Gandhi’s Political Ethics. Part Three: Constructive Programs

by Arne Naess

When making optimistic forecasts about the outcome of the struggle for freedom in India, Gandhi used to say that success depended on increasing the constructive programs. But since these always fell short of what Gandhi required, his forecasts were not wrong, but simply ren­dered invulnerable to criticism. If the main effort of the nationalist movement was expended on opposing the British, according to Gandhi, nothing good would come of it. But his advice to concentrate upon constructive planning, rather than upon fighting the British, was not taken seriously by the politicians who were ostensibly his followers. Naturally, such advice had little appeal; it de­manded discipline and self-sacrifice.

Perhaps Gandhi failed to repeat his great warning often enough. We should at least remind ourselves of this possibility when judging his sensational prediction in 1920 that India could free herself from Britain within a year. Naturally enough, this statement earned him both criticism and ridicule. (1) But Gandhi himself wrote: “Much laughter has been indulged in at my expense for having told the Congress audience at Calcutta that if there was sufficient response to my programme, of non-cooperation, swaraj [freedom] would be attained in one year.” (2) He had appealed to his countrymen to support his constructive efforts and called on them to form their own unofficial institutions and their own economy, in addition to their campaign to break away from British institutions and reliance on British imports. In other words, Gandhi could only envisage swaraj on the as­sumption that his positive demands were to be taken up and acted upon. But relatively few people did act upon them. “The conditions I had set for the fulfillment of the formula, ’swaraj in a year’, were forgotten.” (3)

Gandhi was no doubt perfectly correct in his view of what was needed before emancipation from British power could become a reality: emancipation is, after all, certainly a loftier goal than political independence. But he must have overestimated the capacity of his followers and fellow campaigners to follow the principles he pre­scribed. And there is perhaps an explanation for this; Gandhi seems occasionally to have interpreted all absence of physical violence as the presence of nonviolent action. Moreover, constant repetition of “non-this” and “non-that,” especially of non-violencemust have tended generally to make it seem natural that the work of creat­ing institutions and patterns of moral activity should be subordinated to a negative aim, the avoidance of violence. Nevertheless, an exact analysis of Gandhi’s teachings seems incontrovertibly to show that it was the positive and constructive factors that were his first concern, from which the absence of physical violence was intended to emerge as a natural, and perhaps inevitable, consequence. It is a familiar enough fact, after all, that aggressive tend­encies tend to disappear among those who are inten­sively occupied in constructive work.

Here, as at other points in Gandhi’s career, we can readily deplore the effect, if such it was, of giving promi­nence to that one key word ahimsa. For to undertake a complicated reform movement requiring a program of construction, the concept of “nonviolence” appears not at all suggestive of that vast amount of energy and initiative which would have to be expended in the process.

Gandhi’s great admirer, Romain Rolland, once asked how the Mahatma’s voice sounded, for he was greatly interested in how Gandhi’s words were able to reach one hundred million people. He received the reply that Gandhi spoke “no louder than we are doing now.” “But then, how can people hear him?” asked Rolland. “They don’t hear him,” was the answer. (4) Although crowds streamed to his meetings, only those people who got nearest to him could hear what he was saying. The rest heard nothing. And if they could not hear his teach­ing, neither could they read it, since most of them were illiterate. In fact, they could hardly have been expected to have any clear idea at all of his moral and political ideas. From the large correspondence Gandhi had with people who had personal access to him, it appears also to have been enormously difficult for people to grasp the mean­ing of Gandhi’s teaching. Certainly it was by no means obvious to the Hindus, nor was it part of their living tradition, as is often maintained.

The most difficult parts of his teaching are those prin­ciples of the positive program. It was here that Gandhi entered into the daily life of the individual. What he de­manded was a new way of living. Above all, the Indian had to learn to fend for himself. “To get swaraj . . . is to get rid of our helplessness,” said Gandhi. (5) And if their helplessness was really to be conquered, it would be an advantage, for the time being, he said, to keep the British in the country.

How many of Gandhi’s adherents and admirers stood beside him, actually understanding what he said on this topic, believing it was right, and trying to act upon it? Almost none. Among politicians, practically no one accepted his teaching, neither Nehru nor any of the other prominent personalities who were daily praising Gandhi.(6) Practical efforts of immediate and immense im­portance, such as the setting up of nonviolent brigades in all trouble-centers, were therefore never actually made, in spite of pressure exerted by Gandhi.

There was, after all, a vast difference between the prac­ticality of Gandhi’s work in South Africa and in India. In South Africa he was able to come into personal con­tact with all those he was fighting for, and also with his most important opponents. The political forces were there simpler, as were the aims simpler; and the country was smaller. So if one is looking for examples of campaigns of nonviolence in their purest form, and carried out with the clearest awareness of what was involved, one must look to the events in South Africa.

Gandhi did lay himself open to criticism for expecting, from time to time, immediate and far-reaching effects from nonviolent methods. He should surely have known that it is easier to get millions to join together in a single short-lived campaign than it is to change the daily habits even of a few men in the extensive way he required—a way involving community service, assistance for neigh­bors in need, patience in attempts to integrate asocial elements into society, and non-partisanship in the perma­nent friction between Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi’s methods required local leadership throughout India, and they required a large number of men who could devote themselves to the duties of community service in every aspect, Gandhi was indeed making enormous demands within the framework of the positive program. More­over, as is evident from his constantly reiterated hopes for an improvement in the situation, during the 1920s, he waited a long time before drawing any pessimistic conclusions. But the turn never came; and, as a result, the freedom India won was only a political freedom, not the complete swaraj which Gandhi fought for: not the inner and the outer emancipation and ripening, not the cessation of commu­nal hatred.

To return for a moment to the metaphysical founda­tion of Gandhi’s political morality, we can now present the principles of his positive program more lucidly, not only as part of but as central to his teaching as a whole. Consider once again the hypothesis, “In the last analysis all living beings are one,” and the principle, “Seek com­plete self-realization”. Let us replace the hypothesis, “Vio­lence against a living being is violence against oneself” with the hypothesis “Complete self-realization presup­poses the self-realization of everyone.” (7) The main point is that with this change we omit talk of violence. Instead, we have hypotheses and principles about positive influ­ence and active help, reminiscent indeed of Peter Kropotkin’s principles of mutual aid.(8)

Violence helps no one to self-realization.

Gandhi said that one must forget the self in one’s con­stant and enduring service to all life. Gopinath Dhawan has shown how this statement can be interpreted: “The real being in man, the central truth in him, is the spirit. The spirit is one in all, and to realize this great truth ‘one has to lose oneself in the continuous and continuing serv­ice of all life.’” (9) Thus the doctrine of nonviolence can be subordinated to a doctrine of consistent altruism or, bet­ter, to one of mutual aid (in which “service” emerges as a natural consequence, rather than standing merely as a rule of conduct), along with the hypothesis, “Violence helps no one to self-realization.”

By altering the sequence of principles and hypotheses in this way, the principles for a positive program can be directly derived from a basic principle for group conflict, namely, “Act in all group conflicts, and act with a view to helping all parties in the conflict.” Not the least impor­tant implication of this idea is that to acquire such a uni­versal consciousness of conflict it is necessary to train oneself in all aspects of community service. Thus the sep­arate aspects of Gandhi’s positive program can be better understood. These remarks, then, attempt to show, among other things, how we may change the emphasis of a doctrine without changing its metaphysical foundations.


(1) BIARDEAU, M.  “Gandhi, histoire et légende,” Esprit, 1954, p. 191.

(2) TENDULKAR, D. G. Mahatma. Bombay: Jhaveri and Tendulkar, 1952. Vol. 2; pp. 23-24.

(3) PYARELAL. Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1956; p. 572.

(4) ROLLAND, Romain. Inde: Journal 1915-1943. Paris: Editions Vineta, 1951; p. 38.

(5) TENDULKAR. Op. Cit.; p. 24.

(6) After Indian independence in 1948, much of Gandhi’s reform work came to a standstill: “In 1948, a few months after Gandhi’s death, those who had been associated with the old man’s village work and who had resisted the lure of high office met in Sevagram to form a new Society. Already independence had disillusioned them with politics. Such success as Gandhi’s social programme had obtained—cottage industries, decentralization and nonviolence—seemed to have been due to its political significance as an attempt to undermine British power rather than to any real acceptance of its message on the part of the politicians.” TENNYSON, H. Saint on the March. The Story of Vinoba. London: Gollancz, 1956; p. 64.

(7) This is best done in a number of steps, so that contribution to the self-realization of all becomes a self-sufficient end, and constant help becomes the only adequate means.

(8) KROPOTKIN, P. Mutual Aid. A Factor of Evolution. London: Heinemann, 1902. There are a number of modern editions, including a version for Kindle.

(9) DHAWAN, Gopi Nath, The Political Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. Bombay: The Popular Book Depot, 1946; pp 4-5.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This essay by Arne Naess is from the long out of print, Gandhi and the Nuclear Age, Totowa (New Jersey): Bedminster Press, 1965; Part Two, Chapter 4, pp. 42-48. We are grateful to Mrs. Arne Naess for permission. Copyright © 2013 Mrs. Arne Naess/Estate of Arne Naess. We are also grateful to Alan Drengson for his assistance.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An extensive editor’s note is appended to our earlier Naess postings, as at the end of the “Gandhi and Group Conflict” articles. For an example click here.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi