A Worthy Addition to Scholarship in the Field of Colonialism and Capitalism

In the 150 years of history after 1800, colonialism, a distinct category of economic development, impacted the fate of societies spread over large parts of the world outside Western Europe, Northern America and Japan.

Imperialism, the other side of colonialism, helped sustain capitalism and the colonial regimes by staving off challenges to the system from the colonising nations’ own oppressed sections of society.

History teaches us that there is something unnatural about those nations in the temperate zone of the earth which turned out to be developed and ensured better standards of life to their peoples notwithstanding the deprivations they suffered historically in terms of agricultural produce compared to the nations in tropical parts of the world which can boast of producing all that they need. An understanding of colonialism helps find the answer to this discrepancy.

Aditya Mukherjee
Political Economy of Colonial and Post-Colonial India
Primus Books, 2022

Aditya Mukherjee’s Political Economy of Colonial and Post-Colonial India, essentially a compilation of the research papers he has published since the late 1970s, could not have published at a more appropriate time than now, given the respectability given by the academia of our times to those who seek to deny the effects of colonialism and those who deny the centrality of the anti-colonial struggle in the making of the modern Indian nation.

These challenges, though they may appear to come from distinct terrains, one being the denial of de-industrialisation and the argument that the colonial period witnessed the expansion of industries in India, and the other that the nation and its making had nothing much to do with the conscious resistance against colonialism and instead was rooted in the glorious past and its restoration, are potent with the possibilities of a convergence. In an ideological sense, both are bereft of any praxis and hence do not serve the cause of history as a discipline.

As Benedetto Croce put it, all history is contemporary history; contemporary not in the sense of the recentness of the event, but in the sense that the historian’s journey into the past and events from the past are guided by the concerns of her or his times. The concerns of our times are indeed the recent attempts to deny the colonial causes behind some of our economic challenges as much as the fact that the colonial impact in India was distinctly different from that on Southern America or Africa, as was the post-colonial development trajectory. In other words, Jawaharlal Nehru and the idea of planning ensured that India escaped the dependency trap which the once colonised nations in Latin America and Africa walked into after gaining their independence.

Data-driven arguments

Aditya Mukherjee, one of those scholars who set out on the path paved by Bipan Chandra in the 1980s, has rendered justice to the task he set himself to many years ago. The essays in this book revolve around establishing Bipan Chandra’s formulations on colonialism, which can be captured as follows:

  • That colonialism is NOT a distinct mode of production as held by Hamza Alavi; rather than a mode of production, colonialism is a social formation in which several modes of production, relations of production and forms of exploitation coexist, including the capitalist mode of production.
  • That colonialism is best seen as a totality or a unified structure. To see colonialism as a structure is also to realise that it will go on reproducing itself unless it is shattered.
  • That even while there may be substance in the argument that a society rendered colonial is structurally disabled to produce its own national bourgeoisie and that the capitalist class that emerges there is invariably a comprador class, there exist the potentials for exemption to this generality and the Indian experience is one such example, where the bourgeoisie emerged into a class for itself rather than a class in itself.
  • That though colonialism as a category for study in history emerged from the discourses in the COMINTERN [Communist International, a Soviet-controlled international organisation that aimed to spread communism in the world] in the 1920s, the communists in India erred in their reading of the objective conditions in India as distinct from the various other colonised societies; that the key to a better understanding of colonialism in India and its implication for the making of the nation can be found in a closer reading of Marx and Engels and their discussion on colonialism in Ireland.
  • That colonialism impacted societies differently and hence it is necessary to study the facts of each of those societies, especially the data on manufacture, trade, employment and public finances, to seek distinct patterns and trends in colonial India even without losing sight of some of the common features of colonialism/imperialism, such as the determination of policies to preserve and prosper the interests of the metropolis, the centrality of extraction of surplus from the colonies to the metropolis, etc.

Aditya Mukherjee. Photo: Sage Publications website

Mukherjee, through his meticulous research in the archives and his intense reading of the private papers of Purushotamdas Thakurdas [an industrialist in pre-Independence Bombay who made several proposals for the post-Independence economy of India and had been involved in the establishment of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry in 1927], had begun telling the story of colonialism in India and the capitalist class that emerged in the context of colonial rule in the several papers he had presented since the 1970s. In the process, Mukherjee had established that the capitalist class in India was as much nationalist as any other class, and that as a collective, it had wrenched economic independence from the colonists and thus dispelled the notion they were comprador.

Mukherjee has also relied on Amiya Bagchi’s seminal work, Private Investment in India, 1900-1939, even while staying clear of Bagchi’s conclusion on the nature of the capitalist class.

The essays in this collection, however, have been updated by the author, keeping in view the onslaught on history by Tirtankar Roy and the argument that colonial rule, especially in its last 50 years, witnessed decolonisation and growth in capitalism in India.

Mukherjee, calling this the return of the colonial, takes on Roy (as much as such others as Morris D. Morris), resorting to facts and data to establish Bipan Chandra’s formulations as truth. Rather than statements, Mukherjee provides the reader with data to substantiate his arguments and it is this that makes the collection interesting and useful.

A political-economic partnership

It is worth noting that Mukherjee sets out the core aspects of his arguments in Chapter 1 of this compilation, which is an updated version of his presidential address to the Indian History Congress (Modern Section) in December 2007. He is consistent all through the volume in perceiving colonialism as a structure (and NOT a mode of production) to drive home the point that ‘the colonial path and the capitalist path are not even like parallel paths, which do not ever meet, but are actually divergent paths’.

This perspective, Mukherjee argues, laid the foundations of the national movement as much as it provided the leaders of independent India, in the political domain as well as in the world of economic planning, the common sense wisdom to chart out India’s political and economic policies post-independence. This indeed is the template on which Mukherjee’s essays are put together and in that sense it is a substantial shift from scholarship by historians who fight shy of studying history and moments after 1947 as much as economists who refuse to deal with the subject in a historical context.

The book, for these reasons and many more, is certainly a worthy addition to scholarship in the field. Written in a language that is not the one that economists usually use, Mukherjee’s book should be useful to economists, historians and anyone who is interested in reading and gathering perspectives on an important dimension of our past and a concept – colonialism – that has implications for our own times too.

V. Krishna Ananth teaches history at Sikkim University, Gangtok. Aditya Mukherjee was among his teachers during his Masters at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Featured image: Jawaharlal Nehru delivers his ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech, on the eve of India’s independence. Photo: Wikipedia/Fair Use

This article was first published on The Wire.