Imagining an Alternative Modernity: An Intellectual Biography of Rammanohar Lohia
Rammanohar Lohia was a failed politician. By the time he was finally to the Lok Sabha -- India’s lower house of parliament -- in 1963, it was clear that his Socialist Party would never be a major force in Indian politics. At its peak in 1952, it held only twenty-one of the body’s four hundred and eighty-nine seats. The year he died, in 1967, it held only thirteen. In those fifteen years, the party would fracture repeatedly, with top leadership abandoning the party to join the dominant Congress party, or to pursue activist projects outside of electoral politics altogether. The internal conflicts that drove these defections were due, in part, to Lohia’s combustive personality. A man who clung to his beliefs with a passionate fervor, Lohia could be uncompromising and single-minded. His most noticeable talent as a politician -- his fiery rebukes of the most powerful members of Indian society -- could, when aimed at friends and allies, be alienating and divisive. This was surely frustrating to a man who made clear repeatedly throughout his career that his purpose was not simply to serve as patriotic opposition, but for the Socialists to become the ruling party of India. He was also not a particularly refined intellectual. While he was highly educated -- in 1933 he earned a PhD in economics during a stay in Berlin -- his academic career ended in his youth. He instead spent his career campaigning and advocating, and had little time to sit down and write a cohesive intellectual work. As such, his contributions as an intellectual consist mostly of essays written for Janata, the Party’s journal, or speeches given at various conferences and gatherings. His intellectual contributions are thus, as he himself admitted, “fragments.” Any particular essay or speech might be powerful, eloquent, and even brilliant, but lack in elaboration or depth. For the historian interested in understanding Lohia, it is thus necessary to be attuned to this fragmentary nature of his thought -- to the repetitions as he campaigned in one city, and then the next, hammering home the ideas most important to him, but also to the small and curious asides, indicating a more expansive range of interests left unexplored. Yet, despite never reaching the heights of Indian politics, or leaving behind a single, monumental text to define his intellectual legacy, Lohia played a vital role in the formation of leftist thought in the early years of India's independence. While never truly at the center of things, his willingness to constantly challenge those in power both through public demonstration and through incisive critique marked him as one of the most distinctive figures of his era. More than anything else, Lohia stands apart as a figure capable of immense feats of imagination. In the early 1950s in particular, as India was struggling with the act of self-creation, Lohia devoted himself to discovering what being “postcolonial” truly meant, to envisioning what a postcolonial world could look like. To Lohia, this meant interrogating every aspect of the Western civilization that had colonized India -- from the ideological assumptions that drove its quest for world domination, to the technologies that it had used the resources of colonized peoples to produce. For India, and the rest of the world, to actually decolonize meant liberating themselves from these very structures. It meant creating, from the ground up, new ways of being, ones developed by the peoples of the decolonized world. It meant that the entirety of modernity had to be called into question, that a new civilization built upon fundamentally different phenomenological experiences and ideas had to be built. Thus, Lohia, in conjunction with contemporary figures such as Jayaprakash Narayan, Ashoka Mehta, and Kamaladevi Chattopaddyay, developed a political program built upon the concept of decentralization, of putting economic and political power into the hands of villages and peasants. They embraced the ideal of self-sufficiency, of a world in which communities produced what they needed and freely shared it amongst each other. This program was driven by the belief that politics was best enacted at the smallest level, that the Western ideologies, whether capitalism or communism, produced political and economic systems that devoured the weak and powerless, producing soul-crushing poverty while enriching a few white, European men. That poverty could only be ended through a shared commitment to work, to helping and uplifting those around you, and not by attempting to construct the same systems that had produced such immense violence across the world. However, Lohia also set himself apart from these figures. He did not embrace a pure rejection of modernity as seen in Gandhian thought; he did not desire to return to, rescue, reconstitute precolonial, ancient India. While Lohia emerged out of the Gandhian camp, and developed much of his thinking through engaging with Gandhian discourse, he had a far more complex relationship with classical India than that of the Mahatma and those who carried on the Gandhian torch following his assassination. Just as he believed that the violence inherent in Western thought and Western systems had to be revealed and annihilated, he also believed that the same energy had to be turned towards Indian thought and systems, particularly those that produced the caste system. In an effort to escape Europe, India must not give in to its worst, most violent impulses. Not only was the Indian past filled with oppression and violence, but an attempt to use only the technologies that they had thousands of years ago -- the hoe and the wheel -- would inevitably result in further hunger. There were too many people, too many mouths to feed. Western civilization was too powerful, too willing to maintain a hegemonic domination over the global south, to attempt to live as Indians had in ancient times. The almost contradictory implications of these two strands of Lohia’s thought; his passionate refusal to participate in the project of Western modernity, his unwillingness to see the past as the answer to the problems of today, resulted in him having to develop an altogether new system, one which in this thesis will be called an “alternative modernity.” While Lohia would instead prefer terms such as “new civilization,” or “new world” to describe this system, “alternative modernity” captures the full extent of his work. Lohia recognized the value and appeal of modernity, but feared its oppressive and self-destructive qualities. He argued that what was needed, therefore, was to rethink modernity at a fundamental level, to think through the spiritual traditions and ways of life of colonized peoples, and to develop something new in the process. New theories of history which, rather than forcing humanity upon a teleological train that assumed that progress was unending, that the quality of life for people -- both those living under capitalism or communism -- could constantly improve, instead understood that there was a cyclical rhythm to history, that civilizations rose and fell, and that constructing society in hopes that there would be a utopian end-point would lead only to destruction. New technologies -- what he called small-unit machines -- that would be developed as an alternative to the “monster machines” of the west, which turned human beings into technological components; small-unit machines, he hoped, would be developed by Indian engineers with the intention of putting the power of electricity into the hands of individual farmers, serving as a means of empowerment and liberation rather than alienation. And finally, new forms of international political action, which would turn his alternative modernity into a universal system to replace Western modernity. These forms of international politics would no longer be reliant on the nation-state, instead serving as a means to allow individuals to participate in a global community. In developing these points, this thesis will pay close attention to two core aspects of Lohia’s style of thinking. The first is his constant use of dialectical thinking to develop his ideas. In nearly every essay or speech he wrote, Lohia presented his argument as a means of rejecting the worst ideas while recovering the best from diametrically opposing concepts -- not this, nor that, but instead, this. In the early 1950s, the period on which this thesis is focused, Lohia was particularly concerned with placing the ideas of Gandhi and Karl Marx in productive conversation with one another. With some in his party defecting in order to follow the Gandhian saint Vinoba Bhave, and others seeking to turn the Socialist Party into a full-fledged Marxist party, Lohia sought to unite the two by demonstrating the short-comings of both while rescuing those aspects most useful to postcolonial India. Similarly, Lohia would seek to synthesize the individual with the universal; seek to find a way to construct an intellectual system that allowed the universal to be experienced at the smallest, most local level. He would do the same with questions of materiality and spirituality, with the activity of the West and the poise of the East, and between Ambedkar and, once again, Gandhi. This dialectical process led to an open and flexible system of thought, into which all who sought justice and equality could conceivably be included. The other second key aspect of Lohia’s style of thinking is a deep interest and attunement to power. Like most leftist thinkers, Lohia was concerned with asking who had power in society, who did not, and how to correct the injustices resulting from these inequalities. Yet, unlike many others on the Indian left during this period, he took seriously the need for those on the bottom to actively seek power for themselves in order to dismantle oppressive systems. This was revealed partly in Lohia’s attitude towards electoral politics; while in India at the time it was considered uncouth to actively seek to gain office, Lohia urged his fellow party-members to aggressively work to win elections, defeat the incumbent Indian National Congress, and become the ruling party of India. However, his interest in power extended to a much deeper level than this. To Lohia, power seemed to be tied directly to creation; to have power, meant to be able to create. Thus, his ideas were concerned with finding ways to put power into the hands of farmers, to redistribute power from Europe and North America to Africa and Asia, so that the decolonized world could create its own systems of thought, could create its own means of sustenance, its own forms of economics, its own political structures. This will to power -- as he called it -- was at the center of Lohia’s intellectual work.