Nonviolence and Self-Rule

by Robert Ellsberg

Farm boycott swaraj poster; artist unknown; courtesy of

Sometimes a man lives in his dreams. I live in mine, and picture the world as full of good human beings—not ‘goody-goody’ human beings. In the socialist’s language there will be a new structure of society, a new order of things. I am also aspiring after a new order of things that will astonish the world. If you try to dream these daydreams you will also feel exalted as I do.” M. K. Gandhi

On the day of India’s independence, the consummation of a lifetime of struggle, Gandhi did not participate with other Congress leaders in the celebration. That day for him was an occasion of deep sorrow, which he observed by fasting. India’s future lay in the hands of those who were determined to pursue the path of industrial and military strength, centralization of the means of production and political power, men who believed that India could be remade from the top down.

As nonviolent revolution could not be the equivalent of violent revolution without the violence, but something qualitatively different in assumptions and goals, true swaraj (self-rule) could not be the parasitic apparatus of bureaucratic administration minus the British. Gandhi’s conception of swaraj was quite different: not the goal of an Indian nationalist government, but a process that would replace the state by the self-rule of each individual. As the best function of school should be to enable the student to educate himself, the role of government, as Gandhi saw it, was to make itself more and more unnecessary, by enabling people to do without it; not simply by eliminating its functions, but by encouraging self-reliance, personal responsibility and devotion to social welfare, while dispersing the means of administration among radically decentralized institutions through which the masses might learn the art of self-management. A true Independence Day could not be represented by the arbitrary date of British submission, but that time when each individual was self-governing and self-sufficient for his/her basic needs. Swaraj was the rule of nonviolence, order arising from freedom, not to pursue selfish passions and desires, but to submit voluntarily to the law of one’s being. That freedom was not a privilege or right guaranteed by constitution but a perpetual call to the soul. Swaraj was thus a moral principle, which embodied certain political principles and economic conditions: decentralism, village autonomy, self-sufficiency, voluntary poverty, and bread labor; it was a philosophy of work.

Self-rule and Nonviolence

The integration of an individual ethics within the outline of a social order was perfectly natural for Gandhi. His ideal was a society in which it would be easier for people to be good. But he was the first in our time to demonstrate that nations, society, and politics can and must observe the same values by which individuals live. Ethics did not concern simply the conduct between individuals but the mutual obligations between the individual and society, and most importantly, the relationship between the individual and his/her conscience. This consistency, between one’s inner and outer reality, is essentially what he called Truth. And Truth, he said, was God. The task in our lifetime was to search for that Truth, and submit our will before it. As the highest moral calling for the individual is to sacrifice oneself for another, Gandhi startled his allies by proclaiming his intention in serving India’s independence, that it should be free in order to sacrifice itself for humanity if need be: the highest moral calling of any nation!

The abiding principle of Gandhi’s life was nonviolence, and he was committed to discovering how society might be organized on that basis—a society that would rationalize the maximum freedom of the individual with the greatest good of all. In place of hierarchical power politics imposed from above (the competition between parties more concerned with their own interests than with the welfare of society and a politics ultimately sanctioned through coercion) Gandhi envisaged a politics of the people, growing in concentric circles around the basic unit of the village council—a politics sanctioned by the conscience of the individual, replacing majority rule by consensus, mass rule by self rule.

Gandhi’s Economic Vision

In the place of an economics based on developing industrial goliaths, massive instruments of domination, economics based on dwarfing the human soul beneath the demands of profit and efficiency, reducing the mind and body of the person to a factor of production—an economy measuring and justifying all by the magnitude of the production of goods nobody can buy because of the consequent pauperization of the rural masses—Gandhi proposed an economics for the development of human beings; small scale decentralized production for self sufficiency, taking into account the total cost in human and natural resources, humanized, appropriate technology, collective ownership of the means and output of production, and first of all, an underlying philosophy based on the dignity of labor, seen not as a function of the person, but his/her obligation and fulfillment.

Gandhi, however, was not simply an idealist. He was a practical man. And his vision of a village economy was not a romantic fancy but a realistic understanding of circumstances. India, he observed, was already a village society. Eighty per cent of its millions lived in 700,000 villages. It was also a poor country. But that did not mean that squalor was inevitable. It simply meant that India’s peasants could not afford to be robbed to provide automobiles and air conditioning for the cities. With his characteristic optimism Gandhi believed that the means were always provided to answer all our needs. It was not scarcity but misuse and unjust distribution, which were responsible for destitution. Therefore anyone who owned or consumed beyond his/her needs was stealing from the poor and hungry. Through bread labor one could strive to achieve an equality between what one gave and what one took. Gandhi, therefore, was not trying to “turn back the clock.” He proposed something new—unheard of before and barely since—that an underdeveloped country, offered the reckless path of aimless growth and “labor saving” technology (in a country of six hundred million), should consciously refuse to ape the West, choosing instead a path of development suited to its own cultural, physical, and human needs. Not surprisingly, the Congress leadership ignored this unique opportunity.

Service and Responsibility

Gandhi’s ideal could not be achieved through any institutional means, for his aim was not a change in institutions but a transformation of the human heart out of which the new society would emerge. Vinoba Bhave reflected along these lines, “I want to change first people’s hearts; then their lives; then the system.” This method was inscrutable to the Oxford-educated Congress nationalist Nehru, a democratic socialist. Nehru believed that for the uneducated masses, it was through centralized instruments of political power that real change could come. On the contrary, Gandhi insisted that no amount of legislation would transform society: no law would restore meaning and dignity to the life of the poor. The spirit of sacrifice, the will and the enthusiasm of the people alone could generate any lasting change. That would come not through power but the example of selfless service and the invitation and opportunity for people to participate in the decisions affecting their lives.

Unlike revolutionary movements whose aim is merely to redistribute power between social classes, Gandhi wished to change the whole basis of social identification, from dignity in status and wealth to dignity in labor, and more, to transform the entire notion of power. Power, like freedom, was only a relative concept, limited only by the One, that which was perfect freedom and complete power, which Gandhi called Truth. Genuine change for the better could not come from any outside will, from some arbitrary source of political power, but from within; to be effective we must purify ourselves and become instruments of the irrepressible power of love.

Upon Independence, there was no more popular figure in India than Gandhi. With popular assent he could easily have claimed the highest position of political power. But he did quite the contrary; he resigned his post as president of the Congress Party, renouncing his affiliation with all party politics. Vinoba said, “It is one mark of swaraj not to allow any outside power in the world to exercise control over oneself. And the second mark of swaraj is not to exercise power over any other. These two things together make swaraj: no submission and no exploitation.”

Sarvodaya Movement logo; artist unknown; courtesy of

The Welfare of All

On the eve of his assassination, only days after a fast which had brought a spirit of unity and peace to the country out of the chaos of communal riots, Gandhi dictated his last public statement, a letter to the Congress Party which has since come to be known as his last will. He appealed to his friends and longtime colleagues to renounce power, to disband as a political party and to form instead a Lok Sevak Sangh —a society to serve the people. All must commit themselves to the goals of sarvodaya, “the welfare of all.” This was the word Gandhi chose for the title of his translation of Ruskin’s Unto This Last, and he continued to use it to describe his ideal of society undivided by class, caste, or creed, in which the equality of all labor would be recognized, and the maxim would be observed: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Sarvodaya means the good of all resides in the good of one.

After his death, there was confusion among Gandhi’s followers. There were many, particularly among those who chose to join the government, who had merely accepted Gandhi’s political leadership. They had seen nonviolence as a practical policy and little else, not as a way of life, much less a principle for social organization. But there were others who had accepted the whole of his thought, his philosophical assumptions, attitude toward the state, and picture of the ideal order. They chose Sarvodaya as the name for their movement, determined to continue the nonviolent social revolution to which Gandhi had contributed a vision as well as a means: the way of disinterested service, and the “twin wings” of constructive program and satyagraha.

Satyagraha and the Constructive Program

Satyagraha was the subject of Gandhi’s most intense experiment, his “science” of nonviolent action. It means the power that comes from insistence on truth, clinging to reality. He said one overcomes not the opponent but the opponent’s error, and not by repulsing him with arms, but by compelling him to see the truth by a strength derived from the quality of one’s being. As an aspect of resistance and persuasion, satyagraha was an important element in nonviolent revolution, which Gandhi defined as a transformation of relationships. But far more important than mere resistance was the task of developing alternative institutions, through “constructive work.” Gandhi preferred this, as the way of driving out the British, to civil disobedience. Constructive work alone could lay the foundations for the new society.

The Constructive Program was published in 1941 and emphasized basic education (craft-centered education); village industry, particularly khadi (home spun cloth); organizing peasants and protecting their rights; organizing labor on the basis of truth and nonviolence. In short, the Constructive Program was a strategy for making the people into their own masters, a program for liberating the people both from present and future tyranny: a program that would build from below a social order based on small scale production for local needs, a sense of personal responsibility and participation in the welfare of society, removal of the distinction between intellectual and manual labor through “bread labor” by all, and importantly by Trusteeship, that is an end to the institution of private ownership of land, wealth and resources. The Constructive Program was the positive pole of the movement of which civil disobedience was the negative. Apart from khadi, which was eventually adopted with a measure of enthusiasm, Congress members responded much more readily to civil disobedience than to constructive work. For some time after Independence, out of sentimental respect for the Mahatma, the government continued to subsidize the production of khadi, yet the construction of industrial textile mills went on all the same.

Nehru was a patriot and a gentleman, but he believed that certain people were best suited to make judgments in the interests of others. In the words of Gandhi, “Real swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when abused. In other words, swaraj is to be obtained by educating the people to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.” Gandhi believed that everyone’s opinion was as good as his own. Because someone is not educated, he believed, does not mean that he/she is not endowed with common sense, intelligence, and divinity. This wonderful insight was rejected from the beginning.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In June of 1975, as a response to ethnic violence and rioting, the government of Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in India. Civil liberties, including freedom of the press, were suspended, and an estimated 60,000 people imprisoned, among them, many leaders, activists and social workers of the Gandhian movement.  It is against this background that Robert Ellsberg wrote this article for the December, 1975 CW. Subsequently he went on to write several other articles about Gandhi’s Constructive Program, which we shall also post.

Robert Ellsberg (b. 1955) is editor in chief of Orbis Books, the publishing wing of Maryknoll Society. He graduated from Harvard College with a degree in religion and literature and later earned a Masters in Theology from Harvard Divinity School. From 1975 to 1980 he lived at the Catholic Worker community in New York City, and was the paper’s managing editor from 1976-78. He is the author of a number of bestselling books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, which won a Christopher Award and a Catholic Book Award. His Blessed Among All Women won three Catholic Book Awards. Robert is also the son of the famous “whistle-blower” Daniel Ellsberg. Article courtesy of Marquette University and the CW.

“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