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  • Writer's pictureSuman Srivastava

What An Awesome Book

I have just finished one of the most amazing books that I have read. This blog post does not attempt to summarise this book, but offers reasons why everyone should read this book. Especially young people. Reading this book is like getting a university level liberal education. More on this later, but first the basic facts.

Glimpses of World History is a set of letters written by Jawaharlal Nehru to his daughter, Indira, from various jails in the period January 1931 to August 1933. In all, there are 196 letters and the book is 1486 pages long. Indira was 13 years old when the book starts and this was his way of being in touch with her, especially since her mother and grandfather were also in jail for part of this period.

The first amazing thing about this book is that this was written by a man in jail. He had no access to a library, and had very few books that he could reference. This book is the output of an extremely learned man downloading his knowledge for his daughter.

The second amazing thing is the speed at which this book seems to have been written. Nearly two hundred letters or chapters over 32 months is amazing. And he got parole for a few months when his father died, so the actual writing period was even shorter.

This book is a not a textbook. It does not list dates and names of kings like many history books do. This is an analytical book which covers the gamut of subjects - history, geography, politics, political science, economics, sociology, culture, arts, warfare, current events. He covers all the countries of the world, but has a special affinity for India, China, Japan and England. No country or region is left out and I got so much context on many of the problems facing the world today.

Not just the facts, but analysis. Here is Nehru on the issue of Hindus and Muslims (he has much to say on this issue. This is just a trailer):

You must remember that the contest was not between the Indo-Aryan civilisation and the highly civilised Arab. The contest was between civilised but decadent India and the semi-civilised and occasionally nomadic people from Central Asia who had themselves recently been converted to Islam. Unhappily, India connected Islam with this lack of civilisation and with the horrors of Mahmud’s raids, and bitterness grew.

All with some doses of humour. Here’s an example:

Someone—I think it was Voltaire—defined this “Holy Roman Empire” as something which was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire! Just as someone else once defined the Indian Civil Service, with which we are unfortunately still afflicted in this country, as neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service!

A liberal education aims to develop students’ ability to gather a wide range of knowledge, connect the dots, think and analyse. Today we are overloaded with data and information, and therefore it is even more critical for all of us learn how to connect the dots, how to think for ourselves and have a framework with which to analyse events happening around us. This book demonstrates how to do that.

I could go on an on about the wonders of this book, but let me turn to some of the specific lessons that I have learnt.

The first two thirds of the book covers the entire expanse of time from the beginning of civilisation to the early twentieth century. The final one third really focuses on the period from just before the First World War to the time when he was writing. So one third of the book is about just two decades. From a time when he would cover several centuries in one letter, now he has several letters on one event. From his point of view, these were the two most important decades. And, I dare say, that what happened then is still relevant to us.

Many of the issues that the world faces today has its origins in that period. The Palestine issue started then. As did the turmoil in Eastern Europe (because of the new countries that the Allies created after WW1). The deals between the colonial powers (principally England, France & Russia) were made then and we can trace almost all border conflicts to those deals - India-Pakistan, Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe. There are so many blog posts waiting to be written about some of these lessons. Some day, perhaps.

Nehru was fascinated by the Russian revolution. He wrote many letters on it and took the time to examine the class struggles that led up to it. But also the effect it had on other nations in Europe. How so many of the ruling elite were scared of the revolution and feared it might happen in their countries. That is why they all closed ranks against the communists. There were several nascent communist movements in many countries - especially in England, France, even Germany - but they were ruthlessly put down. 

He was also deeply interested in the flaws of communism. He was watching live as USSR was formed, how peasants resisted it, how they were forced to join the movement, how it resulted in famines and other hardships, how Stalin imprisoned people. 

This is also the period when he was forming his economic theories. He analyses the five year plans deeply. By the way, planning was clearly the fashion of the day. All the countries of Europe started doing some kind of plans, although none as extensive as the USSR. He also saw the flaws in the plans and in even attempting to do nation wide planning in a large country. 

But he also saw the drawbacks of capitalism. He was quite anti-capitalist. I think the leaders of that time believed that it was capitalism that led to colonialism. So the two were correlated in their minds. He has several letters on the Great Depression (which was literally happening as he wrote) and analyses the causes and effects it was having in America, Europe and India. He talks about how the benefits go to the rich people, but it’s the poor who suffer the most. About how there was enough food to feed the world twice over, but people were dying of starvation because they did not have the money to buy it. 

He links the Great Depression to WW1. He says that the European countries were indebted due to the war and had borrowed money from America. After the war they asked Germany to pay reparations, which Germany did by borrowing from America. So America lent money to Germany to pay Europe who then used the money to pay back America. American goods had great demand because people around the world needed them and were buying. At some point America decided to stop funding Germany and the whole chain collapsed. Suddenly demand dried up and that led to the recession. Which was made worse by mistakes made by the rulers of those countries. Nehru specifically tells Indira that she might think the stock market collapse led the Depression, but that was only the last straw. The real reason was the expensive war, the greed of the European powers and the terrible treaty signed at the end.  

Let me end this post with Nehru’s explanation on Fascism. This analysis is new to me and gives us insights into a lot of what is happening around the world today:

In a previous letter dealing with Italy I discussed fascism, and I pointed out that it occurred when a capitalist State was threatened during an economic crisis by social revolution. The owning capitalist classes tried to protect themselves by creating a mass movement, round a nucleus of the lower-middle class, using misleading anti-capitalist slogans to attract the unwary peasants and workers. Having seized power and gained control of the State, they scrap all democratic institutions and crush their enemies and especially break up all workers’ organizations. Their rule is thus primarily based on violence. The middle-class supporters are given jobs in the new State, and usually some measure of State control of industry is introduced.

Lots to think about here.

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