Many questions suggest themselves about the influence that India may have had on the Labour Party, a good deal stronger in all probability than the party’s influence on India; about India as one of the taproots of the peculiar British social-democratic mentality. It could be argued that the Labour Party talked nonsense from the cradle, but there is a sense in which it can be said to have fuddled its wits by thinking about India, and then to have become unable to think realistically about anything. There was genuine anti-imperialism in the early movement, just as there was anti-war feeling, and both helped to get it going. But just as men like Ramsay MacDonald hated the thought of war but were little concerned to explore the causes of it, so they were sorry to see anyone in the empire ill-used, but had little interest in imperialism, in what made
Effective contact with the Indian masses was impossible, and confronted with their vast bewildering misery Labour came to think of humanity at large as an amorphous, incalculable mass, at best a crowd of children, at worst a bloodthirsty mob. This was already how too many Labour men, really Liberals with an interest in social welfare, instinctively viewed the masses at home, and the Indian myriads, chronically haunting their thoughts, deepened their mistrust. In India, again, to work for progress with and through the people was impossible; they could only think of working through the existing bureaucracy, in its way a respectable and efficient one. The Labour Party had no difficulty in crediting it with other virtues—neutrality between government and people, willingness to be used as an instrument of radical change— which it did not possess. From this illusion it was a short step to endowing the civil service at home with similar virtues, and to believing that all the changes Britain required could be carried out by merely pressing the right civil service buttons. A purely bureaucratic approach to India reinforced a bureaucratic approach to Britain. Labour has always disliked any kind of mass struggle, at home as in the colonies; it thought suffragettes very undesirable people, as it did the agitators in Bengal and Maharashtra.
Meanwhile the tendency engendered by British history to think in spacious terms, of decades instead of years and centuries instead of decades, to be unwilling to recognize that history now was speeding up, was deepened by contact with India, which seemed to think in aeons, or rather to be above thinking of time at all. India’s problems were extremely complex; preoccupation with them helped to make Britain’s too look intricate beyond the wit of man, and to slow down still further Labour’s habitual mode of progression, each foot held cautiously poised in the air for ten minutes before being brought back to the ground. If the Indian people had to be matured so very gradually for independence, the British people must be ripened slowly for socialism. Any fretful impatience was to be checked. Tories could justify their repressive policies in India by pointing to Labour’s—to which Labour could only fatuously reply that though the method might be the same when it was in office, the spirit was different. Even this difference was not always claimed; we hear Wedgwood consoling a political prisoner in India by telling him that his Tory jailers had the best of intentions at heart. More frankly Labour took refuge in the formula that a government must govern, i.e. that Labour in office must rule India on Tory lines, and could indulge the luxury of thinking about reform only when in opposition. ‘Realism’ swathed in mental
Bureaucratism screened itself behind an exaggerated reverence for Parliament. Parliament’s awe-inspiring authority over a world-wide empire helped to foster a kind of mystical respect for this inmost repository of power—not to mention that mps touring India were always treated, though seldom regarded, with profound respect by officialdom. In their conviction that debates in the hall at Westminster represented the omnipotent tide of history, these men resembled a child holding a sea-shell to its ear and thinking that it was listening to the ocean. If this oracle could answer the riddle of India, it could surely cope with Britain’s miniature ones, such as how socialism was to be inaugurated. But for Parliament to bring its full wisdom and benignity to bear on India, it was clearly to be desired that all parties should speak with the same voice. It would be unjust to India to treat it as a party issue. . . . This specious bi-partisanship, steadily adhered to, was bound to spread into a similar approach to home affairs. From telling Indians that Tories were not such bad fellows as they looked, Labour began telling itself or its voters the same thing. When MacDonald deserted the party and formed a ‘National Government’ (one of whose chief items of business would be India), he might be said to have simply carried this train of thought to its logical conclusion.
Britons took very little interest in India while it was their responsibility, and have taken still less interest since. It may be wondered how many of them will want to read a precise survey, or obituary, of Labour Party policy towards India before independence and partition came about in 1947; a study as it might be called of the dead bones of something that was never very much alive. All the same, anyone to whom socialism or the Labour movement are a concern ought to read such an account of the meanderings of Labour thinking, because the Labour Party, though not India, is still with us, and still meandering.
Labour leaders and spokesmen did little about India, but talked and wrote a great deal, and there is a ponderous literature of books, pamphlets, memoirs, by them or about them and the Indian leaders they were in contact with. All this, and a vast quantity of files and journals and conference reports, M. Georges Fischer in his Le Parti travailliste et la décolonisation de l’Indefootnote1 has painstakingly sifted, and he has made use too of some unpublished materials from India Office records. He displays a masterly command of the British political scene and its ins and outs, never an easy thing to acquire about any foreign country. He has written a similar study of the ‘decolonization’ of the Philippines by the us, and draws our attention briefly at a good many points to developments there and elsewhere in the world that had some relevance to India. He notes for example that the anarchical condition of China in the 1920’s and 1930’s lent weight to gloomy predictions of
The work is arranged chronologically, with the first World War as the main dividing-line; the epoch before 1914, when the Labour Party was comparatively youthful and elastic, is in a way the most interesting, but the years between 1918 and 1939 are the most important and occupy the biggest share of space. An introductory survey reminds us that few Liberals wanted to give India up; and the Labour Party separating itself off from Liberalism—even then the ailing offspring of an elderly parent—started with the idea not of breaking up the empire but of transforming it, socializing it, from within. There was discussion of a federation of working-class movements in all the empire countries, to be led by the British: an attractive vision, but too much akin to Labour illusions today of a Common Market of monopoly capitalists magically transformed by the presence in it of a Britain occasionally run by a government whose members occasionally make speeches about socialism.