Socialist Leaders of The Pre-independence Era

Socialism was like the Spirit of the Age in pre-independence India. It’s not surprising, if a bit unsettling to some, that many of the freedom fighters got attracted to the lure of socialism as the correct medium for nation building while dreaming for an independent India. It was Karl Marx, the father of communism, who inspired many Indians through his writings during the Russian Revolution.

  • Bal Gangadher Tilak was among the first Indian freedom fighters to praise Marx’s philosophy and the Russian communist revolutionary Lenin. 
  • Subhash Chandra Bose, the fascist leader of the Indian National Army who was impressed by Mussolini, had inclinations towards authoritarian means for creating a socialist nation. He thought of Soviet Union as a role-model-nation for India and believed (post WW II) that democracy would not work in a country like India. He had major disagreements with Gandhi’s non-violent methods for attaining independence, and was an advocate for a violent resistance. [He was elected as the president of Indian National Congress for two consecutive terms, but resigned because of his ideological differences with the Mahatma.]
  • Another freedom fighter, Bhagat Singh, was also attracted to the Marxist principles of revolutionary Communism. After becoming the leader of Hindustan Republican Association, he changed its name to Hindustan Socialist Republican Association in 1928. Like Netaji, he also believed that a vast and diverse country like India could survive only under a socialist government. He wrote in his letter to the Governor of Punjab “Till Communist Party comes to power and people live without unequal status, our struggle will continue. It cannot be brought to an end by killing us: it will continue openly as well as secretly.” In the famous statement on June 6, 1929, Bhagat Singh said: “The whole edifice of this civilization, if not saved in time, shall crumble. A radical change, therefore, is necessary and it is the duty of those who realise it to reorganize society on the socialistic basis. Unless this thing is done and the exploitation of man by man and of nations by nations is brought to an end, sufferings and carnage with which humanity is threatened today cannot be prevented.” 
  • On the other end of the political spectrum, the Indian National Congress also believed in the socialist philosophy and set it as a goal for free India. Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India adopted socialist practices for industrial and economic development as well as for social reforms in India. While many believe today that the liberalization should have taken place as early as the 70’s (as opposed to the 90’s), it remains a topic of debate whether implementing free market economy right after freedom could have been a wise alternative to ‘centralized planning’.
  • The National Planning Committee (NPC), which was set up in 1938, was in charge of deciding economic policy for India that was soon to be free. The NPC took lessons from Russia and Japan where state intervention was needed and helped tremendously to annul the effects of late industrialization. This ‘late industrialization’ effect was even more prevalent in India which had been under colonial rule for over 200 years. So the NPC suggested “service before profit” policy, and notably the private sector agreed with this strategy.  In 1944, a group of leading industrialists published A Plan for Economic Development for India (which was later known as the Bombay Plan), in which they expressed the need for state intervention especially in  energy, transportation and infrastructure. These capitalists concurred that, positive and preventive functions of the state are essential to any large scale economic planning in the early stage of industrialization. 
  • Gandhi, however, was not very impressed by and attracted to socialism. In the following passage (that I took from Gandhi’s biography: Gandhi, The Man, His People and The Empire, written by his grandson Rajmohan), he talks about his thoughts on the role of state in the economy and the relationship between the state and the individual: “The sum and substance of what I want to say is that the individual person should have control over the things that are necessary for the sustenance of life. If he can not have such control the individual can not survive. Ultimately, the world is made up only of individuals.” This sounds somewhat libertarian to me, but they are definitely not pro-socialist. 
The word socialist was not added to the preamble of the Constitution of India until the Emergency of 1976. Below is the preamble:
having solemnly resolved to constitute India into 
JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and of opportunity;
and to promote among them all
FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation; [link]
(Emphasis mine.)
Even after India has shredded off its socialist ideals in 1991, when the prime minister Narsimha Rao and the finance minister Manmohan Singh, introduced economic liberalization which spurted a tremendous economic growth in last couple of decades, India continues to be described a socialist republic in the preamble to the constitution! [Several months ago, the SC surprisingly refused to entertain a petition which urged to remove the word socialist from the preamble.]

2 responses to “Socialist Leaders of The Pre-independence Era

  1. This affinity for socialism could be attributed to the fact that during our pre-independence times and for a few decades after independence socilaist countries like Russia were doing very well on the economic front. Also our leaders had a great dislike for capitalism because our country had suffered a lot due to the imperialistic policies of most of the capitalistic countries. So they regarded capitalism as an evil used to subjugate people of other lands. I do believe that we started off well as a socialist country and built a solid industry base. If we had started right away with liberalisation our economy would have been destroyed. However we should have liberalised our economy earlier, say in the 70s or 80s rather than let the beauracracy have a strangle hold over the industries rendering them inefficient.

  2. vishal12

    Yes, I agree with you that immediately after independence Indian industries and market needed some support from the state. And as I’ve mentioned in my post, the Bombay plan is a proof of the fact that even the industrialists felt the need for state support in several sectors. As you said (spot on!), the liberalization should have happened earlier — but the government of Indira Gandhi (1966-1977) strengthened the hold of state instead of starting to free-up the market. That was a big blow which pushed India several decades backwards.

    One of the main purposes of my post was to show that (1) Nehru was not the only leader of the time who favored socialism (as many mistakenly believe). The socialist framework of the country that he set-up was – not forced, but widely accepted as need-of-the-day, and (2) Nehru is not the one who should be criticized for, or held responsible for late liberalization – it was Indira. And both of these points adds my arguments to one of my earlier post “Love to Hate Nehru”:

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