Monarchy, Imperialism and Modernity: Munshi Premchand’s Unblinking Eye For Truth

23 August 2015
Munshi Premchand, the renowned Hindi novelist, was a well-known advocate of the abolition of the zamindari system, leading to many claiming that he was certainly a leftist, if not an outright communist.
Public Domain

Around two years ago, on 25 August 2013, my mother, a loyal reader of Jansatta—a Hindi daily—asked me to read a small piece in the editorial section of the newspaper. The piece in question was a reprint of an essay originally titled ‘Rajyavaad Aur Samrajyavaad’—“Monarchy and Imperialism”—written by Munshi Premchand, the renowned Hindi novelist. The original essay had been printed in a journal named Swadesh, in 1928. In the essay, Premchand made the argument that imperialism had proved to be no better than monarchy, and that communism might prove to be equally, if not more, dangerous than imperialism. He argued that all the perils of capitalism would also plague communism, perhaps in an even more aggravated form. The editors of the newspaper, while reprinting the essay, changed the title to ‘Punjivaad Se Bhayankar Hai Saamyavaad—“Communism is deadlier than Capitalism.”

The note accompanying the editorial stated, “In 1911, Premchand praised the Boleshevik revolution in a letter, and this alone became the basis of his being called a communist.” In a 1976 article for Social Scientist, academic KP Singh wrote, “Hindi criticism has failed to delineate a clear picture of Premchand’s works” and that “one section called him reformer and idealist, while the other devoted all its time to proving him a thorough-going Gandhian.” Although it is difficult to locate Premchand in the traditional left-right political spectrum, I was brought up to believe—by cultural lore and by my family, directly related to that of the novelist—that he reserved the largest part of his great heart for the poor. He was a well-known advocate of the abolition of the zamindari system, leading to many claiming that he was certainly a leftist, if not an outright communist. Given my understanding of Premchand through these anecdotes, it was difficult for me to believe that he appeared to be taking a stance that favoured capitalism through the essay.

On a second read, however, ideas that I associate with Premchand’s thought process began to surface. He began, “We live in times of imperialism. Earlier eras belonged to monarchy.

His essay suggested, that although both monarchy and imperialism rest on conquest, the distinction between the two is profound. Premchand noted that in the age of monarchy, conquest was a one-off phenomenon, led by kings to either “prove their valour, or to acquire riches, or to spread their religion.” Once the goal was achieved, conquest ceased; “In five-ten years, there would be no difference, no inequalities between the victor and the vanquished,” he wrote.

The writer argued that imperialism was altogether different because the goal was commercial. “Groups of traders are always in search of markets,” he wrote, and that “they want to establish their hold over the market in perpetuity.” With both the traders and labourers sharing in the profits of trade, he argued, “ruling over a weak nation is as important for the labourers of powerful nations as for their traders.”

This is where the real nub of Premchand’s argument lay:“ keep any enslaved community under control is in the interests of not only the king and trader but of the entire community, and the entire clan rules as one community.” All of society thus became complicit in an imperial venture. He wrote, “Things that we cannot even think of doing individually are executed collectively without any hesitation. One individual can be an idealist, can abandon selfishness, but a whole nation cannot be idealist.”

This is the key conclusion at which he arrived: conquest under imperial modernity, he posited, is necessarily permanent— an enterprise in perpetuity.

While at one time Premchand may have been convinced that communism was the answer to social inequality and the oppression of the poor, he seemed to have eventually decided against it. “...The communist movement is only the victory of the labourers over the capitalists. It is not the victory of justice over injustice, of truth over untruth. There will not be any reduction in all the inequalities, injustices and selfishness that are synonymous with capitalism. In fact, the possibility of their turning more horrifying is greater,” he wrote.

This was how Premchand—a writer and man unmistakably rooted in his place and time—understood the modern world. It cannot be ascertained if Premchand knew that Vladimir Lenin, the Russian communist revolutionary and former head of the Russian government, had also noticed similar facts when he pointed to the labour aristocracy of advanced capitalist nations as one of the big stumbling blocks to a world revolution. Perhaps Premchand was aware that revered Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore had predicted the enormous perils of collective selfishness in his well-known work, Nationalism. If Premchand’s novels and stories are any indications of his conscience, he was no uncritical partisan of tradition. Nor was he the enthusiastic votary of modernity that several critics would like to claim him to be. One of the great lures of Premchand as a writer is his unblinking eye for truth—wherever it may lead. He simply told things as he saw them.

Recently, Congress member of parliament Shashi Tharoor won himself a lot of patriotic spurs when he impressively and convincingly argued, in the lion’s den of the British academy, Oxford University, that Britain owes reparations not only to India but to scores of other countries, because of the sheer enormity of the debt—material and psychological—it lived off for centuries. Tharoor did not insist on a monetary payment beyond a token quid a year, but he did want Britain to say “sorry”.

However, if Premchand’s argument is valid, then the commercial market processes of modern capitalism are themselves socially corrosive and ultimately destructive, regardless of whose advantage they work to.  If such conquest is perpetual, as the writer understood, then the underlying processes that generate the structural injustices in India continue to exist, even though the British may be long gone. “Sorry”, in this context, may become a supine word.

An argument could be made that the corrosive market processes Premchand speaks of have shifted their geographical and social location within as well as outside the nation. Now, instead of a foreign entity, a small percentage of the native population derives material benefits from the same processes, ravaging the lives of the rural and the urban poor. Often, in the name of development, the marginalised section of the population is displaced from their forests or lands, relegating it to urban and metropolitan squalor. In our 2012 book Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India, the environmentalist Ashish Kothari and I write: “Just like our government likes to prevail morally on the rich countries to have exemption from emissions reductions, don’t the Indian poor have a right to ask the government to place a carbon tax on the super-rich with which the disproportionate costs they have to bear for climate change (from which the rich derive the bulk of the present benefits) can be somewhat evened out? …Yet, no one in the Indian government argues in this fashion. We remember ethics only when it comes to dealing with those more powerful than ourselves.”

It can be said that global society is based entirely on the values we associate with modernity, and modernity itself rests on competitive capitalism. There might be those who will think that imperialism is not the same as this modernity, and that you can end one and need not end the other, or that communism may suffice as a solution. But Premchand pre-empts such queries by pointing to the greater perils of the collective selfishness that is likely to pass for communism in the materialist modern world. His view was that competitive socialism will be likely more materially, politically, culturally and ecologically devastating than competitive imperialism.

In a few vernacular paragraphs, penned 87 years ago, Premchand depicted the modern world to be, above all, a system of power. He felt that this system was so deep and insidious that everyone was already a devotee of power and domination, and that the subjugation of countless others lower in the hierarchy was a corollary of this contagious habit.

Premchand concluded his prescient essay with this paragraph:

“In the time of monarchies only one individual was drunk on power. Under imperialism an entire community is consumed with this headiness, and they are capable of anything. All the affluence, all the knowledge and science, all religions and philosophies of the West are narrowed down today to one word: ‘selfishness’, and justice, truth, compassion, grace, rationality—everything is sacrificed at the altar of ‘selfishness.’”

Aseem Shrivastava Aseem Shrivastava is a Delhi-based writer and ecological economist. He is the author (with Ashish Kothari) of the book Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India (Penguin Viking, New Delhi, 2012). He has spoken and written extensively on ecological issues connected with development and globalisation.