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What's so great about Gandhi, anyway?

Piece from CounterPunch about Mahatma Gandhi and what we still can learn from his style of civil disobedience.
The Comprehensive Pursuit of Liberty
What's So Great About Gandhi, Anyway?

"Mahatma Gandhi was OK, but he was no Manmohan Singh", remarked a friend of mine. I laughed out loud at this deadpan humor, only to realize that my friend, a smart and successful high-tech baron in Silicon Valley, was entirely serious. He genuinely thought that Gandhi's contribution was merely in freeing the country from the British, while Singh, the Indian finance minister who had 'freed the Indian Economy from governmental shackles' in the early 90s, thus ushering India into the global economy, was clearly the larger figure.

It is a notion shared by increasing numbers of the Indian intelligensia, both in India and abroad. To many, Gandhi is no more than a goody-goody icon, who talked about non-violence and held Luddite views on industry and trade. True, he was honest and upright, but then those were different times. Some (mistakenly, in my opinion) associate Gandhi with India's path of economic protectionism after independence (a policy followed by his associate Jawaharlal Nehru) and hold Gandhi responsible for India's perceived backwardness. Others consider his approach to Muslims and Pakistan naive and gullible. All in all, they conclude, the coward who shot him in 1948 did India a favor, for Gandhi would have been an albatross round our modern neck. In a world where terrorism lurks at every corner and computer screens blink on all sides, Gandhi is passe.

Is he?

As I watch world events, the more relevant his life appears. With each passing day, his words and methods seem uncannily prescient.

There are numerous personal characteristics of Gandhi--a prodigious courage both physical and political, enormous self-discipline, asceticism and industry (over a hundred volumes of writings and 20-hour days), a fine sense of humor and the ability to mock himself--all interesting and formidable qualities which must have played a major role in the making of the Mahatma. But if I were to condense his political philosophy into one phrase, it would be this--the freedom of the individual.

Complete liberty, for Gandhi, was the first and last goal. India's freedom from Britain, to him, was only an objective along the path, and a rather insignificant one at that. Far more important was the ability of each individual to seek out his own freedom. "Real Swaraj (freedom) will come, not by the acquisition of authority by a few, but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when abused", he wrote. I think of that statement every time I recall how mutely the public of the United States accepted the slap delivered full to its face by the Rehnquist Court after the 2000 elections.

It is also in the context of liberty that ahimsa, his creed of non-violence, must be understood. It was not out of some sense of piety that he espoused peaceful means. He held non-violence to be essential because it afforded the only democratic means of struggle. It was available to everyone--not only to those who owned weapons. Secondly, a violent victory, even a just one, would only prove that violence triumphed, not necessarily justice. A violent solution would mean that the fate of the unarmed many would be mortaged to the benevolence of the armed few. This was contrary to liberty as seen by Gandhi.

An extremely intelligent man, he had a knack of cutting right through the shibboleths to the heart of the matter. In an earlier echo of the American position on Iraq, the British kept telling India that they would leave India in a heartbeat--their only interest being to keep the country from falling into anarchy. This made some sense to many in view of the vicissitudes and general caprice of feudal rule in pre-British India, until Gandhi gently reminded us that good governance was no substitute for self governance. When hearing the cant that passes for political discussion on the various talk shows, how one longs for a similar voice!

Gandhi saw that millions had lost their livelihood because the British, in a former era of globalization (who says history doesn't repeat itself!) systematically destroyed India's cottage industries to create a market for the products of the industrial revolution. Gandhi was the chief architect of India's revived cottage industry. A magnificent achievent by itself, even more telling was the way he brought it about. He did not run complaining to the British Government to reduce exports to India. Instead, he moblized the people to boycott foreign goods. Huge bonfires of foreign cloth resulted in the handspun Indian fabric, khadi replacing foreign mill cloth to become, in Jawaharlal Nehru's words, "the livery of India's freedom". This too has to do with freedom. To demand something of the government would only increase its power. He chose instead to empower each individual to make a statement by wearing khadi and shedding foreign cloth. Today, a third rail of American politics is the word, 'trade'. It is commonly accepted, often without challenge, that this is a deity to be propitiated at all costs--even if it means sacrificing jobs, families, homes, even towns or entire ecologies. Gandhi wrote that he would like to see all needs of a community met from within a reasonable radius. Recently, Vegetarian Times carried a mind-boggling statistic--the average item we consume in America travels 1200 miles! Is it any surprise we have to invade other countries for oil? As Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan and others rail against NAFTA and WTO, one wonders why they haven't thought of organizing a movement to buy American-made products and boycott NAFTA products.

Gandhi was an exponent of 'demand-side economics', to coin a phrase. This was a much longer and more arduous path than supply-side economics, but a more enduring one, and one with fewer deleterious side-effects. He believed that ultimately, the only guarantee of good society lay in the quality of the citizenry. Benjamin Franklin's "A republic, if you can keep it" approximates Gandhi's belief. A society with no demand for cigarettes, for instance, would soon stop manufacturing them. Gandhi believed the gift of liberty also carried with it the utmost moral responsiblity for its use. In a famous interview with Margaret Sanger, the noted birth-control proponent, he said flat out that he was against contraception, as it meant escaping the consequences of one's action. He was no politically correct weathervane, preferring rather the liberty to say what he thought. He gave Margaret Sanger an analogy along these lines (not an exact quote), "I overeat, and instead of suffering the consequences of my indulgence, I go to the doctor and get some pills. To mitigate the side-effects of the pills, I then take some whiskey... Where does it end?" He would certainly be aghast at the blithe acceptance of abortion. He always made a connection with the individual morality and public policy. Consider the drug war for example. We do practically nothing to discourage the taking of drugs. Instead, we pour money, change foreign governments, destroy countrysides and fight endlessly (Panama, Columbia, Peru) because we don't have the guts to demand the highest of our own citizenry. Gandhi was unafraid of public opprobrium, indeed even assassination. Every politician is willing to tell us what is wrong with someone else--Gandhi was different because he told us what was wrong with us. "Let us turn the searchlight inward", he once said, to the astonishment of a crowd which had come expecting some rousing rhetoric condemning the British, only to find him spouting uncomfortable home truths about how Indians themselves enabled British rule in a hundred small ways. Likewise, if we turn the searchlight upon our own contradictions--we might wonder how, while complaining of our disappearing forests, we continue to build new housing developments (and prize this as an index of economic health!), or how, while complaining of rising medical costs, we cannot keep from our Big Macs.

Like Jefferson, Gandhi too believed in small government, writing that, "that government is best which governs least". Once again, this is an offshoot of his ideal of least external control, maximum individual freedom, coupled with complete moral responsibility--making for an uncharacteristic meeting point between Karl Marx (state withering away) and Ayn Rand (individual freedom from the collective). As fear-stricken citizens throughout the world surrender their personal rights to their fear-stricken governments in the name of safeguarding their personal security, which in turn surrender their soverieignty to faceless agencies like the WTO in the name of economic security, we might recall Gandhi's words, "Fearlessness is the first attribute of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral."

The art of forging popular movements based on inveterate opposition to injustice, while always demanding the highest moral standards both of the individual and of the collective, is Gandhi's enduring contribution to politics. It is almost certainly owing to Gandhi's movement that India, for all its flaws, has remained a liberal democracy (no other country freed from the colonial yoke can make this claim). Without a Gandhi, India might well have ended up like Pakistan, a hotbed of intolerance and obscurantism (it may be pure coincidence that the more India rejects Gandhi, that's exactly where it seems headed!). At the risk of oversimplification, we can note that Martin Luther King applied Gandhi's means and managed to avoid a West Bank in America. The Palestinians did not--and did not.

Long ago, the Indian socialist Rammanohar Lohia wrote that the 20th Century had produced one innovation, the Atom Bomb, and one innovator, Mahatma Gandhi. As paranoia and insanity sweep our times, Lohia's terms appear in sharper focus--fear vs. freedom. In this contest, Gandhi is not merely relevant--he is central.

Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast. His articles can be found on Indogram. He is currently working on a web site dedicated to Gandhi's writings on industrialization and globalization, called www.hindswaraj.com. The site is scheduled to be launched on November 14, 2003, to commemorate the 80th birth anniversary of K. G. Ramakrishnan, Indian freedom fighter and Gandhian thinker. Niranjan Ramakrishnan can be reached at  njn_2003@yahoo.com

homepage: homepage: http://www.counterpunch.org/ramakrishnan10022003.html

Excellent! 04.Oct.2003 10:22

Jim Lockhart eagleye@PjhilosopherSeed.org

It's quite common to rail against corporate dominance; yet the other side of that coin, and one that is more in our own hands, is corporate dependence. We here in the U.S. are in many ways not unlike the East Indians under British Colonial rule, or any people subjugated by a foreign power.
Any power which gains ascendancy over one's individual ability to provide for themselves and their community can be considered an Occupation force. Whether that power is over the food we eat, the jobs we are endentured to, or our ability to relate to one another without fear and anxiety, - or, even over the process by which we elect those to positions of authority, we are nonetheless thralls to the degree we lick the hand that holds the chain.
As someone said recently, much of our protesting is for bigger cages and longer chains. Yea, we, as a nation meekly accepted the Supreme Court's appointment of Bush. But before that we accepted, as a nation WACO, with barely a wheeze of outrage.
Excelllent Post! Thanks for posting this; gave me something to think about.......

Gandhi was a simplistic idealist with many backward ideas. 04.Oct.2003 12:32

Your Mama

Gandhi wouldn't have lasted ten minutes versus the Nazi's and the only suggestion he made to the Jewish population in Germany was, literally, to stage mass suicides to protest the injustices they were suffering. Also, he only advocated sex for reproductive purposes. Both of these positions seem a little backward to me.

simplistic idealist? 04.Oct.2003 13:51


Hmm. Innovating a whole new form of social activism using nonviolence. Playing an instrumental role in ending British imperialism at the heart of it's greatest conquest. Helping to liberate the most populous country on Earth, which, for all its faults, remains one of the few relatively successful examples of a stable, democratic state to emerge from the postcolonial era, an achievement that owes no small debt to Gandhi and his ethical form of politics. Shrewdly foreseeing the deficiencies of global capitalism way before such an analysis was fashionable. Simpleminded? Hardly.

It's absurd to demand God-like perfection from our heroes. While I admit the value of seeing the strengths and shortcomings of people like Gandhi realistically, however admirable they may be, I'm at a loss to understand the incessant attraction of running down truly noble people who've done incalculable good in the world. What is this supposed to prove? Does it give the critic an enhanced self-esteem, with the unspoken part being that, 'sure, maybe I don't measure up to Gandhi, but Gandhi afterall was really only a simpleton, whereas I know better.'

Gandhi was a good speaker yet a very poor tactician 04.Oct.2003 22:07


The success of Gandhi's nonviolent strategy is largely an establishment (and Hollywood)-supported myth. The Indian revolt against British rule was anything but nonviolent. Gandhi's tactical ideas, moreover, had serious limitations as a guide to struggle. Movements that began under Gandhi's sponsorship often ended in premature retreats or escalated into physical confrontations. And the final ouster of the British in 1947 can't be counted as a victory for Gandhi's methods, since India's independence came as the movement was shoving Gandhi and his nonviolent philosophy to the political margins.

Gandhi, nevertheless, did make major contributions to the movement. Most crucial was his success in leading masses of people into struggle against British rule -- something he did better than any other Indian leader. But while Gandhi's political leadership was the spark for these struggles, it was not their cause. The struggles arose from real, deep grievances against British rule, and the masses, once mobilized, showed repeatedly that they were willing to adopt militant tactics when nonviolent ones didn't work.

Gandhi's life was history's longest experiment in nonviolent political action. The result of the experiment is fairly clear: An exploitative class structure cannot be broken without violence somewhere along the way. Property rights, defended by state violence, have never yielded to the peaceful pressure of the exploited class. Put in other terms, no exploiting class has ever left the stage of history without being pushed.

the above is excerpted from;

misplaced concerns and political tautologies 05.Oct.2003 14:37


I think the notion that such a thing as a "purely nonviolent" political movement is even possible is erroneous, and therefore it's a pure tautology to say "no nonviolent political movement has ever worked," inasmuch as no such thing has ever existed, and one can always find, coexisting with nonviolent movements, violent forces that were militating towards the same goals. Therefore, one can always make the case that, without the implicit threat of violence in the background, the nonviolent movements wouldn't have enjoyed the traction for forcing change that they did. In any case, the implicit concern betrayed by such quibbling, that there might be a surfeit of nonviolent struggle and shortage of violence, is misplaced. There is little danger of such an eventuality in our human world, and, if anything, it's far more likely that the opposite problem will occur. And it's just as possible to say that, "no problem has ever really been satisfactorily solved through violence alone."

The examples of men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King stand out as exceptional precisely because we're in no danger of running out of people who look for violent solutions to human disputes. They continue to make the case to us that "violence does not solve all problems," and that other intelligent approaches are available, if only we open up our minds to the possibilities.

Gandhi, protector of landlords 06.Oct.2003 00:16


Despite his skills and the powerful influence of his personality, Gandhi kept igniting forces that got beyond his control. The basic pattern could be seen again in the Civil Disobedience Movements of the early 1930s, which began with the famous campaign to violate the British salt monopoly.

The salt satyagraha escalated quickly. Mass marches to the coast to break the British salt monopoly led to mass arrests. News of Gandhi's arrest sparked a strike by textile workers in Maharashtra who attacked police outposts, law courts and other official buildings. In the Central Provinces, a satyagraha to violate restrictions on the use of forests escalated into attacks on police pickets and mass illegal cutting of wood. And throughout the country, peasants who had refused to pay their land taxes physically resisted police attempts to seize their property.

Though he emphasized the plight of peasants, Gandhi's attitude towards their class demands was not unlike his attitude towards workers' struggles. When the Moplah uprising in Malabar occurred back in 1921, Congress was downright hostile. Some of the peasant strikes hit tea plantations owned by Congress members, who did everything possible to stop the revolt. Gandhi gave a speech in which he declared that the objective was to "turn zamindars into friends." He made it clear that he

"deprecated all attempts to create discord between landlords and tenants and advised all the tenants to suffer rather than fight, for they had to join forces against the most powerful zamindar, namely the Government."

He went so far as to reassure the landlords that,

"I shall be no party to dispossessing propertied classes of their private property without just cause. My objective is to reach your hearts and convert you so that you may hold all your private property in trust for your tenants and use it primarily for their welfare. But supposing that there is an attempt unjustly to deprive you of your property, you will find me fighting on your side."

Peasants, who were becoming increasingly radical, felt betrayed. In one village, the same people who had showered him with garlands later refused him food.

Gandhi was always trying to reconcile class divisions, and his commitment to nonviolence was one way to keep the struggle reigned in. The refusal to endorse selective use of physical force virtually ruled out strikes as a method of struggle. As one Bombay mill owner remarked about strikes in 1929, "peaceful picketing does not really exist," since the point of picketing is to prevent scab workers from getting into the mill.

Despite Gandhi's efforts, class divisions could not be smoothed over, and Gandhi's campaigns would continually move beyond the boundaries he tried to impose. This was because, in order to build up a mass base, he would deliberately tap into people's real grievances, which often had a class aspect.

When those he mobilized met with repression, they felt justified in using any means necessary to get what they felt they deserved. What's more, civil disobedience campaigns led their participants to draw natural conclusions about resisting all unjust laws, such as those laws that defended the landlords' rights to crushing rents.

Gandhi, who in 1930 had promised a "fight to the finish" for Indian self-rule, wound up the massive Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930-31 after extracting only token concessions -- disappointing even close collaborators like Jawaharlal Nehru, who remarked in T.S. Eliot's words, "This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper."

Then, in May 1933, when Gandhi abruptly suspended a second Civil Disobedience Movement that he had begun the year before, his party comrades were furious. Said Nehru:

"After so much sacrifice and brave endeavor, was our movement to tail off into something insignificant? I felt angry with him [Gandhi] at his religious and sentimental approach to a political question and his frequent references to God in connection with it."

Subhas Chandra Bose, a Congress militant, was scathing about Gandhi's retreat:

"Today our condition is analogous to that of an army that has suddenly surrendered to the enemy in the midst of a protracted and strenuous campaign. And the surrender has taken place, not because the nation demanded it, not because the national army rose in revolt against its leaders and refused to fight... but either because the commander in chief was exhausted as a result of repeated fasting or because his mind and judgment were clouded owing to subjective causes which it is impossible for an outsider to understand."

* Sumit Sarkar, Modern India (Macmillan India Limited, 1983), pp. 286-296, p. 280

* Sam Ashman, "Indian: Imperialism, Partition and Resistance," International Socialism 77, Winter 1997, p. 91.

* Siddharth Dube, In The Land Of Poverty: Memoirs of an Indian Family 1947-1997, (New York: Zed Books, 1998), p. 36, p. 55

* Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography (New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, 1996), p. 259. First published 1936.

* R.C. Majumdar and P.N. Chopra, Main Currents of Indian History (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1994), p. 197.

* Subhas Chandra Bose, "The Fickle Leader," in 100 Greatest Pre-Independence Speeches