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This paper concerns the British Labour Party and its relationship with the defining figure of Indian nationalism: M. K. Gandhi. This relationship is usually regarded as close and supportive, thanks to the occasion recorded in the photograph above: Gandhi’s visit to Lancashire in 1931, where he was greeted with cheering crowds, despite the effects of the Indian nationalists’ cotton boycott on Lancashire exports.

Immediately before Gandhi’s takeover of Congress in 1920, the Labour Party had been on the verge of an alliance with Congress, mediated by B. G. Tilak and his allies. The alliance was based on some pledges concerning the plight of the Indian worker and peasant on the part of the Congress leaders, and a commitment to Indian self-determination on the part of Labour. Gandhi’s new direction for Congress, however, seemed much less familiar. There was the resort to boycott, which threatened British workers involved in export industries. There was also the resort to non-co-operation, a technique which the trade unions and the Labour Party thought should be used only sparingly and on important single issues, such as to counter the threat of war.

Above all, however, there were worries about how Gandhi garnered support. Congress under Gandhi clearly now had a mass base, which had worried Labour in the past. It was no longer possible to argue that it was an unrepresentative clique of westernised politicians. However, there were still worries about how this base had been acquired, and the relationship the Congress leaders had with it. Gandhi linked the political project of self-government to a religious movement of self-discipline – ‘swaraj’ meant both things – and his techniques motivated supporters through reworked conception of Hindu duties. Gandhian agitation thus gave expression to exactly those traditional and backward-looking forces which progressive and socialist British observers had believed precluded genuine democratic advance.

The price of Gandhian mobilisation, moreover, was a certain loss of control. Subaltern protest had its own logic and easily slipped out of the control of Congress leaders. This was most evident when participants abandoned non-violence for attacks on landlords, and also as Congress demonstrations changed from orderly marches of well-behaved petitioners into uncontrolled festivals characterised by the rowdy, undisciplined energies of the peasantry and urban poor. Insufficient leadership of the right type seemed to have been displayed by Gandhi and his associates.

In fact, closer inspection showed that great thought had been put by Gandhi into imposing discipline on the mass movement. Constitutions, rules and orders were developed to govern the conduct of non co-operators. However, the imposition of Gandhian discipline on the masses was not what Labour had envisaged when advising Congress leaders to base their movement on the demands of the worker and peasant. It reversed the proper relationship, as Labour saw it, between leaders and followers. The Congress leadership had not gone to the trouble of winning consent for their nationalist programme. The Indian peasantry was a resource to be mobilized by a Brahmanic elite using religious authority, for their own purposes. Gandhi himself did not stand for election. His leadership was, it seemed, completely unaccountable to anything except his own divine inspiration. Too much leadership of the wrong type seemed to have been displayed.

These differences deepened in the interwar years. The Gandhian Congress moved from respectability to agitation. The Labour Party moved in the opposite direction, as it abandoned direct action and brief spurts of ‘outsider’ industrial militancy in favour of the long slog of parliamentary politics and organized ‘insider’ pressure.

Through the 1920s, it became slowly clearer that Gandhi was not simply an agitator whose brief ascendancy had ended in 1922, but the defining figure of Indian nationalism. This revived the question briefly smothered by Tilak: was Congress really a modernising, progressive, even socialist, force, or not? As Congress demands were enlarged from swaraj (self-government) to purna swaraj (self-determination), moreover, this question became more urgent, for if India were to write its own constitution, the Indian poor would have to look to indigenous nationalists like Gandhi, and not British constitution-makers, for protection.

This especially troubled the British trade unions, who made their own enquiries into the Indian position in the mid 1920s. Visits were made by the Dundee MP Tom Johnston in 1925-6, Tom Shaw for the Textile International in 1926-7 and A. A. Purcell and Joseph Hallsworth for the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in 1927-8. India was industrialising, which created opportunities for some British industries, such as engineering, railways and shipbuilding. But industrial competition with an unorganised labour force and atrocious working conditions was more threatening to the British worker. Indian trade unions were often run by Congress lawyers, and used to exert political pressure on British rule, rather than economic pressure on an exploitative employer class.

Thus although the TUC sent money to support Indian workers in their industrial disputes and lobbied the India Office with the demands of the All-India TUC, its support for the political aspirations of the trade unionists was more conditional. It accepted that, under colonialism, the national struggle necessarily preoccupied the Indian unions and that they were right to attack the legal and practical restrictions on labour organization imposed by the raj. At the same time, they had to maintain their independence and build their internal strength for a larger struggle, against the landlords and capitalists who, increasingly, were taking control of Congress. Gandhi’s attitude to the rich seemed worryingly untroubled.

When Gandhi visited Britain in 1931, he made a poor impression on British Labour leaders. The cheering crowds gave a misleading impression of their response. The cotton boycott was disliked , even though Gandhi blamed the raj for making it necessary. Trade union leaders suspected that the boycott was backed by the Bombay cotton millionaires for the same reason they wanted Indian freedom. Labour MPs were unpersuaded by Gandhi’s paternalist attitude to Indian workers, and his plans for the future of India, which favoured hand-spinning over factory work, and moralising and self-purification over union organization. While they could admire Gandhi’s ‘satyagraha’ (truth-struggle) as a fine example of personal spiritual growth, they found it much harder to see it as an adequate solution to the deep economic and communal problems of India.

In this respect, Gandhi’s visit was ill-timed. Labour’s sensitivity to questions of class interest was particularly raw. Only a few days before he met Labour MPs, Parliament had reassembled for the formalities of the end of the second Labour Government. Its first business thereafter had been an emergency budget and cuts in unemployment benefit even more drastic than those that had been dividing the party for months. At his first meeting with Labour MPs, therefore, Gandhi was subjected to some fairly rough questioning. There was incredulity about his attitude to machinery, the Middlesbrough MP Ellen Wilkinson demanding to know ‘if it was not a reactionary policy to refuse to use the inventions of science … [and] the human mind’, the effect of which was simply to keep India poor. But most of the points the Labour MPs raised concerned the Lancashire boycott and Congress’ attitude to questions of industrial relations. The Co. Durham MP Manny Shinwell told Gandhi that the Indian coal-owners were ‘much more reactionary and brutal to their employees than British coal-owners’ and that he wanted to know how Gandhi reconciled that with his claim that Britain exploited India. Gandhi replied that when he spoke about exploitation, he ‘was not thinking about these few thousand labourers in the coal-mines, or in the factories of Bombay or Calcutta’ but of India’s immensely larger rural population. The Indian coal-miners were ‘oppressed but … not starving’ like the villagers. Gandhi also insisted that the cotton boycott was designed only to serve the interests of these villagers in year-round employment. However, the anti-imperialist Norman Angell, now MP for Bradford North, pointed out that its likely effect was that Lancashire goods would be replaced by the products of the industrial mills of Bombay and Calcutta rather than home-spun cloth. The Sowerby MP and weavers’ leader, W. J. Tout asked Gandhi to deny the rumour that the boycott was paid for by the Bombay mill-owners for precisely this reason. Gandhi was unable to deny the financial involvement of the mill-owners, but claimed that the hand-spinners would be able to take them on and win when independence came. Another Labour MP asked Gandhi what the Indian villagers would answer if asked why they were led by Gandhi. Gandhi replied that he led them ‘because they could not express themselves [and] that he was expressing their aspirations for them’. ‘Bloody hopeless’ had been the verdict of Tout afterwards.

A second meeting, held at the National Labour Club, was little better. Here the questioning touched on the issue of communal tension in India. Asked whether he was not risking a communal war after a British withdrawal, Gandhi told the Labour MPs:

It is likely that we the Hindus and Muslims may fight one another if the British Army is withdrawn. Well, if such is to be our lot, I do not mind it. It is quite likely. Only if we don’t go through the ordeal now, it will simply be postponement of the agony and therefore, I personally do not mind it a bit and the whole of the Congress … has decided to run the risk of it. .. Did the British people themselves not run the maddest risks imaginable in order to retain their liberty? Did they not have the terrible Wars of the Roses?

There was little more reassurance for questioners eager to know Gandhi’s plans for Indian defence. Foreign rule, Gandhi announced, had fostered a ‘rot of emasculation’ which was worse than fighting. Invasion would therefore simply be met by non-co-operation with the invader. Gandhi, Dalton had already concluded after an earlier meeting, had ‘a terrible physical inferiority complex’ on this question.

Attlee, although he is not recorded as having spoken at these meetings, also had substantial reservations. He had told the Fabian Society earlier in the summer that there were three difficulties that a Socialist must encounter with the proposal to leave India. The first was the likely effect on the Indian economy, for the British, far from impoverishing the country, had created an artificial prosperity which would collapse into confusion and famine on their departure. Conditions in native-owned industry were worse than those in British-owned factories, and Indian trade unionism was ‘largely racketeering run by the lawyers’. The second difficulty was the question of defence, which Attlee continued to believe could not be transferred to Indian ministers without removing British officers, and thereby stripping it of all its senior ranks. Finally, there was the problem of religious minorities. The Moslems formed a kind of ‘diffused Ulster’. On the Hindu side, few inroads had been made into caste prejudice, and the Brahmins would certainly oppose democratic growth. The only solution was to attract the ‘best nationalists’ who, in Attlee’s view, were not the Gandhians but more moderate nationalists who were participating in provincial government. With franchise extensions, ‘unscrupulous lawyers’ would give way as ‘parties in the proletariat’ rose against them. But there could be no immediate clearing out of India: the result would be ‘the loss of the North-West Frontier and of the bulk of our Indian trade’.

On the eve of his departure, Gandhi was pressed by Labour’s Indian experts to come back into co-operation with the British. But Gandhi was no help at all. There was, he insisted, no real room for manoeuvre in what had been wrung from the Conservatives, and the Labour experts’ suggestions that he should welcome the prospect of future conference work merely revealed ‘the paralysis of the British mind’. Gandhi genuinely found the insincere politics of coalition, as the Labour experts explained them to him, simply incomprehensible. He could not see how MacDonald could make an equivocal declaration at the behest of the Conservatives and expect to please Congress at the same time. When Laski told Gandhi that some members of the coalition Cabinet did not support the use of repression in India, Gandhi snapped back `No? Then the members should resign. It is a sickening thing. It is positively horrid … If you remain silent in a matter of this kind you are guilty.’ This was no less than an irreducible clash of moralities. One of those present, the writer George Catlin, later wrote of the occasion:

Everyone was, I think, a little stiff and a little embarrassed. The politicians and worldly men did not know what might be said next. They might be asked whether they had been saved, as by a Salvationist…

I was impressed – impressed by the signs and wonders, by Gandhi as an unusual kind of politician; but I had, as yet, no insight…. Even some of those at the party … dismissed him as “too much of a Jesuit for them”. His religiosity offended their Fabian common sense, their Marxist prejudices, and indeed their Bloomsbury good taste … [A] god in a drawing room … [is] always liable to say things in bad taste… There is a collision of two worlds.

British interest in Gandhism in 1931, which was considerable, reflected neither sympathy nor hostility, but a desire to find a place for the seemingly anomalous Gandhi in the belief-systems and political world-views of the progressive left. Gandhi was not so alien that this task was impossible. Some aspects of his thinking were undoubtedly attractive, notably those which had been derived from familiar sources. Ruskin, for example, who had provided Gandhi with his belief in the dignity of labour and the necessity of service to the poor and marginalized, had also been one of the dominant influences on the thinking of the British left. Gandhi’s disparagement of western materialism, technology and uncritical scientific progress aroused distant echoes of similarly-inclined critiques by Edward Carpenter and other `new age’ critics, which had been influential in fin-de-siecle socialist circles. The popularising of Gandhi by Romain Rolland and others in the 1920s had also helped to assimilate Gandhi to dissident Christian traditions, especially the Franciscan one of poverty and service, which resonated among Christian Socialists and others influenced by Christianity. The Gandhian ashram seemed to offer an ideal of equality, simplicity and austerity and Gandhi himself the incorruptibility of a man of the people, an exemplar which had a special place in Labour mythology. His concern for the harijan was a useful counterweight to their suspicions of the entrenched caste system.

However, in the Labour Party of the interwar years, alternative visions of modernity and radical approaches to realising socialism and democracy, which had been quite prominent before 1914, had been marginalized, if not squeezed out altogether, in a drive for electoral growth and state power. While Gandhi’s personal integrity and commitment to social experiment could be admired, therefore, most thought his ideas too retrograde, anarchic or utopian for nation-building. British socialists favoured hierarchical, pyramidal political structures, in the interests of central planning. Villagers would have to make way for dams. But Gandhi wanted structures made up of ‘ever-widening , never ascending circles’ in which the village would resist control from the centre. His hostility to machines which displaced manual labour, for example, suggested an admirable concern for rural employment, and appealed to the dwindling numbers of ruralist or handicraft socialists in the William Morris tradition. But to the majority of British socialists, Gandhi’s ‘absurd economic dreams’, as Beatrice Webb termed them, offered no solution to the material impoverishment of the Indian peasant. Industrial modernisation, with its accompanying clash of class interests, was seen as quite inevitable if India was to be free. ‘Rejection of the machine is always founded on acceptance of the machine’, wrote George Orwell, ‘a fact symbolised by Gandhi as he plays with his spinning wheel in the mansion of some cotton millionaire.

Of course, many of Gandhi’s Indian critics agreed much of this critique, and certainly with its underlying assumptions. This made them, especially Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress Socialists, closer allies of the British left than Gandhi ever managed to be. But in making such alliances, they were neither willing nor able to disown Gandhi. While they disagreed with many of his beliefs, they were dependent on him to reach supporters and voters to whom their own ideals remained unintelligible. They were also in awe of him as a strategist. Congress leaders who hardly agreed with a word of Gandhian thinking on the questions that mattered most to Gandhi – spinning, self-purification, harijan uplift, and so on – nonetheless deferred to his leadership of political campaigns, even when he was not formally placed in charge of them. Thus Gandhian ideas and strategies, for all their novelty and complexity, remained the force-field within which Congress was policy was made even when Gandhi was not directing the campaign.

Such strategies seemed alien and unfamiliar to the British Labour Party. Non-co-operation had a legitimate, if limited, place in their armoury. But Gandhi used it as a technique for building and cementing a movement, rather than as a tactic of last resort. Labour’s preference was for the capture and use of legislative power and, above all, the exploitation of the opportunities that office-holding permitted for a party to strengthen its position. This was why, from the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms in 1919 to Stafford Cripps’ offer in 1942, Labour invariably advised Congress to stand for election or take office as a stepping stone to further advance. From Congress’s point of view, however, such offers looked more like traps rather than stepping stones. To step forward risked splitting the movement and diverting its energies, as occurred in the mid-1920s. Hence those who did enter the councils always kept one foot outside, and one eye on those who had not entered, above all on the irresponsible Congress Working Committee, and, of course, Gandhi.

Above all, Gandhi was an anti-politician. Labour had been able to work with Tilak in 1919, despite differences of view about India, because they shared with him a sense of how politics worked. Tilak had been mildly misleading about his commitment to socialism, and doubtless this, had he lived, would have become evident sooner or later. But this would not have wholly surprised his Labour friends, because they understood the business Tilak was engaged in. While Labour’s leaders did not altogether like it, they did understand it. Gandhi’s more principled refusals were harder to construe. ‘Politics is a game of worldly people and not of sadhus’, Tilak had told Gandhi reproachfully in 1920. But Gandhi was engaged in building a largely new form of sadhu politics much better adapted to the position of weakness in which Congress found itself. As Ashis Nandy observed, he ‘wanted to liberate the British as much as he wanted to liberate the Indians’, awakening dormant or undeveloped elements in their civilization and making them aware of the wrongs they had committed. This was an unsettling and largely unwelcome reversal of the expected direction of influence. To Indians who asked for their advice, and leadership, Labour offered support and apprenticeship. Those who simply refused to address them at all, they ignored. But the Gandhian proposal bewildered and at times infuriated them because it did neither. It spoke to them, but as equals.


Material from this paper appeared in Nicholas Owen, The British Left and India: Metropolitan Anti-Imperialism, 1885-1947 (Oxford, 2007).