The best second-hand bookstore in India is located not in Kolkata’s College Street but in my home town, Bangalore. This is Select Bookshop, which was founded in 1945 by a lawyer named K. B. K. Rao. In six decades the store has shifted location as many times: once on Mahatma Gandhi Road, then in Malleswaram, it now lies in a quiet cul-de-sac off the busy Brigade Road, in the heart of the city. The shop is run by Rao’s son K. K. S. Murty, whose original profession was that of an aeronautical engineer; in time it will pass on to his son Sanjay, who was trained as an accountant.
I have been a Select regular for close to thirty years now. In this period it has served as a consoling constant in a state of flux. Tiled bungalows give way to skyscrapers of glass and concrete, pensioners are supplanted by software nerds. But the persistence of this little civilized bookshop through three generations assures me that some part of Bangalore will never change.
Select has supplied me with cricket books, with P. G. Wodehouse first editions, with the stories of Chekhov. But above all it has kept me supplied with the materials essential to my trade as a historian. I have turned to it for rare pamphlets by Tagore, for obscure biographies of Gandhi, and for secret reports by the colonial state, Most of all, I have gone to the bookshop for runs of now extinct journals.
In the past, I have found rare issues of Ramananda Chatterjee’s Modern Review in Select; also volumes of C. Rajagopalachari’s Swarajya. But when I last visited the shop the owner directed me to a pile of back numbers of a journal that was neither dead nor Indian. This was the American Scholar, a quarterly published by the Phi Betta Kappa that advertised itself as being ‘for the independent thinker’.
I have been reading the American Scholar for about a decade now. In that time I have known it as a bridge between the two cultures of science and literature. I have read here elegantly worded essays about the progress of astronomy, but also ethnographic accounts of tribals in the Andamans. The journal specializes in the memoir, a genre that greatly appeals to me, but which is somehow not very popular in India or among Indians.
In my own, admittedly brief acquaintance with the American Scholar, I have not known to it to be particularly interested in politics. Evidently things were once otherwise. Thus two of the issues I picked up in the Select Bookshop contained sharp and still relevant reflections on America’s place in the world. The first was penned by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a thinker and teacher legendary in his time, if somewhat forgotten in ours. Entitled ‘American Pride and Power’, it served as the editorial to the Autumn 1948 issues of The American Scholar.
‘Powerful men and nations’, wrote Niebuhr, ‘are in greater peril from their own illusions than from their neighbors’ hostile designs’. America, he noted, has ‘achieved a degree of power in the contemporary world community which dwarfs the dominions of the empires of the past’. However, it was now ‘in obvious danger of being beguiled by the pride which tends to corrupt the powerful. One form of this pride is the pretension that our power is the natural fruit of our virtue’. Hence ‘the illusion that our economic strength, which is the obvious source of our political authority, is the fruit of a wisdom which no other nation has achieved’.
Niebuhr went on to speak of the peculiar circumstances of American economic success, of the fact that it was founded on the possession of a large, sparsely populated continent and sustained by the dazzling development of technology. He ended with this warning: ‘The more we indulge in an uncritical reverence for the supposed wisdom of our American way of life, the more odious we make it in the eyes of the world, and the more we destroy our moral authority, without which our economic and military power will become impotent’.
The specific context of Niebuhr’s article was supplied by America’s relationship with Europe. Where the American mainland had never been subject to enemy attack, Europe had been ravaged by war. Through the Marshall Plan, America was seeking to rebuild the economies of Europe. But with this aid went a lot of sanctimonious preaching about the superiority of the American way of life. This was creating resentment in countries such as France, which historically saw itself as the carrier of a universal civilization too. It was thus that Nieburh was urging an appropriate humility to America, and a respect for the ways of life and thought of other peoples on the planet.
Eleven years after Niebuhr’s piece, the American Scholar carried another warning about imperial arrogance. This was J. A. Lukacs’s ‘The American Imperial Disease’, which was published as the lead article in the Spring 1959 issue. The essay began by charting the global ambitions of the United States, especially as manifested since the Second World War. By the late fifties, American troops were stationed in the Mediterreanean, in Central Europe, in the Middle East, even in the Arctic. Himself a historian of European extraction, Lukacs remarked: ‘In my lifetime I have seen what has happened to great European nations when they had been bitten by the imperial bug and soaked with the arguments of a Chosen People. I am now seeing what this is doing to Russia. I do not like to speculate what the further propagation of the imperialist virus might do to the qualities of the American people’.
Much of this American expansionism was, of course, justified by the rivalry of the Cold War. As Lukacs put it, ‘it is now an accepted axiom of our government that everything we do must be related to our imperial position vis-a-vis Russia: that we must outproduce, outshout, outeducate, outpropagandize, outbomb, outspy, outfinance and outdance the Russians whenever and wherever possible’.
The bipolar world of the fifties and sixties was contributing greatly to the cycle of violence. Russia cultivated client regimes; America answered by sponsoring clients of its own. The followers of each side then went to war. In the shadows lurked the patrons, supplying arms and materials. In his native Europe, Lukacs had been witness to the costs of competitive nationalism. Now, he worried of what would happen if his adopted land continued to set itself up against the other superpower. Thus he asked, in anguish: ‘Are Americans no longer able or willing to see the dangers in trying to become the Scoutmasters of the World? What will this do to the soul and body of this great nation?’
Lukacs sought hope in a world that would have not one, not two, but multiple poles of influence. In his view, ‘strategically, politically and culturally, the best hope for these United States is the emergence of a truly independent Europe, and not a “united” Europe tied to American atomic power lines and purse strings’.
Thirty years after these words were written the Soviet Union collapsed. But American imperial ambitions have not been checked. They are now justified by the new enemy, that of radical Islam. American troops are still there in force in the Middle East and the Mediterreanean; but also in places where they never ventured before, such as West Africa and Afghanisthan. As in the forties, and fifties and sixties, America cannot resist the temptation to act as the Scoutmaster of the world. It cannot resist the tendency to see itself as not just the most powerful, but also the most virtuous country in the world. The warnings of Reinhold Niebuhr and J. A. Lukacs have a markedly contemporary ring to them. It might not be a bad idea for the American Scholar to reprint their articles, and then distribute issues of the journal, free, in the Pentagon and the Senate, but also among the occupying forces in Baghdad and Kabul.
Published in The Hindu, 11/4/2004