Thoughts on economics and liberty

Nehru’s views about India’s pre-independence Liberal Party

From his autobiography (I’ve OCRd from here). The text here, analysis later when time permits. I understand the liberals were very upset with this mis-characterisation of their ideology and efforts – but that’s something for another day.



During my visit to Poona to see Gandhiji, I accompanied him one evening to the Servants of India Society’s home. For an hour or so questions were put to him on political matters by some of the members of the Society, and he answered them. Mr. Srinivasa Sastri, the President of the Society, was not there, nor was Pandit Hriday Nath Kunzru, probably the ablest of the other members, but some senior members were present. A few of us who were present on the occasion listened with growing amazement, for the questions related to the most trivial of happenings. Mostly they dealt with Gandhiji’s old request for an interview with the Viceroy and the Viceroy’s refusal. Was this the only important subject they could think of in a world full of problems, and when their own country was carrying on a hard struggle for freedom and hundreds of organisations were outlawed? There was the agrarian crisis and the industrial depression causing widespread unemployment. There were the dreadful happenings in Bengal and the Frontier and in other parts of India, the suppression of freedom of thought, and speech and writing and assembly ; and so many other national and international problems. But the questions were limited to unimportant happenings, and the possible reactions of the Viceroy and the Government of India to an approach by Gandhiji.

I had a strong feeling as if I had entered a monastery, the inhabitants of which had long been cut off from effective contact with the outside world. And yet our friends were active politicians, able men with long records of public service and sacrifice. They formed, with a few others, the real backbone of the Liberal Party. The rest of the Party was a vague, amorphous lot of people, who wanted occasionally to have the sensation of being connected with political activities. Some of these, especially in Bombay and Madras, were indistinguishable from Government officials.

The questions that a country puts are a measure of that country’s political development. Often the failure of that country is due to the fact that it has not put the right question to itself. Our wasting our time and energy and tempers over the communal distribution of seats, or our forming parties on the Communal Award and carrying on a sterile controversy about it to the exclusion of vital problems, is a measure of our political backwardness. In the same way the questions that were put to Gandhiji that day in the Servants of India Society’s home mirrored the strange mental state of that Society and of the Liberal Party. They seemed to have no political or economic principles, no wide outlook, and their politics seemed to be of the parlour or court variety—what high officials would do or would not do.

One is apt to be misled by the name ‘Liberal Party’. The word elsewhere, and especially in England, stood for a certain economic policy—free trade and laisser-faire, etc.—and a certain ideology of individual freedom and civil liberties. The English Liberal tradition was based on economic foundations. The desire for freedom in trade and to be rid of the King’s monopolies and arbitrary taxation, led to the desire for political liberty. The Indian Liberals have no such background. They do not believe in free trade, being almost all protectionists, and they attach little importance to civil liberties as recent events have shown. Their close contacts with and general support of the semi-feudal and autocratic Indian States, where even the beginnings of democracy and personal freedom are non- existent, also distinguish them from the European type of Liberal. Indeed the Indian Liberals are not liberal at all in any sense of the word, or at most they are liberal only in spots and patches. What they exactly are it is difficult to say, for they have no firm positive basis of ideas, and, though small in numbers, differ from one another. They are strong only in negation. They see error everywhere and attempt to avoid it, and hope that in doing so they will find the truth. Truth for them indeed always lies between two extremes. By criticising everything they consider extreme, they experience the feeling of being virtuous and moderate and good. This method helps them in avoiding painful and difficult processes of thought and in having to put forward constructive ideas. Capitalism, some of them vaguely feel, has not wholly succeeded in Europe, and is in trouble; on the other hand socialism is obviously bad, because it attacks vested interests. Probably some mystic solution will be found in the future, some half-way house, and meanwhile vested interests should be protected. If there was an argument as to whether the earth was flat or round, probably they would condemn both these extreme views and suggest tentatively that it might be square or elliptical.

Over trivial and unimportant matters they grow quite excited, and there is an amazing amount of houha and shouting. Consciously and sub-consciously they avoid tackling fundamental issues, for such issues require fundamental remedies and the courage of thought and action. Hence Liberal defeats and victories are of little consequence. They relate to no principle. The leading characteristic of the Party and the distinguishing feature, if it can be considered so, is thus moderation in everything, good or bad. It is an outlook on life and the old name—the Moderates—was perhaps the most suitable.

“In moderation placing all my glory While Tories call me Whig and Whigs a Tory.” (Alexander Pope.)

But moderation, however admirable it might be, is not a bright and scintillating virtue. It produces dullness, and so the Indian Liberals have unhappily become a ‘Dull Brigade ‘— sombre and serious in their looks, dull in their writing and conversation, and lacking in humour. Of course there are exceptions, and the most notable of these is Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru who, in his personal life, is certainly not dull or lacking in humour and who enjoys even a joke against himself. But on the whole the Liberal group represents bourgeoisdom in excelsis with all its pedestrian solidity. The Leader of Allahabad, which is the leading Liberal newspaper, had a revealing editorial note last year. It stated that great and unusual men had always brought trouble to the world, and therefore it preferred the ordinary, mediocre kind of man. With a fine and frank gesture it nailed its flag to mediocrity.

Moderation and conservatism and a desire to avoid risks and sudden changes are often the inevitable accompaniments of old age. They do not seem quite so appropriate in the young, but ours is an ancient land, and sometimes its children seem to be born tired and weary, with all the lack-lustre and marks of age upon them. But even this old country is now convulsed by the forces of change, and the moderate outlook is bewildered. The old world is passing, and all the sweet reasonableness of which the Liberals are capable does not make any difference; they might as well argue with the hurricane or the flood or the earthquake. Old assumptions fail them, and they dare not seek for new ways of thought and action. Dr. A. N. Whitehead, speaking of the European tradition, says: ” The whole of this tradition is warped by the vicious assumption that each generation will substantially live amid the conditions governing the lives of its fathers, and will transmit those conditions to mould with equal force the lives of its children. We are living in the first period of human history for which the assumption is false. Dr. Whitehead errs on the side of moderation in his analysis, for probably that assumption has always been untrue. If the European tradition has been conservative, how much more so has ours been? But the mechanics of history pay little attention to these traditions when the time for change comes. We watch helplessly and blame others for the failure of our plans. And that, as Mr. Gerald Heard points out, is the ” most disastrous of illusions, the projection that convinces itself that any failure in one’s plans must be due not to a mistake in one’s own thinking, but to a deliberate thwarting by some one else.”

All of us suffer from this terrible illusion. I sometimes think that Gandhiji is not free from it. But we act at least and try to keep in touch with life, and by trial and error sometimes lessen the power of the illusion and stumble along. But the Liberals suffer most. For they do not act for fear of acting wrongly, they do not move for fear of falling, they keep away from all healthy contacts with the masses, and sit enchanted and self-hypnotised in their mental cells. Mr. Srinivasa Sastri warned his fellow-Liberals a year and a half ago not to ” stand by and let things pass.” That warning had greater truth in it than he himself probably realised. Thinking always in terms of what the Government did, he was referring to the constitutional changes that were being hatched by various official committees. But the misfortune of the Liberals had been that they stood by and let things pass when their own people were marching ahead. They feared their own masses, and they preferred to alienate themselves from these masses rather than fall out with our rulers. Was it any wonder that they became strangers in their own land, and life went by and left them standing? When fierce struggles were waged for life and freedom by their countrymen, there was no doubt on which side of the barricade the Liberals stood. From the other side of that barricade they gave us good advice, and were full of moral platitudes, laying them on thick like sticky paint. Their cooperation with the British Government in the round table conferences and committees was a moral factor of value to the Government. A denial of it would have made a difference. It was remarkable that at one of these conferences even the British Labour Party kept away; not so our Liberals, who went in spite of an appeal by some Britishers to them not to do so.

We are all moderates or extremists in varying degrees, and for various objects. If we care enough for anything we are likely to feel strongly about it, to be extremist about it. Otherwise we can afford a gracious tolerance, a philosophical moderation, which really hides to some extent our indifference. I have known the mildest of Moderates to grow very aggressive and extremist when a suggestion was made for the sweeping away of certain vested interests in land. Our Liberal friends represent to some extent the prosperous and well-to-do. They can afford to wait for Swaraj, and need not excite themselves about it. But any proposal for radical social change disturbs them greatly, and they are no longer moderate or sweetly reasonable about it. Thus their moderation is really confined to their attitude towards the British Government, and they nurse the hope that if they are sufficiently respectful and compromising perhaps, as a reward for this behaviour, they might be listened to. Inevitably they have to accept the British view-point. Blue books become their passionate study, Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice and such-like books their constant companions, a new Government Report a matter for excitement and speculation. Liberal leaders returning from England make mysterious statements about the doings of the great ones in Whitehall, for Whitehall is the Valhalla of Liberals, Responsivists and other similar groups. In the old days it was said that good Americans when they died went to Paris, and it may be that the shades of good Liberals sometimes haunt the precincts of Whitehall.

I write of Liberals, but what I write applies to many of us also in the Congress. It applies even more to the Responsivists, who have outdistanced the Liberals in their moderation. There is a great deal of difference between the average Liberal and the average Congressman, and yet the dividing line is not clear and definite. Ideologically there is little to choose between the advanced Liberal and the moderate Congressman. But, thanks to Gandhiji, every Congressman has kept some touch with the soil and the people of the country, and he has dabbled in action, and because of this he has escaped some of the consequences of a vague and defective ideology. Not so the Liberals: they have lost touch with both the old and the new. As a group they represent a vanishing species.

Most of us, I suppose, have lost the old pagan feeling and not gained the new insight. Not for us to ” have sight of Proteus rising from the sea “; or ” hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.” And very few of us are fortunate enough-

” To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.”

Not for most of us, unhappily, to sense the mysterious life of Nature, to hear her whisper close to our ears, to thrill and quiver at her touch. Those days are gone. But though we may not see the sublime in Nature as we used to, we have sought to find it in the glory and tragedy of humanity, in its mighty dreams and inner tempests, its pangs and failures, its conflicts and misery, and, over all this, its faith in a great destiny and a realisation of those dreams. That has been some recompense for us for all the heart-breaks that such a search involves, and often we have been raised above the pettiness of life. But many have not undertaken this search, and having cut themselves adrift from the ancient ways, find no road to follow in the present. They neither dream nor do they act. They have no understanding of human convulsions like the great French Revolution or the Russian Revolution. The complex, swift and cruel eruptions of human desires, long suppressed, frighten them. For them the Bastille has not yet fallen.

It is often said with righteous indignation that ” Patriotism is not a monopoly of Congressmen.” The same phrase is repeated again and again with a lack of originality which is somewhat distressing. I hope no Congressman has ever claimed a corner in this emotion. Certainly I do not think it is a Congress monopoly, and I would be glad to make a present of it to any one who desired it. It is often enough the refuge of the opportunist and the careerist, and there are so many varieties of it to suit all tastes, all interests, all classes. If Judas had been alive to-day he would no doubt act in its name. Patriotism is no longer enough: we want something higher, wider and nobler.

Nor is moderation enough by itself. Restraint is good and is the measure of our culture, but behind that restraint there must be something to restrain and hold back. It has been, and is, man’s destiny to control the elements, to ride the thunderbolt, to bring the raging fire and the rushing and tumbling waters to his use, but most difficult of all for him has been to restrain and hold in check the passions that consume him. So long as he will not master them, he cannot enter fully into his human heritage. But are we to restrain the legs that move not and the hands that are palsied?

I cannot resist the temptation to quote four lines of Roy Campbell’s, written on some South African novelists. They seem to be equally applicable to various political groups in India :

“They praise the firm restraint with which you write. I’m with you there, of course.

You use the snaffle and the curb all right,

But where’s the bloody horse? ”

Our Liberal friends tell us that they follow the narrow path of the golden mean, and steer themselves between the extremes of the Congress and the Government. They constitute themselves the judges of the failings of both, and congratulate themselves that they are free from either. They endeavour to hold the scales and, like the figure of Justice, I suppose, they keep their eyes closed or bandaged. Is it my fancy merely that takes me back through the ages and makes me listen to that famous cry : ” Scribes and Pharisees…. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat and swallow a camel! “

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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2 thoughts on “Nehru’s views about India’s pre-independence Liberal Party
  1. Dr. Pawan Kumar Aryan

    Postmodern Indian liberal phenomenon is altogether bereft of feudal protectionism.

    But level playing field is antagonistic to capitalist exploitation. Hence liberty is in jeopardy.

    Nehru was neither wrong nor right in absence of adequate social components.


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