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Thoughts on 'Glimpses of World History by Nehru' - Part 3

Nehru's views on the great revolutions of the 18th Century are invaluable. The French, American, and Industrial Revolutions affected his thinking deeply.
Thoughts on 'Glimpses of World History by Nehru' - Part 3

I continue my journey through history side-by-side with Nehru. Pt. Jawaharlal is an able, albeit biased guide. Asking Nehru to speak unbiasedly about history is, perhaps, a stretch and since his words are merely written, not spoken, it would be difficult[1] to ask him to change his stance. As we get to modern events, my curiosity rises about his views on the famous revolutions of the time: the French, the American, and the Industrial.

Day 10

We start out with revolutions. Nehru had covered pre-industrial history before this; he cuts into revolutionary history now. The coming of the Spinning Jenny, of the Steam Engine and mechanisation led to, perhaps, the most lasting and impactful revolution out of the three. The Industrial Revolution was neither swift, nor violent, nor sudden. Nehru calls it an economic revolution. That, in my head, reveals more about Nehru than it does about the revolution. Every economic revolution is social in nature, and in fact, if one reads through Nehru's handling of the French and Industrial Revolutions, one would find social elements banding together at each step with the economic.

Nehru is at pains to remind us about the bourgeoisie nature of this revolution. He keeps telling us that there is little to be gained from things like mechanisation when the wealth they create is not spread out among the people. This has been a common refrain in his letters. The accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few does not justify anything.[2] In fact, a casual aside of his made me raise an eyebrow. He states that advanced political thought believes that private property itself is undesirable.

The beginning of the laissez faire economy happened in England, and it led to incredible exploitation of the working class. Nehru calls them modern-day slaves, a fate he believed to be worse than that of serfs, even. They had little representation (if any) in the parliament and their employers treated them horribly. Yet, Nehru is careful not to blame the employers themselves, but claims that the laissez faire economy led to conditions which made the factory owners squeeze out as much money as they could from workers. Lust for more and more profit and power, it seems, is the root of all evil. I keep expecting Nehru to quote Lord Acton[3] any time, but am sadly disappointed.

The American Revolution is dealt with in quite a factual manner. While Nehru is full of praise for the Founding Fathers, he ponders upon the irreconcilable nature of the Declaration of Independence, which claimed that all men were born equal, with that of the institution of slavery. He, however, admits to admiring America, the most industrialised country in the world. I find that ironic, given his socialist tendencies.

And finally, we come to the French Revolution, where Nehru fondly lingers. A touch of romanticism colours his views of the period. Yet, I do not hold that against him. The heady rush which the words "Liberty, Fraternity, Equality!" conjure up cannot be easily dispelled. A thrill runs through any thinking person as he or she goes back to the time when an entire country rose up and shocked the world with the beheading of the Bourbons, the last cadet branch of the family of Hugh Capet.

The French Revolution, Nehru notes, managed a lot of what it set out to accomplish. The average person was much better off than during the age of feudalism. Yet the revolution had been a bourgeoisie revolution. When Mirabeau, the first revolutionary prime minister[4], died in 1791, the revolution passed from a narrow band of people holding it up for the sake of their own gain, to the representatives of the masses. The words Nehru seems to be missing here are populism and demagoguery. The storming of the Bastille, the forming of the National Assembly, the Terror of Robespierre, and finally, a sort of counter-revolution causing Napoleon to be installed as Emperor are peculiar to the French Revolution. Yet, one is reminded of the popular saying about history repeating itself. First as a tragedy, the next as pure folly. The very same pattern followed the Russian Revolution: it merely took longer. The October Revolution, the changing of the guard from Lenin to Stalin, and the reign of terror. And, of course, long after Nehru's death, a counter-revolution broke apart the Soviet Union and put an end to the days of purely State-controlled growth.

Nehru dedicates an entire letter to his particular thoughts on the French Revolution. Not the events themselves, mind you, merely philosophical reflections. Digesting it took me a while. I had to read it thrice to really understand what it reveals about Nehru's thinking. The name of the letter is "The Ways of Governments" and I encourage anyone who wishes to understand Nehru to read it in full. At the end of the day, Nehru says, Governments act on behalf of someone. In doing so, they have to move against someone else. Revolutionary governments often work for the masses and against a highly privileged elite. Reactionary governments do not. Indeed, while both of them commit atrocities, Nehru believes that revolutionary governments are more honest about it. It is a flimsy excuse, yet Nehru says that the privations of everyday life more than make up for the horrors of the guillotine. More people die in starvation and wars than were killed by the executioner's blade in France. Indeed, Nehru says, more people were hanged in England and the United States during this period than were killed in the Revolution.

Nehru goes on to talk of the nature of terrorism which governments practice by mentioning the Jallianwalla Bagh incident[5] and the usage of machine guns on a Pathan protest in Peshawar. He talks about the economic exploitation of workers in the coal mines of Jharia and the cruelties of the world. This is not an aside to his main point. Nehru uses these examples to showcase the kind of sacrifice demanded of a people by a revolution is nothing compared to what can happen in a matter of course.

I find it hard to really understand Nehru's mind here. While he has condemned all manners of war and violence nearly everywhere else I have read, his excusing of the violence here seems a little out of character. He says, and I must confess my repugnance at this line of thought, that the reason one attaches so much importance to the guillotine in France is because it disproportionately claimed the lives of the wealthy. Indeed, his avoidance of the term populism[6] is concerning. I do not know if Nehru understood the phenomenon or judged it to be of little importance. And more importantly, I am afraid that he was of the school of socialism of which modern leaders such as Jeremy Corbyn are members, and excused the violence in the name of the "Greater Good".[7]

Nehru was not a backward thinking man or a red-blooded revolutionary. His prime ministership was peaceful and moderately successful. Yet, one wonders. Where does he rank on a scale of autocracy between Ashoka the Great and Akbar the Great?

Another observation which is quite illuminating: Nehru believes that the French Revolutionary Armies were able to beat back their enemies due to greater fervour. The Revolutionary is prepared to die for his country, unlike the professional soldier who fights only for money. While he is correct, I believe he missed a vital lesson here. Mobilisation of a population in a country where the leadership is seen as representing the people is easier than in one which isn't. The half-trained armies of France were able to hold back the Habsburg armies swarming in from the Netherlands and Spain because they were able to replace men much faster than the attacking armies could. Quantity, after all, has a quality uniquely its own.

Indeed, if one were to look at the Glorious Revolution[8] in 1688 and the outpouring of technological advancement in the 1700s in Britain, one would wonder if there was not a connection there. At the end of the day, the lesson to be learned from all these events is that better representation will nearly always lead to a more committed and efficient population. I'm not quite sure whether Nehru managed to pick this pearl of wisdom up.

Day 11

I thought I'd learned all there was to learn about Nehru. Boy was I wrong! The first 15 pages of today's 40 was dedicated to Napoleon. I've read nearly 480 pages at this point, and it's arguable that these fifteen pages have been the longest continuous stretch dedicated to any individual ruler. Nehru expresses admiration at Genghis Khan, various Chinese rulers and two Indian rulers. Yet, it is to a Frenchman that he dedicates most of his time. Indeed, he writes out a few of Napoleon's quotes, remarking upon the fact that exile at St. Helena's made this man a philosopher.

Nehru, though, in a way, treats Napoleon the same way as Alexander. Napoleon, like Alexander, was a great man, yet the fruit of his greatness had many evil ingredients. He was a petty, power-hungry individual, says Nehru. Yet his accomplishments cannot be denied. He came with the tide of the revolution, and while he stomped it out within his own country, his armies exported the revolution throughout Europe, shattering feudality wherever they went. It is telling that the Holy Roman Empire[9] was destroyed once and for all by his will, and in its place, after an interim, rose the mighty Nation-State of Germany.

Nehru's fascination with Napoleon is never outrightly stated, unlike his outright forthrightness when talking about Genghis Khan or Ashoka the Great. His eloquence and length on the man, however, is quite obvious. And since a man can be judged by the people he looks up to, this remains one of my greatest discoveries in this reading of his letters.

The other great discovery of this reading is a corpus of Nehru's views on capitalism and communism. These views are an inflammatory topic today, so it is worth looking into them in some detail. Nehru was not an ideologue for the sake of being one. While the zeitgeist was heavily slanted in favour of Communism, Nehru's writings make it amply clear that he wasn't sucked into its vortex merely because it was a popular fad at that time. Indeed, his views on Capitalism are complex and somewhat well-thought out.

We've already seen that Nehru's opinion on wealth-generation is starkly egalitarian. In his view, there is no point to wealth-generation when all the benefits accrue to a limited number. So when he looks at Capitalism as a phenomenon, he sees it from the perspective of a few exploiting the many. And as discussed earlier, he does not feel that it is the fault of the few either. In his view, the system itself is built such that the push for greater and greater profits will lead man to any lengths.

And in fact, his views are substantiated by the fact that Capitalism is what led to Imperialism. In his view, Capitalism inevitably encourages greed. After a time, the person's greed becomes so much that his country/area isn't capable of handling it any more, and hence has to export it. This leads to colonialism and imperialism of the sort he saw in India and Africa.

To be fair to Nehru, he isn't dismissive of Capitalism. The value of Capitalism lies in its organisation, he says. Industrialisation, the very root of Capitalism, leads to the organisation of a society, allowing it to mobilise better[10] and thus perform any one task together. According to Nehru, things like mass education were a product of Industrialisation and Capitalism because Capitalists required at least somewhat educated people who could understand the nature of the job they were doing.

However, his linking Capitalism to Imperialism probably completely sours his view of the former. Inequality and Imperialism were the bane of Nehru's life: he fought against them till his dying breath. Instead of being able to change Capitalism, he seems to have leaped ahead to its logical successor: Socialism. Nehru was a Fabian Socialist, which is a relief. Had he been a Leninist or something similar, India would probably not have been the democracy it is today[11].

Many people criticise Nehru for this thought process. Capitalism as practiced by the British does not mean that the only answer is Socialism. Nehru's fault lay in his placing all the blame on the system without seeking to understand the underlying nature of the beast. Greed is endemic to human nature. And so, in fact is laziness. Harnessing both to raise living standards for the world is the beauty of Capitalism. Tellingly, Nehru himself remarks on the rising living standards of the Middle Class in England as Industrialisation spread.

Had Nehru been living during the Gilded Age of America when robber barons ruled the land, one would have understood his reluctance to embrace Capitalism. However, he lived after the passage of the legal acts that created the New Deal, like the Glass-Steagall Act, and he saw the rise and rise of the United States of America. One wonders whether he felt so scarred by the actions of the British that he did not want to be associated with their methods at all.

Another fact that counts against Nehru is the fact that Russia was neither Capitalistic nor very industrially advanced: it still remained an Imperialistic power. Russia's vast territory was acquired by fur traders by force from the people they displaced. Nehru himself remarks on it in pieces when he talks about the Russian Empire threatening British dominion of India via Afghanistan. The lesson Nehru seems to have not learned is that Imperialism stems not from Capitalism, but from Empire, which requires no excuses.

And finally, Nehru talks about the final fall of Feudalism in India with the end of the Mughal dynasty. The Revolt of 1857 marked the last gasp of Feudalism in India which was brutally crushed, ironically, by the British. Had it been a more popular revolt, or a more nationalist revolt, Nehru remarks, it might even have succeeded.

Day 12

These letters of Nehru's have been the most difficult to read. I confess I've never read anything written by a man still living in Colonial India, especially one who was aware of what was going on.

Nehru's words almost nearly become bitter. I use two qualifiers here. One, because they stop just before they become bitter, and two, because he explicitly cautions Indira against bitterness. I have little reason do doubt what he says, and for someone to be able to write of the depravations India went through under the British with such equanimity despite having lived in British India is a miracle in of itself.

Nehru does not see the root of all evil in Britain. The system is such that Britain must extract wealth out of India, he says. Britain swooped in at a moment when India was undergoing change. The bourgeoisie had just started forming in India, and had she been given some more time maybe the country would have a full suite of burghers to oppose British colonialism. As it were, that was not to be. The British came, they saw, and they destroyed. All they wanted was money. And they did whatever they could to draw it out of the country. Droughts, famines and other privations came and went, yet the British yoke would not yield. Scores of weavers and artisans were crushed under the juggernaut of British industrialisation, yet their hand remained clenched in a fist of oppression.

Was it worse than the actions of the Mughals? Did the people starve better when Shah Jahan paid them no mind and built his famous Taj Mahal? Did the sword of Aurangzeb kill more easily than the musket of the Englishman? I have no answers to this question, and Nehru does not even attempt to answer it. He acknowledges that his view of the 19th century is coloured by his having lived so close to it, so maybe there is a chance of that.

What is unquestionably clear, though, is that the British de-urbanised India, pushed her back a few decades in development and changed her society in ways not seen since the first Muslim Invasions of India. Existing institutions became rigid, and the first Hindu Code came into being. Hinduism had never been a set of laws, Nehru says: it had always merely been a set of ever-changing customs. Yet the British pandered to the orthodox and codified what they believed in into law. They did it for Hindus and for Muslims.

But the coming of the British had other effects. It taught Indians the language of the world and exposed them to ideas foreign and unique. Nationalism and Capitalism came into India through the unconscious actions of the English. Hindus took to English learning far quicker than Muslims did, something which formed a core part of Hindu-Muslim differences in his time. Sure, the Indian National Congress had a few Muslim leaders, but these leaders felt that the average Muslim was not yet ready for the Congress, and it would be better for them to wait or get something different.

Another thing Nehru remarks about is that the form of nationalism seen in India at this time was Hindu nationalism. The effect of learning upon Hindus was greater than that on Muslims, because they ended up embracing it more. Thus they were able to start a nationalist movement coloured with Hindu symbols. When Muslims finally caught up, their own version of Nationalism took the form of Pakistan[12].

Muslims also tended to be poorer than Hindus. A vast majority of the weavers and spinners in India happened to be Muslim, whereas their landlords and moneylenders happened to be Hindu. The former were hit much harder than the latter.

How correct is Nehru? Does modern scholarship agree with him? My reading of Prof. John Darwin convinces me that he's not very far off the mark. Darwin acknowledges that it was a rapidly growing bourgeoisie which contributed to the colonialism of India. They wished to break away from their overlords (The Mughals), but before they could truly find their feet, the British came and took Bengal. Bengal, at that time, produced 50% of India's GDP. Once the British had this province in their hands, the rest of India was peanuts. Had they conquered any other province, India might have been much more successful in resisting conquest. As it were, the British had to pay nary a penny to conquer India: she paid for her conquest herself. A sad and unfortunate event, but quite common in Indian history as it may be.

In addition, one last aside to what Nehru says about India: the village system, which had lasted centuries, was finally coming to an end because of the building of roads and railways by the British. India's system of isolated villages which ruled over themselves with little-to-no interference from the time of Ashoka the Great was finally finished due to the opening up of the country through roads and railroads. Incidentally, Prof. John Darwin states that this lack of connectivity was what made it difficult to keep the country together as an Empire in the past. Be it Ashoka, the Guptas, or the Mughals: no on has really been able to keep the country together for any significant period of time.

Finally, Nehru makes it a point to talk about how the ordinary Englishman was not to blame for Britain's harsh rule of India. The ordinary Englishman was under the yoke of his own social superior. The difference between England and India was that the Englishman had Industrial roles to step into when the shoes of Feudalism ceased to fit. The ordinary Indian would have done the same, but the British made sure there would be no industry for him to go to. They toppled feudalism and left its remnants to burn.

Day 13

Nehru goes off to talk about China, Japan and some later Imperialist advances. In contrast to the previous 120 pages, in which Nehru decided to air his thoughts out, these forty pages mark a return to a more stolid, staid kind of history-telling. Nehru goes into detail about how the Chinese lost their country, the nature of Dr. Sun Yat Sen's movement and what the Chinese now call the "Century of Humiliation". The Boxer rebellion was covered. The Japanese naval victory over Russia was talked about and her transformation from a feudal country into an Imperialistic was described in detail.

The most striking thing one gets to is Nehru's description of European savagery. The destruction of the Summer Palace by a combined European army and the trail of destruction they left behind as they advanced across China is described with the disgust of someone who cares not for Western Civilization. While we know Nehru better than that, there is a realisation that Nehru's writings reflect a certain disdain towards those who proclaimed themselves harbingers of civilisation. The unspoken question of, "If this is civilisation, are we not better off remaining savages?" can be heard loud and clear across these pages.

His understanding of the United States "economic empire" bears being remarked upon. The United States, Nehru says, did not have a physical empire. Rather, they had an economic empire which did not require annexation, merely complete economic control. It was not as perfidious as perfidious Albion, one would think Nehru would have thought, but its nature was much more insidious. One would have to be wary of the USA as one progressed across the pages of history.

In essence, these forty pages make us understand that Nehru considered Western Europe the great evil of the day, the United States not too far behind, was relatively well-disposed towards Russia and Japan, and considered China favourably above nearly all others. Japan was held in regard because she was a fellow Asian nation, and Russia because she was the birthplace of the USSR. I do not consider these views properly justified. I can understand why he had them, yet it must be understood that the world has moved on from his time. People who advocate Nehruvian thought for modern times must adapt, or else risk making the same mistakes he made; decisions we find ourselves living with even today.

Day 14

Nehru takes a detour in this reading, and decides to focus on Persia. He laments that he hasn't focussed much on it, deciding to remedy that. His narration of the history of this region is succinct: he does not wish to spend a lot of time covering it. This may be due to ignorance (for I doubt Nehru himself remembered enough about Iran beyond the empires of the Achaemenids, Safavids and Sassanids and some of their more famous rulers) or because his letters had reached up to the 19th century. Going back to the times before Christ would be difficult.

Nonetheless, Nehru's musings on Persia were prompted by his reading of a history of India and Persia as seen through the evolution of their art. He remarks, quite admiringly, it must be said, that a distinctly Persian identity has survived throughout the ages, with a distinctive art, style and culture. It has accepted Hellenic, Chinese, Arabic and even Indian influence, but despite that Persia's ethos remains uniquely her own. The dominant sect of Islam in Persia is Shia, not Sunni, and a fervent kind of unity pervaded her throughout history. Just as India has managed to "Indianise" all who conquer her, Persia has "Persianised" them, making them more Persian and less Arabic or Turkic. Indeed, Persia remained a towering presence in art, philosophy and language, shaping India over the entire period of Muslim rule.

His thoughts on the Shah of Iran are mixed. While he managed to unify Iran and deferred to the Majlis, he was at heart a strongman. Nehru admits that he was a moderniser, but it's easy to see that he was wary of the kind of strongman rule Shah Reza Pahlavi exerted over Iran.

Moving on from Iran, Nehru talks about the nature of revolutions in the world. He opines that there are three primary forms of revolution. Palace revolutions, which involve nothing more than a changing of the guard, national revolutions, which involve changing the entire bunch of people at the top, and social revolutions, which change society as a whole. It is pointless to say which one Nehru thought was the most important. He felt that most revolutions are palace revolutions, and a few are even national in nature. They come and go, with the average person experiencing little change, if any at all. Social revolutions, like the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England, are much more enduring, albeit far more rare. Little England, Nehru says, had an inherent flexibility within her, what with her reliance on a changing constitution and (something else Nehru ought to have pointed out) Common Law. This allowed her to change with the time and either pre-empt, or properly adapt to changing social conditions.[13]

He then goes on to talk about the movements in Germany and Italy which led to the formation of these two great nation-states. He is full of praise for Mazzini, Garibaldi and Prime Minister Cavour for their role in Italian unification. One can smell, however, a whiff of disapproval within the grudging admiration Nehru extends towards Otto von Bismarck.[14]

I sense a pattern here, now. Nehru has praised autocratic monarchs in Asia. He has done it multiple times, in fact. However, autocracy in Europe has never been praised directly. The closest Nehru comes to overt praise is Napoleon, but one has to infer that from Nehru's lengthy narration of the Napoleonic Wars: he never says it out loud. He also speaks loudly about the barbarity of European troops in China, India and Africa. In fact, he goes out of his way to explain that England was full of sympathy for the revolutions in Greece and Italy, yet sent guns to suppress similar movements in her colonies.[15]

This was, in fact, not a moral imperative of England's. The impulse for this was economic. It's not that Nehru had no understanding of this. He accepts that most revolutions have a somewhat economic basis. In fact, he talks about how the rallying cry of "Swadeshi" had no impact on the peasant, for the peasant would have the same problems whether India were to be a colony, dominion or even independent. The rallying cry for independence was from the middle class, the ones who had the most to lose from remaining a colony of the British. The particular term Nehru would have found useful here is a revolution of rising expectations. As one starts gaining more and more privileges, one starts demanding even more and more of them. And this is what leads to revolution. As such, the best thing for an autocrat to do is to crush his people utterly and deprive them of everything. North Korea today is a shining example of what to do to pre-empt this revolution of rising expectations.

The nature of this revolution, and almost nearly every other revolution, is economic. The French Revolution happened because of many reasons, yet the chief among them was financial.[16] The Glorious Revolution happened because the bourgeoise had tasted wealth, and they did not want the monarchy to deprive them from obtaining more. The American Revolution happened because of the taxes levied upon the people. The Russian Revolution happened because the repression of the Tsar was in contrast to the rising expectations of the people. Similarly, the English had no economic interests in Italy and Greece in 1848, hence their morality came out in support of the people. Had the situation been the same for India, it would not be out of the realm of possibility that the English would praise it as well.

  1. Reader, meet Irony. Tell her it's a pleasure. ↩︎

  2. I'm paraphrasing. ↩︎

  3. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. ↩︎

  4. I use this word for lack of a better term. He was head of the National Assembly at the time. ↩︎

  5. The Amritsar Massacre for all you Brits ↩︎

  6. I do not know whether it was in vogue during his time at all, yet I know that democrats throughout history have shuddered at "mob-rule". Indeed, it was a concern even during Roman times, when the Gracchi brothers and Publius Clodius Pulcher were murdered for trying to give too much power to the plebians. ↩︎

  7. Creative destruction is a thing, and is definitely part of any inclusive economy (See "Why Nations Fail" by Acemoglu and Robinson for details). Yet the Terror or Stalin's and Mao's purges were not really creative destruction. The concentration of power in the hands of a narrow elite led to the institutions of the country in question turning non-inclusive, which is seen in the change of guard when the Directorate and Bonaparte come into play in France, and in the nature of the Communist Parties of Russia and China. ↩︎

  8. Briefly, it was a fight between Parliament and King and led to William of Orange becoming constitutional monarch with all power being devolved to Parliament. ↩︎

  9. Once described as neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire by that famous wit Voltaire. ↩︎

  10. I admit, Nehru doesn't use the word "mobilise" or any of its derivatives. But the best way to understand his thoughts is to complete his thoughts and rethink his arguments in better terms. However, do keep in mind that my restating his thoughts might lead to changes in nuance and didactic. Caveat emptor. ↩︎

  11. Arguably he should have impressed the importance of not having political dynasties as well. Unfortunately, it seems The Congress is going to suffer from this mistake forever. ↩︎

  12. Nehru hasn't named this country yet. I don't remember when the first instance of Pakistan was floated, but if what Nehru says is true, then perhaps the policy of divide and rule shouldn't solely be attributed to the British. ↩︎

  13. As an aside, it is important to note that this vaunted English ability seems to have been left in the past. They seem to be raising all kinds of ruckus with Brexit. ↩︎

  14. For a different, yet equally fascinating and more detailed account of this period I would urge one to read Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger. Kissinger is a great narrator of history, albeit he gets more defensive the closer one gets to Nixon. ↩︎

  15. This particular peeve comes from Nehru being a primary source. One has to strip his biases from his writings. Unfortunately, I do not use Nehru as a primary source on history, I use him as a primary source on himself. His biases informed his choices in government, and as such it is necessary to stop and reflect upon them in depth. ↩︎

  16. Briefly, the French monarchy had borrowed heavily from the people to finance certain wars, chief among them being the Seven Years War and the American War of Independence. Unfortunately, the bonds which had been taken out to fund these wars were not being honoured in 1789. Since a large number of the peasantry had taken out these bonds, a significant enough section of the populace was upset enough to rebel against Louis XVI. A more in-depth discussion of this may be found in Mihir Desai's "The Wisdom of Finance". ↩︎