Origins and Outlook



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The Concept of Liberalism and its Relevance for India
S. P. Aiyar

(from Freedom and Dissent, Democratic Research Service, 1985, Bombay)


Origins and Outlook
Any one who sets out to prove the relevance of liberalism for England or the United States or for any of the established democracies of the Western World would appear to his contemporaries as a curious and interesting crank. In these countries the social and political philosophy of liberalism is now part of the institutional framework and constitutes the ethos in which government functions. On the other hand in large parts of Asia and Africa liberalism is often regarded as an out-moded philosophy with little or no relevance to the problems of economic development. In Communist countries, of course, liberalism is hardly spoken of, being synonymous with bourgeois subversion. The relevance of liberalism arises precisely in those historical situations where the rights of men are suppressed or in countries that live under the menacing threat of tyranny in one form or another.
In the history of ideas, liberalism has presented two faces. It has been a philosophy of revolt as well as an affirmation of human freedom. As a philosophy it has dominated the intellectual life of Europe since the beginning of the Reformation and has sought to liberate men from medieval con­ceptions of authority. In its origins-and indeed, throughout its history-liberalism has sought to encourage individual initiative as the motor-force of all progress. It began in a mood of revolt in an era when Europe was poised for great changes. It revolted against State-dominated feudal interests but it also represented the outlook of the commercial and other new classes which were emerging during the end of the Middle Ages. Liberalism set the ambit of political authority and sought to confine the functions of government within the framework of a legal system emphasizing the freedom of new economic interests. In his Rise of European Liberalism Harold Laski attempted to provide an economic interpretation of this movement of thought. He attempted to show that liberalism was merely an aspect of European history in a period of which, it was, to quote Ruggiero, "a by-product of the effort of the middle class to win its place in the sun." It was Laski's intention to prove that liberalism had lost its relevance but it has outlived him and the passing phase of European history when he flirted with the prevailing currents of thought. Laski's Marxist interpretation had many valuable insights but it did not prove the irrelevance of liberalism. On the other hand, it merely served to underline the contribution liberalism had made. It had freed men from the numerous restrictions which had been imposed on trade and commerce and helped the growth of the industrial society in a formative period. Liberalism gave a new lease of life to the activities of men in all spheres and helped the growth of science. In the first flush of enthusiasm created by the growth of the physical sciences and the grand idea of Progress, liberalism attempted to pattern its world view on that of physics by trying to explain society as a system governed by its own laws. The social order became part of the "natural order" and any interference with the social system was believed to be detrimental to its smooth functioning.
I have already stated that liberalism was a revolt against the restrictions and privileges of feudalism. It placed the individual at the centre of its philosophy and emphasized his ability to reason out social arrangements and sort things out for himself. It stressed his right to trade and enter into contracts, his freedom to bargain and the freedom of enterprise. Above all, it postulated private property as one of the conditions of social progress. It was, therefore, the function of government to guarantee the peaceful employment of property and provide the external conditions of law and order.
Liberalism was a revolt not merely against feudal interests but also against the dogma and authority of the Church. It rejected the medieval claim that "Truth" was revealed. It went back to the Greek idea that Truth had to be discovered through the methods of science. Since truth had to be discovered, it became necessary to protest against institutions and individuals claiming possession of final truths. In the process, liberalism asserted the right of free men to express opinions and assert their civil and political rights. The heart of the matter was the liberation of individuals and society from irrational. restraints. In its revolt against the authority of the Church, it emphasized the demarcation of the spheres of Church and State. Thus the history of liberalism in Europe is coterminus with the process of secularization and the growth of a modern rational bureaucracy.
Before we leave behind us this brief account of the intellectual origins of liberalism in Europe it is necessary to mention that liberalism was primarily a social and political philosophy and acquired its economic content later. The great exponents of liberalism were philosophers and not business men and even a casual look into any history of liberalism would show that they were often as critical of business interests as they were of the Church or the State.
Liberalism is not an Ideology
Liberalism is a philosophy and not an ideology; it provides the broadest framework for the progress of individuals and societies. This is why most of us get stumped when confronted by a question requiring us to give a short definition of liberalism. It has been a movement of ideas emphasizing freedom and growth; the variety and complexity of society. It postulates the diversity of human interests and the creativity of individuals. When classical writers on liberalism talked of "Minimum government" they did not ask for the total withdrawal of the State, giving free rein to individuals. Politics is but a small part of social life, occupying a corner of the average man's universe of interests. In its many spheres he desires to be left alone. Even in the sphere of the economic and the political he stands to gain only in arrangements which make possible the free play of competing forces. Liberals have been opposed to monopoly in every form and in every sphere. It was the Church in the sixteenth century; it is the State in the twentieth. Liberals want government to enter wherever it can promote social progress through the freedom and creativity of individuals but never to smother and snuff them out.
Liberalism made a distinction between Society and State, regarding the latter as primarily a regulatory mechanism, taking over only those activities which individuals cannot and which are directly in the larger interests of society. Liberalism was never a negative philosophy - a positive element of State activity was always present in the classical exposition of liberalism. This is why liberalism has found little difficulty in adapting itself to the expanding activities of the State under the growth of science and technology. What liberalism has retained in the course of its development, however, is a suspicion and fear of the concentration of power in the State, to balance which, it has sought the strengthening of other competing social forces. Liberalism has no dogmatic creed, no ideological strait-jacket. It claims to have no body of solutions-unlike Marxism-for all countries irrespective of their history, culture and development. The spirit of liberalism lies in finding solutions appropriate to given situations but only those compatible with freedom.
Liberalism in India
It is against this background of European intellectual development that Indian liberalism has to be viewed. It was a product of the Western impact on the Indian mind and contributed to India's constitutional and political development. So profound, indeed, has been this influence that the history of Indian nationalism and constitutional development, more or less coincides with that of liberalism until World War I. The Gandhi period of Indian politics which followed cast a veil over the real achievements of the outstanding liberal leaders of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and it is but appropriate that we now seek to lift it.
No one, except purblind Marxist intellectuals, will deny the contribution British rule made to the process of modernization of India; Westernization became the vehicle of modernization although it is perfectly valid to say that the two processes are not identical. Ram Mohun Roy, with whom the history of Indian liberalism begins, was quick in perceiving the significance of the great changes on which India was poised in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. He was, to quote his biographer Sophia Collet, the "bridge over which India passed from her unmeasured past into her incalculable future" and "in him, the New England became acquainted with the New India." His mastery over English, Bengali, Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic and his interest in comparative religions gave him an unrivalled position in understanding the historical forces which were shaping India in his time. Roy's concern for social reform and the uplift of women, for education as a means of social transformation, for the freedom of the press-not to speak of his passion for liberty-were inherited by the great liberals of India. Some of them were in government service, others in important political positions but they were never the flatterers or sycophants that they have sometimes been made out to be by those ignorant of modern Indian history. The liberals were the most incisive critics of British rule. One has only to recall the great volume of critical thought based on study and reflection which the literature of Indian liberalism has produced. Men like Dadabhai Naoroji, Mahadeo Govind Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Dinshaw Eduljee Wacha and Pherozeshah Mehta were no captious and irresponsible critics. One finds in their writings a power and intensity which has, perhaps, never been excelled in the Gandhian era`. What gave urgency to their thought and commanded the attention of the rulers was their anxiety always to be fair in criticism and the integrity with which their arguments were documented. It has been the lot of Indian liberals-then as now to be cast in the role of an opposition, with little or no chance of getting into power and they saw themselves as the creators of public opinion.
For instance a recurring idea in Gokhale's writing is that leaders of public life must reconcile themselves by serving their country through disinterested activity regardless of results. Superficially viewed, we have the political counterpart of the Karmayogin, indifferent alike to failure and success. But a deeper study of Gokhale's thought would show that his concept of a political leader is very different. Since public life is a matter of slow growth, even a failure may be deemed a success, if it contributes in the long run to the political education of the people. A classic expression of this aspect of Gokhale's political thought is found in the noble peroration at the close of his speech on the Elementary Education Bill in the Imperial Legislative Council on 18 March, 1912:
"My Lord I know that my Bill will be thrown out before the day closes. I make no complaint. I shall not even feel depressed. I know too well the story of the preliminary efforts that were required even in England, before the Act of 1870 was passed, either to complain or to feel depressed. Moreover, I have always felt and have often said that we, of the present generation in India, can only hope to serve our country by our failures. The men and women who will be privileged to serve her by their successes will come later. We must be content to accept cheerfully the place that has been allotted to us in our onward march. This Bill, thrown out to-day, will come back again and again, till on the stepping-stones of its dead selves, a measure ultimately rises which will spread the light of knowledge throughout the land. It may be that our efforts may not conduce even indirectly to the promotion of the great cause which we all have at heart and that they may turn out after all to be nothing better than the mere ploughing of the sands of the sea-shore. But, my Lord, whatever fate awaits our labours, one thing is clear. We shall be entitled to feel that we have done our duty, and where the call of duty is clear, it is better even to labour and fail than not to labour at all."
Westernized Elites?
It has often been said that the liberals constituted an elite - a description which they would hardly have objected to. They constituted an elite, in the true sociological sense, and were alive to their social responsibilities. But to imply that they were not interested in the welfare of the masses, is both wrong and unfair. A few of them were aristocrats with only tenuous contact with the masses but they were not the outstanding leaders of the movement. To judge Indian liberalism through its lesser lights is like passing an indictment on Mahatma Gandhi through the performance of those who have crucified his ideals.
Nor were Indian liberals imitative, blindly accepting the principles of Western liberalism. Western concepts were tested, adapted and even rejected. Let me cite but one example. Indian liberals like Roy, Ranade and Gokhale never accepted the negative role of the State-the passing idiom of nineteenth century England.
In his Essays on Indian Economics Ranade pointed out that the reaction to the meddlesomeness of mercantilism had been carried to the other extreme. But there was a reaction to the laissez-faire system. Ranade said "speaking roughly, the province of state interference and control is practically being extended so as to restore the good points of the mercantile system without its absurdities. The State is now more and more recognised as a national organ for taking care of national needs in all matters in which individual and co-operative efforts are not likely to be so effective and economic as national effort. This is a correct view to take for the true functions of a state. To relegate them to the simple duty of maintaining peace and order is really to deprive the Community of many of the advantages of the Social Union. Education, both Liberal and Technical, Post' and Telegraphs, Railway and Canal Communications, the pioneering of new enterprize, the insurance of risky undertakings, all these functions are usefully discharged by the State. The question is one of time, fitness, and expediency, not one of liberty and rights." I must add that it was not Ranade's intention that liberty could be sacrificed in the pursuit of economic development. The whole temper of his work was to strike a balance between progress and freedom. Like all liberals, he derived the rational temper from Western thought. They approached the institutions of traditional Hindu society with a rational outlook and sought to reform them through an appeal to reason. Liberals in the West, as mentioned earlier, saw the danger to personal freedom from concentration of power in the State. Indian liberals, on the other hand, saw the individual cribbed, cabined and confined by ancient superstitions and irrational practices. They took a deep and abiding interest in questions of social reform and did not hesitate in using the power of the State-even that of a foreign govern ment -for purposes of social reform. Four Aspects of Indian Liberalism
In my Liberalism and the Modernization of India (Twelfth Annual Lecture at the Harold Laski Institute, 1966) I have discussed four major aspects of the outlook of the Indian liberals. Firstly, they perceived the "total" character of the modernization process and the inter-dependence of economic development and political stability. They saw how closely related were the processes of social and political development and stressed the need to maintain continuity in the cultural traditions of the people. Consider, for instance, Roy's interest in India's religious history, Ranade's theism and his exposition of the relevance of the teachings of the saints of Maharashtra, Sastri's interest in the Ramayana and Rajagopalachari's love of the Kural. Liberalism has sometimes been described as conservatism-so it is, in the best sense of the word for it seeks to conserve everything that is good in the past.
Secondly, Indian liberals have always entertained a certain apprehension of unenlightened revolt of the masses and sensed the dangers of mass movements. Liberals, at all times, have cautioned against rousing the people through an exploitation of their emotions: Shivaji and Ganpati festivals at the time of Tilak, non-cooperation movements under Gandhi and the populist gimmicks of politicians which have become endemic in Indian public life today. The liberal apprehensions of the orgies into which uncontrolled movements often degenerate have now been amply supported by studies in crowd psychology. Sir P. S. Sivaswamy Aiyar pointed out that one of the great difficulties in non-cooperation and non-violence movements is to maintain their essential non-violent character and this line of thinking can be found also in the speeches and writings of Gokhale and of Srinivasa Sastri.
Thirdly, they saw the danger of helpless dependence on foreign assistance. They welcomed the import of Western skills and knowledge but they warned against unimaginative dependence on foreign aid and foreign experts. What is important is to develop the initiative of the people and promote the skills necessary for development. Consider Gokhale's warning in this direction, echoed after many ;decades, by Rajagopalachari in the pages of Swarajya and Sivaswamy Aiyar's plea for technical and professional education.
Finally, all the liberals have shared a common concern for the expansion of education and opening up opportunities for woman-without watering down standards. Theirs p was no sentimental flirtation with the Goddess of Learning. They examined the educational needs of the country; they saw the weakness of a purely "Arts" education compelling people to take government jobs and making them more dependant than ever on the foreign government. This is one of the reasons why Sivaswamy Aiyar had emphasized the importance of education in commerce and mechanical engineering. More than any other liberal, with the exception of Gokhale, it was from regulated private enterprise to State-red economics; it includes utopianism of many varie Gandhi, Vinoba, Jayaprakash Narain et al-an romantic sentimentalism.
It is difficult, even futile, to examine here the reasons for the popularity of this ill-defined concept in India. Let it be granted straightway that its emphasis on egalitarianism and equitable distribution is both correct and laudable; that it springs from a concern for social justice on the part of most people, except those who aspire to profit from their admission into the ruling class. More than this cannot be said for socialism. But at the heart of the Asian Drama lies the great debate between socialism and liberalism, between those who advocate the expansion of the State in every sphere of economic activity and those who wish to broaden the entrepreneurial base. Socialist-minded economists and political scientists have argued the irrelevance of liberalism on the ground that its validity is tied up with the notion of the free market mechanism-a figment of the nineteenth century economic imagination. They further assert that free enterprise and liberalism have worked in the countries of Western Europe through a fortuitous combination of circumstances; therefore, they will not work in the peculiar circumstances of India. The notion of the free market was merely a model and no one has ever pretended that existing markets can ever approximate to it. This is why liberalism has always recognized the need for regulation.
The exponents of classical liberalism were fully aware of the imperfections of human nature and their deleterious effects on the economy. Adam Smith, for instance, spoke of the "sneaking arts of underlying businessmen" and further observed! "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."
In the history of liberalism, there has been a significant distinction between intervention and interference, between
controls and regulations which sustain and strengthen competition and those that hamper and destroy it. It is hardly necessary for me to add that those who speak of the "Permit­License-Quota Rai" do not advocate the dismantling of all governmental restraints. Such a step would lead not to competition but to the law of the jungle-the very thing which liberals have been anxious to avoid) Likewise, liberals recognise that the State has a crucial role to play in the economic development of Asian countries.
Pragmatism of the Liberals
Liberalism never supplied any formula for the scope of State activities; these would be determined by the particular circum­stances of the country and even within each country, the extent of State participation would change from time to time. At a week-long seminar held in Poona under the auspices of the Friedrich-Naumann Stiftung and the Indian Group of the Liberal International in January 1968 the point was emphasized by many participants. The points made then are still relevant after twenty years. Thus V. K. Narasimhan rightly argued that the "mixed economy" should not be regarded as something determined once and for all. It is necessary, he urged, to have a dynamic view of the mixed economy in which the proportion of the "mix" would be determined from time to time, not on the basis of some abstract principle but in the light of knowledge and experience. This is the crux of the liberal position and the main point of departure from.that of socialism. Throughout its history, liberals have always insisted that political and economic problems should not be approached from an ideological point of view. Ideology, by its very nature, runs counter to science and rationality; it is impatient of reality as the history of Marxism has demonstrated over and over again. In the long run, facts are stubborn things and reality will assert itself: Lysenkos and Michurins must own up their ideological charlatanry and socialist countries are compelled to accept, albeit reluctantly, the logic of the market mechanism and even provide for the profit principle!
The massive poverty and gross inequalities of India do not prove the irrelevance of liberalism but its contrary. Precisely because the entrepreneurial base is narrow does it need to be broadened -so that the fruits of technological development can be increased and distributed. Production and distribution are but aspects of industrial production-private enterprise and
State regulation have both important roles to play in the process. Nowhere have the great liberal writers asserted that production alone matters and that distribution will take care of itself. Peter Drucker is right when he speaks of the interdependence of modern economies leading to the "symbiosis" of organizations; it is equally true that the lines dividing "private" and "public" tend to get functionally blurred. But it is not true to say that the lines need not be drawn or that they are irrelevant. Liberalism has stood for releasing the creative energies of people, treating the State and its agencies as means for social progress and not as ends in themselves. Paradoxically, both Marxian socialism and liberalism have been concerned with the problems of production and distribution; but while Marxism has emphasized these in purely economic terms, liberalism has sought to place them in the larger perspective of human freedom. I have mentioned earlier that liberalism has been primarily a political philosophy of freedom and it seems odd that one should want to prove the "relevance" of freedom for India. The possibilities of freedom in underdeveloped countries are tied up with the problems of production. Students of revolution from Aristotle to Hannah Arendt and Crane Brinton have pointed.out that the most crucial periods of history are those which promise signs of improvement and it is not difficult to see that India is now passing through a period of great ferment.
In conclusion I wish to argue that to speak of relevance of liberalism to the Indian situation is an understatement. It is more than that for it provides not only the philosophy of our Constitution but also a framework for the future development of the culturally diversified society of India. Ironically the policies of the Indian government for three decades and a half have served to underline some of the lasting lessons of liberalism. The expanding power of the state in all the key areas of human activity, the growth of Indian bureaucracy, the control of not merely the economy. but also of the mass media, the clumsy and costly system of regulation and control have all conspired to smother initiative. It is no wonder that creative individuals have either suffered frustration or have become sycophants of the powers that be. Several who have had the opportunity to go to foreign universities have been reluctant to come back to the country. The philosophers of Liberalism have always warned against the dangers of Etatisme. Thus John Stuart Mill in his classic work On Liberty said
"A government cannot have too much of the kind of activity which does not impede, but aids and stimulates, individual exertion and development. The mischief begins when, instead of calling forth the activity and powers of individuals and bodies, it substitutes its own activity for theirs; when, instead of informing, advising, and upon occasion, denouncing, it makes them work in fetters, or bids them stand aside and does their work instead of them. The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it; and a State which postpones. the interests of their mental expansion and elevation, to a little more of administrative skill, or of that semblance of it which practice gives, in the details of business; a State which dwarfs its men in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposeswill find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish."
The near "one party system" which has long dominated the Indian political scene has given rise to a host of social problems and heightened intolerance of criticism. The threats to individual freedom are ever present making it necessary for freedom loving individuals to organise for civil liberties and constantly explore new channels for the expression of critical thought. In the long perspective of Indian history and tradition concern for the individual and his rights has been conspicuous by its absence. India can progress on the lines indicated in the Constitution only through a break with the dead past.






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