. Perhaps both are right. But it would be ridiculous to say that Christianity is responsible for all the evils that followed the fall of Rome. Indeed, Rome fell because of these evils.

I don’t understand the equivocation. Nehru even separates “official Christianity” from “the religion of Jesus” in his opening sentence, seemingly creating all the distance he needs to place the blame on one while defending the other. It was the Church, and its amoral fixation on doctrine, that is to blame, not the moral teachings of Jesus. As nuanced as Nehru is willing to be for most of his epic, here, he seems to be too worried about babies and bathwater.

He sees clearly, for example, through the conflation that still troubles us today -- that between Islam and terrorism. Here, he is speaking of Islamic invaders of India in the twelfth century.

These Muslims were fierce and cruel enough to begin with. They came from a hard country where “softness” was not much appreciated. Added to this was the fact that they were in a newly conquered country, surrounded by enemies, who might revolt at any moment. Fear of rebellion must have been ever present, and fear often produces cruelty and frightfulness. So there were massacres to cow down the people. It was not a question of a Muslim killing a Hindu because of his religion; but a question of an alien conqueror trying to break the spirit of the conquered. Religion is almost always brought in to explain these acts of cruelty, but this is not correct. Sometimes religion was used as a pretext. But the real causes were political and social. The people from Central Asia, who invaded Asia, were fierce and merciless even in their homelands and long before they were converted to Islam. Having conquered a new country, they knew only one way of keeping it under control -- the way of terror.

Religion Gives Way to Politics

However we want to classify Nehru’s struggle with religion and its role in history, there is one thing he makes perfectly clear. The fight of our ancestors for religious freedom and our fight today for political and economic freedom are two sides of the same coin.

The fight for religious freedom, which we see developing in Europe in the fourteenth century and after, and the fight for political freedom, which will come next, are really two aspects of the same struggle. This is the struggle against authority and authoritarianism. Both the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy represented absolute authority, and they tried to crush the spirit of man. The Emperor was there by “divine right,” even more so the Pope, and no one had the right to question this, or disobey the orders issued to him from above. Obedience was the great virtue. Even the exercise of private judgment was considered sinful. Thus the issue between blind obedience and freedom was quite clear. A great fight was waged in Europe for many centuries for freedom of conscience and, later, political freedom. After many ups and downs and great suffering, a measure of success was obtained. But just when people were congratulating themselves that the goal of freedom had been reached, they found that they were mistaken. There could be no real freedom without economic freedom, and so long as poverty remained. To call a starving man free is but to mock him. So the next step was the fight for economic freedom, and that fight is being waged today all over the world. Only in one country can it be said that economic freedom has been won by the people generally, and that is Russia, or rather the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union again. Nehru returns to it often in his nearly two hundred letters, even those that chronologically predate the specific stirrings that resulted in its establishment. As an avowed socialist, living in the 1930s, the Soviet Union must have seemed what he frequently describes it to be -- a triumph of the worker over the authoritarian forces that oppress him.

But although Nehru’s words certainly contain sycophantic praise, that is not all that they contain. Remember, he is describing the full sweep of world history to his daughter, and in doing so, he rather patiently and in refreshingly clear language lays out the logical and conceptual underpinnings of his own politics. In many ways, it is a mini-manifesto for socialism.

In describing the horrible conditions that many European workers suffered at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, for example, Nehru is careful to explain the forces that truly brought that suffering about.

But do not think that all this was just due to the cruelty of the employers. They were seldom consciously cruel; the fault lay with the system. They were out to increase their business and to conquer distant world-markets from other countries, and in order to do this they were prepared to put up with anything. The building of new factories and the purchase of machinery cost a lot of money. It is only after the factory begins to produce and these goods are sold in the market that the money comes back. So these factory-owners had to economize in order to build and, even when the money came by sale of goods, they went on building more factories. They had got a lead over the other countries of the world because of their early industrialization, and they wanted to profit by this -- and, indeed, they did profit. So, in their mad desire to increase their business and make more money, they crushed the poor workers whose labour produced the sources of their wealth.

Except for that last sentence, I think Nehru shows a deep understanding of the market forces -- good, and perhaps bad -- that are at work here. In other words, it is not people, but markets, who can be cruel. If one is to assign blame, it should be on the system, not on the people in the system.

Thus the new system of industry was particularly adapted to the exploitation of the weak by the strong. Right through history we have seen the powerful exploiting the weak. The factory system made this easier. In law there was no slavery, but in fact the starving worker, the wage-slave of the factory, was little better than the old slave. The law was all in favour of the employer. Even religion favoured him and told the poor to put up with their miserable lot here in this world and expect a heavenly compensation in the next. Indeed, the governing classes developed quite a convenient philosophy that the poor were necessary for society, and that therefore it was quite virtuous to pay low wages. If higher wages were paid the poor would try to have a good time, and not work hard enough. It was a comforting and useful way of thinking, because it just fitted in with the material interests of the factory-owners and the other rich people.

I might quibble with some of the sentences in this section. I might say, for example, that the new system of industry helped not the strong exploit the weak, but the capital debtors exploit the workers they needed to overcome their capital debts. That certainly is the strong exploiting the weak from a certain point of view, but I don’t know that it is a universal as Nehru might wish to describe it. But let’s not quibble too much, because (a) it opens my mind to some new ways of thinking, and (b) Nehru, I think, does a good job tying what might otherwise be seen as separate threads into a useful package.

What new ways of thinking? Well, how would history be different if, instead of those first industrialists putting their own capital at risk, a group of industrialist/workers came together to pool and risk their collective capital? Instead of a single owner borrowing a million dollars from a bank to buy capital equipment, a thousand people gave a thousand dollars of their own money to purchase the same equipment? In the first situation, it is one who owns it and who must profit from it. In the other, it is many who own it and many who can profit from it. The one must succeed or he will be ruined. The many can fail without losing much. Did something stop this strategy from happening?

And what useful package does Nehru create?

It is very interesting and instructive to read about these times. One learns so much. We can see what tremendous effect the mechanical processes of production have on economics and society. The whole social fabric is upset; new classes come to the front and gain power; the artisan class becomes the wage-earning class in the factory. In addition to this, the new economics moulds people’s ideas even in religion and morals. The convictions of the mass of mankind run hand in hand with their interests or class-feelings, and they take good care, when they have the power to do so, to make laws to protect their own interests. Of course, all this is done with every appearance of virtue and with every assurance that the good of mankind is the only motive at the back of the law.

This much, at least, must be true. Very few of us are motivated by a desire to exploit others. Nehru has already used market forces to explain the source of the exploitation. Here, he helpfully describes our tendency to believe the best about ourselves to justify the exploitation we find ourselves engaging in.

And this theme of religion as the handmaiden of political and economic forces is something Nehru will return to again and again throughout his letters. He describes Napoleon Bonaparte as…

...thoroughly irreligious, and yet he encouraged religion for he looked upon it as a prop to the existing social order. “Religion,” he said, “associates with heaven an idea of equality, which prevents the poor from massacring the rich. Religion has the same sort of value as vaccination. It gratifies our taste for the miraculous, and protects us from quacks. … Society cannot exist without inequality of property; but this latter cannot exist without religion. One who is dying of hunger when the man next to him is feasting on dainties can only be sustained by a belief in a higher power, and by the conviction that in another world there will be a different distribution of goods.”

And the way that Nehru describes the weakening of this “opiate of the masses” dynamic -- this use of religion (calculated or not) as a balm for the unkind cuts of inequality -- describes its weakening as directly tied to the rise of the factory system, strikes me as one of those big ideas that one seldom comes across in social history.

The new conditions of industry brought large numbers of workers to the big factories, and so a new class arose -- that of the factory-worker. These people were different from the peasants and field-workers in many ways. The peasant has to rely a great deal on the seasons and the rainfall. These are not under his control, and so he begins to think that his misery and poverty are due to supernatural causes. He becomes superstitious and ignores economic causes, and lives a dull, hopeless life, resigned to an unkind fate which he cannot alter.

There’s something of Frazer’s Golden Bough in this argument.

But the factory-worker works with machines, things made by man; he produces goods regardless of the seasons and the rainfall; he produces wealth, but he finds that this largely goes to others and that he himself remains poor; to some extent he can see economic laws in action. And so he does not think of supernatural causes and is not so superstitious as the peasant. For his poverty he does not blame the gods; he blames society or the social system, and especially the capitalist owner of the factory who takes such a big part of the profits of his labour.

I wonder, what is the “Golden Bough” equivalent to this man? If the peasant must appease the gods to ensure his survival, who must the factory-worker bow down to?

He becomes class-conscious, and sees that there are different classes and the upper class prey on his class. And this leads to discontent and revolt. The first murmurs of discontent are vague and dull; the first uprisings are blind and thoughtless and weak, and they are easily crushed by the government. For the government now wholly represents the interests of the new middle class which controls the great factories and their offshoots. But hunger cannot be crushed for long, and soon the poor worker finds a new source of strength in union with his comrades. So trade unions arise to protect the worker and fight for his rights. They are secret bodies at first, for the government will not even permit the workers to organize themselves. It becomes clearer and clearer that the government is definitely a class government, out to protect by all means the class it represents. Laws are also class laws.

Apparently, no one. The peasant bows down to the forces controlling his fate, but the factory-worker confronts his. But more interesting than that observation is the point Nehru makes at the end of the above excerpt about laws being class laws. He’ll say elsewhere, when describing Britain’s history of oppression against an independence-seeking Ireland:

So long as “law and order” meant that the privileges and interests of the governing class were preserved, law and order were desirable; so long as democracy did not encroach on these privileges and interests, it could be tolerated. But if there was any attack on these privileges, then this class would fight. This “law and order” was just a fine phrase meaning to them their own interests. This made it clear that the British Government was in effect a class government, and not even a majority in Parliament against it would dislodge it easily. If such a majority tried to pass a socialistic law which lessened their privileges, they would rebel against it in spite of democratic principles. It is well to keep this in mind, as it applies to all countries, and we are apt to forget this reality in a fog of pious phrases and resounding words.

I am far from a raging socialist, but this is one of those things that rings as mostly true with me. In the heated political rhetoric of even our modern times, one often hears cries for a return to “law and order,” and each time I do, it reminds me to examine the situation through the lens of ruling and exploited classes.

But let’s get back to the factory-worker and his willingness to confront rather than bow down to his capitalist oppressor. In that passage, Nehru goes on to explain the rise of trade unions and international worker movements.

Slowly the workers gain strength, and their trade unions become powerful organizations. Different kinds of workers see that their interests are really one as against the exploiting class in power. So different trade unions co-operate together and the factory-workers of a country become one organized group. The next step is for the workers of different countries to unite, for they too feel that their interests are common and the enemy is a common one. Thus arises the cry: “Workers of the World Unite,” and international organizations of workers are formed. Capitalist industry also grows meanwhile, and becomes international. And so labour confronts capitalism, wherever this industrial capitalism flourishes.

It’s a hundred years of social history, arranged into a few clear and coherent paragraphs. It one of the things that makes this such a remarkable book.

Libertarian Socialism?

Another thing that surprised me about the experience of reading this book was passages like this:

In my last letter I told you of the destruction by the British and French of the wonderful Summer Palace of Peking in 1860. This was done, it is said, as a punishment for a Chinese violation of a flag of truce. It may have been true that some Chinese troops had been guilty of such an offence, but still the deliberate vandalism of the British and French almost passes one’s comprehension. This was not the act of a few ignorant soldiers, but of the men in authority. Why do such things happen? The English and the French are civilized and cultured peoples, in many ways the leaders of modern civilization. And yet these people, who in private life are decent and considerate, forget all their civilization and decency in their public dealings and conflicts with other people. There seems to be a strange contrast between the behaviour of individuals to each other and the behaviour of nations. Children and boys and girls are taught not to be too selfish, to think of others, to behave properly. All our education is meant to teach us this lesson, and to a small extent we learn it. And then comes war, and we forget our old lesson, and the brute in us shows his face. So decent people behave like brutes.

What I find surprising here is the close -- and unacknowledged -- parallel with that great maxim of libertarian thought: the non-aggression principle. The idea that governments have no more right than individuals to aggress against others is gospel to no other political theory that I am aware of. Indeed, all others -- including Nehru’s beloved socialism, leans heavily on the Hobbesian Leviathan to justify the State’s monopoly on violence.

But the concept seems foreign to Nehru. It may not be workable, and he may have already dismissed it, but in a overview as thorough as this one, I would think that if he was aware of this class of political thought, he would at least acknowledge it.

With the growth of nationalism the idea of “my country right or wrong” developed, and nations gloried in doing things which, in the case of individuals, were considered bad and immoral. This a strange contrast grew between the morality of individuals and that of nations. There was a vast difference between the two, and the very vices of individuals became the virtues of nations. Selfishness, greed, arrogance, vulgarity were considered utterly bad and intolerable in the case of individual men and women. But in the case of large groups of nations, they were praised and encouraged under the noble cloak of patriotism and love of country. Even murder and killing because praiseworthy if large groups of nations undertake it against one another. A recent author has told us, and he is perfectly right, that “civilization has become a device for delegating the vices of individuals to larger and larger communities.”

Can such a thing as a libertarian socialist exist?

Things I Didn’t Know

I learned a lot by reading this book. Even as an enthusiastic student of history, the scope of Nehru’s narrative -- and his narrative position as someone from India -- revealed many facts and perspectives I had hitherto never before understood or entertained. Here’s the one one that probably surprised me the most.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century this Zionist movement took gradual shape as a colonizing movement, and many Jews went to settle in Palestine. There was also a renaissance of the Hebrew language. During the World War the British armies invaded Palestine and, as they were marching on Jerusalem, the British Government made a declaration in November 1917, called the Balfour Declaration. They declared that it was their intention to establish a “Jewish National Home” in Palestine. This declaration was made to win the goodwill of international Jewry, and this was important from the money point of view. It was welcomed by Jews. But there was one little drawback, one not unimportant fact seems to have been overlooked. Palestine was not a wilderness, or an empty, uninhabited place. It was already somebody else’s home. So that this generous gesture of the British Government was really at the expense of the people who already lived in Palestine, and there people, including Arabs, non-Arabs, Muslims, Christians, and, in fact, everybody who was not a Jew, protested vigorously at the declaration.

I knew that Palestine was disputed territory, and I knew that it was the international community that helped establish a Jewish stronghold there -- I just didn’t know that it happened with the First, not the Second, World War.

But, as I read on, it seemed that a lot of the troubles in that part of the world started with the foreign imperialism that got a spoils-sanctioned foothold in the wake of the Great War.

Although the new Parliament functioned after the adoption of the new constitution in 1925, the people were far from satisfied, and in the outlying areas disturbances sometime took place. These was especially the case in Kurdish areas, where there were repeated outbreaks, which were suppressed by the British Air Force by the gentle practice of bombing and destroying whole villages. After the treaty of 1930 the question arose of Iraq being made a member of the League of Nations under British auspices. But the country was not at peace, and disturbances continued. This was neither to the credit of the mandatory Power, England, nor to that of the existing government of King Feisal, for these revolts were proof enough that the people were not satisfied with the government that had been thrust upon them by the British. It was considered very undesirable that these matters should come up before the League, and so a special effort was made to put an end to these disturbances by force and terrorism. The British Air Force was used for this purpose, and the result of its attempts to bring peace and order may be appreciated to some extent from the description of an eminent English officer. Lt.-Col. Sir Arnold Wilson, in the course of the anniversary lecture to the Royal Asian Society in London on June 8, 1932, referred to

“the pertinacity with which (notwithstanding declarations at Geneva) the R.A.F. has been bombing the Kurdish population for the last ten years, and in particular the last six months. Devastated villages, slaughtered cattle, maimed women and children bear witness to the spread, in the words of the special correspondent to The Times, of a uniform pattern of civilization.”

Finding that the people of the villages often ran away and hid themselves on the approach of an aeroplane, and were not sporting enough to wait for the bombs to kill them, a new type of bomb -- the time-delayed bomb -- was used. This did not burst on falling, but was so wound up as to burst some time afterwards. This devilish ruse was meant to mislead the villagers into returning to their huts after the aeroplanes had gone and then being hit by the bursting of the bomb. Those who died were the comparatively fortunate ones. Those who were maimed, whose limbs were torn away sometimes, or who had other serious injuries, were far more unfortunate, for there was no medical aid available in those distant villages.

So peace and order were restored, and the Government of Iraq presented itself under British auspices before the League of Nations and was admitted as a member. It has been said, truly enough, that Iraq was “bombed” into the League.

Just how many bombs, I wonder, have been dropped on the lands we call Iraq through their long and tortured history? And to what ultimate effect?

Episodes Worth Reading About

Any broad survey of history like this is going to illuminate these hitherto unknown narratives that serve to entice the reader in wanting to know more. The scope of the overall work won’t allow too deep a dive, but the tidbits given prove too compelling to be ignored. Here’s an example from this work with this reader.

Spain was conquered rapidly, and the Arabs then poured into southern France. So, in about 100 years from the death of Mohammad, the Arab Empire spread from the south of France and Spain right across northern Africa to Suez, and across Arabia and Persia and Central Asia to the borders of Mongolia. India was out of it except for Sindh. Europe was being attacked by the Arabs from two sides -- directly at Constantinople, and in France, via Africa. The Arabs in the south of France were small in numbers and they were very far from their homeland. Thus they could not get much help from Arabia, which was busy then conquering Central Asia. But still these Arabs in France frightened the people of western Europe, and a great coalition was formed to fight them. Charles Martel was the leader of this coalition and in 732 AC he defeated them at the battle of Tours in France. This defeat saved Europe from the Arabs. “On the plains of Tours,” a historian has said, “the Arabs lost the empire of the world when almost in their grasp.” There can be no doubt that if the Arabs had won at Tours, European history would have been tremendously changed. There was no one else to stop them in Europe and they could have marched right across to Constantinople and put an end to the Eastern Roman Empire and the other States on the way. Instead of Christianity, Islam would then have become the religion of Europe, and all manner of other changes might have taken place. But this is just a flight of imagination. As it happened, the Arabs were stopped in France. For many hundreds of years afterwards, however, they remained and ruled in Spain.

A few moments just spent on Wikipedia tells me that not all historians agree with Nehru’s flight of imagination -- that the Battle of Tours may not have been such climactic turning point in the history of Europe. "Today, historians tend to play down the significance of the battle of [Tours],” says one quoted historian, “pointing out that the purpose of the Muslim force defeated by Charles Martel was not to conquer the Frankish kingdom, but simply to pillage the wealthy monastery of St-Martin of Tours.”

Either way, sounds like an interesting event, certainly worth reading more about. And there are many more.

After these victories Chengiz [aka Genghis Khan] might have rested. He seems to have had no desire to invade the west. He wanted friendly relations with the Shah or King of Khwarazm. But this was not to be. There is an old Latin saying which means that those whom the gods wish to destroy they first drive mad. The Shah of Khwarazm was bent on bringing about his own destruction and he did everything possible to accomplish this. Mongol merchants were massacred by a governor of his. Chengiz even then wanted peace and sent ambassadors asking that the governor be punished. But the foolish Shah, vain and full of his own importance, insulted these ambassadors and had them put to death. This was more than Chengiz could stand; but he was not to be hurried. He made careful preparations and then marched his host westward.

This march, begun in 1219, opened the eyes of Asia, and partly of Europe too, to this new terror, this great roller which came on inexorably, crushing down cities and men by the million. The Empire of Khwarazm ceased to exist. The great city of Bokhara, full of palaces, and with over a million population, was reduced to ashes. Samarqand, the capital, was destroyed, and out of a million people that lived there, only 50,000 remained alive. Herat, Balkh and many other flourishing cities were all destroyed. Millions were killed. All the arts and crafts that had flourished in Central Asia for hundreds of years disappeared, civilized life seemed to cease in Persia and in Central Asia. There was desert where Chengiz had passed.

After reading a passage like this, the trouble is often in finding just the right book to read. Did someone focus solely on Genghis Khan’s campaign against Khwarazm, rather than Genghis Khan’s full biography, for example, and did that writer tell that story in a way that I will find as fascinating as Nehru’s summary suggests? Frequently, this struggle allows the inspiration to learn more to fade before it can be realized. So, imagine my delight when, after yet another compelling synopsis, I found this clear recommendation.

I have told you already of the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain. The story of their gallant fight is worthy of closer study. An American named J. L. Motley has written a famous account of this struggle for freedom, and he has made it an absorbing and fascinating tale. I hardly know of a novel that is more gripping than this moving account of what took place 350 years ago in this little corner of Europe. The book is called The Rise of the Dutch Republic, and I read it in prison.

I’m going to start scouring used bookstores for it.

The Sweetest of His Life

Let’s end with this. In his very last letter to his daughter, Nehru tries to sum up his experience in writing these letters. In doing so, he quotes Disraeli.

Benjamin Disraeli, the great statesman of the nineteenth century, has written: “Other men condemned to exile and captivity, if they survive, despair; the man of letters may reckon those days as the sweetest of his life.” He was writing about Hugo Grotius, a famous Dutch jurist and philosopher of the seventeenth century, who was condemned to imprisonment, but managed to escape after two years. He spent these two years in prison in philosophic and literary work. There have been many famous literary gaolbirds, the two best known perhaps being the Spaniard, Cervantes, who wrote Don Quixote, and the Englishman, John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Nehru quickly corrects the impression he may have left by invoking this quote, stressing that the years he spent in prison were not the sweetest of his life. But clearly, the exercise of speaking to his daughter, in whom he must have had immense hopes for the future, regularly and continually about the things that so occupied his intellectual life -- clearly this brought a significant measure of light to the darkness that must have otherwise surrounded him. And this, if nothing else, filled this reader with a similar desire to continue the exercise. Truth be told, even after more than 1,100 pages, I felt a kind of simple sadness when the narrative finally came to a close.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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