Alice Thorner (1918–2005)

Utsa Patnaik is Professor of Economics at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Alice Thorner’s life was lived in three continents, and her interests lay in studying processes of change in India’s colonial economy and the experience of planned development following decolonisation. She interacted for over six decades with academics and academic-bureaucrats, who were not inconsequential actors in what Gunnar Myrdal had termed the ‘Asian Drama’, and she too played a part in that unfolding drama. It was while visiting England on the eve of the WW11 in 1939 with husband Daniel who was researching his thesis at the India Office library in London, that she first met the group of enthusiastic Indian nationalists which included V. K. Krishna Menon, P.N. Haksar, K.T.Chandy and Feroze Gandhi. Many were to become lifelong friends.

Alice’s engagement with India continued during the many years she and Daniel lived in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay) and researched the impact of land reforms and the first two Plans on India. They wrote a series of penetrating essays which were brought together in their jointly published Land and Labour in India (1962), the work which was the introduction to the Thorners’ ideas for many young students like myself at that time. The title of their book consciously echoed the work of the famous economic historian R.H.Tawney, Land and Labour in China (1932). The Thorners’ later publication, The Shaping of Modern India (1980) was also based mainly on the research of that period. Without knowing it then, I learnt a valuable lesson from Alice and Daniel’s work, namely to scrutinize carefully the concepts and definitions used in the collection and analysis of data, to avoid drawing wrong inferences. Their essay on ‘India’s agrarian revolution by Census redefinition’ was especially illuminating for me. It argued that the sharp fall in the percentage of rural labourers in the work force in the 1951 Census, was mainly owing to the redefinition of categories used in data collection and that the actual proportion of labourers remained high. Today we see before us spurious official claims of poverty reduction in India, for it is merely ‘India’s poverty reduction by ‘poverty’ redefinition’ whereas as ground reality, poverty is not only high but its depth is actually increasing.

Daniel first came to India in 1944 on the US government’s Lend-lease programme and Alice joined him in 1945. With Independence around the corner, there was high excitement; Alice met Jawaharlal Nehru and published her interview with him in The Nation in 1946. They returned to India in 1952 and lived in Mumbai until 1960, after which they moved to Paris where Daniel joined the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes at the Sorbonne. Alice taught at the University of Paris VII until her retirement in 1978. The Thorners maintained their engagement with India and Alice continued to work on India after Daniel died prematurely of cancer in 1974. She visited India every winter for at least two months. I recollect that Alice used to say that 80 plus years was no age at all, and friends Paul Sweezy and Charles Bettelheim were spry and fit at an older age than she was. I was reminded of her words when news reached us of Alice’s death at the age of eighty-seven. (Alice hated the euphemism ‘passed away’ and insisted on calling a spade a spade). It will remain a matter of lasting regret for me that, having met her every winter for the last fourteen years when she made her annual two-month circuit of India’s metros and called up her friends, I happened to be away from Delhi and could not meet her on, as it turns out, her very last visit at the end of February this year.

Alice’s family was from Latvia and they had migrated to the USA when she was quite small. She once explained that those days it was a matter of pride for immigrants to integrate quickly into the new society and so the use of the mother tongue at home was not encouraged. She told us that Daniel’s family however, was from Torun (or Thorn) in Polish Prussia (Torun was returned to Poland in 1919), and they dropped their long surname and adopted the name Thorner when they migrated to the USA. The life of Alice and Daniel Thorner was a mirror of fascinating aspects of political and social developments in the USA in the last century.

There was a time from the late 1920s to the early 1930s, when hundreds of European intellectuals and creative artists had fled the rise of fascism to the freedom of the USA. There was a reverse flight from the USA in the early 1950s during the McCarthy period when official Red-baiting and Red-hunting drove out progressive intellectuals and artists. Some like E.H.Norman, the brilliant Marxist scholar of Japan, could not stand the strain and committed suicide. Others like Charles Chaplin left the USA for ever. Alice and Daniel Thorner did the same – they never returned to the US to live after 1952. Daniel was in India with Alice and the children, on sabbatical leave from his University in 1952 to study agrarian conditions, when he was informed that he would be called to testify before the notorious Senate Committee investigating ‘un-American’ activities. There was every likelihood that he would be asked not only about his own friends and connections but also about scholars like his colleague Owen Lattimore. He refused to return to testify, and what was to be a one-year visit turned into a eight – year stay in India since Daniel’s University job back home was not renewed. Once the research grants ran out, the Thorners’ precarious financial position at this time also meant that a third world country was the only place where they could get by and raise a young family on a small income. Alice later made light of their travails in this period, but for some years it was a difficult existence with no permanent job but dependence on short–term projects from different academic bodies. The Thorners made good use of that long stay to carry out extensive field work in widely different areas of India which threw valuable light on the nature of land reforms and the prospects of co-operative farming.

Alice became intensely involved with the Indian Census from 1958, as P.C.Mahalanobis who headed the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), gave her a research project to study the concepts used in the earlier Census and refine these concepts to prepare for the 1961 Census. The outcome was four papers by Alice later published in Sankhya, the journal of the ISI. She was also involved in the planning of the Second Agricultural Labour Enquiry as a visiting scholar after shifting to Paris. The Thorners consistently maintained that India was undergoing a revolution whose colour was neither red nor green, but steel grey. Their analysis of Indian industrialization was complemented by the perception that it was stimulating the growth of capitalist farming through the enhanced profitability of agricultural production.

The subject of agrarian transition and capitalist development interested me and I had chosen it for my doctoral research in the teeth of opposition from my Oxford supervisor. I met Daniel before I met Alice, by appointment for the first time in 1968 when he was visiting Oxford, soon after he had started writing on the subject of capitalist farming. He was extremely supportive and immediately encouraged my idea of doing field work. I suspect he might have been somewhat disappointed later when I started publishing the results of the research, since I used Marxist and in particular Leninist categories of analysis, which in my view provided a most powerful and illuminating theoretical apparatus – a view I have had no reason to change and which indeed has become more strongly held over the years. Daniel himself from the mid-1960s was involved (along with R.E.F. Smith and Basil Kerblay), in translating and popularizing the theories of the interesting Russian economist A. V. Chayanov, who belonged to the very school of neo-Narodnik thought that Lenin had earlier roundly criticized in his numerous writings including in The Development of Capitalism in Russia.

When Alice asked me to deliver the first Daniel Thorner memorial lecture in 1985 held under the auspices of the Indian Statistical Institute, while I felt it to be a privilege, I was also somewhat surprised given that Daniel’s later theoretical perspective was so different from mine, a fact of which Alice was well aware. Alice however was very independent intellectually and always knew her own mind. She had written a long, comprehensive and insightful survey of the Indian ‘mode of production’ debate which had raged in the pages of the Economic and Political Weekly in the early 1970s, and in which many academics including Ashok Rudra, Paresh Chattopadhyay, Hamza Alavi, Jairus Banaji, Andre Gunder Frank, and I had taken part. Alice did not herself use Marxist categories to my knowledge, but nor was she in the least prejudiced against anyone who did. Alice always looked at the substance of an argument and made up her mind on the worth of an academic position accordingly. She did not hesitate to modify her own views in the light of new information or interpretation if she found it to be persuasive. As an illustration one might mention the issue of whether there was ‘de-industrialization’ in India during the colonial period.

The subject of ‘de-industrialization’ was one on which many of Alice and Daniel’s Indian friends had differed most strongly from their analysis in Land and Labour in India. The Thorners had adopted the position that the decline of handicrafts in India in the colonial period was nothing out of the ordinary since in all modernizing countries, large- scale industry necessarily replaced handicrafts and in this respect India’s experience followed the historical pattern. Their analysis of long- term occupational distribution from the late 19th century Census onwards did in fact show a decline in the share of manufacturing employment but they felt that it was not significant. Their position was very different from that articulated by Paul Baran in The Political Economy of Growth (1956) where he had pointed out that the surplus extracted from Indian producers was invested elsewhere and had passionately denounced the ‘pauperization’ inflicted on Indian producers. A.K.Bagchi later directly took issue with the Thorners on this point in the course of his work on de-industrialization, while one of my own main arguments in the mode of production debate was that that since handicraft manufactures declined in India to the benefit of factory production growing in England, (over half of all English textile exports were being dumped on the compulsorily wide-open Indian market by the end of the 19th century), Indian producers were being displaced to the benefit of rising industrial employment mainly in Britain and not in India, so there was no question of a ‘normal’ process of industrialization in India. The resulting vast mass of pauperized workers remained displaced, so could not be termed a ‘proletariat’ leave alone a normal ‘reserve army of labour’ under capitalism as some participants in the debate maintained. Alice discussed these issues sympathetically in her survey of the debate and went a long way towards modifying her own earlier position on the question of de-industrialization.

Rectitude, objectivity and balance are increasingly rare qualities, which Alice possessed in ample measure. I recall that some years after Daniel’s death, when to the indignation of the Thorners’ friends, the Chayanov volume brought out by Daniel and his co-editors suddenly appeared from another publisher with a completely different editor’s name and without permission from the original editors, Alice said that she had no intention of getting into a dispute over the matter with the people who were involved. If others behaved in an unethical manner, she withdrew. It was her academic values combined with a gentle but on occasion, quite acerbic wit that made her such an interesting person to be with and talk to.

Alice was a most devoted wife, mother and grandmother and always carried photographs of her grandchildren with her. She spent a great deal of effort and time in completing and publishing Daniel’s unfinished work after his death and organizing the memorial lectures, held roughly every two years. She could laugh at herself and on one occasion she said that she ‘felt like a professional widow’. The lectures were collected and published in a volume edited by Alice to which she asked me to contribute an Introduction. – all but the last lecture by Madhura Swaminathan, which was delivered when the volume was already in press and which was carried in Social Scientist in 2002.

At the same time, Alice developed her own interest in urban studies and in gender questions, especially in relation to the categories used in collecting data in large scale surveys, and she remained intellectually extremely active. She was responsible for persuading the editor of The Economic and Political Weekly to bring out special numbers on gender studies every year on the lines of existing special numbers on industry and on agriculture. She co-edited two volumes of the proceedings of a conference on the history and sociology of Mumbai, the city she had seen growing and changing since 1945. I recall a very illuminating talk she gave in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) immediately after the Mumbai riots which had followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. Alice explained how the land mafia was using the situation to evict slum-dwellers and grab valuable urban land. A few years ago, JNU honoured Alice at a simple function for the outstanding life-time contribution she had made to the social sciences in India. On a separate occasion in 2002, Alice was presented with a festschrifr, edited by Sujata Patel, Jasodhara Bagchi and Krishna Raj titled Thinking Social Science in IndiaEssays in Honour of Alice Thorner, to which thirty-one academics had contributed papers.

Alice had a very wide circle of friends and admirers acquired over the sixty years of her association with India but, interestingly, she always made it a point to get to know new young academics on the liberal-left end of the political spectrum. Until increasing deafness curtailed her social interaction she would probe them on the work they were doing and discuss current events. Her quaint, narrow four- story home in Paris was always open to her friends and was a favourite meeting place for Indian academics visiting or passing through Paris. I recollect a brief but memorable stay with Alice in 1989, the bicentenary year of the French Revolution, when we went out to see the May Day parade and the sans-culottes in their period dress and strange caps, and Alice insisted on going to a particular strategically located restaurant where sitting at a table on the pavement we had a good view of what was going on.

An unexpected aspect of Alice’s interests was her self-confessed fascination for modern gadgets and for scientific developments. It seems such a waste that so much experience, knowledge and kindness should be snuffed out. Perhaps Alice herself felt so, for she wrote a remarkable ‘lament’, printed at the beginning of her own festschrift.

The following lines are reproduced from the beginning and end of Alice’s lament:

If it is true that in our universe no particle ever drops out of existence

But must be transmuted into new arrangements of neutrons, electrons, genes,

That a scientifically explicable process intervenes

Between the loss and some new incarnation …………

How comfortable it would be to believe in a collective unconscious, a kind of electronic attic

With a programmed gate barring access to entropy but opening to our successors’ sesame.

Rather it seems more probable that our missing synapses

Will resurface as spirals in a DNA chain or squawks of interplanetary static.