Jawaharlal Nehru: Tryst with delusion

Jawaharlal Nehru: Tryst with delusion

Note :Following is an extract from the author’s book How India’s Intellectuals Spread Lies

The genesis of most political and economic problems India faces today can be traced to Jawaharlal Nehru. And he was the quintessential intellectual.This is not to say that he was a bad man. In fact, Nehru can justly be called a good man: he was a scholar with varied interests and wide sympathies; he was an accomplished writer; as a politician, he was neither tyrannical nor venal, traits so common among successful leaders in Third World countries in the second half of the twentieth century. He was an intellectual who succeeded in politics. That was his biggest problem. It also became the nation’s biggest problem.

As described in the opening chapter, an intellectual is a person who downplays the importance of empirical evidence and wants to change the world relying solely, or primarily, on intellect. And, as Sartre said, there cannot be an intellectual “without his being Leftwing”. Nehru certainly was Left-wing, as is evident from his various writings and the policies that he imposed on the nation as its first Prime Minister.

In his article, “Swaraj and Socialism” (1928), he wrote: “Capitalism necessarily leads to exploitation of one man by another, one group by another, and one country by another. If, therefore, we are opposed to this [British] imperialism and exploitation, we must also be opposed to capitalism. The only alternative that is offered to us is some form of socialism.”

Nothing could be farther from the truth. For, as authors like Ayn Rand have pointed out, capitalism is the only system known to mankind that is free of exploitation. Socialism, on the other hand, leads to subjugation of individual life and liberty to the state. Unfortunately, communists have been quite successful in selling their lie that “capitalism necessarily leads to exploitation”. Communists succeeded because they relentlessly indulged in guilt-mongering and by making argument with abuse. Few thinkers and writers have garnered the courage to expose the lie; intellectuals have generally peddled this lie; Nehru too was among the purveyors of the communist lie.

The fact is that there is no exploitation in capitalism. It is the only system in which people industrialists and workers, employers and employees, farmers and commodity traders are free to buy and sell their services and goods at prices that are (objectively) determined by the market. In no other system do human beings enjoy such freedom: in feudalism the huge masses of people are treated as chattel by a handful of land-owning lords; communism ends up killing millions of people in the name of setting up a proletarian paradise and glorifying thugs like Stalin and Mao; fascism created Auschwitz and Dachau. Market economy, on the hand, offers freedom and prosperity.

According to Rand, “Capitalism has created the highest standard of living ever known on earth. The evidence is incontrovertible. The contrast between West and East Berlin is the latest demonstration, like a laboratory experiment for all to see. Yet those who are loudest in proclaiming their desire to eliminate poverty are loudest in denouncing capitalism. Man’s well-being is not their goal.”

[pullquote]The genesis of most political and economic problems India faces today can be traced to Jawaharlal Nehru.[/pullquote]

Obviously, Rand wrote this before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany into a market economy. Of course, in capitalism there are people who do very well and there are people who barely manage to survive. Indeed, there are huge disparities between wealth and income. But these are the complexities of human existence.


God or nature has not been egalitarian in distributing His or its bounties on mankind: some of us are good-looking, others are not; some of us are intelligent and bright, others are not; many of us are diligent, whereas others have little capacity for work; some of us enjoy a long, healthy life without taking good care of our bodies, whereas other people get afflicted with diseases for no fault of theirs; and long goes the list of good and bad qualities that seem to have been unevenly distributed among men and women.

Most of us accept such arbitrariness as a given in life, as fait accompli. But when it comes to the distribution of wealth and income in capitalist society, we are unable or unwilling to accept inequality as a given. And among us, intellectuals find it extremely difficult to accept that capitalism is the natural system, which truly reflects the vicissitudes of life in its entirety. They look for alternatives, a search which takes them to the deserts of intellectualism; they end up chasing one mirage or the other; usually the mirage of socialism fascinates them. Nehru was no different. He also sought and found refuge in socialism. Hence his conviction, “The only alternative that is offered to us is some form of socialism.”

Then, too, intellectuals suffer from the arrogance of believing that they can improve every thing around them. Thus, “the existing order” irritated Nehru; he was interested in “the great building-up of a socialized society”. For this grand purpose, “the major obstructions have thus to be removed.” He was against the “present economic system” because he felt it was causing the “destruction [of] vast numbers of human beings.”

He got it all wrong. It was not capitalism that was leading to the destruction of men and societies when he wrote these lines in 1936. Two major events, the First World War (1914-18) and the economic depression a decade later, were largely responsible for the down slide in economy and living conditions at that time. As far as India and other colonies were concerned, it was, in fact, the absence of capitalism, and not its presence, that was responsible for their dismal economic and social conditions.

But Nehru’s problem was that he, like other intellectuals, had blindly accepted the Leninist dogma that imperialism was the final stage of capitalism and thus the culprit which needed to be thrown out root and branch was capitalism. In fact, it was not just socialist economy that enchanted Nehru; he accepted the entire socialist ideology hook, line, and sinker. In his presidential address to the Indian National Congress in Lucknow on April 12, 1936, he said:

I am convinced that the only key to the solution of the world’s problem and of India’s problem lies in socialism, and when I use this word I do not do so in a vague humanitarian way but in the scientific economic sense. Socialism is, however, something even more than an economic doctrine; it is a philosophy of life and as such also it appeals to me. I see no way of ending the poverty, the vast unemployment, the degradation and subjection of the Indian people except through socialism. This involves vast and revolutionary changes in our political and social structure, the ending of vested interests in land and industry, as well as the feudal and autocratic Indian states system.

This means the ending of private property, except in a restricted sense, and the replacement of the present profit system by a higher ideal of co-operative service. In short, it means a new civilization, radically different from the present capitalist order. Some glimpse we can have of this new civilization in the territories of the USSR . . . If the future is full of hope it is largely because of Soviet Russia and what it has done, and I am convinced that, if some world catastrophe does not intervene, this new civilization will spread to other lands and put an end to the wars and conflicts which capitalism feeds on. (emphasis added)

I wonder how Mahatma Gandhi and the supposedly Right-wing Congress leaders like Sardar Patel and Gobind Vallabh Pant allowed such loose talk of ending private property, revolutionary changes in politics and society at a gathering of the most important political party of the time, and let it pass without rebuttal. What is interesting is that such pompous homilies came at a time when Stalin, in his endeavor to introduce “vast and revolutionary changes” in the Soviet Union, had already murdered his own millions of peasants and people. Collectivization of agriculture proved to be catastrophic not only for farmers but all of Russia. Even an apologist for the Left, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, has been forced to admit the reality of man-made famines in Stalinist Russia.

Objective observers and researchers have presented a much more horrific picture of Stalinist Russia. Anne Applebaum is one such scholar who has meticulously studied Stalin’s Russia. Her book, Gulag: A History, narrates the history of the Soviet concentration camps system and describes his daily life in such camps. It makes extensive use of recently opened Russian archives, as well as various memoirs and interviews. Gulag: A History won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, as well as Britain’s Duff-Cooper Prize. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the LA Times Book Award, and the Samuel Johnson Prize. It has appeared, or is due to appear, in more than two dozen translations, including all major East and West European languages. Speaking about the celebrated book at a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute on May 12, 2003, Applebaum said:

Thanks to archives, we now know, for example that there were at least 476 camp systems, each one made up of hundreds, even thousands of individual camps or lagpunkts, sometimes spread out over thousands of square miles of otherwise empty tundra. We know that the vast majority of prisoners in them were peasants and workers, not the intellectuals who later wrote memoirs and books. We know that with a few exceptions, the camps were not constructed in order to kill people Stalin preferred to use firing squads to conduct mass executions. Nevertheless they were, at times, very lethal: nearly one quarter of the Gulag’s prisoners died during the war years. They were also very fluid: Prisoners left because they died, because they escaped, because they had short sentences, because they were being released into the Red Army or because they had been promoted, from prisoner to guard. There were also frequent amnesties for the old, the ill, pregnant women, and anyone else no longer useful to the forced labor system. These releases were invariably followed by new waves of arrests.

As a result, between 1929, when they first became a mass phenomenon, and 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, some 18 million passed through them. In addition, a further 6 or 7 million people were deported, not to camps but to exile villages. In total, that means the number of people with some experience of imprisonment, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, could have run as high as 25 million, about 15 per cent of the population.

This was the reality of what Nehru called a “new civilization”. Stalin had converted his entire country into a prison. As Applebaum said, “In the Soviet Union of the 1940s, the decade the camps reached their zenith, it would have been difficult, in many places, to go about your daily business and not run into prisoners.”

In the Soviet Union, where Nehru thought “the future is full of hope”, the bureaucrats and guards of concentration camps did not regard the inmates as fellow citizens, not even as human beings. According to Applebaum:

In fact, this was an extremely powerful ideological combinationthe disregarding of the humanity of prisoners, combined with the overwhelming need to fulfill the Plan. And nowhere is this clearer than in the camp inspection reports, submitted periodically by local prosecutors, and now kept neatly on file in the Moscow archives. When I first began to read them I was shocked, at first, both by their frankness and by the peculiar kind of outrage they express. Describing conditions in Volgolag, a railroad construction camp in Tatarstan in July 1942, one inspector complained, for example, that: “the whole population of the camp, including free workers, lives off flour. The only meal for prisoners is so-called ‘bread’ made from flour and water, without meats or fats.” As a result, the inspector went on indignantly, there were high rates of illness, particularly scurvyand, not surprisingly, the camp was failing to meet its production norms.

So much for the future that Nehru thought was “full of hope”. It’s not that communist barbarity was unknown to the outside world. As Applebaum said: [This para is the main text; the following one Applebaum’s

In fact, in the 1920s, a great deal was known in the West about the bloodiness of Lenin’s revolution. Western socialists, many of whose brethren had been jailed by the Bolsheviks, protested loudly and strongly against the crime of the Russian revolution. In the 1930s, however, as Americans became more interested in learning how socialism could be applied here, the tone changed. Writers and journalists went off to the USSR, trying to learn lessons they could use at home. The New York Times employed a correspondent, Walter Duranty, who lauded the five-year plan and argued, against all evidence, that it was a massive success and won a Pulitzer Prize for doing so.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, a part of the Western Left struggled to explain and sometimes to excuse the camps, and the terror, which created them, precisely because they wanted to try some aspects of the Soviet experiment at home. In 1936, after millions of Soviet peasants had died of famine, and millions more were in camps or in exile, the British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb published a vast survey of the Soviet Union, which explained, among other things, how the “downtrodden Russian peasant is gradually acquiring a sense of political freedom”.

Jawaharlal Nehru was little different from the Webbs and other Leftists; he too chose to either ignore or deny the unpleasant aspects of socialism. Quite obviously, he must have dubbed as communists did such horror stories as “bourgeois propaganda”.

Fortunately, unlike Stalin and Mao, Nehru was neither relentless nor bloodthirsty. Perhaps it was his association with Gandhi that ensured that he never used brute force to implement socialism. For instance, he did not collectivize agriculture as had been done in Bolshevik Russia and Red China.

He did insist on “joint farming”; he preferred “relatively small co-operatives comprising one or two or three villages”. His predilection for planning also led to the excessive controls in agriculture, as also in other sectors of the economy. But, as he wrote in an article in National Herald (October 3, 1957), “I have no doubt that joint farming, wherever possible and agreed to, will be good, but it must be clearly understood that this can be no imposition and can only be brought in by the agreement of the parties.”

[pullquote]As Applebaum said, “In the Soviet Union of the 1940s, the decade the camps reached their zenith, it would have been difficult, in many places, to go about your daily business and not run into prisoners.”[/pullquote]

The results of Nehruvian socialism were not barbarous or catastrophic, like in Russia and China. It did not end up in killing millions, but it surely arrested and subverted India’s economic growth and led to a bleak economic future for at least two successive generations; even 58 years after Independence. This is reflected in India per capita income of $600, even 58 years after Independence, whereas small and less-endowed nations like South Korea and Taiwan boasted of per capita incomes in excess of $14,000. Socialism in India has created rot, chaos, and rampant cynicism.

Worse, it has spawned an essentially parasitic intellectual class that thrives on this discredited ideology. This class infests academia, and much of the opinion-making apparatus. It has vitiated the education system and perverted public discourse. It is the biggest roadblock the nation is facing in the path to progress. Nowhere does this class make its obnoxious presence felt as vociferously as at state-coddled institutions such as the Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, inarguably the most Left-infested institution in the country.

The same intellectual class remains wedded to another leitmotif of Nehruvian ideology: anti-Americanism. Such is the hypocrisy and duplicity of intellectuals that while they secretly desire to go to America for studying or teaching, as both activities increase their market value in Indiathey are also the loudest in their denunciation of the US for its real and imaginary sins. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Nehru himself was not as anti-American as are his ideological and political progeny. In fact, his anti-Americanism can also be seen as a consequence of his fascination for the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, the Non-Aligned Movement, of which Nehru was one of the progenitors, always had a pro-Soviet and anti-US tilt. Under his successors, the tilt became more prominent. In short, we can say that Nehruvian socialism had strong links with non-alignment.

The period in which Nehru’s postulates, thoughts, beliefs, and ideas were being formedthe early decades of the twentieth centurywas the era in which socialism exerted a strong influence on the minds of many world leaders, especially leaders of newly independent countries. So, his fascination for socialism was not surprising. What is surprising is that Nehru so decisively turned his back on the English tradition.

For few contemporary Indians were as Anglicized as he was. He had lived in England, and had imbibed many of English values and ideals. Indeed, he has been calledby his admirers and detractors alikethe “last Englishman” to have ruled India. Yet, he gave up the most important concept of Anglican liberty and embraced the idea of French or Gallican liberty. The great twentieth century philosopher, Fredrich Hayek, made the contradistinction between the two concepts of liberty:

 . . . development of a theory of liberty took place mainly in the eighteenth century. It began in two countries, England and France. The first of these [Anglican] knew liberty; the second [Gallican] did not.
    As a result, we have had to the present day two different traditions in the theory of liberty: one empirical and unsystematic, the other speculative and rationalisticthe first based on an interpretation of traditions and institutions which had spontaneously grown up and were but imperfectly understood, the second aiming at the construction of a utopia, which has often been tried but never successfully.Nevertheless, it has been the rationalistic, plausible, and apparently logical argument of the French tradition, with its flattering assumptions about the unlimited powers of human reason, that has progressively gained influence, while the less articulate and less explicit tradition of English freedom has been on the decline.

Hayek is not very accurate when he talks about “the less articulate and less explicit tradition of English freedom”. For the English tradition has been extremely articulate and explicit, as evident from the writings of major philosophers and writers. And it was in the Anglo-Saxon tradition that the prerequisites of the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity were fashioned: individual liberty, limited government, and market economy. The marriage between liberty and order was made possible by the Anglo-Scottish enlightenment.

It is normally believed that Edmund Burke was the father of conservatism, and rightly so. However, it would be more appropriate to see him as somebody who articulated and defined Britishness, which epitomizes conservatism. Conservatism permeates British life, letters, philosophy, and attitude. It is present in empiricism as well as skepticism, the dominant streams of Anglo-Saxon philosophy. Locke is known as one of the founders of classical liberalism, but then it is little different from conservatism (It is only in the contemporary world that conservatives and liberals are in the opposing camps, with the latter leaning towards the Left).

The great skeptic, David Hume, adumbrated conservatism and specifically targeted Continental rationalism, especially that of Descartes. While Descartes generates his philosophy from an indubitable cogito or intellect, Hume was disdainful of intellect-oriented systems.

In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume criticized Continental philosophers for considering “man in the light of a reasonable rather than an active being, and endeavor to form his understanding more than cultivate his manners. They regard human nature as a subject of speculation . . . They think it a reproach to all literature, that philosophy should not yet have fixed, beyond controversy, the foundation of morals, reasoning, and falsehood, vice and virtue, beauty and deformity, without being able to determine the source of these distinctions. While they attempt this arduous task, they are deterred by no difficulties; but proceeding from particular instances to general principles, they still push on their enquiries to principles more general, and rest not satisfied till they arrive at those original principles, by which in every science, human curiosity must be bounded . . . .”

The fact that Hume’s enquiry was published in 1748, exactly a century before the “Communist Manifesto”, underlines the prescience of this great skeptic. Hume’s and other British authors’ critiques of abstract ideologies immeasurably enriched the Anglo-Saxon tradition.

Unfortunately for India, Nehru deserted the Anglo-Saxon tradition and flirted with the ideas that conjured up a socialist utopia. In this, as noted earlier, he was not alone. In the twentieth century, almost every politician in India undermined this great tradition. We became the biggest importers of ideologies, especially the Left-leaning ones; there is no ideology—from emotive nationalism to communism to Fabian socialism—that has not reached the Indian shores.

Besides, we had a good manufacturing base of our own—the pathologies of Gandhism, Sarvodaya, Swadeshi, Naxalism, etc. There is no other country in the world that can boast of so many ideologies. Worse, many of the ideologies have been implemented. Which makes India the most ideologically complicated country in the world.

[pullquote]Besides, we had a good manufacturing base of our own—the pathologies of Gandhism, Sarvodaya, Swadeshi, Naxalism, etc.[/pullquote]

Had Nehru not turned his back on the Anglo-Saxon tradition, had he tempered his enthusiasm for socialism with empiricism and skepticism—the two essentially distinctive features of the English tradition—he might have grown into a better scholar and a much greater leader, nation-builder, and statesman. Socialism corrupted him, as it corrupted myriad other fine men in the twentieth century. And this led to the squandering away of an unprecedented and unbroken political mandate the people of India so generously gave him during the formative decades of Independent India.


Ravi Shanker Kapoor

Ravi Shanker Kapoor is a journalist and author. He upholds freedom of expression, individual liberty, free market, and open society. He is an uncompromising opponent of Islamism, communism, and other totalitarian ideologies. He is also a critic of intellectuals, as evident from his third book, How India’s Intellectuals Spread Lies (Vision Books).