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Remembering socialism

The death of former British Labour leader Michael Foot at the age of 96 is a historic event in many ways....

Written by Meghnad Desai |
March 7, 2010 2:37:45 am

THE death of former British Labour leader Michael Foot at the age of 96 is a historic event in many ways. His commitment to democratic socialism was as intense as was his friendship for India. There was a conflict between his love of India and his commitment to freedom. When he supported Indira Gandhi’s Emergency,sentiment won over deeply held beliefs. His friends were shocked.

India absorbed much of its socialism from British sources. Nehru was friendly with Labour Party leaders Stafford Cripps,Aneurin Bevan and Harold Laski. The basic idea of the British Socialists of that era was a firm belief in a gradual democratic approach to socialism but also a confidence that if only the state could own the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy,then control over capitalism would be easier. The Labour Government of 1945-1951 implemented these policies and many felt that the progress of socialism was irreversible.

Public ownership benefited the workers in these industries and only very indirectly the nation as a whole. Socialism became a private club for the workers in the public sector,leaving the rest out in the cold. This led to its defeat and reversal in Western European economies.

By the time Foot died,the party he had led had abandoned not just the theory but also the practice of socialism. Nationalisation became unfashionable. Even in the midst of the worst financial crisis,no one suggested going back to socialism. The urgent task everywhere in the West is the restoration of capitalism,not its abolition.

The one success which has survived the 60 years is the National Health Service,which was the greatest achievement of Foot’s hero Bevan. In many ways that was one policy of the Labour Party which benefited everyone. No subsequent government has had the heart to reverse it,not even Mrs Thatcher. All across Western Europe there is some version of the universal health care and now US President Barack Obama is trying his best to get the US in the same framework.

Indian Socialism has also had a troubled time. Nehru was a socialist in the Foot mould—liberal,democratic,reformist. The Congress Socialist Party worshipped him but failed to join him in government. The party had too many leaders and not enough followers and it proceeded to self-destruct itself. Jaya Prakash Narain could not work out the contradictions between Gandhism and socialism and withdrew. Ashok Mehta became a Congress intellectual.

The man who made the greatest impact on Indian politics as a socialist is of course Ram Manohar Lohia,whose centenary falls this month. He ‘Indianised’ socialism by shifting from class to caste and became convinced that Congress was the principal obstacle to radical reform. His greatest triumph came in 1967 when he showed that defeating the Congress was possible.

It was the 1967 defeat more than anything else which convinced Indira Gandhi that the Congress could not be an all purpose party but had to turn decisively left if it was to preserve itself in power. Her version of socialism was nationalisation and centralisation. It cost India 20 years of slow growth. Other Asian economies used the State as an instrument of economic development much more flexibly. It took till 1991 for the Congress to change its policy and even now the old policies have not been fully abandoned. What is welcome,however,is that at last,in the 21st century,issues of health and education which do concern everyone are receiving some attention in Indian policy. If socialism does not touch the life of the poorest,then what use is it to capture the ‘commanding heights’?

It is here also that Lohia’s original thinking has to be acknowledged. Lohia put the caste struggle at the forefront of his movement. Here was equality of status not of income placed at the centre of socialism. Even as it fragmented party structures,the Lohiaite approach to caste struggle made Indian politics more inclusive.

Yet 50 years on,anti-Congressism has run its course. Lohiaite parties are in a muddle. Their opposition to the Reservation Bill shows that in the hands of others,Lohia’s notion of caste struggle has become an obstacle and a not a help to development.

Will there ever be socialists again,anywhere,of the likes of Foot and Lohia?

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