Looking to the past through the eyes of a legendary statesman
I just managed to complete the most useful book that I have ever read. Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru comprises close to two hundred letters that he wrote to his 13 year old daughter Indira Gandhi over a period of two years between 1931 and 1933. At the end I could do nothing but regret why I did not stumble upon the book years earlier miserably attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible pieces of history found elsewhere. With innumerable events described with reasonable thoroughness and rational and measured partiality, Nehru teaches a simple lesson: Always wear a spectacle of skepticism while judging any of the events and attitudes in the history or otherwise.
Indeed I doubt if there exists any other work of such magnificence that tells so complicated a story of mankind with such a lucidity and simplicity so as to be savored and understood by a pretty thirteen years old girl. The logical succession of the words is so cohesive that it took barely 15 days for me to complete this 1127 odd pages long book along with my usual routine. I spent up to 10 hours a day on holidays when I was practically submerged in the remote past of mankind that I would have barely imagined based on my previous knowledge.
An interesting coincidence, those were the years of mounting confusion in face of the imminent financial crisis that later proved to be the Great Depression whose brutality Nehru compares with the first world war. Today I read the same words in supposedly early years of another financial crisis alleged to be second only to the Great Depression. The world has changed much but I am astonished to find the remarkable coherence with which the imperialism worked then and is working now.
One important lesson that the book gives is the futility of studying the history of a country or any entity in isolation that prompts one to draw skewed and frequently wrong conclusions. Thus he recommends every beginner to devote himself to study the world history with endurance. The study of the outstanding events in the history like the world wars, the Bolshevik revolution, the great depression, the Vietnam war, the fall of Berlin wall and so on or the towering personalities follows the same dictum: either dare to study the background of them too or do not study them at all. This idea I found to be fascinating as I had to change my attitude towards many historical occurrences after studying their background in the book.
Take the Bolshevik revolution that changed the course of history challenging the hegemony of capitalism that was just celebrating its triumph over feudalism. The establishment of the USSR led by Lenin and its consolidation by Stalin showed the people worldwide the other way of managing affairs. The predictions of Karl Marx began to materialize though not perfectly when the communists marched proudly to the space left by collapse of the outdated tsardom in Russia in fallout of the chaos of first world war. Viewed in isolation the judicious image of Stalin can be like this : A draconian ruler with the iron fist suppressing every other opinion with brute force and purging the dissenters including Trotsky, the brave compatriot of the revolution; an arrogant and myopic politician indoctrinated by an ill-established philosophy. But when it is studied in the background of image of Hitler and Mussolini fuming at him with their genocidal daggers proclaiming an assault on humanity with the complicity of British imperial forces, the image becomes different. When the intricacies of the intrigues and conspiracies based on the conflicts on the vested interests of the European empires leading to the disastrous first world war (that they fought to end all wars and again sew the seeds of bigger war in elusive treaty of Versailles) are studied further image of the USSR and Stalin changes further.
The history of the imperialism can be missed with none of the other events and developments in the human history. Indeed the brutality and savagery of the European imperialists during last two centuries easily outperform those of the most violent medieval rulers like the Timur, Mahmud of Ghajni, or Chengiz Khan. The sophistication brought about by the emerging science has been abused to such an extent that people have often cursed the scientific development itself. The pomp and the opulence of the western powers that has characterized them throughout the last few centuries has been more a subject of envy to their victims than that of acrimony and vengeance. This very attitude has been misused by those powers to create the impression that their values of civilization and so have been accepted universally as impeccable ones.
When Nehru explores the regression of the parliamentary democracy in many countries in the early thirties giving way to a multitude of dictatorships, the inherent impotency of that political system under those circumstances is not difficult to understand. Eventually the world was heading towards a collision far worse than the WW I and the foundation of that war was laid in the treaty of Versailles by the victors of the WW I. While the British power secretly nurtured the fascists in Germany and Italy for their vested interests of containing the Soviets the collision became of increasingly obvious occurrence. The shameful episode of treaty of … when England along with France agreed to mutilate Czechoslovakia in favor of Hitler revealed all this but they still kept blowing the trumpet of democracy and human rights.
In that world overwhelmed by the horrors and barbarity of the wars that were often not declared, the conceit, bigotry and treachery of the dominant powers, and incredibly hostile world surrounding them, the communist USSR was no utopian world though they dreamt to make it so. Stalin might have treated his opponents with disproportionate brute and his policies of accelerated socialization of the Russian peasantry might have been disappointing for many. But compared to the democratic government of the Britain then, which was awash with the sweat and blood of millions of people in India, Egypt and elsewhere, condoning the deadly massacres of the dictators for a petty favor like containing the mass upheavals of workers, the Soviet communists were scores better. They didn’t hold the elections to choose their executive leader and it was practically a variety of authoritarianism but I can’t imagine it was any worse than the much-touted American democracy that went to a savage war to dismember Vietnam later after establishing a puppet world body in the fallout of WW II. Ironically, thus the important work of a veteran democratic leader worked to cast a positive impression of communism on me that is despised as one of the many faces of authoritarianism now. The image of Stalin in my mind was suddenly transformed from an ugly face of a dictator to a far more pleasant face of a rational leader though not a magical or ideal one.
The river of history has flown a long course after Nehru wrote those words and we have no privilege to hear about these events in his words. Indeed the closing years of his life brought him utter bitterness and humiliation as the independent India had to suffer a humiliating defeat with a neighbor supposed to have suffered the crusade of imperialism together for centuries. We can also only imagine how he would have reacted to the disruptive emergency rule of his dearest daughter Indira Gandhi followed by persistent erosion in prestige of his party, and a 180 degree change in his economic policies by Manmohan Singh in early nineties. The fall of Berlin wall could have reminded him the tremendous change that the Bolshevik party had undergone in seven decades transforming itself into a petty shadow of its former self. He could have compared Deng Xioping with Boris Yeltsin and predicted the fate of emerging capitalist powers in the east.
Unfortunately he is no more and I am bound to make my own opinions on all these developments and personalities. Cautiously, Nehru has mentioned in the book that he intends to only create eagerness about history with those letters while much better and detailed books on history are available. Of course he has succeeded in his objective, I guess, more than he expected as I am going to hunt for good history books right now!
I want to close this article with Noam Chomsky’s insightful words illustrating the stark realities of history that are often hidden.
It was outlined with admirable frankness in an important state paper of 1948 (PPS 23) written by one of the architects of the New World Order of the day, the head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, the respected statesman and scholar George Kennan. In the course of assigning each region of the world its proper role within the overarching framework of American power, he observed that the basic policy goal is to maintain the "position of disparity" that separates our enormous wealth from the poverty of others; and to achieve that goal "We should cease to talk about vague and . . . unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization," recognizing that we must "deal in straight power concepts," not "hampered by idealistic slogans" about "altruism and world-benefaction."