Notes on a Marxist Interpretation of Gandhi

by Bhikhu Parekh

Dust jacket art courtesy Palgrave Macmillan;

Marxist interpretations of Gandhi contain important and valid insights that are, however, oversimplified; the picture is more complex and messy. The Congress under Gandhi’s leadership was not a party of the upper middle class. Although it did not reject the institution of private property, it assigned the State a considerable regulative and redistributive role, stressed the pursuit of social justice, and was not an advocate of unrestrained capitalism. To say, as some Marxists do, that since Congress did not advocate the abolition of the capitalist mode of production it was therefore a spokesman for capitalism, is to take too simple-minded a comment on the range of political possibilities open to radicals. Congress was essentially a middle class party, constantly reaching out to new groups and interests on both sides of the economic consensus in a way that was neither wholly capitalist nor fully socialist and not heavily biased towards a particular group. Rightwing and leftwing ideas grew up around its petit bourgeois core and both shaped and were in turn shaped by it. Nehru put the point well: “Even our more reactionary people are not so rigid in their reactions as they are probably in Europe and America. And even our most advanced people are somehow influenced by Gandhiji. He created connecting links between conflicting interests.”

The flow of political influence and the process of moral sensitisation between the different groups proceeded in both directions. The haute bourgeoisie influenced the Congress and enjoyed a measure of political power as the Marxists argue, but they were also required to recognise the legitimate demands of the poor and the oppressed. The middle and upper class peasantry did from time to time link up with the bourgeoisie, but it also retained its independence, threw up leaders of status and class loyalty, and influenced Congress policies on important matters. Many of these leaders were not created by or in any way indebted to the bourgeoisie, and had come to power on the basis of their personal sacrifices and leadership of peasant struggles. They had constituencies which they could not lightly ignore and whose interests they could not subordinate to those of some other class. The Marxist commentators exaggerate the situation when they claim that Gandhi delivered the peasantry to the capitalists.

Thanks to the logic of that nationalist movement under Gandhi’s leadership, the Congress contained mutually regulating pro-bourgeois as well as pro-poor, pro-industrialist, and pro-peasantry tendencies within its overall middle-class framework. Since Gandhi failed to mobilise the poor, the pro-capitalist tendency was stronger, but the anti-bourgeois tendency was neither absent nor too weak to offer strong resistance. Thanks to its middle-class bias, the Congress did not allow itself to be taken over by either pro-poor or pro-bourgeois. From its relatively secure and autonomous ideological point of balance, it arbitrated between the two sides. It knew that it could not pursue pro-capitalist policies for long without feeling morally troubled, provoking internal resistance, or losing its inner balance. As Bipan Chandra puts it: “Indian National Congress was a popular, multi-class movement. It was not a movement controlled by the bourgeoisie, nor did the bourgeoisie exercise exclusive control over it.”

Any interpretation of Gandhi must also take full account of his complex personal and political relationship with the Left. Although some of his beliefs and actions were strongly and rightly criticised by the intellectuals of the Left, it is striking that most of them never deserted him, that some of those who did such as J.P. Narayan eventually returned to him, and that even his fiercest critics such as M.N. Roy later changed their view of him. It is, of course, true that his hold over the Indian masses was so great that no one dared challenge him, and in any case he was shrewd and determined enough to outsmart anyone who did, as Subhas Bose and even Jawaharlal Nehru painfully realised. Many leftwing leaders with political ambitions therefore thought it prudent not to fall foul of him. The Left also knew that its best hope of propagating its relatively unfamiliar radical ideas and policies lay in securing his patronage by means of quiet persuasion and persistent pressure.

All this, however, represents only part of the story. Although Gandhi and the Left needed and used each other, they were also bound by deeper bonds. The bonds were not entirely personal and emotional, for many of the Left did not enjoy the kind of intimacy with Gandhi that Nehru, Narayan, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Aruna Asaf Ali and others did. It would seem that many of them were morally overwhelmed by the fact that while they were content to preach their doctrines, Gandhi actually lived by his, and that his concern for the poor and the oppressed was no less sincere and deep than theirs. They also seem to have felt that he had raised basic questions about the nature of modernity, the dangers of revolutionary violence, and the character of Indian society, which they had long ignored and with which they needed to come to terms. Even as Marx discovered a radical kernel underneath Hegel’s apparently conservative vocabulary, many of the Left seem to have thought, rightly in my view, that Gandhi’s apparently conservative form of thought had a strong radical content which they should build upon.

Though Marxist commentators rightly point out that Gandhi did not provide a realistic alternative to capitalism, they are wrong not to appreciate that his thought had enough resources to criticise and transform capitalism fairly radically. His endorsement of Bombay Professor Dantwala’s proposals, with few if any changes, for a practical property trusteeship is a good starting point. Its proposals for a socially regulated and accountable system of production, minimum income differentials, severely restricted right to property, a minimum decent wage, war on poverty, etc. have a genuinely radical thrust. This is also the case with Gandhi’s ideas of heavy death duty, a national plan that gave agriculture its due importance and did not exploit the villages, and nationalisation of key industries. Even his otherwise elusive concept of trusteeship opens up new possibilities if creatively interpreted on the basis of Gandhi’s own remarks. It is widely accepted that the government is a trustee of the interests of society and may be legitimately disobeyed or removed if it violates its trust. In many other areas of life too we appoint trustees and hold them accountable for the way they run their organisations.

Once we challenge the moral basis of the right to ownership of the means of production, there is no obvious reason why industries and businesses should not be conducted along similar lines. That would involve such things as denial of absolute right of ownership, the owner’s accountability to his or her workers and the society at large for the way he or she runs his or her business, worker’s councils, and industrial democracy. All this is, of course, vague but it indicates how Gandhi’s thought could be interpreted and applied in practice. Thanks to the constraints of the nationalist struggle, he did not fully exploit the radical tendencies of thought. No such constraints existed in independent India. Had his followers mobilised these tendencies, creatively reinterpreted them in the light of the country’s needs, mounted a carefully planned campaign of peasants’ and workers’ nonviolent civil resistance campaigns (satyagrahas), and in these and other ways compelled the Nehru government to adopt a more egalitarian and just path of development, Gandhi would have been the patron saint of a very different India and the Marxists would then have most probably read him differently.

The question as to why Gandhians did not mount a radical movement does, of course, persist. Since it is too large and complex to answer here, a few words must suffice. The answer to the question would seem to lie in a combination of such factors as the Nehru government’s unwillingness to harness the radical component of Gandhi’s moral and economic thought in its battle with the conservative forces within the Congress Party, Gandhians’ failure to rethink their role and strategy in independent India and especially the place of satyagraha in a democratic State, their early acquiescence in Nehru’s attempt to turn Gandhi not just into the Father of Indian Independence but of the nation itself and use him to legitimise the kind of State he was busy creating, and their inability to throw up leaders with the skill and patience to build up a nationwide alternative to Congress and mobilise the excluded groups around clearly defined issues.

Gandhi’s own ambivalence and confusions also played a part. Nehru was rightly his chosen political heir, and Gandhi spent the last few months of his life urging his followers to leave Nehru and his colleagues alone in their task of designing and consolidating the Indian State. When, for example, they complained that the Constituent Assembly had made no provision for Panchayat Raj, he urged them to be patient, stay away from political activity, and concentrate instead on the constructive programme. He intended the programme to encompass much more than its conventional content and to include encouraging voter registration, highlighting local grievances, and even peaceful satyagrahas. However, he did not have the time or the energy fully to spell out all this, with the result that many of his followers took his advice to imply a neat division of labour between politics and social work, one to be left to the government and his ‘political’ heir, the other to his ashrams and voluntary workers led by his ‘spiritual’ heir Vinoba Bhave. Since Gandhi drew no distinction between politics and spirituality, this was an understandable but wholly misguided interpretation of his post-Independence project.

The consequences of the misinterpretation for which Gandhi bears at least some responsibility soon became obvious. Since the Nehru government was naturally unsure as to how the Gandhians would respond to its actions and policies and could not afford to risk a direct confrontation with them, it was anxious to neutralise some (for example, J.P. Narayan), marginalise some others (for example, Dr. Lohia) and to win over and even incorporate the rest into the Indian State. It did so partly for obvious political reasons and partly because it genuinely believed that rebuilding India required the cooperation of all available talents and political and non-political organisations. Its belief was correct but wrongly articulated. Rather than seek their cooperation on the State’s terms and within the limits set by it, the Gandhian and other organisations should have been left alone, as they were best able to make their vital contribution if allowed and even encouraged to act as the State’s critical conscience and unofficial opposition. Since, thanks to its statist approach, the Nehru government did not see things this way, it took over the constructive programme as part of its political project, gave it financial support, even helped raise public funds for it, and patronised Vinoba and his associates. Over time, the bulk of the Gandhians involved in Vinoba’s movement built up embarrassingly close alliances with the local Congress leadership, worked closely with the government at State and national levels, remained confined to the reformist task set by the State, and virtually lost their identity, autonomy, and radical impulse.

There was still the awkward question of satyagraha, a critical constituent of Gandhi’s legacy. Vinoba obligingly redefined it to exclude all forms of conflict and to mean nothing more than gentle moral appeals to the government and vested interests. When urged by some of his colleagues to turn his campaign into a mass movement rather than restrict it to his chosen workers by mobilising landless workers and peasants and leading their marches from one village to the next, he rejected the idea as a recipe for ‘class war’. Even within his self-imposed limits, his movement could have been radical if, as advised by his colleagues, he had not distributed the land but used it for model cooperative farms, or concentrated on developing select villages in each district and set examples to the rest of the country rather than dissipate his energy by falling prey to the ‘quantification complex’ and counting the amount of land donated to him as opposed to the quality of work done on and with it.

When the Gandhians realised how much they had become an appendage to the State and how little economic and social impact they made on India’s appalling problems, they felt deeply confused and disorientated. Vinoba had no answers. He went into a year of silence and then told his followers to do what they liked. Some left his movement, others half-heartedly continued with it, and a few fell for J.P. Narayan’s desperate and misguided revolt against the Indian State. The revolt was conducted in the name of a naively moralistic and politically unrealistic idea of an ill-defined ‘total revolution’, but by means that bore little relevance to Gandhi’s satyagraha. The revolt did have the support of the nationalist parties R.S.S. and Jan Sangh who had nothing in common with Gandhi and whose stances he had bitterly fought most of his active life. Narayan’s movement was as un-Gandhian as Vinoba’s, albeit for very different reasons. It is difficult to say which of the two did the Gandhian heritage more damage.

What I have said so far is only intended to indicate broadly how we might go about explaining the Gandhians’ failure to live up to his legacy and not provide a full explanation, which would have to include such factors as the politics of Post-Independence India, the social groups that were available for mass mobilisation, the available space for Gandhian intervention, the constraints of India’s mixed economy, and the quality of Gandhian leadership. Whatever the full explanation might turn out to be, the fact remains that there is far more to Gandhism than what his followers have done with it. ‘Gandhism’ is not an abstract, static, and historically frozen body of thought but a cluster of tendencies, some conservative, others radical, yet others a dialectical blend of both. It is nothing more or less than how we read Gandhi and what we do with him, a product of actual practice. By continuing to read and treat him as a bourgeois apologist, Marxist commentators reject a valuable ally and waste a vital political and rhetorical source. Paradoxical as it might seem, by using his still considerable moral authority to legitimise and propagate their project of a long overdue radical transformation of India, Marxists might do more justice to his legacy than his self-proclaimed followers.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Bhikhu Parekh is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, the Academy of the Learned Societies for Social Sciences, and a professor of political philosophy at the University of Westminster, UK. He was chair of the Runnymede Commission, whose report, The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain was published in 2000. He is also vice-chairman of the Gandhi Foundation, a trustee of the Anne Frank Educational Trust, and a member of the National Commission on Equal Opportunity. Bhikhu Parekh has received the Sir Isaiah Berlin Prize for Lifetime Contribution to Political Philosophy by the Political Studies Association in the UK (2002), the Distinguished Global Thinker Award by the India International Centre, New Delhi (2006), the Interdependence Prize from the Campaign for Democracy, New York (2006), and the Padma Bhushan (2007). His main academic interests include political philosophy, the history of political thought, social theory, ancient and modern Indian political thought, and the philosophy of ethnic relations. Parekh is the author of a number of books, such as: Hannah Arendt and the Search for a New Political Philosophy (1981), Karl Marx’s Theory of Ideology (1981), Contemporary Political Thinkers (1982), Gandhi’s Political Philosophy (1989), Colonialism, Tradition and Reform (1999), Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory (2000) and Gandhi (2001). Our thanks to for permission.

“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