Friday, February 01, 2008


Open Democracy has commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the assassination of Gandhi by publishing two articles, one by Satish Kumar the other by Ramin Jahanbegloo. Both disappoint, though the latter is the better of the two. What they have in common is a breathless reverence rather than a critical examination of someone who remains a substantial historical figure and an interesting theorist. The general "his message for today" line and the "more relevant than ever" argument always tend to verge on the hagiographic and gloss over serious weaknesses, including his catastrophic absolute pacifism in the Second World War.

Reverential articles also tend to obscure the fact that Gandhi was not a one-off but a product of Empire, grafting onto Indian culture not only his British legal training but also a particular 19th Century Western radical political tradition, which was close to variants of Anarchism. (And not the most impressive part of that tradition in my view). One of the most important early influences was Henry Salt who introduced Gandhi to the works of Thoreau. Gandhi's economics were drawn almost exclusively from Ruskin's Unto this Last, whilst the influence of Tolstoy was profound. Tolstoy reinforced Gandhi's asceticism and his unrealistic romanticisation of the peasantry, as well as helping to inspire his non-violence. Gandhi became this intellectual movement's most most spectacular activist, attempting to implement these ideas as part of a national liberation struggle.

The modern relevance of Gandhi is also very much the relevance of this movement to contemporary society, and the legacy is mixed. Take Gandhi's non-violence for example. He always intended it to be more than passive resistance; he saw it as a struggle to discover an immament truth. And it certainly is an important tool of political action, can be effective in some situations, though is rarely as purist as Gandhi intended. Its principled use can break the bloody and savage cycle of action and reprisal that can turn political conflict into mass murder. It can challenge the moral authority of a regime, but without either the disarming or the co-option of the coercive powers of the state it cannot succeed in overturning it. I cannot see it as anything other than ineffective against the sadistic pathology of fascism. Only a properly critical approach can illustrate both the advantages and limits of non-violence (a nice example is this review article by Terry Glavin).

Gandhi's theories of rural development - building prosperity from the bottom up through small-scale appropriate technology and self reliant village communities - may be rooted in an exaggerated claim for the virtues of village life and craft technology but have been shown to be effective in many ways and are near orthodoxy amongst some development agencies. They stand as a corrective and critique of unthinking industrial development, carried out at the expense of the people and the environment. However, the exploitation and degradation of rural areas and communities continues apace; the question of power has not been resolved.

I have read little recent scholarship on Gandhi, so my knowledge of the modern literature is out of date. He still interests, but his ideas, and those of the people he drew from, are ill served by canonisation by uncritical admirers with a Mahatma complex. The radical tradition he transmitted and developed deserves serious critical study rather than hero worship by wishful thinkers.

1 comment:

Larkers said...

In his "Reflections on Gandhi" I read George Orwell's criticism's and questions with something like unease when I first encountered them thirty five years ago. Gandhi then, as now, was a figure who was revered even by people (like myself) who knew very little about him. Much of what Gandhi was and 'stood' for is legend. Michael Moore in "Fahrenheit 911" says on camera at one point "Gandhi defeated the British Empire" solely through non-violence. The Second World War and the long standing Labour Party policy of Indian Independence were somewhat more effective.

Orwell's essay is as good as any he wrote on a contemporary and announces many of the problems that the 'humble' little guru left in his wake.