Isms and Individuals

If socialism means turning enemies into friends, I should be considered a genuine socialist.
            Mahatma Gandhi

 Mahatma Gandhi had a remarkable capacity to absorb potent ideas and radical proposals in original combinations that transformed them into refined instruments for the progressive realization of his own fundamental commitments. A Karma Yogin of deep reflection and fearless resolve, his wide if unsystematic reading was subordinated to a ceaseless winnowing on the basis of insights and values tested in his own life and in the bold social reforms he sought to initiate in South Africa and India. He willingly called himself a "socialist" and a "communist" in appropriate contexts, but his convictions were distilled from the moral stamina of the Indian masses and the spiritual heritage of humanity rather than from the secular theorists and sectarian ideologies of the past century and a half. His classical socialism was metaphysically prior to the ideological State socialism of the twentieth century, and his non-violent communism was ethically superior to the qualified Marxism of contemporary Communist nation-states. Since social and political institutions possess neither cognitive flexibility nor fidelity to conscience, Gandhi was wholly convinced that all social systems essentially depend upon and cannot rise beyond the enlightened individuals, however few, who participate in them. Neither political organizations nor social philosophies can be stronger in practice than their finest incumbents and fervent advocates.

 Systems which truly seek to elevate the prevailing condition of humanity can succeed only to the limited extent that their avid supporters meet the minimal ethical and intellectual requirements which nurture and sustain freedom. Gandhi's seminal concepts of satya and ahimsa lay at the inmost heart of his evolving social and political philosophy. He patiently nurtured his own philanthropic vision of the radical transformation of the existing social order and political system, but he was even more ardently concerned to test his own revolutionary approach to political action and social change within the pressing limits of the prevailing conditions of Indian politics and society. Immediate resistance to injustice and coercion as well as a long-term programme of social and political reconstruction must alike be legitimated in terms of the twin absolutes of truth and non-violence. "His concept of satya, with ahimsa as the means, determined his doctrine of satyagraha or active resistance to authority, while the concept of ahimsa, with satya as the common end, enabled him to formulate his doctrine of sarvodaya or non-violent socialism."1 Gandhi repudiated both State and reformist socialism because the first attempted to impose socialism from the top, whilst the second tolerated and sometimes even condoned violence as an inescapable means to attain its ends. His own conviction that any sharp distinction between means and ends was theoretically dubious and practically unhelpful confirmed his belief that violence, in any form and for any end, had to be rejected in principle and in practice.

 Mahatma Gandhi found Marxist communism unacceptable both as a political philosophy and as a basic principle of social organization. He was not burdened by the social and philosophical inheritance that weighed heavily upon Karl Marx, and to the degree that he understood Marxist principles and rationalizations, he rejected many of them, especially utilitarian conceptions of social amelioration arising from capitalist economics. Marx was indeed a moralist rather than a moral philosopher. The Communist Manifesto is the hypnotic portrait of a bourgeois civilization and an industrial system iniquitous in its basic structure, standing condemned in the eyes of the compassionate spectator while also awaiting inevitable destruction by the dedicated revolutionary. Traditional moral philosophy in Western Europe has been a daring enquiry into the elusive nature of the good, a rather rigorous intellectual discipline that thrives upon methodological doubt and a philosophical suspension of commitment. In this sense, Marx was hardly a didactic moral philosopher. Like Gandhi, he readily reversed the traditional primacy of the vita contemplativa over the vita activa to such an extent that he dismissed contemplation without action as sterile, though he himself, unlike Gandhi, was a tortured philosophe and a solemn propagandist rather than a Promethean actor on the world's stage. Marxism shares with Augustinianism an awesome totality of scope, a hubristic attempt to provide an all-inclusive view of reality.

 Marx's macro-conception of society as a flawed system in desperate conflict, "a split self writ large", is indeed metaphysical rather than scientific. The Hermetic-Hegelian axiom that man is the microcosm of the macrocosm is dramatically employed to draw individuals out, not from their spiritual restlessness, but from their social complacency. Marx's historicism and reductionism prevented him from pursuing his early philosophy to its logical conclusion and from asking fundamental questions about the ends of life and the deepest human urges that were frustrated under the competitive, acquisitive craze of the capitalist system. This prevented him from considering whether the ethical regeneration of man would automatically take place with a total change of system from capitalism to communism. His millennial dream was a powerful myth centered on the distant future, without any tangible basis in the historical reality he was so concerned to reveal. "Perfectionism and idealization, moralism and violence, ideologies and "isms", are all the strange bed-fellows and destructive enemies of a living ideal of human perfectibility."2

 Though sporadically aware of socialist and communist movements and governments across the globe, Gandhi's concrete experience of them was largely in the context of Indian coteries and political parties. When in 1924 baseless rumours circulated that he would be invited to visit Soviet Russia, he wrote that he had no intention of going there because his own work in India was still in an experimental stage and foreign excursions would be premature. Until his efforts succeeded in India, he saw no reason to move beyond that sphere of dharma. Though he did not claim to understand fully Bolshevism as a political philosophy, he was clear and decisive in his reaction to it.

 I am yet ignorant of what exactly Bolshevism is. I have not been able to study it. I do not know whether it is for the good of Russia in the long run. But I do know that in so far as it is based on violence and denial of God, it repels me. I do not believe in short-violent-cuts to success. The Bolshevik friends who are bestowing their attention on me should realize that however much I may sympathize with and admire worthy motives, I am an uncompromising opponent of violent methods even to serve the noblest of causes.3

 Four years later he was asked whether the social economics of Bolshevism constituted an appropriate model for India. Replying that the abolition of the institution of private property was an economic application of the ethical principle of aparigraha or non-possession,4 he insisted that it had to be undertaken voluntarily as a result of moral choice. Reiterating his rejection of violence to achieve even the most laudatory ends, he also pointed to the nobility of many Bolsheviks.

... there is no questioning the fact that the Bolshevik ideal has behind it the purest sacrifice of countless men and women who have given up their all for its sake, and an ideal that is sanctified by the sacrifices of such master spirits as Lenin cannot go in vain: the noble example of their renunciation will be emblazoned forever and quicken and purify the ideal as time passes.5

 Since Gandhi traced ignorant wrongdoing by individuals to repressive systems and erroneous views, he rejected any social philosophy or political methodology that condoned violent retaliation against an individual or class of people. Systems may have to be dismantled and views transformed, but individuals who identify with them have to be morally persuaded by appeals to conscience rather than by coercion, including the disguised coercion of claims of national interest and historical inevitability. Communism as an ideology was repugnant to Gandhi, though he readily sympathized with its declared ideals and ultimate ends. "For experience convinces me that permanent good can never be the outcome of untruth and violence. Even if my belief is a fond delusion, it will be admitted that it is a fascinating delusion."6

 When he encountered the shibboleths of socialism and communism among discontented intellectuals, some of whom were associated with the Indian National Congress, he was, generally speaking, unimpressed. In addition to his philosophical objections to any overt sanction of violence, he viewed the specious doctrine that nothing positive could be achieved without first gaining the power of the State as little more than a convenient excuse for avoiding useful work at hand – self-transformation through deliberate commitment to chosen values and the ungrudging willingness to sacrifice one's own social advantages for the sake of others, especially the disfranchised poor. He found socialists and communists alike wrangling interminably over details, engaged in endless political squabbles and petty grievances, and generally more prone to speechify than to work actively for others. Late in life, Gandhi generously appealed to communist workers to follow the essential principles they espoused, to abandon the fatalistic belief that India could be saved by external sources, and to take satyagraha seriously.

 Your principles are fine indeed. But you do not seem to follow them in practice, for you do not seem to know the difference between truth and falsehood or justice and injustice. What is more saddening about you is that, instead of having faith in India and drawing inspiration from its unrivalled culture, you wish to introduce Russian civilization here as if Russia was your motherland. I disapprove of relying on any outside power, however much that may materially benefit us, for I believe in the principle that your eating is not going to satisfy my hunger, that I can satisfy my hunger only by eating myself....  You also use the word "satyagrahi" as part of your jargon. But anybody who uses this word should realize that by doing so he accepts a great responsibility. A satyagrahi should rely wholly on truth. He cannot then afford to be ambiguous in his attitudes. He cannot jump on to a bandwagon. In brief, he cannot depart from his principles in the smallest degree. A satyagrahi cares for nothing but truth. He will give no pain or do no injustice whatever to anybody either in thought, word or deed. And he must always have perfect clarity in his thoughts.7

 These fundamental criticisms of communism and socialism were largely similar because Gandhi discerned little difference in their actual weaknesses. This was partly because he saw little theoretical distinction between true communism and real socialism.

 My communism is not very different from socialism. It is a harmonious blending of the two. Communism, as I have understood it, is a natural corollary of socialism.8

 Nonetheless, though he sometimes called the same principles "communist" or "socialist" depending on the context, he made subtle distinctions in practice. Unlike his non-violent socialism, Gandhi did not try to translate his spiritual communism into a national movement. He tended to restrict his communism to the self-consciously constituted ashram or community wherein it was devoid of ideological content and was sustained upon the basis of voluntary vows of truthfulness, non-possession, non-stealing, sexual restraint and non-violence. Each of these pledges was given a precise, if broad, application and enshrined as an ideal, at once practicable and elusive even for the most committed adherents. The ashram was the vital centre of his communist experiments, several of which are candidly described in Ashram Observances in Action.

  Gandhi rejected violence in any form, and though his periodic criticisms of capitalism, socialism and communism varied, they were all rooted in the sacrosanct principle that ends cannot be divorced from means and that violent means could never produce non-violent ends. Though sophisticated forms of capitalism may renounce raw violence as a basic tool of government, they readily employ the entire gamut of legalized coercion to protect private ownership and thereby maintain material and social inequities. In addition, crude applications of utilitarian principles easily become the basis of indirect coercion of the minority by the majority. Yet whether the State uses its resources coercively to safeguard private property or appropriates property to itself through violent means, the fundamental principle of non-violence is violated.

... from what I know of Bolshevism it not only does not preclude the use of force but expropriation of private property and maintaining the collective State ownership of the same. And if that is so I have no hesitation in saying that the Bolshevik regime in its present form cannot last for long.9

 His essential views remained unchanged throughout the next twenty years. With the independence of India, however, the Indian communist movement emerged as a distinct political force, and Gandhi was impelled to express himself in stronger terms.

 Hardly one man in a thousand can be found who practices communism in everyday life. Communists have come to consider it their supreme duty, their supreme service, to create disaffection, to generate discontent and to organize strikes. They do not see whom this discontent, these strikes, will ultimately harm. Half knowledge is one of the worst evils. The best is either full knowledge or ignorance. We are thus caught in isms and take pride in them and consider it a fashion to belong to this or that ism.10

 He could never look to the State, however conceived and constituted, as an instrument for imposing communist or socialist ideals. Rather, the State should exist solely to carry out the will of the people, and the masses should be enlightened – not dictated to – by the responsible leadership of the morally educated and politically committed.

 The socialists and communists say, they can do nothing to bring about economic equality today. They will just carry on propaganda in its favour and to that end they believe in generating and accentuating hatred. They say, when they get control over the State, they will enforce equality. Under my plan, the State will be there to carry out the will of the people, not to dictate to them or force them to do its will. I shall bring about economic equality through non-violence, by converting the people to my point of view by harnessing the forces of love as against hatred. I will not wait till I have converted the whole society to my view but will straightaway make a beginning with myself.11

 Gandhi could not endorse any apocalyptic theory of revolution from the top down, even one in which the intelligentsia would be used to make the proletariat politically self-conscious. His political and social reformation had to emerge from the awakened masses, and any assistance by intellectual classes could be effective only if they lived amidst the poor, identified with them and worked alongside them. Preaching to workers was too easily the first step towards forming a new class of exploiters which replaced the ruling elite without radically altering the inherently unjust and inequitable social structure. A revolution from the bottom upwards – because all who desired to share in it had to start anew at the bottom by renouncing every vestige of class and privilege – could not only produce a genuinely socialist society but also avoid the brutal class war which many feared, some actually desired and armchair ideologists saw as inevitable. Class war was wholly unacceptable on the principle of non-violence, and it was unnecessary and even irrelevant in a large-scale social revolution from the bottom upwards. Gandhi could not countenance the possibility of class war even on theoretical grounds because it violated his unshakeable conviction that ends never rise morally above their means. He rejected it in daily practice owing to the triple criteria of his holistic socialism and communism. First of all, social reform must include everyone, oppressor as well as oppressed, capitalist as well as exploited. Secondly, such inclusion must be voluntary and not coerced. And thirdly, it must clearly distinguish between the inequities that will necessarily remain even in the best societies while utterly abolishing eradicable inequalities.

 Inequalities in intelligence and even opportunity will last till the end of time. A man living on the banks of a river has any day more opportunity of growing crops than one living in an arid desert. But if inequalities stare us in the face the essential equality too is not to be missed. Every man has an equal right to the necessaries of life even as birds and beasts have. And since every right carries with it a corresponding duty and the corresponding remedy for resisting any attack upon it, it is merely a matter of finding out the corresponding duties and remedies to vindicate the elementary fundamental equality. The corresponding duty is to labour with my limbs and the corresponding remedy is to non-cooperate with him who deprives me of the fruits of my labour. And if I would recognize the fundamental equality, as I must, of the capitalist and the laborer, I must not aim at his destruction.12

 There was no moral defeatism in the recognition of existing inequalities, so long as one did not resign oneself to glaring inequities, which could be readily ameliorated. Lest this crucial point be blurred, he warned in 1946:

 Let no one try to justify the glaring difference between the classes and the masses, the prince and the pauper, by saying that the former need more. That will be idle sophistry and a travesty of my argument. The contrast between the rich and the poor today is a painful sight. The poor villagers are exploited by the foreign Government and also by their own countrymen – the city-dwellers.13

 Socio-economic reform necessitates a radical change in perspective on the part of organized workers and propertied owners alike. If the latter had to see economic ownership in a new light, so too the industrial workers had to realize their inalienable power, which was not the blind force of destruction but the latent strength of creativity.

 By the non-violent method we seek not to destroy the capitalist, we seek to destroy capitalism. We invite the capitalist to regard himself as trustee for those on whom he depends for the making, the retention and the increase of his capital. Nor need the worker wait for his conversion. If capital is power, so is work. Either power can be used destructively or creatively. Either is dependent on the other. Immediately the worker realizes his strength, he is in a position to become a co-sharer with the capitalist instead of remaining his slave. If he aims at becoming the sole owner, he will most likely be killing the hen that lays golden eggs.14

 If class revolution fails to alter the prevailing state of society, however much it may elevate the formerly oppressed and denigrate the overthrown masters, non-violent conversion will fail to sustain a viable political and economic system without a modus operandi which merges the requirements of social reform with those of economic improvement. This core method was, for Gandhi, the ethical idea of trusteeship, a powerful concept which, if put into practice, could obviate potential class conflict, link fundamental social reform with economic stability, and utilize every existing talent and capacity. Its intrinsic power to include all classes and make them contribute constructively to an emerging social order attracted Gandhi, who was strongly convinced that its honest and consistent application could demonstrate the practicability of the principle of non-violent social reformation.

Hermes, September 1985
by Raghavan Iyer


1 by Raghavan Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Oxford University Press (New York, 1973). Second edition: Concord Grove Press (Santa Barbara, 1983), p. 252.

2 by Raghavan Iyer, Parapolitics – Toward the City of Man, Oxford University Press (New York, 1979). Second edition: Concord Grove Press (Santa Barbara, 1985), p. 17.

3 "My Path", Young India, December 11, 1924.

4 "The Students" Interrogatives", Young India, November 15, 1928.

5 "My Notes", Navajivan, October 21, 1928; Young India, November 15, 1928.

6 "My Path", loc. cit.

7 "Talk with Communist Workers", Bihar Pachhi Dilhi, June 8, 1947, pp. 202-204.

8 "Interview to Louis Fischer", Harijan, August 4, 1946.

9 "My Notes", loc. cit.

10 "Talk with Communists", Dilhiman Gandhiji, I, pp. 142-143.

11 "Answers to Questions at Constructive Workers" Conference, Madras", Harijan, March 31, 1931; The Hindu, January 26, 1946.

12 "Questions and Answers", Young India, March 26, 1931.

13 "Answers to Questions at Constructive workers" Conference, Madras", loc. cit.

14 "Questions and Answers", loc. cit.