Lenin and Gandhi

by Arne Naess

Some of Gandhi’s fellow-workers, just as some of Nehru’s in a later day, were Socialists and Marxists. Though critical of their views, Gandhi was far from negatively disposed toward their aims. He believed, however, that it could not be in the employer’s interests to behave badly toward the workers, and that the employer could be persuaded to make radical reforms. On the basis of psychological and social interests common to both sides, he believed it impossible, in the long run, for one group to profit at the expense of the other. Exploitation and oppression amounted to violence, in Gandhi’s terms, and could only drive participants apart.

Today we might well admit that the acceptance of Gandhi’s view could have spared us Lenin’s uncritical acceptance of means and also the kind of laissez-faire liberalism we find in Western Europe, a liberalism which rejects all measures of economic control to remedy the undeserved suffering of the poor. We have seen in our time how both of the political philosophies from which these economic views are derived have led to violence and oppression.

In John Ruskin, however, a liberal of a unique sort, Gandhi found a fellow critic of the economic establishment. In Unto This Last Ruskin speaks out forcefully against the dominant political economy of his day, a system, which assumed hard and fast laws of supply and demand and an irresoluble opposition between employer and worker, and in particular an insoluble wage conflict (“the iron law of wages”).

Ruskin had a sound knowledge of business and trade, and opposed the somber theories of his time by pointing to their practical consequences. He spoke out with great eloquence in the interests of mankind, claiming that the picture of man in current economic theory was but a caricature. As he said:

“Observe, I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusion of the science if its terms are accepted. I am simply uninterested in them as I should be in those of a science of gymnastics, which assumed that men had no skeletons. It might be shown, on that supposition, that it would be advantageous to roll the students up into pellets, flatten them into cakes, or stretch them into cables; and that when these results were effected, the re-insertion of the skeleton would be attended with various inconveniences to their constitution. The reasoning might be admirable, the conclusions true, and the science deficient only in applicability. Modern political economy stands on a precisely similar basis. Assuming, not that the human being has no skeleton, but that it is all skeleton, it founds an ossifiant theory of progress on this negation of a soul; and having shown the utmost that may be made of bones, and constructed a number of interesting geometrical figures with death’s-head and humeri, successfully proves the inconvenience of the reappearance of a soul among these corpuscular structures. I do not deny the truth of this theory: I simply deny its applicability to the present phase of the world.” (Unto This Last, pp. 3-4)

Ruskin’s argument, thus vividly expressed, suited Gandhi admirably, for it was just this idea, that economic life should be an autonomous sphere within the total common life of man, to which he was opposed, and which he found, in his South African experiences, his reasons to reject. There it had not been economic but ethical and political factors that had played the decisive role for the poor Indian minority; the conflict was not over prices or wages, neither for the Indians nor for their opponents. Thus it was not an insight into contemporary social economy that provided Gandhi with his basis for political reform, but an insight into human nature. Where many people saw only economic problems, Gandhi saw questions of the value of man, or, in our own non-Gandhian terminology, of “human rights.”

After his return to India from South Africa, Gandhi carried out his first major campaign at Champaran in the province of Bihar. Property owners there had forced the peasants to cultivate indigo. Already poor, the peasants were put in an even worse plight when indigo began to be manufactured chemically. The plantations could scarcely compete with the manufacturers as the prices sank, and the employers were forced to cut their workers’ wages. Driven to the edge of starvation, the workers became desperate, and violence erupted. If we now look at Gandhi’s subsequent moves in Bihar, we will be able to see clearly the difference between a Gandhian and a Marxist treatment of conflict.

Gandhi’s method showed, for a reformer, an extraordinary thoroughness in acquainting himself with the facts. He went directly to the district and organized systematic interviews for the collection of data. (Closely similar action, by the way, was taken by Danilo Dolci at the inception of his campaign in Western Sicily.) Thousands of workers were questioned. The resulting information went to make up a register compiling facts from all the factories and all the workers. In it were placed, among other things, extensive records of the many complaints that the workers had put forward. There was then a move for arbitration, as Gandhi had known there would be, and the factory owner came along with his witnesses; they too were subjected to the most detailed questioning. Naturally enough, the answers they gave supported the owner’s point of view. But Gandhi was in a position to reply to them from the large fund of information he had gathered. He gave the workers, moreover, the confidence to stand up and repeat what they had told him in the interviews. The workers spoke out more and more freely in the presence of their employers and the representatives of justice. The information Gandhi had gathered was drawn on again and again in the discussions, and Gandhi himself acted as an intermediary in cooperation with both the officials and the plantation owners. When he argued against the owners, he first sent them a copy of his claims so that they could better defend themselves. And the legal authorities began, in their turn, to send copies of their documents to Gandhi.

Gandhi then brought the entire issue to a head by declining to accept any documents that he could not show to his fellow-workers. He insisted that a much greater confidence be placed in him, which it was; from then on the conflict took on quite a different character: each of the parties began to play with all its cards on the table.

Gandhi was not thus setting in motion a campaign based on a moral appeal to tolerance; he was initiating a serious process of data collection necessary to provide as detailed and many-sided a picture of the circumstances as possible. Moral conviction was not enough; the aim was to get his opponents to accept the information, and to see the facts of the situation without prejudice or self-righteousness. It was for this reason that Gandhi put himself and his information at the direct disposal of all his opponents.

In short, we can say that what Gandhi shared with Lenin was his understanding of the importance of a deep and careful study of economic and social factors before setting things in motion. Both were cool-headed men who lacked that occupational disease of many a moralist and revolutionary: an exaggerated trust in general statements and improvised action. Unlike Lenin, however, Gandhi always acted directly from his vision of man and man’s possibilities, and never, therefore, took differences in economic interests or class conflict to be fundamental. Furthermore, he believed in a reciprocal interaction between ends and means, a belief, which automatically excluded deceit and distrust as weapons in his struggle.

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 One, Chapter 3, pp. 16-21. 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