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The Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi – Part V

By Prof. Santanu Sen

Poorer peasants, small owners or tenants still predominated in the Indian country side. The rural proletariat, the propertied peasants had grown in numbers. All this brought essentially new features into the life of the Indian village. The Indian example corroborated the Marxist-Leninist tenet about the co-existence of two revolutionary trends – democratic and bourgeois; nationalist reformist in the national liberation movement and the dual political role of the national bourgeoisie. Both trends worked to eliminate the foreign rule. Sharing in this sense, a common imperialist front of all the forces participating in the national liberation struggle had always been an important pre-requisite for achieving and consolidating national independence. However, if in the course of a national, liberation struggle, the revolutionary democratic trend advocated an agrarid everything to delay the solution of these tasks and sought to isolate the issue of power from agrarian and social issues.

The Indian national bourgeoisie would have never armed itself with the ideology of ‘Gandhism’ nor would have made use of it had it not met its basic class and political interest that boiled down to abolishing British political rule and establishing instead their own power in a peaceful way and with a reliance on the mass movement headed by the M.K. Gandhi. They used the movement to promote both national and especially their own class goals. The advocates of Gandhism and the national bourgeoisie had a much common focusing as they did on the general national anti-colonialist struggle to secure state independence for India and proceeding from the same class interests as the bourgeois and pretty bourgeois ideologies. In the long run this account for the objectively bourgeois character of the utopian peasant – socialism in a country developing along capitalists lines.

It stands to reason that the ‘Gandhian’ idea of ‘Ahimsa’ (non violence), being closely linked to the religious beliefs of the peasants furthered the liberation struggle and drew peasants and the urban petty bourgeoisie to the side of the national bourgeoisie. The national bourgeoisie used the principle of non-violence as a means to involve the masses in the struggle against the colonialist, to make the latter leave India and at the same time, to retain their class control over the nation. The petty bourgeois traits in Gandhian ideology as a thinker and politician were obscured due to his political unity with the bourgeois I.N.C. (Indian National Congress) and his being its long time and universally recognised leader. M.K. Gandhi combined the traits of a utopian thinker whose views were rooted in peasant psychology and those of a sober minded politician and great foresight who objectively worked in the interest of the national bourgeoisie who expressed the common aspiration of the nation. This combination of different traits in Gandhi’s ideology prevented its peasant from becoming more prominent. It also often urged Gandhi to compromise, which was only natural in the context of inevitable contradictions typical of various classes and social groups involved in the common national anti-imperialist struggle. That is why ‘Gandhism’ cannot be described solely as the objective expression of the national bourgeoisie interest in the liberation struggle.

Gandhism is broader than that. It was brought into existence by a whole set of phenomena inherent in the Indian national liberation movement and social forces participating in it. It embodied not only their common interests but also differences and contradictions. “Gandhism” was a part of the life of a pre-dominantly peasant nation and therefore it could not but reflect the Indian workers spontaneous striving for social justice – a struggle that went beyond the bourgeoisie’s class interests. Without bearing this is mind, one cannot fully appreciate Gandhi’s historic role determined by his extraordinary closeness to the people. While acting in close ideological and political alliance with bourgeois public figures, Gandhiji sincerely did his best to remain close to the working people. It is precisely this closeness to the masses that secured for him a leading position and a special role in the I.N.C. (Indian National Congress). In his article, “Democracy and Narodism in china” in Valdo, Lenin wrote that “the chief representative or the chief social bulwark, of this Asian bourgeoisie that is still capable of supporting a historically progressive cause, is the peasant “. This observation helps us to understand Gandhiji’s role and his relationship with both the national bourgeoisie and the peasant. Gandhiji and Gandhism provided link between the national bourgeoisie and the peasant.

Some of the literature on the question published before the war revealed a lack of understanding of the diversity of national and historically determined forms of mass struggle and of their interdependence. Some of the authors tended to make absolute some particular method of struggle. The present day sections and dogmatists within the national liberation movements make an absolute of the armed struggle against imperialism, colonialism and racism, while rejecting non-violent forms. The unilateral approach to assessing and applying tactical methods of mass struggle resulted in ignoring the dialectics of struggle.

Gandhiji too tended to take a biased approach to the forms of mass struggle, declaring the non-violent resistance to the colonialists and racists to be its only and universal form. At certain stages of the liberation struggle, many of Gandhi’s opponents were equally resolute and biased in denying the positive role of the non-violent forms of struggle. They tended to interpret non-violence as interaction bordering on reconciliation with reaction and colonialism. Gandhiji’s opponents grounded their criticism in rejecting Ahimsa – Gandhiji’s philosophical creed in principle. This was justifiable and correct. What was wrong was the spread of their wholesale negotiation to the political method of struggle against imperialism. Scientific Socialism by no means seeks to make an absolute of any form of struggle, be it peaceful or non-peaceful. It recognises the need to constantly renovate and replenish the arsenal of the means and methods of revolution and to verify text and select new and effective forms of struggle. The Marxist- Leninist revolutionary tactics do not rely on any one no matter how effective form of moss struggle. It seeks to maintain the correspondence of the chosen forms and methods of struggle with its nature, levels and goals. Finally, it demands that an advanced political party should be prepared for and capable of decisively and quickly changing the forms and methods of struggle to suit specific historical conditions. Scientific Socialism knows of various method of struggle, including non-violent ones. Communists have always used them. But Marxists certainly take a negative approach to the Gandhian principle of non-violence, Ahimsa provided it is the only one relied upon Gandhian  non-violence regards to colonialist and racists is highly controversial. It combines active protest within the tolerance of the enemy.

Gandhiji saw this combination of protest and tolerance as the essence of non-violence and as the only acceptable and possible form of resistance to colonial and racist oppression. There is a purely metaphysical aspect to Gandhian non-violence and it is traceable to religious dogmas and asceticism. But, it certainly also incorporates quite realistic ideas about tactical applications of peaceful forms of mass and individual anti-imperialist, anti-racist and even anti-feudal and anti-capitalist struggle, (Gandhi never called for them, though). It is absolutely clear that the idea of ‘Ahimsa’ in its specific Gandhian form and large scale application during the years of struggle against the British colonial rule in India or against racism in South Africa contained a considerable revolutionary potential. A great credit goes to Gandhiji for working out and applying original forms and methods of peaceful confrontation with the colonialists. Gandhiji took ‘Asimsa’ beyond the limits of purely individual action developing it into a method of prolonged and purposeful mass struggle. He adopted it to the anti-imperialist sentiment of social demands of the masses. He elaborated a technique for non-violent mass action. It was aggressive nationwide action against the order of things and laws established by the colonialists against the constitution that the colonialist imposed on the country they conquered and the people they suppressed. It was against the tyranny of foreign rulers. The non-violent mass campaigns waged under Gandhi’s leadership against British imperialists between the (1920’s and the 1940’s) required much courage from their participants and created great difficulties for their colonialists. They quickly revolutionised the situation in India.

It should be acknowledged that Gandhiji was a brilliant organiser of non-violent mass movement. He knew very well when campaigns should be launched and when his calls for non-violent struggle would gain a nationwide support and involve tens of millions of common folk. When assessing Gandhi’s ability as the leader and organiser of a liberation movement that took on a specific Indian form, one should point out that there was no one in India who saw better than Gandhiji did when a non-violent campaign had to be terminated least it turned into revolutionary violence and eventually into a social revolution against the ruling classes and the foreign oppressors. In other words Gandhiji never used or was willing to use in full all the revolutionary potential of the non-violent resistance of the masses. Gandhiji, then the leader of the I.N.C. (Indian National Congress) ignored the potential altogether because it could well bring the movement to a higher stage, that of a resolute, uncompromising and uncontrolled action against the colonialist, a real struggle of the urban and rural working people against exploitation not only by foreigners but also by their compatriots. That was  what Gandhiji and the congress tried by all means to avoid through pursuing their policy of “pure” anti imperialist struggle with reliance on national unity and keeping the door always open to negotiations with great Britain. As we see it, the criticism from the left of the Gandhiji’s inclination to compromise was justified. The critics would have done better had they not demined the potentialities  inherent in non-violent anti-imperialist struggle (as was often  the case in the years between 1920’s and 1940’s )  but rather revealed the danger of claiming that non-violent resistance was the only way of combating colonialism and racism. The danger of claiming that non-violent struggle through relying on religious dogmas or abstract moral categories and ignoring the social class character of the forces involved in the movement.

Let us review in brief the application of the Gandhian non-violent principles in international practice owing to its specific character. The Gandhian idea of non-violence proved more realistic when applied to interstate relations, which cannot be said about the class relations. If we put aside its meth a physical implications and look at it in on international context, ahimsa means renunciation of the use of force, outlawing wars and thereby giving force to the principle of peaceful inter-state relation. M.K. Gandhi came to realise the need for strengthening international  friendship and establishing just relation among states bored on mutual respect, non-interference and resolving all contradiction’s  Gandhi’s ideas  have a considerable impact on the Government policies of the Republic of India shaped by Jawhar Lal Nehru.

Many Indians justly renounce the extremes of ‘ahimsha’ which more than once prompted Gandhiji’s  defeatist slogans with respect to internal issues as well as his ideas of sacrificing his own and his nations interest. In the name of non-violence when faced with aggression. The abstract, non-historical interpretation of the problem of ensuring peace regardless of the aggressive designs or direct aggression of the enemy, proved false. The social views held by the progressive figures of the national liberation movement had certain thing in common with ‘Russian Populism’ and the ideas of Lev Tolstoy.  The social historical interpretation of Gandhiji’s and Tolstoy’s affinity is based on Vladimir Lenin’s analysis of Tolstoy’s world  outlook. At the same time, one cannot but notice the essential difference between Gandhi’s bourgeois nationalist political attitude and the stand taken by the great Russian Author with his aspiration towards national liberation and democracy , Gandhiji as a leader of the anti-imperialist movement in India, could not fail to be influenced by the first Russian revolution which stimulated the revival of Asia and specially in India, neither could be avoid the influence by Lev Tolstoy’s  criticism and by the experience of organised mass liberation struggle.


  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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