catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Was Gandhi overrated?

with 25 comments

In the spirit of the history-themed posts that c8to started I offer the opinion, which I have long held, that Gandhi was overrated. On the whole I think the philosophy legacy he left for India was highly detrimental and it has only been recently overcome, much to India’s benefit – more on that in a moment.

What about the non-violent tactics of resistance that he pioneered? They are to be commended in certain cases and work best against fundamentally liberal democratic societies where the public and by extension the government ultimately has a low tolerance for inflicting or watching carnage. But let’s face it – the success of these tactics against a colonial power in his case was a pure fluke and it has been the success of his tactics against the British that have earned them the disproportionate cachet value they now seem to hold. It was Gandhi’s good luck that he went up against a relatively decent colonial power like the British who were into silly things like cricket and gentleman’s codes of honour. If he had used his tactics against, say, Nazi Germany, he would be just another of one of its many victims. Indeed, this point was acknowledged by Gandhi himself in an interview noted by Orwell in his ‘Reflections on Gandhi’:

    In relation to the late war, one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: “What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without resorting to war?” I must say that I have never heard, from any Western pacifist, an honest answer to this question, though I have heard plenty of evasions, usually of the “you’re another” type. But it so happens that Gandhi was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer is on record in Mr. Louis Fischer’s Gandhi and Stalin. According to Mr. Fischer, Gandhi’s view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.” After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly. One has the impression that this attitude staggered even so warm an admirer as Mr. Fischer, but Gandhi was merely being honest …
    … let it be granted that non-violent resistance can be effective against one’s own government, or against an occupying power: even so, how does one put it into practise internationally? Gandhi’s various conflicting statements on the late war seem to show that he felt the difficulty of this. Applied to foreign politics, pacifism either stops being pacifist or becomes appeasement. Moreover the assumption, which served Gandhi so well in dealing with individuals, that all human beings are more or less approachable and will respond to a generous gesture, needs to be seriously questioned. It is not necessarily true, for example, when you are dealing with lunatic

Gandhi’s response to the plight of the Jews was just ultra-nutty and anti-human but at least it is refreshingly honest.

Orwell’s essay offers a nuanced but ultimately critical treatment of Gandhi. Let there be no question about it – Gandhi was a very brave, honest, honourable and almost inhumanly incorruptible man, as Orwell’s essay acknowledges. In Orwell’s words ‘His character was an extraordinarily mixed one, but there was almost nothing in it that you can put your finger on and call bad’.

But aside from his pioneering of non-violent resistance (which Orwell also acknowledges has some utility in special cases), the rest of his political legacy which he bequeathed on India arguably left it in medieval shackles and was anti-humanist at its core. As Orwell noted:

Anarchists and pacifists, in particular, have claimed him for their own, noticing only that he was opposed to centralism and State violence and ignoring the other-worldly, anti-humanist tendency of his doctrines. But one should, I think, realize that Gandhi’s teachings cannot be squared with the belief that Man is the measure of all things and that our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have. They make sense only on the assumption that God exists and that the world of solid objects is an illusion to be escaped from.

Orwell’s critique was from the secular humanist left and it is understandable as Gandhi was ultimately a Hindu traditionalist and his policy prescriptions such as his call for autarchy were an attempt to cocoon India from the forces of modernity. The extent of Gandhi’s luddism and reactionary traditionalism tends to be overlooked in any assessment of his legacy. In that light it is also worth noting that though he was in favour of better treatment of the ‘Untouuchables’, so wedded was he to tradition that he was never against the caste system as such.

Another critical commentator of a somewhat differnet political hue who elaborates on Gandhi’s political philosophy is Deepak Lal in Reviving the Invisible Hand who sums it up as follows:

… Gandhi the cultural nationalist, was an unwavering adherent of maintaining the traditional Hndu socioeconomic system – albeit cleansed of some aberrations. He never deviated from the views he expressed in 1909 in a booklet called Hindu Swaraj. He was implacably opposed to Western education, industrialisation and all the other modern forces, like lawyers, railways and doctors, which could undermine the ancient Hindu equilibrium. Above all, even though he was against untouchability, he nevertheless upheld the caste system and its central feature of endogamy. He wished to see a revival of the ancient and largely self-sufficient village communities which were an essential part of the ancient Hindu equilibrium.

One could say that by and large Gandhi got his wish, albeit unintentionally, following the Nehruist-socialist misrule of his successors.

In the end I agree with this nuanced conclusion from Orwell:

One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi’s basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!

Written by Admin

October 28, 2006 at 9:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

25 Responses

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  1. If only there had been more commentators with the honesty, courage and energy of Orwell. And if only he had understood about markets, so he did not think that the alternative to socialism was monopoly capitalism!

    Rafe Champion

    October 28, 2006 at 9:41 am

  2. Yeah.

    Gandhi was a jerk who got a lot of people killed.

    Entirely narcissistic.

    More worried about his bowel movements then the real effect his campaigns were having.

    When the authorities were distracted by his rabble-rousing it meant that crime rates and violence could explode.

    He was a guilty guilty fellow.

    And a fraud to. Since his entire life-style, in practise, could only be maintained by massive subsidy.

    If he’d been straight with everyone he would therefore have had to deep-six his advocacy of these anti-economic ideas he held.

    If the practise of these ideas required subsidy then they obviously weren’t practical.

    We saw this crazed focus on oneself and pretense at saintliness that Gandhi represented via the madness of the “human-shields” that went to Iraq.

    No compromise with reality was entertained by these lunatics.

    Hopefully our friend Munn isn’t TOO prone to going down this Gandhi-like narcissistic route to the more compacted and layered-lunacy.

    He’s got the right idea about the commies this Munn. But he makes me wonder.


    October 28, 2006 at 10:29 am

  3. I’m pleased someone has made the point that non-violent resistance really only works in places that – while in some ways oppressive – operate by the rule of law.

    I remember having this conversation during a jurisprudence tutorial with respect to Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’. If MLK’s opponent had been the NKVD or the Gestapo, all King’s supporters would have been taken out the back and summarily shot.


    October 28, 2006 at 11:00 am

  4. Overrated in what sense Jason? Of course Orwell or anyone else in the ‘armchair intellectual looking back on history’ mode will find anything is possible. Do you think India would have achieved independence in 1947 without the leadership of Gandhi?

    What does it matter that his tactics were successful largely because Britain was more susceptible to internal pressure – should he have chosen violence instead? Is the principle non-violent civil disobedience not something to be admired?

    I agree what he said in relation to the Jews above is pretty stupid.

    Remember the British were hopelessly outnumbered in India, and it’s also for that reason, and not just that they were civilised folk who enjoyed playing cricket, that contributed to their withdrawal from India.

    I think it’s pretty clear from The Essential Gandhi (Fisher, 1962) that Gandhi was the strongest proponent of liberal philosophy in the first half of the 20th century, although he probably did not know this and was not particularly consistent about it. I don’t think he was as socialist as Nehru, not by a long shot.

    Gandhi often spoke about resisting authority, but he was not an intellectual of the calibre of Nehru. No one should excuse Nehru for the way he effectively destroyed India and its people after independence. But Gandhi was a leader, not a systems man.


    October 28, 2006 at 12:57 pm

  5. I did mean overrated as a political thinker and a major political figure, Sukrit, The fact that you continue to think of Gandhi as a liberal illustrates my point. He wasn’t. He was a feudalist.

    Regarding my point about the British I wasn’t saying that because the british played cricket they would have withdrawn from India in due course. My point was that Gandhi’s tactics worked against the British because the British were relatively more committed to the rule of law and treating their political opponents properly (putting aside massacres by soldiers acting stupidly in the line of fire) than, say, Nazi Germany or the Bolsheviks or possibly even other colonialists like the Dutch.

    Jason Soon

    October 28, 2006 at 1:15 pm

  6. Here is Gandhi on communism and socialism from the book I referred to above (p.304):

    “…I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear because, although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality which lies at the root of all progress…”

    “I do not believe in the doctrine of the greatest good for the greatest number. It means in its nakedness that in order to achieve the supposed good of fifty-one per cent the interest of forty-nine per cent may be, or rather should be, sacrificed. It is a heartless doctrine and has done harm to humanity. The only real, dignified, human doctrine is the greatest good of all, and this can be achieved only by uttermost self-sacrifice.”

    Compare this with Nehru, who Gandhi disagreed with on numerous ocassions. That socialism is fundamentally incomptable with economic progress was not a truth fully realised at that time, so Gandhi’s naivety is excusable in that regard. Remember ideas of freedom are a relatively recent phenomenon in human history.

    Of course Gandhi wasn’t a pure liberal in economic terms in the sense we would think of it today (with the benefit of the Friedman-Hayek revolution since the 1970s no doubt!), but he was the closest India had. His political thought, however, is not overrated.

    Name another Indian leader who was more liberal than Gandhi in the first half of the 20th century (when liberalism was in universal decline)?

    He was a Hindu traditionalist, but he was accepting of all religions – another liberal trait – as evidenced by his opposition to the split of Muslim Pakistan from India.

    Non-violent protest was arguably the most effective means of pulling at colonial Britain’s moral strings and achieving independence. If Gandhi had stooped to the level of some other Indian freedom fighters, the British would have the perfect excuse to dismiss the freedom movement as terrorist and criminal (which they tried anyway). The moral high ground was crucial to achieving independence because it led to the negotiated handover of power. It’s not like he coerced people into adopting non-violence. They were free to disagree.

    It’s arguable also how fussed the British were re: the rule of law in comparison to other colonial powers (though I agree they were better than most), at least going off massacres like this.

    So I am not wrong in calling him a liberal. That he has strongly inspired India’s only liberal political party should indicate something.


    October 28, 2006 at 1:59 pm

  7. This post should have been titled “Was Nehru overrated?”


    October 28, 2006 at 2:06 pm

  8. I’m glad you came by, Sukrit – I was going to email you if you didn’t. I still think Gandhi’s successful use of ‘passive resistance’ has seen the concept overvalued.

    Authors like Jaroslav Hasek and Hans Helmut Kirst used it for comic effect, but I don’t think either of them thought it would be successful against the regimes about which they wrote (Hapsburgs and Nazis, respectively). Gandhi’s success has given lots of oppressed people false hope.


    October 28, 2006 at 2:08 pm

  9. “I think it’s pretty clear from The Essential Gandhi (Fisher, 1962) that Gandhi was the strongest proponent of liberal philosophy in the first half of the 20th century”

    Surely we had stumbled upon an Indian deity here?

    We are considering the HISTORICAL Gandhi Sukrit.

    Not the bibilical Gandhi.

    Or rather not some sort of deified Gandhi.

    Where people try and project their own attitudes onto him.

    I’d like to join into this sort of thing too.

    But I’m hardly going to get away with reworking Gandhi into a free-enterprise-hawk.


    October 28, 2006 at 2:19 pm

  10. But who else has seriously tried it?

    Seems to me armed struggle and terrorism are, and always have been, the first recourse except in this case.

    Except the Jews, who essentially fled or hid or hoped it wouldn’t happen to them.

    Mind you, I’m no historian.


    October 28, 2006 at 2:20 pm

  11. MLK made use of the same MO, FDB, largely successfully. He was inspired (directly) by Gandhi and (indirectly) by Henry David Thoreau.


    October 28, 2006 at 2:22 pm

  12. Jason! I thought history was ‘glorified journalism’?

    As for your point, I’m going to think on it. Unlike economics, history requires thoughtful responses. 🙂

    Samuel McSkimming

    October 28, 2006 at 2:52 pm

  13. “Unlike economics, history requires thoughtful responses”

    You better pray Birdy isn’t reading this thread anymore, Sam.

    Jason Soon

    October 28, 2006 at 2:57 pm

  14. Indeed.

    One of the strengths of Bird, unlike some commentators, is he can generally distinguish our banter from serious comment.

    But we’ll see…

    Samuel McSkimming

    October 28, 2006 at 3:17 pm

  15. Anyway, it’s a lovely day, I’m going to the local. Later lads.

    Samuel McSkimming

    October 28, 2006 at 3:19 pm

  16. I do not believe Gandhi was overated. Also, I think an important element is being overlooked in assessing his decision to use non-violent protest.

    The British administration was actually very fearful of possible armed uprising, a legacy of the 1857 uprising and consequent massacres of wives and children. That fearfulness is why the Amritsar (Jallianwala Bagh) massacre occurred.

    So, contrary to the idea that it was only British tolerance that allowed non-violent protest to succeed, I would suggest that it was British fearfulness that made non-violence the most suitable way of achieving change.

    Tony Healy

    October 28, 2006 at 3:28 pm

  17. The unmentionable fact about Mahatma Gandhi is that he hated blacks in the manner of the worst British colonialist:

    Steve Edwards

    October 28, 2006 at 5:05 pm

  18. “But who else has seriously tried it?”


    No-one is going to be THAT stupid and be alive long enough for us to identify the bodies.

    Only Western-Leftists are THAT dumb. And you ought not judge other people by these standards.

    You use passive resistance in a reasonably humane setup. No-ones going to try that on in any other setup.
    “I do not believe Gandhi was overated.”

    Man do I ever hate these assertions of belief.

    No-ones interested in your beliefs fella.

    There is also something a little weird going on. The idea that some elite of lawyers and proffessional politicians of Indian descent are NECESSARILY more morally suited to running the incredibly racially diverse Indian subcontinent then the Brits.

    I saw this pointed out by Paul Johnson and I reckon thats right.

    Now of course the Brits control over India ought not have been a forever thing. But speeding up the process of independence was a viscious moral catastrophe.

    The place ought to have gained its independence at a more leisurely pace and one which could have been acheived without that senseless slaughter and mismanagement.

    It should have been a co-operative deal and not some sort of chaotic process taking advantage of the dire straits that the Brits were in after defeating the Germans two times in a row.

    Gandhis got blood on his hands.

    If leftists think of him as some sort of hero its because in their philosophy there are no realistic heroes.

    If that place had got its seperation under happier circumstances it might be already considered first among equals in all of the former Commonwealth.

    It will get there no doubt. But its going to take longer.

    One day Australia will likely put in a courtesy call to the Indian Prime Minister before taking any serious military action.

    He after all has a greater electoral mandate then anyone else in the world.

    If there is any exception it could only be the American President and only due to his direct election.


    October 28, 2006 at 5:07 pm

  19. We need to define what is “overrated”. As a political philosophy, Ghandi’s pacifism (based in turn on Tolstoy’s writings) has had a huge influence on western intellectual culture. In this sense, he was not overrated. Whether that influence has been positive is another matter.


    October 28, 2006 at 10:12 pm

  20. Is that what it was based on?

    Tolstoys belief in non-resistance to evil?

    Man thats pretty perverse stuff.

    We must resist evil everywhere and in all its forms.


    October 28, 2006 at 10:35 pm

  21. Indeed. I have been resisting the evil of the English cricket team on various cricketing forums tonight. And I’ll keep up the good fight tomorrow, too!


    October 28, 2006 at 11:17 pm

  22. what a wicket statement!

    Ghandi didn’t understand economics and Nehru fell for the planned economic heresy.

    who will get rid of the caste system I wonder

    Bring Back EP at LP

    October 29, 2006 at 3:43 pm

  23. Probably more relevant is, what role does gandhi play today?

    Best remember him as a kind benevolent soul and push on for a career better than a rickshaw driver.


    October 29, 2006 at 7:57 pm

  24. in that case ghandi is a twit…

    the jews should have been armed to the teeth and shot any brownshirt who came through the door or broke a shop window…

    if any government or ragtag bunch of political fucks tried to deport my family they’d get a rude surprise…

    and then probably win in the end as very often happens in these government massacres of the people…

    has anyone seen that waco documentary…scary stuff…


    October 29, 2006 at 11:18 pm

  25. Remember the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, c8to.

    I doubt the Jews were voluntary Gandhians. They were taken by surprise.

    Jason Soon

    October 29, 2006 at 11:44 pm

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