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  • Byron, Gandhi and the Thompsons:The Making of British Social History and Unmaking of Indian History
  • Priya Satia (bio)

In the London Review of Books in 2012, Perry Anderson punctured the ‘Indian Ideology’ and forced us to confront the ugly Indian reality: dysfunctional democracy, state terrorism in Kashmir and the northeast, and the social stagnancy of Muslims.1 He was right about these problems, although many disputed his claim that Indian intellectuals have ignored them. The more substantive criticisms of the essays – aimed at the causes assigned to these problems – Anderson saw as the product of defensive nationalism, further proof of the pathological hold of the ‘Indian ideology’.2 It was nationalism, insofar as it reacted to the implication that India’s problems are timeless and unrelated to colonial rule; as George Orwell said, ‘If you want to make an enemy of a man, tell him that his ills are incurable’.3

But Indian nationalism explains much more than Anderson realizes. Through sociological ties, the nationalist movement he criticizes intimately shaped his own professional trajectory during the controversies that divided the New Left in the 1960s. Where E. P. Thompson portrayed a heroic English working class riding the tide of history, Anderson saw historical progress stymied by a society paralytically in awe of its aristocracy – this ‘English ideology’ making a mockery of the textbook ‘German ideology’. Much more than tongue-in-cheek homage bridges these controversies separated by a half-century. For Thompson’s work, including its insistent ‘Englishness’, Romantic outlook and critical view of religion, owed a great deal to his father’s ties to India and the Indian nationalist movement. His vision of secular modernity resonated with older trends in the historical discipline shaped by the era in which empire was justified as a vehicle of secular modernity in benightedly superstitious lands; for Anderson, too, India’s apparent betrayal of secularism is what disfigures its modernity today. This historic intellectual entanglement of colonialism, nationalism and historicism dooms any assessment of postcolonial India to an endless loop of lament without hope of practical recovery – an echo-chamber of disappointment that seems especially absurd once we perceive, as Indian nationalists did, that secular modernity carries as many vestiges of belief as of empire. In that spirit, I want to narrate here the making of British [End Page 135] social history in the era of Indian nationalism, how its national paradigm emerged from transnational and imperial historical processes. Through this story we can begin to grasp how that inheritance, passed in different ways, through different hands, inhibits a historian like Perry Anderson from accommodating Indian modernity; indeed Anderson’s idolatrous theoreticism perhaps makes his polemic more of an anti-history in the end.

George Orwell (1903–50) offers a convenient point of entry into this story of the relationship between South Asian anti-colonialism and British social history. After five years in the Imperial Police in Mandalay, he returned to England determined never to rejoin that ‘evil despotism’. Haunted by the victims of its everyday violence, he struggled to expiate his guilt and ‘escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man’. ‘In this way’, he explained in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), ‘my thoughts turned towards the English working class.’ It interested him by analogy, playing ‘the same part in England as the Burmese played in Burma’.4 In typical British empiricist fashion, he documented working-class lives as an act of redemption, of both their image and his imperial past.

Orwell requested that no one write his biography, a wish his widow tended after his death, until Peter Stansky and William Abrahams published the Unknown Orwell without her support in 1972. In 1966, they had published Journey to the Frontier, an account of two British poets killed in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell too had fought in Spain, after his explorations in Wigan Pier, as he recounted in Homage to Catalonia (1938). Stansky was professor of British history at Stanford University (today I, granddaughter of Indian nationalists and Partition survivors, fill his billet). In 1978, he invited E. P. Thompson to deliver the Camp Lectures for 1981. Thompson was working on Customs...


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pp. 135-170
Launched on MUSE
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