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The Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi – Part IV

By Prof. Santanu Sen

This reminds of Gandhi’s spiritual teacher Lev Tolstoy, who left his home in Yasnayapolyona as a gesture in defence of his ethical principles. Mohan Das Karam Chand Gandhi developed as a thinker and public figure in the late 19th early 20th Century. This was a time when India, dominated by the apparently indestructible British Empire was turning into a site of national liberation movement. In those days the movement had two principle trends – a liberal drift, mainly associated with the upper crust of the propertied classes then embarking on the road of bourgeois development and a radical nationalistic, democratic leaning reflecting the nascent popular protest against foreign oppression. The emergent national bourgeoisie too was opposed to national enslavement.

The more progressive leaders of the national liberation movement called for a resolute struggle against the colonial rule thus expressing growing indignation of the lower classes with the medieval social oppression, the enslavement of the poor by the landlords and money-Lenders and the barbaric exploitation of the workers in the then emergent capitalist industries. Their democratic aspirations however were usually limited to the bourgeois nationalism of an oppressed nation. It concealed contradictions among the classes and generated at best, a striving for social compromise.

In those years India featured a rise in national self consciousness and exacerbation of social contradictions against a background of developing bourgeois’ relations, crumbling patriarchal values of attitudes and mass-impoverishment of the peasantry under the pressure of foreign capital and all penetrating local capital. A protest against national and feudal oppression was brewing.

In this context, Indian intellectuals now familiar not only with the philosophy of the enlightenment and liberal bourgeois social thought but also with the critique of bourgeois society, gravitated in their ideological quest to democracy and aspired to build a society free from exploitation and oppression. However, the ideas advocated by the progressive national public figures remained purely utopian. The Gandhian concepts of ‘Sarvodaya’, (welcome of all) and ‘Satyagraha’, a way to achieve a society of universal welfare are traceable to the Indian traditions. Gandhi’s social idea is a petty bourgeois’, peasant utopia the establishment of God’s kingdom on Earth. In this view, the assertion of social justice meant a return to the golden age of closed self sufficient peasant communities and the rejection of European machine civilization based on a market economy which he resented as something hostile to the patriarchal village life. As he saw it, market relations doomed the peasant artesian community to degradation and perdition.

Gandhi’s concept of ‘Sarvodaya’ reflected the constant longing of the peasants, the village artisans the urban poor and the common civil servants, suppressed by foreign rulers, national feudal  lords, merchants and usurers, for the society so beautifully and attractively described in the sacred Hindu books. The longing for such a society was reflected in the cultural and historical monument and the vestiges of tribal and patriarchal traditions of various peoples of India. These traditions were rooted in the mental framework shaped by Hinduism which formed the basis of the social psychology of millions upon millions of peasants, artisans and common townsfolk. 

At the same time, however, ‘Sarvadaya’ symbolised a natural and sincere protest against the capitalist way of life by those social groups that were not yet aware of scientific ways of achieving a just society, that took for but were unable to find easy to escape from the unbearable social and material living conditions they lived in. This protest reflected the great pain of tens of millions of people oppressed by the shameful castes system and practically enslaved by the landlords and money lenders. They were not yet aware of their condition and therefore could not understand that the way-out lay in establishing a close alliance with the revolution any working class, brought into existence by the hateful ‘European Capitalist civilization’. ‘Gandhism’, did not recognise that this civilization was inevitable and progressive in comparison with all the preceding societies, thereby, it encouraged the Indian peasants and artisans to indulge in wistful reminiscences by the gone and apparently idealised primitive forms of social life.

However, for all its obviously utopian and archaic nature, the Gandhian ideal of ‘Sarvadaya’ had on objectively positive effect on the Indian national liberation movement. It inspired the masses in towns and villages with the belief that the struggle for social justice and a society based on the principles they were striving for. M. K . Gandhi sincerely did not distinguish between the struggle against the colonialists and the struggle for ‘Sarvadaya”.

Gaining independence in 1947 and the abolition of the imperialist domination was a historic victory of the Indian people. The victory was associated with M. K. Gandhi and he justly deserved every respect. However, independence did not bring about ‘Sarvadaya’. Now-violent resistance to colonial oppression was based on Indian spiritual tradition and the psychology of the Indian peasants. Just like Gandhi’s social ideal, it was a combination of conservation of the great patience protest and spontaneous rebellion typical of the Indian peasant with his traditionally fatalistic religious world outlook.

These characteristics of “Gandhism” also manifested themselves in the “Doctorine of Swadeshi”. In all its aspects religious, political, economic Swadeshi was based on the drive to preserve the traditional institution and customs and to gradually and non-violently infuse them with a new content. This drive mirrored the profound dissatisfaction with the present, the unshakable belief in the past, the rejection of all prospects except for a return to the past and the fear of radical change. All these were classic characteristics of the psychology of the peasantry in a context where the vestiges of traditional society would have a great impact not so much actual economic life as on people’s mentality. Loyalty to the national, cultural, historical and religious traditions, the reliance on slogans, motto, memories and images close to the hearts of peasants and artisans along with the ability to demonstrate that their spiritual life was directly linked to their country’s attaining independence and social change were the strong points of “Gandhism” as ideology and political practice. This loyalty to the people’s traditions and concepts of a just life accounted for the tremendous influence of ‘Gandhi’s personality and ideas on the Indian nation. There were sufficient grounds to describe ‘Gandhism’ as a profoundly national and essentially petty-bourgeois ideology. The greatest paradox of Gandhism was in the fact that while sharing the patriarchal peasant dream about the golden age Gandhiji did nothing to make it come true. Moreover, he insisted that the solution of the agrarian question should be postponed until the attainment of Independence. Owing to his exclusive influence among the masses he largely assisted the bourgeois leadership of the national liberation movement in doing so; infact, the dreams about ‘Sarvodaya’ about the focus on non-violence served the same goal.

An analysis of the course and character of the Indian people’s national struggle in the year 1918 and 1947, when ‘Gandhism’ enjoyed almost undivided political and organisational influence revealed a very curious and important fact over more than thirty years in question. The Indian national bourgeoisie kept the movement for national Independence and pleasant struggle for land and the solution of the agrarian problem isolated from each other. One might think that division and isolation were impossible and unnatural for the simple reason that the colonial feudal system and colonial feudal exploitation could only be ensured by a long lasting political alliance between foreign invaders and big foreign capital on the one hand and big Indian feudal and semi feudal landlords on the other. The symbiosis of the dominant forces of the foreign rulers and their reactionary supporters in India had to be done away with by a national liberation struggle to become a peasant revolution as well. Why was it that the Indian bourgeoisie sought to prevent the revolutionary process from running this course?

The interpretation of “Gandhism” was probably not entirely irrefutable. Credit should be given to the Marxist researchers who revealed its close link to the interests of the Indian national bourgeoisie who used the ideology and practice of Gandhism to promote their class goals. ‘Marxist Scholars’ stressed that the connection between the national bourgeoisie and Gandhism was for more complicated than was usually considered at least it was not entirely obvious. The point is that a considerable percentage of the Indian bourgeoisie not only big, but also middle and petty urban bourgeoisie became ‘territorialised’. Since, the British capital always sought to hold back India’s independent industrial development, its nascent bourgeoisie was becoming tied up to land and not large scale modern agricultural production often proved more profitable and more importantly secure thought the years of the British rule.

This should not be taken to mean that the multifaceted Indian bourgeoisie confined itself solely to land investment. As the capital grew investment were increasingly channelled to industry, trade, banking, the infrastructure and large scale plantation economy. However, absolutely all types of India’s national capital such as medieval, primary forms of capital up to industrial bank and even monopoly capital were and still are linked to land property to the exploitation of the small enslaved peasantry ensured by the colonialists wielding state power their disposing of a mighty machinery of coercion and by what was in fact military occupation of the country.

The peculiarity of the India national bourgeoisie and the vestiges of feudalism still dominating village life, determined certain political tactics. The specific character of the political development of an oppressed nation and above all bourgeois nationalism that concealed contradiction both among classes and within the proper tied classes shaped the co-relation of anti-imperialist political forces and secured for the bourgeoisie considerable way in manoeuvring in respect to the peasantry. The bourgeoisie heavily relied on this sort of manoeuvring in the national liberation, anti-imperialist struggle and thus avoided a simultaneous development of an anti-feudal peasant movement. All this made it possible for the Indian bourgeoisie to avoid active struggle against feudal lords and landowners who preyed on the Indian peasant. This also accounted for their compromise with the feudal landlord class and their use, upon coming to power of the policy of reforms whereby the vestiges of feudalism, so torturous for the peasants could only be done away with in a very slow and gradual way.

M.K. Gandhi was the only political figure able to provide the necessary leadership to the peasants and involved them in the anti-imperialist and not anti feudal struggle. He had the necessary political influence and relied on a mass political organisation. More over no one else was closer to the peasant and had a better knowledge of the Indian rural way of life. The peasants recognised him as Mahatma the great soul or in other words a saint. However, while expressing in his own way the growing social protests, social aspirations and what Valdamir Lenin (U.S.S.R) called the flabbiness of the patriarchal countryside, M.K.Gandhi remained the head of a liberation movement that was national bourgeoisie in terms of its leadership. He and the I.N.C. (Indian National Congress) succeeded in channelling the reveal and the revolutionary potential of the of the peasantry along such lines as to gain national independence without letting the anti-imperialist struggle grow into on agrarian social revolution meanwhile peasants accounted for nearly 80% (Approx) of India’s population The bourgeoisie sought to postpone changes in the country’s social system until it came to power and was able to affect them in their own rather than peasant way, promoting their own rather than peasant interest. The bourgeoisie planned to gradually reform agriculture in their own way. Through the bourgeoisie fiction of land lords and accelerating the richer peasants transformation into entrepreneurs at the cost of the poor masses.

Whether and to what extent the Indian bourgeoisie achieved that aim following the attainment of independence is a separate issue to which many articles and books have been devoted. We should only say here that although capitalism in India’s agriculture made noticeable progress, the bourgeois reform failed to fully resolved the agrarian question.


  1. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Vol – V)
  2. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Vol – X)
  3. M. K. Gandhi, Towards Non-Violent Socialism (Navajivan Publication House, Ahmedabad)
  4. Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography (Allied Publishers Pvt. Ltd., Bombay)
  5. Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi (Asia Publishing House, Bombay)
  6. Mahatma Gandhi, Young India (S. Ganesan Publisher, Madras)

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