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Comrades Against Imperialism (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Michele L. Louro. 2018.
Comrades Against Imperialism: Nehru, India, and Interwar Internationalism
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
ISBN 9781108419307

Comrades Against Imperialism is a study of Jawaharlal Nehru’s anti-imperialist thought and militancy during the period between the two world wars. The book reconstructs and analyses Nehru’s commitment to anti-imperialism and his role within the League Against Imperialism (LAI) on the backdrop of international and Indian events spanning throughout the interwar period: from the Brussels Congress (1927) which gave birth to the LAI, to World War II (and beyond).

Michele Louro provides a revealing portrait of Nehru and of his two political souls. On one hand, there is ‘Nehru the comrade’, cosmopolitan and charismatic member of a militant network extending from Europe to Asia, Africa, and the Americas. On the other, ‘Nehru the nationalist’ – a role far better known and widely celebrated – freedom fighter and to-be-father of the nation, leader of the Indian National Congress (INC) and at the forefront India’s struggle for decolonization.

Most literature mainly understands Nehru as a nationalist, hence portrays his commitment to internationalism as secondary or instrumental to the achievement of the nationalist objective of independence. Taking distance from such interpretations, Louro makes room for Nehru’s often neglected avatar of comrade. She argues that Nehru’s faith in anti-imperialism was not ancillary to other goals but authentic, a political ideal adopted in its own right.

The author maintains that in Nehru’s political system there was, in principle, neither hierarchy nor contradiction between internationalist anti-imperialism and nationalist anti-colonialism. For him ‘nationalism was often framed as a “stage” to internationalism’ (p. 12). Once socialized into the ideals of anti-imperialism and socialism at the Brussels Congress, Nehru envisioned of a world in which the anti-capitalist and the anti-colonial struggles went hand in hand, necessary as they were to each other. Their respective goals were eventually convergent: to have a world free from exploitation, whether perpetrated to the detriment of working classes or non-European nations. Nehru tried to keep these two ideals together and to juggle his double role of LAI militant and INC member throughout the interwar period.

Comrade-congressman Nehru emerges from Louro’s account as an extremely able politician, a ‘transformist’ at times. In India, he strives to ‘internationalize Indian nationalism’ (p. 183). He pushes the Congress to join hands with the LAI contending that anti-imperialists support India’s cause for independence. He attempts to introduce socialism into the INC program, managing at the same time a difficult relationship with more moderate Gandhian congressmen (Ch. 3).

On the other hand, in Europe he advocates for LAI’s support to India’s nationalist cause positioning ‘India at the forefront of the world struggle against imperialism’ (p. 39). Later on, once the war threat becomes reality and the world spirals into World War II, he maintains that ‘peace can come only when India is free’ (p. 233).

Overall Louro delineates Nehru as a comrade sincerely committed to internationalist ideals, even when these eventually come into conflict with the priority objective of Indian independence (pp. 241, 254). The contradictions of Nehru’s ‘anti-imperialism with Indian characteristics’, emerge as fascism materializes in Europe (Ch. 6). The historical events of the period make it difficult for Nehru to juggle his two avatars as he used to. At the same time, they produce an ideological extremization that poisons the inclusive partnerships on which the LAI had been funded  – the ‘blend’ of anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, and socialism Nehru had advocated for – eventually bringing the organization to its end (Ch. 7).

Louro suggests that Nehru’s commitment to internationalism remained incorrupt throughout these events and that he always acted in good faith. Rather than pure idealism, a more cynical diagnosis would read in these contradictions evidence of pragmatism, realism, perhaps even hypocrisy at times. Similarly, some deficiencies of Nehru’s internationalism, such as the Indo-centrism of his world view (pp. 55-7, 242, 254) or his approximated understanding of communist China – merely based on the interactions with the Kuomintang (pp. 242, 247, 254, 280) – could invite stronger criticism.

In any case, the book deserves commendation for providing a more nuanced and sophisticated picture of the politician Nehru, his political vision and his understanding of the world. Also, it shows in detail how these were influenced not only by Indian events, but by what was happening in the rest of the globe as well. Another important contribution of the book is that it sheds light on a historical period on which relatively less little literature is available. Louro’s arguments are based on a careful reconstruction of Nehru’s correspondences and travels. Moreover, her conclusions often expand or challenge mainstream notions.

She demonstrates, for example, that Nehru’s commitment to socialism begun not during his education in England (1905-1912), but at the Brussels Congress (1927) and through his consequent militancy within the LAI (Ch. 1, 2). Against historical accounts which argue that anti-imperialism pushed Nehru to ‘abandon authentically indigenous ideas about India’, Louro maintains that ‘Nehru's anti-colonial and anti-imperial projects were not mutually exclusive and cannot be understood without examining the national and the international dimension together’ (p. 104).

To support this thesis, Louro considers the INC–LAI breakup of 1930 and its aftermath. Such crisis is widely seen as the end of LAI’s constraining over Nehru, which lets him finally free to embrace his nationalist mission fully. In fact, the author demonstrates that after the breakup Nehru’s anti-imperialist militancy did not stop but continued, and that he kept cultivating crucial relationships with former comrades (pp.182-3).

Another compelling part of the book is Louro’s take on Nehru’s socialism, a widely debated element of his political thought. She argues that his ’”vague and confused” sympathies or “partial commitment” to socialism and communism’ are better understood ‘by thinking about his commitment to anti-imperialism’. She therefore proposes a rereading of Nehru’s Glimpses of World History (1934) as an anti-imperialist text (pp. 184-8), which brings her to reject the idea that ‘Nehru’s world history depends on the enlightenment notions of progress based upon a Eurocentric version of history’ (p. 185).

Throughout the exposition, the author engages in dialogue with the related literature, explaining how the book aims at presenting interpretations often alternative to it. Her knowledgeable use of primary sources and clear prose further add to the value of the book.

Comrades Against Imperialism will appeal to readers across disciplines. It will be most useful to historians focusing on the interwar years and on internationalist organizations flourished in the period. Those looking at the history of imperialism, the British Raj, decolonization, and the participation of colonies to internationalist movements will find it equally enriching. The book’s central message to historians is to return the global context its relevance while writing national histories. With regard to Asia and India specifically, it ‘asks critically how this earlier history of anti-imperialist solidarity shaped and impacted Nehru’s views of India and the third world’ (p. 15). Hence, it is an essential reading for understanding the conditions and connections within which the struggle for independence took place and Nehru shaped his Weltanschauung.

Because Nehru’s imprint characterized India's international stance as a sovereign state throughout and beyond the Nehruvian era, Louro’s study of Nehru’s internationalism is extremely relevant also to those concerned with India’s contemporary foreign policy. The book’s insights, often challenging dominant interpretations, offer useful inputs to rethink some crucial events of Asian history and India’s performance in those occasions. These are, for example, the Bandung conference (1955) –reassessed by Louro in Chapter 7 – as well as the 1962 India–China war. These are watershed moments whose long-term effects have not ceased to influence contemporary international affairs; yet no final conclusion has been reached about their interpretation and scholars keep investigating them to produce new knowledge. Comrades Against Imperialism finds a place also within this literature, as it adds to the debate on how Nehruvian India used to see the world and consequently engaged it. Therefore, it is a must read also for those concerned with producing historically-informed analyses of its foreign policy.

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