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Modernity in the Machine Age: The IPR Kyoto Conference of 1929

Held in the salubrious surroundings of the multi-storey Kyoto Hotel, the IPR’s 1929 conference which S.K. Datta attended as a delegate was opened by Merle Davis, the general secretary of the IPR and the director of the Department ofSocial and Industrial Research initiated at the International Missionary Council conference in Jerusalemin1928. Davis had 20 years of experience in the YMCA of Japan. In his address, he spoke of the critical importance of understanding the ‘contrasts in race, philosophy, social institutions, government and religion’ across the Pacific. By protecting this diversity, the best from the various civilizations would become available to the whole of humanity: ‘... in this variety of ideals and in the various ways of life ... lies the hope of the Pacific future.... ’38 Davis went on to commend the IPR as a forum in which ‘divergent opinions’ were exchanged in friendly fashion, thanks to the supposedly new understanding of the ‘psychological contrast’ between East and West.39

Given the Pan-Pacific movement was formed on the premise that some peoples in the world, including those of India, required international support to become independent as nations, national identity here stood for the kinds of democratic values, citizenship rights and interest in international cooperation that would save the world from another war. It was a step towards, rather than a contradiction of, the desired cosmopolitan worldview through which individuals, peoples and nations would secure peace and prosperity. Under this rubric, becoming modern members of a modern nation would require some changes in traditional ways of life. Labour relations figured as one of these changes. In their discussions, the liberal Christian progressives active within the Pan-Pacific movement contrasted the modern factory worker with the figure of the ‘coolie’ (the indentured Indian subject created by British imperial rule) and the rural peasant who suffered terrible poverty and an oppressive caste system. Those living under these conditions were considered to be facing the combined impacts of rapid industrialisation and the abiding impediments of tradition. According to the Simon Commission, reporting on India’s progress to the British government in 1928, it was for these reasons among others India was not ready for self-rule, let alone independence.

The potent association in Western minds between India and unthinking and unfeeling ‘coolies’ who supposedly lacked the capacity for national, let alone international or cosmopolitan, understanding of the world around them led the once pro-British Gandhi to conclude that only independence from Britain would secure India’s future. The resilience of this negative evaluation of Indians’ capacity to become modern, even in supposedly progressive circles, was underlined in a letter by another famous Indian nationalist, Rabindranath Tagore, that was being circulated confidentially among members of the American IPRin the 1930s.40 Tagore reflected on the claim of an unnamed correspondent that to adopt poverty was to follow Christ’s example and thus better understand the ‘natives’ of India. He rejected this argument as an example of the ‘inveterate habit of proselytism’ typical of the ‘Western mind’, evoking not so much Christ but the ‘coolie recruiter trying to bring coolies to his master’s house’.41

At stake in the discussions at the IPR conference in 1929 was agreeing on the appropriate speed of modernisation for the so-called peasant classes. A range of associated issues was debated in two interrelated conference roundtables titled ‘Machine Age and Traditional Cultures’ and ‘Industrialisation’. These were topics intimately connected to the Indian nationalist cause, given that modernisation so often stood for the capacity to achieve independence. Some Western delegates were highly critical of the negative impact of industrialisation. One of the Australian delegates, the social economist Persia Campbell, had published a book on Chinese Coolie Labour in 1923 which argued that reform in labour relations had to proceed slowly, because: ‘A man is something more than a “living machine.”’42 Becoming a wage labourer could bring about its own set of injustices, as had been shown by the Industrial Revolution in nineteenth century Europe. Arnold Toynbee, Professor of

International History at the University of London and a British delegate at the 1929IPR conference, argued that the Industrial Revolution had destroyed the peasant way of life without improving economic and social conditions.43 In contrast, other Western delegates argued that, if correctly handled, the coming Machine Age might yet cure the ills of all humanity. James T. Shotwell, the American who led the roundtable sessions, lectured widely in these years on the benefits of a new ‘machine age’ or post-Industrial Revolution that would advance human civilization. In Shotwell’s analysis, the obstacle was not so much contained within technology itself but within the paucity of human understanding. Educating the masses about how to fulfil the promise of mechanisation would be as important for world peace as would be creating peaceful relations between nations.44 Whatever the analysis, agreement appeared unanimous that better understanding the process of change taking place in the East might well be crucial to the future of world peace. When New Zealander, J. B Condliffe, a member of the IPR, reported to the Student Christian Movement of New Zealand on the rise of the East in world affairs he warned that: ‘No-one knows what the result of their awakening may be; but they are not likely now either to accept European domination or to follow European industrialism in slavish imitation’.45

In the Pan-Pacific context, debate about the shape of Asian modernity necessarily focussed on the conditions of factory workers in China, Japan, and (at the IPR conference in 1929) India. The official conference report that year articulated the tension between the cosmopolitan project of friendly exchange and a desire to control the direction of modernisation in Asia:

Western scholars interested in the question of cultural contacts between East and West must get beyond the question of controlling the impact of Western forces upon the East, and begin to ask what it is in Oriental life that accounts for the measure of adaptation and synthesis already achieved.46

If Japan was the most modernised country in the East, then the newly formed nation of China was considered the least advanced. Industrial reform in China had occupied the career of Eleanor Hinder, an Australian delegate who contributed as an expert on Australian industrial affairs at the Industrial Round Table. Hinder agreed that industrialisation followed stages emanating from European history, and she promoted international standards in her analysis of working conditions in Asia. But Hinder was also persuaded through her work with women in China under the auspices of the YWCA that the pace of factory reform in modernising

Asia should reflect also the internal needs and conditions of each nation.47 And nor had colonial rule acted as a positive factor enabling change. In 1925, she told the Mercury Hobart in Tasmania that: ‘In many respects the conditions of workers [in China] are similar to conditions in England a hundred years ago’. Moreover, even though ‘Western capital’ had been the source of these conditions, no effort ‘was made by those responsible’ to improve them.48 Often China, in the words of Sophie Loy-Wilson, was seen by Australians as both the ‘past and future of Australia’, providing a warning about the impact of globalisation upon all workers.49

Along with slow modernisation, Chinese and Japanese delegates sought to stress the problematic impact of industrialisation on both physical and psychological welfare of workers in their nations. A Chinese woman delegate, Miss Hsia, said that the conditions of Chinese women in factories were particularly bad: ‘In the cotton industry they are standing 10 hours; [the] Government in Nanking is very attentive to this matter. But [the] difficulty is that we cannot carry out this improvement plan at once. If we do it will be harmful to employers as well as workers’.50 The same conditions concerned F.L. Ho (China) who reported that the recent Shanghai Child Labour Commission had produced some improvement in conditions, but many women and children still worked as long as 12-hour days, but according to the speaker this figure should be understood in the context of the ‘different conception of working hours in China from the West’.51

Strikingly, the implication of the Machine Age for women workers in Eastern countries was a matter of personal experience for several of her fellow speakers. According to a Japanese daily report, strong opinions were expressed by ‘Miss Sophie Tsen, President of the I Fang College in Changsha... who delivered a tirade ... against the machine age noting three evil effects: it destroys individuality, impairs mental brilliancy and despoils the conscience’.52 In the West China Missionary, Rev Brace, of the YWCA of China, reported that Dr Wu, Lady Principal of Ginling College, Nanking, spoke of her personal experience as a ‘factory hand’ and of ‘the ease with which self-expression is lost in the machine age’. She added that the ‘whole mechanistic system is the handmaid to war’.53

The speed of economic change and its impact on quality of life of Indian workers was also important to Datta. Reflecting at the conference on rapidly growing industrialisation in India, he began - as he had in his book The Desire of India - by describing the unregulated ‘plantation system’ established under British rule. The ‘first industry of modern type’ had been the textile industry that followed, where ‘[l]abour legislations [was] enacted to protect labourers. That is, 1. Factory legislation, 2. Welfare legislation, 3. Legislation to help labourers to organise themselves’.54 In response to Dame Lyttleton’s (Britain) comment that the fundamental aim of any reform should be to completely ban child labour,55 Datta echoed the concerns of participants from China that the application of reform would need to progress slowly as their families had no other source of income. And although ‘according to the Factory Act’ children worked restricted hours, they still lacked access to education and experienced poor life expectancy. Indeed, he stated baldly: ‘[m]ost Indians are dead at 25’. Moreover, gender relations and family life more broadly had to be taken into account. Hitherto, efforts to bring education to the masses had been overwhelmed by extreme poverty in his country. Ultimately, the provision of: ‘[e]ducation [would be of] no use unless the standard of living of [the] family is raised so that children can be supported’.56 Cosmopolitanism, here understood in terms of access to education, relied in the first instance on the basic local, and ultimately national, conditions of survival. In this setting, the ideals of cultural internationalism took second place to more fundamental human rights such as food and life expectancy.

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