Original publication: archive.org

The Meaning of Gandhism (1958)

54 minutes | English | South Asia

The last two chapters of The Mahatma and the Ism (1958), a book by E. M. S. Namboodiripad, followed by some observations from his introduction to the second edition from 1959 (here given a suggestive title by RS).

Namboodiripad (b. 1909-1998) was an important figure in the Communist movement in India, rising to Chief Minister of Kerala (1957-1959, 1967-1967), as well as the leader of the “Communist Party of India (Marxist)” faction in the 1964 split of India’s Communist Party.


The Meaning of Gandhism

What is the significance of the life and teaching of Mahatma Gandhi? Is the story of his life “the story of his experiments with truth,” as he himself put it in the 1920s when he started writing his autobiography?

How are we to explain the evolution of Mohandas Gandhi into the “Father of the Nation”; the devoted sergeant during the first world war into the leader of the “Do or Die” movement of 1942, with its inspiring slogan of “British Rulers, Quit India”; the scion of a family of loyal servants of the feudal rulers of Porbunder State into a fighter for democracy in the Indian States; the religious-minded youth who was not attracted by any of the radical movements, but landed himself in the Society of Vegetarians in London, into the most outstanding leader of the anti-imperialist and democratic movement in our country?

Such are the questions which naturally come to our minds as we close the story of the eventful life briefly outlined in the preceding pages. These are not abstract questions, but questions which have their bearing on the practical tasks which every democrat in our country has to fulfil today. For, though the Mahatma is no more in our midst, his life-long teachings are guiding the activities of several groups and individuals inside the democratic movement.

The Bhoodan movement, for example, is undoubtedly based on Gandhiji’s teachings; it is a movement with whose theories and practice one may disagree, but which one can never ignore. The two aspects of the Bhoodan movement — its revolt against the existing system of landed property, as well as its insistence that the maldistribution of landed property should be rectified in a “non-violent” way — are both the application of Gandhiji’s teachings to the most important social problem of our country, the problem of land distribution.

Let us not forget either that it is because of the inspiration drawn from Gandhiji’s teachings that several of the present-day Gandhians (including Vinobaji himself) have, in some way or other, associated themselves with the peace movement.

On the other hand, let us not forget that it is in the name of Gandhiji’s teachings against what is called “mob violence” that the present-day leaders of the government, both at the Centre and in the States, attack the growing mass movement of the working class and peasantry.

It is a measure of the enormous significance of the role played by Gandhiji in the history of our national movement that every trend and faction inside the Congress, and almost every political party barring the Communist Party, uses the name of Gandhiji and his teachings for justifying and defending its policies. Serious attempts to assess the role and significance of Gandhiji and his teachings should, therefore, be considered of enormous practical importance for the further development of the democratic movement.

This is not an easy task. Like several other historical personages, Gandhiji had a highly complex personality; his teachings, too, are incapable of over-simplified assessments on the lines of his being “the inspirer of the national movement who roused the masses to anti-imperialist action,” “the counter-revolutionary who did all he could to prevent the development of our national movement on revolutionary lines,” etc.

His life was so rich in events, his speeches and writings so prolific and touched such varied fields of human activity, his actions at various stages so dramatic, that it will be easy enough for any student of his life and teachings to prove his or her own pet theory about Gandhiji and Gandhism. What he or she has to do is only to string together a series of selected incidents from his life and selected pronouncements from his speeches and writings. It is, however, far more difficult to select those that are really significant from the point of view of history, see the interconnection between the various aspects of his life and teachings, and then to arrive at an integrated understanding of the man and his mission.

Unfortunately for us, the efforts which have so far been made belong to the two categories — either over-simplified and one-sided tributes, or equally over-simplified and one-sided criticisms. Every effort should, therefore, be made to avoid both these pitfalls. It is as a contribution to such efforts that the conclusions which appear to the present writer to flow from his life are given below.

The first point to be noted is that Gandhiji was an idealist — idealist not only in the sense that the world-outlook which guided him was opposed to philosophical materialism, but also in the sense that he kept before him certain ideals to which he clung till the end of his life. Moral values like truth, non-violence, renunciation of the pleasures of life, etc.; political ideals such as freedom, democracy, peace, etc.; social objectives such as abolition of caste distinctions, emancipation of women, unity of all religious groups and communities, etc. — these were indivisible parts of his life and teachings. It is this adherence to certain ideals that made him plunge into the South African satyagraha movement in the early part of his public life; it was this again that enabled him to work out his non-cooperation and other campaigns for the freedom of the nation; it was this that made him the champion of innumerable democratic causes and ultimately made him a martyr in the noble cause of national unity.

Secondly, his idealism played a big role in rousing the hitherto slumbering millions of the rural poor. The semi-religious language which he used in speaking to them, the simple unostentatious life which he led, and the passion with which he fought for their demands — all these drew the millions of the rural poor towards him. They looked upon him as their saviour, as a new incarnation of God, out to deliver them from the miserable plight in which they are placed.

We may well consider his views on several social, economic and cutlural questions as “reactionary” (many of them undoubtedly are reactionary). It would, however, be a profound mistake to miss the fact that it was these “reactionary” views of his that enabled him to form a bridge between the mass of peasantry and the sophisticated representatives and leaders of the modern national-democratic movement. It may appear self-contradictory if one were to say that Gandhiji with his “reactionary” social outlook was instrumental in bringing about a profoundly revolutionary phenomenon — the drawing of the mass of the rural poor into the arena of the modern national-democratic movement. This self-contradiction, however, is a manifestation of the contradiction in the real political life of our nation, arising out of the fact that the national-democratic movement was led by the bourgeoisie, linked with feudalism.

Thirdly, it should be pointed out that, though he played a vital role in drawing the mass of the rural poor into the national movement, it would be wrong to ascribe to him personally the tremendous awakening which they showed in the years after the first world war. For, this awakening was the result of historic developments that were taking place in India as well as throughout the world. The slow and steady deterioration in the economic conditions of the Indian peasantry which reached alarming proportions during and immediately after the first world war; the growth of a radical wing inside the Indian national movement, which in certain areas touched sections of the peasantry as well; the impact of such international developments as the Turkish, Chinese and, above all, Russian revolutions on the minds of the Asian people as a whole — these were some of the basic causes which had started acting on the consciousness of the Indian peasantry. They wouid have acted — probably not in the same way — even if Gandhiji had not come on the scene.

Stating this is not to deny Gandhiji’s role as an individual in giving a specific character to the awakening of the Indian peasantry, to the fact that the new upsurge came to be linked with the political movement for freedom and democracy. To deny Gandhiji’s contribution to the drawing of the rural poor and to the consequent strengthening of the national-democratic movement would be as one-sided as to ascribe to him all the credit for the people’s awakening itself.

Fourthly, while Gandhiji thus deserves praise for his role in overcoming the major weaknesses of the national democratic movement — making the movement really national and all-class by bringing in the large masses of the hitherto unorganised rural poor — it should not be forgotten that he had always been and continued till his death to be afraid of the rural poor acting as an independent force. While he was all for mobilising them in the struggle for freedom and democracy, he was keen that they should act under the leadership of his own class, the bourgeoisie.

Ever since the days of Chauri-Chaura, he had taken special care to devise all manner of measures to see that at every stage in the struggle for freedom and democracy, the rural poor kept themselves within the limits which were considered safe for the bourgeoisie. Anybody who fails to recognise this reality will be unable to explain why he was so insistent on non-violence being observed by the people in their struggle against imperialism and their agents, while he had no qualms of conscience in acting as the recruiting sergeant for imperialism during the first world war.

Fifthly, not only in relation to the rural poor, but also in relation to the working class and other sections of the working people, his was an approach which, in actual practice, helped the bourgeoisie. His theory of trusteeship, his insistence on certain moral values as the guiding lines for any political activity, the skillful way in which he combined his own extra-parliamentary activities (constructive programme and satyagraha) with the parliamentary activities of his lieutenants, the characteristically Gandhian way of combining negotiations with the enemy even while carrying on mass direct action against him — all these proved in actual practice to be of enormous help to the bourgeoisie in (a) rousing the masses in action against imperialism and in (b) preventing them from resorting to revolutionary mass action. This ability of his to rouse the masses and yet to check them, to launch anti-imperialist direct action and yet to go on negotiating with the imperialist rulers made him the undisputed leader of the bourgeoisie. He was a leader in whom all factions and groups inside the class had confidence and who, therefore, could unify and activise it.

Finally, Gandhiji’s role in history as the foremost leader of the bourgeoisie should not be taken to mean that he was always, and on every issue, at one with the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, it is characteristic of him, and the class of which he was the friend, philosopher and guide, that, on several occasions and on several issues, his was a minority voice, if not a lone voice. On all such occasions, he and they agreed among themselves that they would temporarily go along different paths. This is a phenomenon which manifested itself again and again — first in the post-non-cooperation years (division of labour between Swarajists and no-changers); then in the years after the 1932-33 civil disobedience movement; several times during the Second World War and, finally, in the months preceding and following the attainment of independence.

Particularly was this true of the last days of his life when his idealism came into conflict with the “iron practicalism” of the “steel-minded” Sardar Patel, with the modernism of the radical intellectual Pandit Nehru, and several others who had been his colleagues and lieutenants for several years. It was this growing gulf between him and his colleagues that made his life tragic in the post-independence months, even before that life came to a tragic end.

It is when we examine this growing gulf between him and his colleagues in the last days of his life that we come to a really objective all-sided assessment of Gandhiji, the man and his mission. For, this growing gulf was the manifestation of the reality that Gandhiji’s insistence on certain moral values had once been helpful to the bourgeoisie, but became, in the last days of his life, a hindrance.

In the days in which it had to fight on two fronts — fight imperialism and, to this end, bring the mass of our urban and rural poor into action; at the same time, fight the trend towards revolutionary action which was growing among the masses — the bourgeoisie found it quite useful to resort to the technique of non-violent resistance evolved by Gandhiji. However, once the struggle against imperialism was crowned with success, in the sense that the bourgeoisie and its class allies got state power, it was no more necessary to fight a two-front battle. Whatever further struggles have to be waged against imperialism can be waged at the state level, for which it was not necessary to draw the masses of our people into action.

Furthermore, the very fact that the bourgeoisie got state power in its hands and had to use it in its own class interests, brought it and its state machinery into ever more conflicts with the mass of our people. Another result of their coming to power was that the individual representatives of the bourgeoisie who came to power (ministers, MPs, and MLAs, etc.) began to enrich themselves and their friends, relatives, hangers-on, etc., at the cost of the state as well as of the people; to this end, they resorted to any and every corrupt methods provided they yielded results.

It was this change in the position of the bourgeoisie as a class and its individual representatives that brought it into conflict with Gandhiji, the man who still clung to the ideals which he had been preaching in the days of anti-imperialist struggle. The moral values which he had preached in the days of anti-imperialist struggle now became a hindrance to the politicians who came to power. Gandhiji, on the other hand, remained true to them and could not reconcile himself to the sudden change which occurred in his former colleagues and lieutenants. Particularly was this so on the question of Hindu-Muslim unity and on the corruption in the ranks of the Congress (both of which have already been described in the preceding chapter).

We may conclude by saying that Gandhiji became the Father of the Nation precisely because the idealism to which he adhered in the years of anti-imperialist struggle became a practically useful political weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie; furthermore, that he became more or less isolated from the bourgeoisie in the latter days of his life, because his idealism did in the post-independence years become a hindrance to the self-interest of the bourgeoisie.

Gandhism After Gandhi

Now that we have come to the end of the story of the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the question naturally arises: Where does the Gandhian school of thought stand today, nearly 10 years after its founder met with the tragic end at the hands of an assassin?

It is very interesting, in this connection, that, though many of the close followers and colleagues of Gandhiji who are alive today, were once reputed to be the chief exponents of the Gandhian philosophy, they do not agree among themselves on the essence of Gandhism and its application to the complex problems of day-to-day life. As it was noted in the beginning of this book, there are several followers and disciples of Gandhiji, each of whom claiming to be loyally following his teachings while criticising others for betraying the ideals for which Gandhiji spent a whole lifetime.

It is also interesting that, while several of the followers and disciples of Gandhiji differ among themselves as to the essence of Gandhism and the manner of its application to present-day problems, one of them — Acharya Vinoba Bhave — is unanimously acclaimed as the true follower of the Mahatma, his real successor.

Vinoba Bhave was not known to the public as many others were during Gandhiji’s lifetime. The only occasion on which his name was broadcast throughout India as a loyal follower of Gandhiji was in 1940 when Gandhiji selected him as the first individual satyagrahi to break the law as a protest against Britain’s forcing India into the war. People then came to know that he was a loyal and devoted follower of Gandhiji, a silent and selfless worker in propagating and practising the ideals and principles for which Gandhiji stood and fought.

It was only after more than a decade since this incident that his name again shot into prominence. The Bhoodan movement, which he initiated in 1951, was hailed as a true application of Gandhiji’s principles to the most important problem which free India has to solve — the problem of land. It was hailed as an alternative to the more painful method of forcing the landlords to part with their land and distributing it to the peasants. It did not matter whether this process of forcing the landlords was to be done through the constitutional means of enacting legislations as the Congress governments proposed to do, or through the militant mass peasant action as the Communists sought to do in Telangana. Just as in the case of Gandhiji, so in the case of Vinoba Bhave too, it so happened that dozens of men and women who towered above him in intellectual capacity and other ingredients of personal eminence went to him, listened to his exposition of the gospel of Jan Shakti (people’s power) as the only effective means through which land and other problems of the people can be solved. Ministers, professors and other eminent men began to hail him as the leader of a movement which, if successful, will lead to the realisation of the goal for which they have all been working — the goal of establishing a classless and casteless society through non-violent means.

Barring this agreement in the matter of recognising Vinoba Bhave as the true follower of their departed leader, there is no point on which one follower of the Gandhian school of the present day agrees with another. Take, for example, their attitude to the world problems of the present day. There are, among the present-day Gandhians, people who hold different views — ranging from those who are considered “fellow-travellers” and “crypto-Communists,” to those who would, at least in private, repeat almost everything that the notorious anti-Communists of the world have to say on the “danger of communism.” On the problems of internal economy and politics too, there are all manner of views held by those who call themselves Gandhians, many of them being members and leaders of different political parties. On the other hand, there are some who had opposed Gandhiji when he was heading the anti-imperialist movement, but who today claim themselves to be his followers, and what is worse, denounce many of the earlier followers of Gandhiji for their “non-adherence to Gandhian principles”!

The question arises: Why is all this confusion within the Gandhian school? Why is it that the followers of Gandhiji are fighting among themselves? Is it a case of history repeating itself: A prophet being able to keep his disciples united during his lifetime, but after his death, they falling out among themselves? If so, how is it that they are united in paying tribute to one of them (Vinoba Bhave) as the true follower and successor of the Mahatma? Again, why is it that, at the very time when the disciples of the Mahatma are fighting among themselves on the right way to apply his teachings to the present-day problems, many of those who were opposing him during his struggle against imperialism are today swearing by his name and claim to follow him?

For an answer to these questions, it is necessary to understand what is the essence of Gandhism. The answer usually given is that the essence of Gandhism consists in the application of the moral principles of truth and non-violence to the current problems of society. This would, of course, be a correct answer, but it would immediately raise another question: Is there something like absolute truth or absolute morality; are there unalterable ways of applying this absolute truth and absolute morality to the current problems of life? For example, how is it that Gandhiji did not only fail to denounce participation in the first world war as a sin, but did himself actively participate in it on the side of the British by going about in his own Gujarat province recruiting soldiers for the British; while, during the second world war, he considered it a sin not to dissociate oneself in all possible ways from the war? How is it that what was moral in the first world war became immoral in the second? Again, how is it that the very Gandhiji, who in 1921 denounced the government as “Satanic” and called for the boycott of legislatures in 1921, subsequently used his personal influence with his “no-change” followers to allow the Swarajists to function through the legislatures? How is it that Gandhiji, who ordered the withdrawal of civil disobedience and other forms of mass action when mass violence broke out in Chauri-Chaura, had no hesitation in giving support to the Congress governments (in the provinces) who resorted to shooting of the masses? Is there anything like absolute morality, absolute truth, absolute nonviolence, etc., in all these mutually contradictory positions taken by him?

These are questions which have been posed at various places in the previous pages. Now that we have come to the end of the story, we may sum up the discussion as a whole and state that, just as for any other human being, for Gandhiji too, truth, morality and non-violence were not absolute but relative. He judged everything by the acid test of whether a particular course will help what was, in the larger interests, true and moral — the ending of British imperialism by peaceful and non-violent means.

Recruiting Indian soldiers for British imperialism was moral in the first world war, because, as he himself stated at the time, the personal sacrifice of Indian soldiers in defence of the British Empire would strengthen him and other fighters of self-government within that Empire. On the other hand, participation in the second world war was immoral, because the threat of struggle against the war effort was, in the changed circumstances, the best means of strengthening the struggle for independence. Interestingly enough, Gandhiji allowed the Congress, during certain phases of the movement, to negotiate with the British on the basis of participation in the war, though he personally abstained from participation; even this personal abstention was part of the strategy of keeping himself free, if later on the situation demanded it, to launch a struggle against the British.

So was the position with regard to his attitude to the “Satanic” government and its legislative and other organs. Gandhiji worked in 1921 for a mass boycott of the administrative organs of the government, but subsequently proved himself skilful in the negotiations with the Viceroy and other high officials.

It would, therefore, be dishonest for anybody to say that Gandhiji was sticking to absolute truth and absolute morality: equally dishonest will it be for anyone to claim that the followers and colleagues of Gandhiji were absolutely loyal to all that Gandhiji himself preached and tried to practise. On the other hand, there are ever so many of his colleagues and followers who, in private talks, used to make fun of what are called “Gandhi’s fads.” The well-known discussion as to whether non-violence was a creed or policy, and the stand taken by several of his followers that, while for Gandhiji it was a creed, for themselves it was only a policy, illustrates the relative character of the loyalty of both Gandhiji as well as his followers to the basic tenets of what is called “Gandhism.” Gandhiji’s ability to unite them all arose out of the fact that he applied the principles of truth, morality, non-violence, etc., to the needs of the anti-imperialist struggle as it was conceived by the class that was leading that struggle during his lifetime — the bourgeoisie. That class appreciated his skill in unleashing the mass of the toiling people and uniting them against the British, as well as in restricting the activity of those masses within the limits that are safe for the bourgeoisie. As the tide of anti-imperialist struggle followed its successive ebbs and flows, Gandhiji felt the pulse of the people; kept contact with the British, and used his contact with both to keep the fire of anti-imperialism alive among the people. At the same time, he took care to see that the fire did not devour those who were afraid that their own interests will suffer if the common people came into their own. It was precisely because of this particular manner of Gandhiji’s application of the principles of truth, non-violence and morality that the true representatives of the bourgeoisie hailed him as their leader, though they had their own reservations with regard to the principles he preached.

The basic change that took place in the situation in August 1947 made it unnecessary for such an approach to problems. A gulf, therefore, appeared between Gandhiji on the one hand and most of his colleagues on the other. His colleagues felt that, since state power had come into their hands, there was no necessity for any mass movement; on the other hand, mass movements might become a positive hindrance to them. Whatever reforms the socio-economic system required could be made through the use of the state power. Gandhiji, however, was not so hopeful. As has been explained in the preceding chapter, he was stricken with grief at the new developments that were taking place on the eve of and after the transfer of power. He thought it necessary to reformulate his principles to meet the altered situation. It was out of this realisation on his part that his well-known proposals regarding the shape of things to come in free India emerged. He proposed that the Congress should be transformed into a non-political organisation — Lok Sahayak Sangh — which will exclusively devote itself to the service of the people.

This idea of transforming the Congress into a non-political organisation was rejected by the leaders of the Congress. It appeared ridiculous to them that an organisation which had fought for several decades for securing political power should deprive itself of the opportunity to use the newly-won political power in the interests of national development. They therefore set before themselves the programme of utilising the state machinery that came into their hands on 15 August 1947 to reconstruct India on the lines which appealed to them.

Gandhiji’s idea, however, was taken up by a very small group of his closest followers and disciples working in the name of the Sarva Seva Sangh. They took the pledge that they would not aspire for any position of power in the new political set-up: offices of ministers, MPs, MLAs, etc., were foreign to them; they would devote themselves to the service of the people through the same constructive programme which Gandhiji had evolved during his lifetime, with such modifications as they thought necessary under the altered circumstances — khadi, village industries, basic education, etc. In other words, they functioned the Sarva Seva Sangh in the same way in which Gandhiji had wanted the Congress to function in the post-independence era.

It was out of these activities of the Sarvodaya workers, led by Acharya Vinoba Bhave, that a new movement was initiated — the movement of Bhoodan. The circumstances in which this movement originated are well known: the peasants of Telangana who had originally risen against the Nizam-shahi and who. in the course of the anti-Nizam struggle had put an end to landlords’ rule and redistributed land, came up against the Congress regime which succeeded the Nizam-shahi. Violent clashes took place between the peasants who tried to retain the land which they had seized from the landlords, and the police who were employed in suppressing the peasants’ revolt. Dozens were shot dead, hundreds were arrested and imprisoned, and other forms of terror were employed in the struggle.

It was these developments that set Acharya Vinoba Bhave thinking on how these sufferings of the people can be avoided. The solution that flowed out of this thinking is typically Gandhian. Rejecting the method of revolutionary seizure of land adopted by the peasants under Communist leadership, he also rejected the method of bringing about agrarian reforms through legislative measures adopted by the Congress government; in place of both these methods (each of which, in its own way, involved violence in the solution of social problems: while the first was mass action and thus involved direct violence, the second involved the use of the state machinery which, after all, is the use of organised force by the majority against the minority), he advocated the method of voluntary parting of the land by those who owned it. His well-known slogan of “every man to part with one-sixth of his or her land for the landless” was an alternative both to the revolutionary seizure of land by the peasants, as well as to the constitutional method of imposing the will of the majority over the minority. Jan Shakti (people’s power), as opposed to Raj Shakti (state power), for the solution of the land problem — this is the essence of Bhoodan.

It was this Bhoodan movement that went through various phases and became Gramdan. Bhave is no more satisfied with people surrendering one-sixth of their land as he was in the phase of Bhoodan, but wants everybody to surrender his or her entire property. Abolition of private property (property in land to begin with); the pooling of the entire land property of a village into the common property of the village community, the common cultivation of all the village lands and equitable distribution of the produce of the land; organisation of cottage industries and other means of livelihood in the common interest of the people of the village — such, in short, is the picture of the new villages visualised by Bhave when he speaks of Gramdan.

This, therefore, can correctly be called the application (to the main problems of the post-independence era in our country) of those very principles which Gandhiji had applied to the problems of our country in the years of anti-imperialist struggle. The objective which Bhave placed before the people is as revolutionary as any socialist or Communist would have; it is that very basic principle, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” which, according to the Marxists, can be applied only in the higher phase of socialism, or its communist phase. However, this objective has to be realised not through the prolonged process of political struggle by the working people under the leadership of the working class; transformation of the ruled majority of the oppressed and exploited classes into the ruling classes; establishment of the state power of the working people and through it the abolition of class distinctions; the development of the productive forces of society to such a stage that it will be possible, in actual practice, to realise the goal of “to each according to his needs,” etc., but through persuasion and change of heart. This is the essence of Gramdan or Gandhism at its latest phase; and it is here that it differs from Marxism.

Bhave and his followers claim that they have discovered through this Gramdan movement, the only possible and correct solution for the social problems facing our country. This, however, is not conceded either by the Congress leaders or by such parties of the left as the Communist Party, the PSP, etc. While admitting that Bhave’s preachings against the evils of private property in land and the necessity for the reorganisation of the entire village life would help the process of socio-economic transformations, they point out that these transformations cannot be brought about except through the use of state machinery. Despite all the successes attained by Bhave and the Gramdan movement under his leadership, the fact remains that the big landlords do not respond to his call for the abolition of private property in land. That was why the Mysore conference of political leaders, convened by Bhave in order to discuss the Gramdan movement, made it perfectly clear that while the political leaders, belonging to different political parties, have full sympathy for this movement, they do not consider it as a substitute for governmental action by way of land reforms, organisation of the cooperative movement, etc. It was agreed that the voluntary movement for socio-economic changes initiated by Bhave and governmental action are complementary to each other.

It is significant, in this connection, that the majority of the most eminent colleagues of Gandhiji in his lifetime do not have that faith in the Gramdan movement as a panacea for the socioeconomic ills of our country which Bhave and his colleagues have. The significance of this will be clear when it is seen that most of those who today have less faith in Jan Shakti, or people’s power, and more faith in Raj Shakti, or state power, than Bhave and his colleagues have, were the very people who differed from Gandhiji on various occasions and on various issues, such as the attitude to legislatures and elections, the attitude to participation in war, the programme of transforming the Congress into a non-political organisation of service to people, etc. For, it means that their acceptance of Gandhiji as their leader, and the Gandhian philosophy as the basis of their activities, was just a means to realise the end of political power. They accepted Gandhiji’s preachings of truth, non-violence, morality, etc., only because it helped them to realise their goal of political power. Today, too, they are not prepared to renounce political power and its use, since they feel, as hard-headed realists, that the success or failure of any movement for socio-economic change very much depends on who wields political power and how it is used.

As for the Communists, socialists and other leftists, it is clear to them that political power is an essential factor in the struggle for socio-economic transformations. As the founders of Marxism had declared a century ago, no class voluntarily renounces power; an individual here or an individual there may be roused by the noble preachings of a Bhave or some other idealist and renounce power and property; but the landlords, the capitalists, and other exploiting classes will not, as a class, willingly subject themselves to the social transformations dreamed of by visionaries and fought for by practical revolutionaries. They will, therefore, certainly wish Bhave and his colleagues well, do all that is within their power to help the propagation of the ideals of the Gramdan movement, but will never give up their struggle for political power.

The Bourgeois-Democratic Contradiction


As a humble student of the history of the Indian national movement and of socialism, it would be my endeavour to try to understand every such viewpoint on Gandhism, as I hope it would be the endeavour of those friends to try to understand mine. It is only through such a process of study and exchange of views that a correct estimation can eventually be made.

My assessment of the Mahatma and his teachings is, of course, based on the world-outlook of Marxism-Leninism. Let me, however, add that Gandhism is not something which I studied after I became a Marxist and merely with a view to criticise it. Like several Indian Marxists, I was a disciple of Gandhiji long before I became a Marxist. As a matter of fact, I reached Leninism through a long process of growing into and out of Gandhism.

The first signs of political consciousness came to me through the personality of Mahatma Gandhi and the nation-wide movement that he initiated and led in 1920-21. As a mere boy of 11 or 12, I was fascinated by the whirlwind campaign of noncooperation started by him in those days. The scrappy reports of the activities of Gandhiji and his associates which appeared in the Malayalam press in those days (there were then no daily papers in Malayalam) almost brought a new world before my mind.


It was against this background of personal association with, and active participation in the movement led by Mahatma Gandhi that I undertook the critique, The Mahatma and the Ism. Two questions naturally posed themselves before me when I undertook this critique: Firstly, why is it that millions of young men and women like me joined the camp of Gandhism in 1920-21 and subsequently? Secondly, why is it that several young men and women like me slowly grew dissatisfied and disillusioned about the Mahatma and began to join the camp of Marxism-Leninism — first in dozens, then in hundreds, and subsequently in thousands?

These questions can be answered only if we trace the story of Mahatma Gandhi and the role he played in the national political life. Gandhiji as the product of his age; the particular forces which moulded his personality and his political outlook, the sunoundings in which he found himself when he entered his political life; the objective with which he tried to transform those surroundings; the technique of action which he utilised in order to bring about this change in surroundings; the impact of his actions on various classes and sections of the people — all these have to be carefully analysed and their mutual connection and significance discovered. This is exactly what I have tried to do in my own humble way in chapters 2 to 12. The result of this examination has, in the end, been summed up in the chapter “Meaning of Gandhism.”

Most critics have naturally taken up this chapter for their criticism. They have tried to discover a “contradiction” in my assessment of Gandhiji. I stated on the one hand that he played a big role in rousing the hitherto slumbering millions of the rural poor; on the other hand, I stated that he acted as a leader of the bourgeoisie. Is this not contradictory, they ask?

May I point out in all humility that there is no contradiction in this unless the term “bourgeoisie” is understood to mean merely as an epithet of abuse? To say that the class essence of one’s approach to problems is bourgeois-democratic, rather than proletarian, is not to say that one’s approach to every question is reactionary. A reference to the writings of the founders and leaders of Marxism-Leninism will be enough to convince anyone that the bourgeoisie has, in every country, and at a particular stage in the history of its national-democratic movement, acted as a force which roused and organised the mass of the people against reaction — feudal, colonial or both. This role of the bourgeoisie has always been acclaimed and appreciated by Marxist-Leninists who, however, have never failed to point out that this role of the bourgeoisie in rousing and organising the masses has very serious limitations. While the classical revolution made by the bourgeoisie — the French Revolution of 1789-1793 — roused and led the mass of French peasantry in a direct onslaught against feudalism, that very same bourgeoisie, in that very same revolution, betrayed the very same peasantry when a particular stage had been reached of that revolution. Basically, the same story was repeated in subsequent bourgeois-democratic revolutions which have been beautifully described in some of the classical works of Marx and Engels (e.g. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte[1] The Class Struggles in France 1848-1850, Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution, Civil War in France, etc. etc.).

Lenin too emphasised this dual role of the bourgeoisie in his writings on the national liberation movements in colonial, semi-colonial and dependent countries. Hence it is only those whe lack a correct understanding of the role of the bourgeoisie, those who imagine that characterisation of someone as the ideological representative of the bourgeoisie is nothing but a term of abuse, will find in my assessment of the Mahatma a contradiction.

Let me also add that, when I characterised Gandhiji as the ideological representative of the bourgeoisie, I did not at all ascribe to him any motive of protecting the interests of the bourgeoisie. It is a misfortune of every human being that history’s verdict of what he or she does is different from what he or she thinks he or she does. Mahatma Gandhi may have honestly believed that he was safeguarding the interests of the entire nation and not of a particular class or community. The point is: What were the actual results of this practical activity? This applies to lesser individuals as well. A famous saying goes, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.”

It will, of course, be unbalanced if one were to try to assess a person only by the results of his actions; his intentions are also important. As a matter of fact, the correct way of assessing him and his work will be to find out his intentions, the method through which he tried to fulfil them and the results that followed them. This, I claim, is what I have tried to do in this book.

The five-point assessment made by me in the chapter, “Meaning of Gandhism,” begins with the statement “that he kept before him certain ideals to which he clung till the end of his life. […] These were indivisible parts of his life and teachings.” Developing the point further, I repeated the same idea: “The moral values which he had preached in the days of anti-imperialist struggle now became a hindrance to the politicians who came to power. Gandhiji, on the other hand, remained true to them and could not reconcile himself to the sudden change which occurred in his former colleagues and lieutenants.” It is to this loyalty to certain moral values and ideals which Gandhiji showed down to the end of his life, and to the lack of such loyalty to ideals and moral values on the part of his colleagues, that I trace what I call “the growing gulf between him and his colleagues in the last days of his life.” There is, therefore, no question of my attributing any selfish or discreditable motives to Gandhiji. On the contrary, I give him full credit for his idealism.

But, as in the case of such prophets as the Buddha, Jesus, or Mohammed (not to speak of lesser mortals), Gandhiji’s ideals and moral values were not mere abstractions; they were part of the great drama of history in which millions upon millions of human beings were involved.

Any one of us (not to speak of such prophets) may have so many ideals which, by themselves, may be good or bad. They would, however, remain with the person who preaches them unless they conform to the vaguely felt desires and requirements of other persons. The larger the circle of people with whose requirements and desires one’s ideals conform, the more suecessful are his preachings and the more popular is the person who preaches them. The Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed were great prophets, precisely because the ideals and moral values to which they clung to conformed to the requirements and desires of the millions of human beings, not only in their lifetime but for centuries thereafter.

Gandhiji, too, was great because the ideals and moral values to which he clung to the end of his life conformed to the requirements and desires of the millions of the Indian people. His teachings were for the nation as a whole a call of revolt. Particularly were they a call of revolt to the mass of rural poor, the lowliest of the lowly in the villages, the “Daridranarayans” as he called them. His conception of love, truth, justice, etc. were, in the context of the time, an inspiration for the mass of the rural poor to free themselves from the social, economic and political bonds, which have tied them to imperialism and feudalism. The mass of the rural poor, therefore, looked up to him as a new messiah, their saviour and protector.

It was, however, not only the mass of the rural poor, but other sections of the nation, too, who found in Gandhiji a great man who preached certain ideals and moral values which corresponded to their desires and immediate interests. The Indian working class, which had not yet developed its own independent political movement, found in him the champion of their interests. The middle-class intelligentsia and youth, fired as they were with the passion to work and fight for something great and noble, found in him an inspiring leader who taught them how to fight for a noble cause and die if need be. Even the well-to-do ladies and gentlemen of the upper classes — the bourgeoisie and the landed gentry — found in him the man who was an ardent patriot working selflessly for a noble cause and, above all, keeping “the mob” within the strict limits of non-violence.

He therefore became the leader of various sections of the people whose desires and requirements naturally varied. Nevertheless, he was able, at least in the beginning, to keep them united under his leadership, since what he had preached gave some sort of satisfaction to all of them. However, as the movement began to advance, these conflicts of the interests and desires of different sections came out into the open. It was this phenomenon that led to conflicts within the organisation which he led in the various phases of its history.

Summing up all these conflicts which arose as a result of his leadership in the movement, we come to the conclusion that Gandhiji’s idealism had its strong and weak points. His strong points may be summed up in his ability to rouse the masses and organise them in the struggle against imperialism and feudalism; his weak points may be summed up in his insistence on a scrupulous adherence to what is called non-violence, which, in effect, served to restrain the mass of workers and peasants who want to shake off the triple yoke of imperialism, feudalism and capitalism. This, incidentally, is precisely what the interests of the bourgeoisie demanded. They wanted the mass of our people to be roused and organised against imperialism and feudalism; they, however, wanted these masses to be severely restrained in their actions and struggles. It was this coincidence of what the interests of the bourgeoisie required and the totality of the results of Gandhiji’s leadership that is meant when I say that Gandhiji’s approach to life and history is a bourgeois-democratic approach.


[1] Karl Marx (1852), The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Chapter III: “Only one must not get the narrow-minded notion that the petty bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest. Rather, it believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within whose frame alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided. Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven and earth. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent.” [web] — R. D.