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The British Left and India is the story of two interwoven quests: (1) the search of the British Left for a form of anti-colonialism if which they could approve; and (2) the search of Indian nationalists for a mode of agitation which did not offend their commitment to self-reliant struggle. One of its innovations is to try to tell these two stories in parallel, altering the direction of the gaze chapter by chapter. Some chapters examine how India looked to the British Left. Others examine how the British Left looked to India. The book also tries to show how these two perspectives interacted.

My starting point is to consider some of the usual explanations of the British Left’s failure to develop a strong and committed anti-imperialism. The first was economics. The British trade unions, and the Labour Party which they dominated, it is often suggested, gained economically from imperialism, through higher wages, cheap consumer goods, and the export opportunities provided by colonial trade. They were therefore unlikely to ally with those who sought to end the empire.

This argument had already been much damaged by the “imperial accountancy” school of thought, whose work showed that, before the First World War, “Labour Britain” – industrial, working class, and outside the south-east of England – was economically, geographically and socially almost the opposite of “Imperial Britain” – finance and service-oriented and based in south-east England.

I added to this two further points: (1) that the pattern of economic gains and losses from empire was not well understood, and (2) that the implications for this economic stake of ceding power to nationalists were not clear. Was the stake safer under imperial rule, or only once power had been ceded to the nationalists? The effect of this uncertainty, I argued, was indeterminacy. Trade unionists and Labour MPs were potential allies of an Indian nationalism which might end a cotton boycott, or promote industrial co-operation, and also potential allies of the Raj in suppressing the challenge of an unregulated industrial competitor.

I also explored five further explanations of the weakness of metropolitan anti-imperialism. They were (1) the apathy and ignorance of the Left’s political constituencies; (2) the electoral consequences of adopting anti-imperial positions; (3) the lack of a theory of anti-imperialism and the reliance on liberal humanitarianism; (4) the Left’s inability to challenge an all-encompassing orientalism; and (5) the resourcefulness of imperialists and their capacity to co-opt their critics.

In each case, these factors were complex, and again indeterminate, in their effects. Apathy and ignorance about India, for example, were certainly widespread. But it is a mistake to suppose that they are necessarily a barrier to effective anti-imperalism. Apathy allowed those who were anti-imperialists to define the party’s programme. Provided they did not demand too many resources, or clash with bigger priorities, they could take control of policy. Ignorance was not as profound as might be guessed especially among the leadership of the Labour Party. The party’s five principal leaders from 1906-1947, four – Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, George Lansbury and C. R. Attlee – made India a specialism, three of them – Hardie, MacDonald and Attlee – made visits to India, and two – Attlee and MacDonald – served lengthy terms on specialist commissions on India. In 1924, MacDonald was the first Prime Minister since Wellington to have visited India before taking office. Ignorance was greater lower down the party. But ignorance should not be conflated with apathy. The most informed could be the most conservative about India, and the least informed the most radical.

Electoral considerations also neither promoted nor precluded anti-imperialism. Any Indian policy could be defended to a working-class audience, the Labour Secretary of State for India cheerfully admitted in 1930. They were “a mixture of ignorance and idealism, always with racial prejudice ready to be excited, so that the ground is indeed clear for any argument”. When an Indian crisis threatened to take advantage of British weakness, or interlock with parallel disturbances elsewhere, especially in wartime, Labour MPs and ministers drew back from alliance with nationalists. On the other hand, maintaining the momentum of political progress, timely concession and good relations with the rising classes were the key skills of the leaders of an empire under stress. After 1945, a close political relationship with anti-colonial nationalists was far from an electoral liability. It was a sign that the Left was in touch with modern developments.

The argument that ideological weaknesses explain the weakness of the Left’s anti-imperialism comes in two forms. The older one stresses the poverty of British Marxism in addressing questions of empire, and the existence of a powerful Fabian alternative which saw the empire not an obstacle to international socialism, but as a framework through which it might be built. The newer one – postcolonialism – suggests that all those ideologies which might have developed an anti-imperial cutting edge, including classical Marxism, failed to do so because they were themselves children of imperialism, and until challenged by the colonised themselves, tainted by orientalist assumptions of colonial inferiority. Here too – as much other writing has shown – there is indeterminacy. Socialist ideologies are not definitionally anti-imperialist. Indeed, there are socialist critiques of anti-imperialism, and perhaps even socialist forms of imperialism. Yet socialism has, at times, and selectively, formed one of the most effective cutting-edges of anti-imperialist work.

Orientalist images and assumptions, finally, are certainly very visible in the British Left’s accounts of India. But they did not always lead to imperialism. For one thing, there was an affirmative Orientalism which argued that India was the civilizational equal of the west, and which mobilised anti-imperialist argument on that basis. For another, after 1900, forms of Orientalism which insisted on essential “racial” difference and the impossibility of India ever “catching up” with the west, were giving way to more contingent “civilisational” forms, which suggested the desirability of devolving power to modern, westernising elites. Indeed, the insistence of many British liberals and socialists that there was only one true route to modernity – that taken by the British – could make them keen to develop the necessary modern institutions in India – constitutionally limited and accountable government, a free press, the rule of law, widening educational opportunities. This could work against certain traditional forms of colonial rule, although it was also possible to co-opt it into support for the modernising forms.



In each case, therefore, there is a high degree of indeterminacy.

My own explanation begins with a suggestive point made by Edward Said. At one point in his book Orientalism, Said describes Orientalism as not so much a matter of holding particular views, but of “positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient, without ever losing him the relative upper hand”.

This idea of relational superiority is, I think, a very powerful explanation of the gulf between the British Left and Indian nationalists. It was not only a matter of the views they held but of where they stood in holding them. Despite the fact that Congress had been founded some fifteen years before their own party, Labour often saw it as a junior partner in need of education in the arts of political activism or of good government. It seldom questioned whether tactics designed to advance the interests of uniquely class conscious workers in an industrial society whose ruling classes generally eschewed repression were appropriate for the divided mix of classes and interests over which Congress presided.



Before the First World War, a procession of Labour’s senior figures visited India. They included J. Keir Hardie in 1907-08, Ramsay MacDonald in 1909 and again in 1913, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb in 1911-12. Each set down thoughts on the nature of healthy political development. The lessons they drew were quite varied, and were strongly coloured by their views of how the Labour cause had advanced at home. For Hardie, the devolution of political power to village councils would ensure that the urban professionals who made up the Congress movement were brought face to face with the problems of the rural, labouring poor. The Webbs hoped to see co operation between the “natural aristocracy” of educated Indians and sympathetic British officials in local schemes of social improvement, through which Indians might acquire the skills to run a modern, interventionist state. MacDonald regarded Congress as only at the first stage of its development, comparing its proposals to the narrow, class bound demands of the mid Victorian Liberal Party. Indian nationalism should, he argued, follow the same lines of political evolution as the movement for labour representation had at home. Congress was a healthy development, but to develop further had to carve out a broader based political support among Indian workers and peasants, reduce its dependence on middle class activists, and campaign not merely for political independence but for social reform to raise the condition of India’s impoverished masses.

In the years after 1914, Labour scanned the subcontinent for signs of appropriate progress and the emergence of authentic nationalism: perhaps the emergence of a multi-party system divided along class lines, or the political recruitment of peasants and workers, or the development of schemes for practical socialism, or the evolution of party programmes that went beyond attacks on the raj. As Labour moved from oppositional movement to party of government after 1918, it became increasingly keen to push Congress down the same road to responsibility. But judged against these standards, Congress, in moving away from parliamentarism towards Gandhian non-co-operation, seemed to be going in reverse. Many British observers, especially in the trade unions, doubted whether it was truly interested in social reform. Its demands for independence seemed too closely entwined with the vested interests of the Indian middle classes and too bound up with impractical Gandhism to act as an instrument for genuine industrial and economic change. Indian unions seemed too prone to spontaneous and undisciplined outbreaks of labour unrest, their leadership provided by lawyers or even employers rather than workers, and their work characterized by political objectives that ranged too far beyond wage-bargaining. This could all be satisfactorily changed, given time and patience, but to those who had won acceptance for Labour through negotiation in the parliamentary arena and demonstrating their fitness to govern to local electorates, there could be no short cuts to political maturity. As late as 1943, Labour ministers worked on plans to undermine the Congress leadership and remould Indian nationalism into a more acceptable form.

However, there were very good reasons why Congress and other Indian nationalists were unable to meet Labour’s criteria. India lacked nearly all the structural underpinnings that would have made Labour’s strategy appropriate. The emergence of British Labour had been greatly eased by the fact that it happened in a state with a liberal constitutional framework, in which trade unions and socialist societies could operate without serious restriction. Labour’s leaders had come to see the state as a largely neutral force, committed to rule-following and publicly declared “fairness” between classes, which could be captured by winning a parliamentary majority. In India, by contrast, politics were very much more circumscribed. The raj, despite its liberal pretensions, was very ready to lock up nationalist agitators without trial, ban newspapers and proscribe hostile organizations. It was quite impossible for nationalists to see it as neutral, or to make capture of local legislative power the sole aim of its strategy.

Labour had emerged almost entirely within pre-existing political structures, and only rarely needed to step outside them. Even when it did, it did so within the wider margins of acceptable dissent. Congress, since it sought to displace the raj from India, could not work wholly in the same fashion. It had to step, often and far, outside the plans of the raj. Moreover, the Indian nationalist struggle after 1920, as Gandhi and others conceived it, was not intended to mimic British political traditions. It rejected the mendicancy of the early Congress. Independence was to be won through the purification of Indian efforts, not learned at the feet of British sympathisers, no matter how well-intentioned. This kind of struggle was dictated by the specificity of Indian conditions, and in particular by the need to rally the support of much wider groups than had been attracted by the westernized strategies used hitherto. But it was also quite new and it is hardly surprising that so many Labour figures misunderstood it. The inner workings of the “dominant parties” that led anti imperialist struggles were more complex than their own typologies allowed, and could only be poorly understood by those anxious to squash them into the moulds of western, and usually British, experience.

The problem, therefore, was akin to those identified in contemporary postcolonial theory as false universalization and of the neglect of multiple routes to modernity. The judgement and values of the British anti-imperialists were “provincial”, the product of a specific and localized historical experience, but falsely universalized as the paradigmatic standard form, against which Indian versions were found wanting. Labour’s early twentieth century leaders, like most of their contemporaries, were soaked in Victorian ideals of unilinear social progress. For them the rise of democracy and the emancipated working man were the highly desirable fruits of these ideals, and it was their duty to encourage them to emerge elsewhere. Labour’s industrial struggle was thus, as befitted the world’s first industrial nation, the model from which others might learn. India was judged for its ability to replicate this pattern of development. From this standpoint, there was but a single route to maturity. Few could see India’s differences as other than deviations from proper, western norms of historical and political development. Its industrial workers were judged against the superior rationality, energy and technical expertise of their British counterparts. Its political leaders were judged by their capacity to foster western conceptions of modernity, progress and development.

This helps to explain a feature of the interaction which is hard to understand in terms of persistent economic interests or enduring apathies: the repeated, almost cyclical pattern of engagement and failure. When Labour leaders visited India, they hoped to identify signs of modernity that they recognised. They were not wholly disappointed, for Congress leaders showed them newspaper editorials modelled on The Times and printed appeals resembling Victorian petitions. They took them to public meetings where the procedure and platform oratory seemed slightly dated, but familiar. Yet like all such mimicry, it also seemed too imitative to be authentic. Other sightings – the unfamiliar modes of anti-partition protest – caste sanctions, the use of religious appeals, and traditional forms of leadership, for example – seemed to have more popular resonance and deeper roots, but they also seemed immature and pre-modern, rather than non-modern. At the heart of the problem, however, was confusion over the marks of authenticity. Indian nationalism seemed to most western observers too narrow, too shallow and excessively derivative. Yet efforts to deepen and broaden it, or to “Indianise” it, inevitably made it look even less familiar.

This pattern of projection, crisis and paralysis was to be repeated many times, as the movements of the western left stepped forward to engage with Indian nationalism. A number of possible responses might follow from this lack of fit: sometimes a sense of blockage, followed by withdrawal and disengagement – the apathy noted above – sometimes conditional support, provided only if things changed; sometimes efforts, more or less successful, to ignore one or other side of the picture. Postcolonial theorists, often persuaded that the psychological tensions of encountering such irresolvable contradictions led to a kind of anxious fracturing of identity, probably underestimate the degree to which distance damped them down: the most common response was simply retreat.

It is here that Labour’s dilemma interlocked with that of Congress. Some of the early Congress leadership shared the view that there was only one route to modernity, and made the case for home rule on that basis. But others did not, either because they believed that such a perspective undervalued Indian traditions, or because they did not think that a nationalist movement could be built on such foundations. Others again varied their repertoire: to their British supporters and their fellow Indian professionals they appealed in the language of universal Victorian liberalism; to other, less westernized Indians in the language of Hindu tradition and other local idioms. The former appeal was not necessarily weak strategy, despite its imitative character. Opponents held that it could only lead at best to a perpetually deferred promise of equality and hence a permanent secondariness. But the early Congress was not just engaged in mimicry, but in using the leverage provided by commonly held values to demand consistency of treatment. Its occupancy of British liberal positions was designed not purely for the purposes of mimicry, but in order to stretch them and reveal their limitations. Such appeals gained in effect at the metropole from being framed in the language of their occupiers, and also from their proximity. The officials of the raj feared a united front of Indian nationalists and their British friends speaking the language of modernity more than a solely Indian movement which could be depicted as alien, hostile and regressive. Nevertheless, such a strategy was contested by those who wanted an indigenously-oriented and self-reliant struggle, which would sacrifice intelligibility in London for gains in support in India among those who had not been much troubled by the compatibility of their world view with the dominant ideologies of the west. Gandhi, who became the spokesman for this position, exposed the false position in which the otherwise effective early Congress had placed itself. Rather than representing themselves as imperial subjects of sufficient maturity to be granted self-government, Indians should grant themselves the status of equals.

This debate had implications for the relationship between Congress and its British sympathisers and supporters. This relationship could operate in a number of different modes. The early Congress used an agency arrangement, hiring a British journalist to act for them. However, this was short-lived, and was abandoned in favour of reliance upon voluntary, unpaid, British “responsible public men”, among them former civil servants of the raj and Liberal MPs, running an autonomous British Committee of the Indian National Congress. This method was, however, disliked in India for its mendicancy, and was countered in Britain by the rejectionist mode favoured by Vinayak Savarkar and the India House which tried to dispense with British supporters altogether in a version of nativist struggle. However, such rejectionist campaigning was very hard to achieve, partly because it was so much easier to resist. Without the British supporters to create space for its operations, it was generally either ignored, or easily crushed by the raj, but also, and more subtly, because it inverted, rather than displaced, the claims of the west.

Vicarious struggle at the metropole was thus unavoidable, so the problem, when Gandhi encountered it in 1909, became one of finding a mode of interaction with Britons which did not leave them in charge, or Indians deferring to them. Gandhi believed that it would not be right to reject the contribution of British supporters, but that if their priorities were not to distort the growth of swaraj – i.e. self government, but also autonomy – they had to be dislodged from positions of authority. More widely, as Ashis Nandy has argued, Gandhian strategy sought to decentre Europe and topple it from the position of natural hegemon in any discussion, in an effort to reassert the basic equality of cultures and their mutual imbrication.

This explains the otherwise mysterious destruction of the British Committee in 1920. It was not, as is usually assumed, a failing organization, but one which had to be destroyed because of the redundancy of the mode of interaction it represented. “I do not want you to determine the pace”, Gandhi told an audience of British allies in Oxford in 1931, “Consciously or unconsciously, you adopt the role of divinity. I want you to step down from that pedestal.” Was there not much that England had yet to teach India, a Labour Party member had asked Gandhi: “certain things for which she has a special gift” such as “her political sense and her gift for evolving and managing democratic institutions’?” “I question this claim to exclusive political sense that this English arrogate to themselves”, Gandhi had replied. “There is much in British political institutions that I admire. But … I do not believe that they are the paragon of perfection… Whatever is worth adopting for India must come to her through the process of assimilation, not forcible superimposition.” Many of Congress’ British supporters were disconcerted by such claims, as they were intended to be. Resistance will always be in certain senses incomprehensible, at least at first, from the perspective of the dominant. Gandhi neither succumbed to nor straightforwardly rejected their authority. This would have been easier to meet, either with instruction or a shrugging indifference. Instead, he aimed to transform it, and them in the process. This was why they generally preferred Jawaharlal Nehru, with his demands for the consistent practice of international socialism – oddly reminiscent of the pleas of the early Congress for consistent liberalism – he asked less of them.

Each of the modes of interaction therefore required a different type of response from the British left, whether the provision of guidance, as in the days of the British Committee; distant sympathy – the rejectionist preference of Savarkar – dependable, active support or mutual affiliation to wider, internationalist bodies – Nehru’s preference – or a kind of critical solidarity in the search for truth – Gandhi. These are often elided into a general notion of support, but they are really quite different phenomena, varying according to the relative position of the parties in relation to each other and to the raj, and the functions that each undertakes. There was an important difference, for example, between British supporters who saw their role as being not to side with either the raj or its opponents, but to interpose, or negotiate, between them in the hope of achieving conciliation, and those who became more directly absorbed into the struggle on the side of the latter.

Only rarely before 1920, and almost never thereafter, did British supporters seek positions of formal or even informal leadership. They saw the necessity for this to be in Indian hands, although paradoxically their exhortations to this effect often took the form of instruction. But they did not disdain to act as advisers, adjudicators, intermediaries, conciliators or defence counsel. Indeed, one type of support, at times perhaps the dominant one offered by the British left, was a kind of professional mediation, involving sincere feelings of sympathy for the Indians as victims of imperialism – though not usually fellow-victims – and the desire to intercede on their behalf, speaking for them and representing them to British audiences. It was guided more by an ethos of public service to those less fortunate than by one of common struggle.

Some effective anti-imperial work was undoubtedly done in this fashion, but it was structured unequally, seeking to alter the relationship between the Indians and the raj without much altering the relationship between the emancipating sympathiser and the emancipated Indian. The professional campaigners on Labour’s Imperial Advisory Committee were drawn to the lawyers, writers and political organizers of Congress, whom they believed represented the same civilizing force in Indian society as they themselves did in Britain. But they were reluctant to give them places on the Committee, instead preserving their own role as spokespersons for Indians and mediators of their interests to the British Government. It was their books and journalism which represented India to Britain and their parliamentary speeches which stated India’s demands. The informal title “Member for India”, bestowed at Westminster on MPs who made India their specialism, was, for Josiah Wedgwood and Fenner Brockway as it had been for John Bright, Henry Fawcett and Charles Bradlaugh, a highly prized one, even though it involved a kind of appropriation.

Congress’s strategic dilemma was, after 1920, translated into an organizational problem. Once authority was denied to them by Gandhi, British supporters lost a key incentive, for which no substitute was easily found. It is usually assumed that as Congress outgrew its early reliance on British leaders it shed them, as a multi-stage rocket jettisons its boosters. But self-reliant campaigning was not at all easy to achieve, mainly because Gandhi’s hope for self-generated movements of solidarity were disappointed. Congress moved through a series of attempts to organise its British work, none of them satisfactorily reconciling the need for self-reliant, India-centred activity with the need to persuade British allies and audiences of India’s case for self-government. Support for Congress in Britain came to be a function of other commitments and objectives, communist, theosophical, pacifist, socialist, anti-fascist, etc. It was in essence parasitic, reliant on the hospitality offered by progressive movements of the left, but still vulnerable to their desire for status. This pattern of indirect engagement was not necessarily weak: parasitic arrangements only arise at all if each party is getting some net benefit out of them. What mattered was the closeness of fit between these primary objectives and the anti-imperialism. When this was close, as it became briefly, and arguably misleadingly, over anti-fascism, then Congress was feted in London. But such enthusiasm was generally fragile, transitory and characterised by boom and bust, as competition between different elements of the left first distracted and then split the Indian nationalists.

There was little inevitable about the scale of such disappointment. British and Indian concerns did not need to be identical to provide each other with mutual support, but only to mesh more effectively. The forms of struggle which might have avoided this trap altogether are not always easy to discern. The key elements were probably critical solidarity, a location alongside and not above or ahead of the colonised, a sharing of risk, and willingness to undertake what a later generation of theorists, notably Gayatri Spivak, has identified as the “unlearning of privilege” or “learning to learn from below”. There are some isolated examples of such practices in the relationships between the British left and India, though they are isolated, and it is evident that it was hard for most to descend from the pedestal Gandhi had identified in 1931.

Some recent historical studies have identified individual efforts to stretch threads of friendship across the barriers thrown up by imperialism in other settings. There are some examples of transcendental personal friendships in this story too. Yet the unresolved problems in making such connections even at the personal level are very evident in such studies, let alone the difficulties of expanding them beyond the personal, into the larger public sphere of organised political action, with implications for the lessons which their authors might wish to draw from them. Does their rarity suggest that they are unreasonably demanding? Are they really relationships of equals, or does only one party to it hold a guarantee of support from the other? What scope is there for criticism or other expressions of conditionality in a solidaristic relationship.

Viewed in the longer perspective provided by such considerations, the work of the metropolitan anti-imperialists in the interwar years might be judged as provisional, but not deferred, work. Like much politically oppositional activity, anti-imperialism made necessarily crab-like progress, before triumphing, as C.L.R.James wrote “by whatever tortuous and broken roads, despite the stumbling and the falls”. Gandhian techniques, for example, were self-consciously experimental, and failure was written into their design, though failure from which one learned. The tensions and disagreements between metropolitan anti-imperialists played out in the pages that follow might seem, from this perspective, no more than the unease through which any liberatory politics emerges, through which, as Homi Bhabha once put it, “newness enters the world” and ideas productively “travel” from one setting to another, or encounter the limits of their application. Attractive though this vision is, it needs to be sharply distinguished from simpler possibility of failure, and to be true to the lived experience of its subjects. What distinguishes the enabling tensions posited by postcolonial theory is their propensity for growth, and the test of them is what, if anything, is left at the end of the engagement.

The British Left and India was published by Oxford University Press in 2007, in its series Oxford Historical Monographs. The opening chapter was chosen in 2009 as one of the one hundred best pieces of writing on imperialism, in William Roger Louis’s ‘100 Top Hits of Imperial History’. William Roger Louis, Ultimate Adventures with Britannia (2009), pp. 277-81.