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Thoughts on 'Glimpses of World History by Nehru' - Part 6

Nehru's wanderings through world events eventually brings us to things he considered contemporary: the Nazis, the Great Depression, Roosevelt, and the rise of the Soviet Union.
Thoughts on 'Glimpses of World History by Nehru' - Part 6

The final post in this series deals with a lot of what Nehru would consider contemporary. He talks about the five-year plans of Soviet Russia, a dash of communism and the rise of the Nazis, President Roosevelt's New Deal and then some. This last bunch of letters details Nehru's thoughts on Fascism, the Nazis, the coming of the War, and the shadow of Communism.

Day 25

Nehru talks about Soviet Russia and science in these pages. Nothing bad, of course: Nehru is a great admirer of both of them.

The first couple of letters talk increasingly about the activities of the Soviet Union. The Soviets, Nehru says, veered between Trotsky's ideas of permanent revolution and Stalin's stolid build-up of communism as its own force in Russia for a while, but the decisive victory of Stalin led to a surer path for Russia. This path led it to collectivise farms, create heavy industry, build up railways, and, in general, go on towards becoming a progressive nation.

Indeed, Nehru's observation that the Soviets were extremely egalitarian towards women proves this point. To an extent, at least. The Soviets were the first to have a woman ambassador, Madam Kollontai, and the head of the education department under Stalin was Lenin's widow. It is remarkable to realise that no other nation was on this same path. One can criticise Soviet Russia for not being progressive enough, of course, but that would be a misnomer, given they were ahead of many other nations at this time. Indeed, Nehru remarks that the Soviet Republics of Central Asia, some of the most backward nations to exist at that time, were also modernising rapidly.[1]

The greatest praise is reserved for the five-year plan. The first five-year plan had just come to a close and the second started when Nehru wrote these letters. The plan was, according to Nehru, a total success. It collectivised peasant farms and created modern heavy industry in Russia. That was, for lack of a better word, amazing. Russia was vastly rural. Peasant, almost. And this vast undertaking led it from there to something resembling a modern State. Nehru quotes amazing numbers. 2/3rds of peasants collectivised. Population explosion. Hundreds and thousands of schools opened. Full employment. Happy and economically secure people.

In hindsight, we know a lot of that is not true. Nehru does talk about the privations of the kulaks, but (and this is a recurring theme now) he devotes no more than a couple of lines to it. The Greater Good seems to be a philosophy espoused by Nehru. Unfortunately, unlike Albus Dumbledore, there does not seem to be any moment when he publicly repudiates it. Nehru doesn't talk about peasants selling their children and street signs telling villagers to not eat their own progeny. In fairness, he probably didn't know about it, but it is amazing just how credulous Nehru seems to be about the greatness of Soviet Russia.

Another point to be made is the sheer morality ascribed to the Soviets. Stalin was a realist. Not just any realist, but the consummate realist. He had ensnared Franklin Roosevelt in his trap as well: Nehru marched into that same trap. Stalin and his actions being described as moral tickled me greatly. Nehru falling headlong into a cult of personality and an idea whose flaws he did not consider seems to me a kind of archetype. A great man walking a path paved with good deeds and thoughts.

Nehru also talks about the progress of science and technology, again. He talks about the coming of the "power age" and the rise of electricity in factories and manufacturing. I will not go into detail about what he wrote: he was trying to give Indira a basic idea of what new science is all about and he largely succeeded. However, a cursory Wikipedia search for "Denton" led me to this, which makes me feel that Nehru had less of an interest in the hard sciences than he's trying to convey to Indira. Indeed, the conceit of not going into detail about General Relativity because it is "too abstruse" makes it seem like it would be too difficult for the recipient, whereas it seems to me that it was the writer who needed to take himself down a notch.

At the same time, Nehru's paramount concern was the use and misuse of new science and technology. A great fear of his was the progress in the science of war. The Great War was behind him: he was unable to imagine how the next big war would be like. His fear of carpet bombing, chemical weaponry, biological warfare and cities full of ash did come to pass, yet I'm sure even Nehru could not have imagined the horrors of the holocaust. Nehru again, gives the Soviets the benefit of the doubt here, managing to squeeze in a need to convert the world to Socialism before its benefits could be realised.

As someone who's ideologically opposed to Communism yet an admirer of Nehru, this love of socialism and Soviet Russia is more than disquieting: Nehru inserts it everywhere. One wonders, had Nehru been less left-wing would his legacy have survived better in India?

Day 26

Nehru talks about economics in this series of five letters. They are, for lack of a better word, somewhat interesting from a historical viewpoint. I will forgo the details of the depression: anyone seeking to learn about it will benefit from reading letters 184-187 if they want an amateur view or a book centred on the depression if they want a professional view.

At this stage, Nehru's views on the affair are fairly predictable. The capitalist ideals of the previous age are showing their age, every man for themselves, inefficient distribution of resources, etc. One does tend to get a little miffed at reading the same thing again and again. At the same time, Nehru's views on the actions of the British on currency and gold in India are instructive. Nehru expresses a certain stoic disdain for the British policy of sucking in gold from India despite acknowledging that it did not make a huge different to many Indian peasants. That is not to say that they were not affected at all, merely that many of them did not have a lot of gold.

Yet most of Nehru's writings do not focus on the Indian peasant. He deals more with the strange behaviour of money. Nehru's semi-understanding of economics shines through: he talks about how and why money did not do what it was supposed to do. Or rather, how it did not do what people wanted it to do. He talks about how imperialism was not able to sustain capitalism, how industrialisation had stopped, how there was an overabundance of goods. I was hoping to see the term "inflation" being used at some point. Unfortunately it was not to be. Nehru was a lawyer and politician, not an economist.

Still, it is remarkable to see the amount he actually did understand. His praise of the Soviet Union[2] aside, Nehru understands the flow of capital and its effect on the world economy remarkably better than I had expected him to. The domino effect of debts, the indecision of France, England's game of using American bills to pay off her own debts, the tussle between British banks and American banks, and most importantly the importance of the gold standard are all touched upon and talked about.

Yet, the overall impression one gets is not that Nehru was impressed by this system or even cared about it much. He was genuinely waiting to see whether the depression was the death knell of capitalism as we knew it or not. The World Economic Conference failed, the British Empire Conference at Ottawa led to mixed results, and cheap imports from Japan[3] pointed towards a looming implosion of the system. Unfortunately for him, Franklin Roosevelt came along and saved capitalism from capitalists.

Day 27

These three letters talk about war and disarmament. Well, that's not really true, though it might as well be. These letters talk about the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler, and the failure of the Disarmament Conference. The Spanish Civil War is fairly relevant when it comes to the behaviour of the Great Powers later, and Franco cast a long shadow over the Iberian Peninsula for a long time. However, there is not much time spent upon it for a subject of greater importance comes up immediately after.

The Nazis have been mentioned by Nehru at various points in the past. While they are cartoonish villains in Hollywood today, Nehru's account gives us a vivid account of the ominous atmosphere surrounding their rise. Neville Chamberlain wanted peace: Hitler gave him the illusion of one in the Munich Pact. The Germans wanted power, Hitler gave them the illusion of such through loud speeches and spectacle. But more than that, Hitler reduced the "cultured and proud German race" to barbarism.[4] The looming threat of Nazi Germany shadowed all world affairs for a while: Nehru has remarked upon the effect it might have had on the various independence movements previously: I am inclined to believe him.

But this is not a reading of history. We are trying to take the measure of Jawaharlal Nehru as we see how he deals with the rise of Nazism. So far, he has performed admirably. There is no vague admiration of their processes and their achievements. There is no love for the person of the Leader. There is no wishing India upon the same path.[5] There is an acknowledgment that Nazi Germany removed unemployment: yet it made Germany poorer. Hitler agitated for war yet used peace as a cover to build himself up. He brought Europe to its knees (though that's not covered in this letter). Nehru does not seem to admire that.

His delivery is fairly cold. It is also faintly damning. Which is the only complaint I have with it. He talks about the racial hatred suffusing the Nazis as they drove Jews into concentration camps and expresses astonishment at someone wanting a person like Albert Einstein to get out of their country merely because of his blood being Jewish, yet there does not seem to be any true emotion in it. Perhaps he does not want to show that emotion to his daughter.

Nehru understands that the rise of the Nazis marks a fundamental shift in Europe. He does not understand the whats or the whys of it yet: but he sees that it's causing dangerous currents and eddies to form in international relations. The Germans, Italians and Japanese pulling out of the League of Nations heralded much without saying anything. The failure of the Disarmament Conference because of Britain insisting on being allowed police action and Hitler insisting on Germany being allowed the same army and navy size as every other nation was ominous. As other sources have said, the Spanish Civil War was the breeding ground for Blitzkrieg.

I don't know what any of this says about Nehru. These bunch of letters doesn't tell me much about him. They tell me he was an intelligent man, but I knew that. They also tell me he was against Fascism and supported Democracy over it. Another detail revealed is that he considered these devlopments grave threats to the Soviet Union. That doesn't really surprise me. I would have been startled had no mention of Soviet Russia come up. They tell me he was outrightly disdainful of the private armament industry. While I can see why, I also see that successful military-industrial complexes have been vital in putting new technologies in the hands of the people.

Nehru's biases are plain. While none of them surprise me anymore, I feel his instinct when it came to certain things (like private armaments) was quite wrong. Nehru in the 1930s needed more nuance in his life.

Day 28

I took a mighty leap and finished the remaining letters and postscript today, and to be honest, there's not much left to say which hasn't already been said.

That said, there's one very interesting thing which stuck out at me. Nehru wasn't particularly impressed with Roosevelt. President Roosevelt's programme, Nehru says, is impressive, but he is a virtual dictator in America. Of course, Nehru isn't the first one to say this, Roosevelt has been accused of being dictatorial by many. Yet, the United States did not drift towards Fascism because of him: it renewed its faith in Democracy - something Nehru himself notes later.

But the most interesting letter in this one is the one in which Nehru talks about the decline of parliaments. He bemoans the decline of parliamentary democracy in England. Is he correct? Perhaps he is, perhaps he isn't. There is a book called Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy which deals with this question. Unfortunately, I haven't had the time to go through it properly: the book requires making notes, which I might publish on this blog later. However, from the little bits I have seen, democracy in England has been remarkably successful in doing explicitly what Nehru says it wasn't able to do: delegate power to the lower classes when the need and time arose. It was almost uniquely successful at it, as compared to France or (shudder) Germany.

At the same time, England's habitual capitulation whenever pressed by Germany points to something else. Nehru identifies it as class interests subordinating national interests. Perhaps it was so. Perhaps Neville Chamberlain wilfully blinded himself to Hitler's true nature. However, Nehru seems to forget that the political class in England was fairly sympathetic not towards Fascism, but towards the German people and state as a whole: there was an understanding that Germany was treated most unfairly by the Allies in the Treaty of Versailles. I am less sure about the sympathies of the British public, of course.

Nehru also points towards the exploitation of Africa. He does so in few words: at some point I'm fairly sure that Nehru's view of the African interior was less complete than ours, and yet he identifies the actions of the various colonisers in the continent with great precision and his words drip with sympathy. His identification of the excesses committed towards the nations and peoples of Africa by the colonising powers rings sincere.

Nehru's disgust towards Fascism is intense. He holds it to be a legitimate form of government, a common sentiment in those times[6], albeit one which needs to be resisted as much as possible. The Soviet Union is presented as the last resort against European Fascism. To be frank, had Britain not held on (and despite the fact that it did), the Soviet Union was one of the last redoubts against the horrors of Fascism. In the long run was the cure worse than the disease? It's impossible to say for sure. The greater evil between Stalin and Hitler can not truly be evaluated: it's like asking who was the truer prophet Jesus or Mohammad. Nehru does not even attempt to address this. While he points out that certain purges were committed in the Soviet Union, he rushes to defend them.[7]

Nehru deals with a rather interesting question in these letters, one which we grapple with today as well. Is capitalism a means to end democracy? Does democracy end with the increasing pressure of shareholder capitalism? I think the short answer is "no", but this is an answer which remains true only until it doesn't. Nehru's thinking of rational communism overtaking irrational market dynamics to create a new utopia seems, in hindsight, a fallacy. It seems that the association of Great Britain and imperialism with the free market seems to have engendered a pathological hatred of Nehru towards it: a hatred which seems to have pushed him towards communism.


So, at the end of nearly a year and a half of interrupted reading and 1200 pages wiser, what conclusions can we draw about Nehru? In no great order, my conclusions are the following:

  • Nehru was as captivated by the great men of history as any of us are. Not only is it highly understandable, it makes Nehru a highly relatable man
  • Nehru was a true empath when it came to the suffering of the poor. He understood what they were going through, and he tried to stand with them at the cost of his own privilege. This is extremely rare, and I genuinely find very few people who can do this and become as successful leaders as Nehru was
  • He was highly intelligent to the point of coming close to being a renaissance man. Despite all the critique I have lavished upon him, I find myself an admirer of his eloquence, in-depth understanding, and drive to learn more
  • He was a man with the scientific spirit. The caveat being political science, where emotion (rightly or wrongly, one cannot say) binds him to communism
  • This brings us to his love of communism: at times understandable, yet mostly annoying, Nehru's love of communism causes me to wonder at the pull of an idea. How can communism, specifically Soviet communism get so many admirers?
  • He hated Great Britain. It wasn't anything personal, but what it did to India was something he could not stand
  • He was tolerant. Nehru believed in many things, but like Voltaire, he would defend to his last your right to say anything
  • There was a touch of Hindu nationalism in him. Perhaps one of the most surprising conclusions I've come to, but Nehru was more sympathetic to Hindu Nationalism than he was to Muslim Nationalism

But more than all of these conclusions, Nehru was one of the most humane people to have guided India. He truly wanted the world to be better, and he truly wanted India to remove from itself the shackles of poverty, injustice and tradition. Truly a fine man to learn about.

  1. As an aside, only time was going to tell how true his statement was. In essence, Nehru was both right and wrong: those republics modernised for sure, but remained at their core feudal areas, ruled over by dictators. I'm sure Nehru would be saddened by their post-Soviet path. ↩︎

  2. Justified in this case, I reckon? ↩︎

  3. This seems to be a common refrain throughout the modern age. Cheap Japanese Imports leading to problems with the leading powers of the day. Britain has faced it, and the United States would later face the same. ↩︎

  4. As an aside, I don't think I've heard a more apt description. Hitler truly demolished a proud people and reduced their old culture to dust. Not having studied this period, I do not know how much of German and Japanese culture is Western creation, but my instinct is a lot. The abolition of Prussia, for one, seems to have fundamentally changed German character. Probably for the better. ↩︎

  5. A curious non-Indian might be interested to know that this is something regularly expressed by Indian intelligentsia. I use that word loosely, of course. Anyone who wishes India to be anything like Nazi Germany cannot be called intelligent or knowledgeable. ↩︎

  6. As an aside judging Nehru with modern sensibilities is difficult in of itself. One expects him to know better, or even if he did not know, one expects him to at least try to know better. ↩︎

  7. The points at which Nehru is an apologist for the Soviets are the worst to read: not only because they taint and tarnish my image of him, but because it makes me feel that Nehru did not want to think about certain issues he took for granted. He was of the camp that socialism was going to be the next form of social evolution, and he stuck to this. At this point, at least, Nehru seems to have followed in the footsteps of Chamberlain, footsteps he disdained thoroughly. ↩︎