Millennium Post

The historian and Gandhi

The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm was immortalised through his study of the 19th century Europe. The trilogy The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire show how the class conflict in Europe and many colonies peaked during ‘the long 19th century’ and led to the enabling situation for the October Revolution and the creation of USSR. It is no wonder that Hobsbawm chose to study that period of European history, since that is where Marxist pedagogues and demagogues have traditionally derived their strength from. The meticulous historian was a practising Communist as well. In him, the theory and practice of Communist politics found an expression, and in this amalgamation its inadequacies can also be seen. The long 19th century also saw the consolidation of forces which would later lead to a strong reaction from colonies against the European business interests. Towards the end of this long century, Mohandas Gandhi was sharpening his political skills in South Africa. After the war, he turned out to be a man the world watched in his reaction to colonial forces.

At a time when Hobsbawm’s inspirations were gloating in the success of its socialist experiments, Gandhi was quietly gathering nationalist elements from a politico-cultural unit the British had put together as the Raj. The European Marxist did not quite know how to deal with these forces. They underestimated the consolidation of cultural forces in colonies, thinking all this while that the depressed classes in colonies will rise only on class lines. Gandhi showed in a moderate way that the right-wing forces showed in more crude fashion that the ability for the colonial elite to organise itself was much stronger than the depressed classes to be aware of their historical position. No wonder than that an Ambedkar could not win an election in his life time, while the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League happily formed provincial governments in the British India.  While Marx’s analysis of the Indian caste system has attracted criticism for a forced class character in it, the later-day Marxist scholars, like Hobsbawm, have been guilty of not being able to mount a theoretical challenge – leave alone a practical challenge – to the forces of cultural nationalism, which have comfortably hobnobbed with the forces of capitalism and created a mixed class-cultural dystopia. As India celebrates Gandhi Jayanti, and thus the victory of Gandhian nationalism over European colonialism, and as the world mourns the loss of a fine scholar, the Marxist thinker may pause to wonder what went wrong and the Gandhian ideologue may ponder over the impracticality of his utopian nation-state.


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