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The Socialist Themes in Gandhian Philosophy
The philosophy of socialism has gradually permeated the entire structure of society the world over and almost the only point in dispute is the pace and methods of advance to its full realization. India will have to go that way too if she seeks to end her poverty and inequality though she may evolve her own methods and may adopt the ideal suited to the genius of her race.
After gaining independence from the Britain Empire in 1948, India did embark on the political economic journey towards a socialist society where mendicancy and oppressive disparity would be abolished. By 1972, only twenty-five years after independence, India initiated four Five-Year Economic Plans. Economic development took place on the basis of planning done by the Government in which the idea of mixed economy was accepted and accordingly both the public and private sectors operated in the country s economy. Although this period, which was characterized by a centralized State that mediated the economy, can be labeled as an economic success, the man who freed India from her imperial shackles would have disputed this strength of the government. Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) looked upon an increase in the power of the State with 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. Certainly, Gandhi was in favor of a decentralized democratic regime where he would realize freedom for full expression of [his] personality. However, Gandhi did not stand completely against the political philosophy of socialism, as he agreed with many of the moral themes that pervade socialist thought. Although he endorsed Indian democracy as his ultimate goal and continually pushed for these reforms within the Indian National Congress, Gandhi held many other ideals that rested at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Despite fighting for individual freedom, he did not ignore the social obligations of the individual to participate in shared growth and to live simply so that others may simply live. Gandhi s Hindu upbringing laid the foundation for the acceptance of many socialist views, but the literary works of Western socialists called him to action to contest severe economic inequality. Although he encouraged the development of democratic institutions inside India, the reactionary and utopian socialist literature available within the British Empire had an enormous self-admitted influence on Gandhi; the literature had an inexorable effect on his political ideology and campaigns against privilege.
Gandhi s Interpretation of Socialism
Before discussing the specific ideas that Gandhi adopted from Western socialists, it is important to understand the role of the State and the purpose of socialism in the eyes of Gandhi.
He inherently respected the philanthropic ideas of socialism, as Gandhi s Hindu background filled him with altruistic qualities. Gandhi was a deeply pious man and his religion taught him to disesteem the elements that drive a capitalist society competition for wealth, falsehood, and greed and desire were all prohibited by Hindu doctrine. Gandhi s attraction to Western socialism stemmed also from his understanding of the antiquated Hindu concept of dharma. Jayaprakash Narayan (1902-1979), a disciple of Gandhian socialism, explained that the notion of dharma was of great importance in ancient Indian society [and to Gandhi] and it prescribed and regulated individual and group behaviour in all walks of life. When the philosophy of dharma was thoroughly practiced in the ancient villages of India, everyone was cared for and protected from impoverishment, as each person had an ethical duty, based on the divine order of Hinduism, to provide for others through their own deeds. In ancient India the idea of superiority and inferiority between castes was non-existant and Gandhi Yet, over time the villages of India, and especially the developing urban centers, slowly began to disregard the benevolent characteristics of Hindu dharma. It pained Gandhi that Indian society had abandoned the genuine system of dharma and replaced it with a distorted exploitative order purely based on economic and social class. Gandhi yearned for the re-acceptance of true dharma:
The four divisions [of caste] are not a vertical section, but a horizontal plane on which all stand on a footing of equality, doing the same services respectively assigned to them In the book of God the same number of marks are assigned to the Brahman that has done his task well as to the bhangi [sweeper of floors or streets] who has done his likewise.
The unfortunate betrayal of dharma by the Indian people created Gandhi s openness to the philosophy of Western socialists that focused on human compassion and accentuated social responsibility and the writings of some inspired Gandhi to revive the benevolent themes of ancient village life.
However, while the literary works of socialist philosophers encouraged Gandhi s social reform movements, which will be discussed in the following, he never fully adopted the basic characteristics of occidental socialism. Under a socialist regime, the State is centralized with a strong government that has an expanded role in order to provide individuals with medical care, education, and a guaranteed income. Thus, personal freedom and private property are ultimately forfeited to promote equality and the redistribution of wealth in socialist philosophy. Gandhi sharply disagreed with the strong role of the State, as government action to change the economy struck him as a form of violence. Gandhi believed in a democratic State, in which power was decentralized and diffused over a number of provincial, local and functional organizations and institutions, making it possible for all individuals to involve themselves and partake in the State. Gandhi would have strongly agreed that:
If men s faith in social action is to be revived, the State must be cut up and its functions distributed. It must be made possible for the individual to belong to a variety of small bodies possessing executive powers, dealing both with production and with local administration, as a member of which he can once again feel that he counts politically, that his will matters and that his work is really done for society It would seem, then, that the machinery of Government must be reduced in scale, it must be made manageable by being made local, so that, in seeing the concrete results of their political labors before them, men can be brought to realize that where self-government is a fact, society is malleable to their wills because society is themselves
Gandhi felt that true social reform could not prosper under a restrictive and centralized government regime, but that equality would flourish when self-sufficient villages were established throughout the nation. He wrote,
In the structure of innumerable villages, there will be ever widening never ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose center will be the individual always ready to perish for the village, the latter ready to perish for the circle of villages, till at last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals never aggressive in their arrogance but ever humble sharing the majority of the oceanic circle of which they are integral units. Therefore, the outermost circumference will not yield power to crush the inner circle but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it.
At the same time, however, Gandhi did not advocate absolute individualism and anarchy. He urged individual freedom that was subject to social restraint and social obligations. Gandhi pushed an idea of trusteeship, rather than a centralization of power in the hands of the State. In Gandhi s trusteeship theory, private wealth and land was not abolished or removed from the individual; rather, the rich maintained their property for the good of the society and the poor.
Those who own money now are asked to behave like the trustees holding the riches on behalf of the poor Absolute trusteeship is an abstraction like Euclid s definition of a point, and is equally unattainable. But if we strive for it, we shall be able to go further in realizing a state of equality on earth than by any other method
What I would personally prefer would be not a centralization of power in the hands of the State, but an extension of the sense of trusteeship, as, in my opinion, the violence of private ownership is less injurious than the violence of the State. However if it is unavoidable, I would support a minimum of State ownership
Gandhi felt that the rich should not use this land for themselves, but for the peasants to utilize for economic growth. Gandhi also disagreed with other basic attributes of Western socialism, as he did not desire to establish absolute equality like socialist thinkers such as Karl Marx. He simply argued that everyone must have balanced diet, a decent house to live in, facilities for the education of one s children and adequate medical relief.
We do not want to produce a dead equality where every person becomes or is rendered incapable of using his ability to the utmost possible extent. Such a society must ultimately perish. I, therefore, suggest that my advice that moneyed men may earn their crores (millions) (honestly only, of course) but so as to dedicate them to the service of all is perfectly sound.
Gandhi s rejection of a strong State and his disapproval of absolute equality sparked numerous criticisms from socialists within India. The most violent criticism came from Although Jawaharlal Nehru held the utmost respect for Gandhi as a man, teacher and patriot, Nehru strongly disagreed with his objection to a centralized State. Nehru rigidly clutched to his belief that democratic socialism would be the cure for India s economic and political ills. My fundamental difference with socialists is well known. I believe in conversion of human nature and in striving for it. They do not believe in this. But let me tell you that we are coming nearer one another. Either they are being drawn to me or I am being drawn to them.
Gandhi and Ruskin: Adversaries of Machinery
It is incontestable that Gandhi was most influenced by the work of John Ruskin, a former British artist who was convinced that great art cannot flourish in [the] world of ugliness and deformity that existed during his time. Ruskin abandoned art for politics as he became disillusioned with the overwhelming amounts of poverty and corruption that filled industrialized Europe and after 1860 the artist became an outspoken critic of laissez-faire economics. The industrial revolution created modern forms of slavery, paying extremely low wages and forcing laborers to work in horrid conditions. Ruskin attacked industrialization and capitalism; he was convinced that large wealth could be achieved only by exploiting the poor [and] that the capitalist does not seek mere accumulation [of wealth] but power over the lives of men (Taft, 447).
Riches are a power like that of electricity, acting through inequalities or negations of itself. The force of the guinea you have in your pocket depends wholly on the default of a guinea in your neighbor s pocket. If he did not want it, it would be of no use to you. [Therefore] what is really desired, under the name of riches, is, essentially, power over men. [Consequently, men should seek] not greater wealth, but simpler pleasure; not higher fortune but deeper felicity; making the first of possessions, self-possession; and honoring themselves in the harmless pride and calm pursuits of peace (Taft, 446).
Furthermore, Ruskin argued that mass production estranged men and women from the artistic value found in their work. Capitalist machinery attempted to banish imperfection and thus destroy expression (Abrhams, 1290).
Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know in life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry.
An example of Ruskin s glorification of the handcrafted product occurred in the mid-nineteenth century when he revived interest in the Illuminated Manuscript. Ruskin argued the medieval-style production of these pre-print books would restore the aesthetic value and artistic meaning of products in the age of mass production. Ruskin felt the illuminated book was a means to political and spiritual reform, a way of breaking with the capitalist mode of production which took the means of artistic production out of the hands of the individual and placed it in the hands of the factory owner.
It is with a view to the re-opening of this great field of human intelligence, long entirely closed, that I am striving to revive the art of illumination, properly so called; not the art of miniature-painting in books, or on vellum but of making writing, simple writing, beautiful to the eye, by investing it with the great chord of colour, blue, purple, scarlet, white and gold, and in that chord of colour, permitting the continual play of the fancy of the writer in every species.
Ultimately, Ruskin was not simply concerned with the visual appearance of the book, but with the importance of the artist retaining individual expression and the means of production.
Gandhi did not simply endorse the texts of Ruskin, he interpreted them as life-changing works and their socialist ideas permeated his following campaigns and actions.
During the days of my education I had read practically nothing outside text books, and after I launched into active life I had very little time left me for reading. I cannot, therefore, claim much book knowledge. However, I believe I have not lost much because of this enforced restraint. On the contrary, the limited reading may be said to have enabled me thoroughly to digest what I did read. Of these books, the one that brought about an instantaneous and practical transformation in my life was Unto This Last. I translate dilator into Gujarati, entitling it Sarvodaya (the welfare of all). I believe that I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book of Ruskin, and that is why it so captivated me and made me transform my life.
Gandhi adopted Ruskin s abhorrence for machinery and he urged that economic development based on mass and inexpensive production must be avoided. Following the lines of Ruskin, Gandhi argued that large-scale production would have disastrous effects on the Indian economy by increasing economic inequality and unemployment in urban centers, while exporting mass amounts of needed labor from rural villages. In his work, Hind Swaraj, Gandhi reproduces many of the same arguments made by Ruskin against capitalist machinery, drawing on the ugliness machines created physically and economically.
Machinery has begun to desolate Europe. Ruination is now knocking at the English gates. Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilization; it represents a great sin. [It would be preferable] to send money to Manchester and to use flimsy Manchester cloth than to multiply mills in India. By using Manchester cloth we only waste our money; but by reproducing Manchester in India we shall keep our money at the price of our blood, because our very moral being will be sapped, and I call in support of my statement the very mill-hands as witnesses.
Gandhi determined that machinery could only bring anguish to India, as mass production relies on the exploitation of some and destroys its environmental surroundings. To avoid the use of machinery Gandhi proposed a revival of the handicraft industries in traditional villages. Only this, he maintained, could succeed in bringing about productive utilization of human labor, and in restoring human dignity of village people, who formed the overwhelming majority of the population of India. In an attempt to make his proposal a reality, Gandhi revived the Hindu concept of Swadeshi, which relied on the ancient form of hand spinning khadi cloth and the rejection of foreign machine-produced cloth. Gandhi s cry for the boycott of cloth produced by foreign materialist machines, closely resembled Ruskin s call for the medieval production of Illuminated Manuscripts. Through the Swadeshi movement, Gandhi hoped to restore individual expression and artistic beauty to the production of textiles in India.
Here, in this country, there is no [longer] appreciation for craftsmanship The rich, fascinated by the machine-made, polished goods from Europe, see art in them, with the result that in their homes and in their dresses they never patronize Indian craftsmanship I am convinced that the day when India feels honoured in wearing hand-spun khadi and plays for it for the sake of the art which lies in it, starvation will disappear from the country and we shall find that the poor, who are hard put to it to get even cereals to eat, are well supplied with them. 341
Obviously Gandhi, following Ruskin, not only wished to return the artistic beauty to the production of necessary commodities through the spinning of khadi, but to also initiate political and spiritual reform that would enable the redistribution of wealth among the masses. On April 6, 1926, in the textile-mill city of Ahmedabad, Gandhi declared:
Khadi work is the only true political program before the country. You live in a great city. You do not really know the amount of poverty that has overtaken the country called India. As a matter of fact, in India there are thousands and tens of thousands of villages where men do not get more than 21/2 rupees a month. There is no use shedding tears for them if we won t wear a few yards of khadi which thy have manufactured and want us to buy so that they may find a meal Khadi means employment for the poor and freedom for India.
Ruskin s interpretations of modern machinery as tools of exploitation and means to hold power over others had further effects on Gandhi, as they encouraged him to emend the working conditions of Indian industrial and agricultural laborers. Although Gandhi worked closely with the owners of machinist mills and large landowners, he never abandoned the laborers who were forced to work in dreadful conditions. Gandhi s heart was continually with the laborers and he dedicated countless amounts of time to their struggle, as he acted on the lessons that he learned from Ruskin s Unto This Last.
I believe that I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book of Ruskin, and that is why it so captured me and made me transform my life The teachings of Unto This Last I understood to be:
1. That the good of the individual is contained in the good of all.
2. That a lawyer s work has the same value as the barber s, inasmuch as all have the same right of earning their livelihood from their work.
3. That a life of labor, i.e, the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.
The first of these I knew. The second I had dimly realized. The third had never occurred to me. Unto This Last made it as clear as daylight for me that the second and third were contained in the first. I arose with the dawn, ready to reduce these principles to practice.
Gandhi attempted to promote Ruskin s ideals by fighting for labor rights throughout India. Judith Brown Amhebad.
Coincidentally these three socialist principles that Gandhi adopted from Ruskin, were the same ideals that motivated him to establish his first ashram in Phoenix, South Africa. Great Britain, Gandhi declared, gave me Ruskin, whose “Unto This Last” transformed me overnight from a lawyer and a city-dweller into a rustic living away from Durban on a farm, three miles from the nearest railway station. Within the ashrams Gandhi attempted to achieve the end of equality set forth in Unto This Last by adopting the means of utopian socialists, which will be discussed in the following.
The Influence of Utopian Socialists
In the seventeenth century, Sir Thomas More, introduced a literary work that would be adopted by some of the most influential revolutionaries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His work, Utopia, inspired socialist thought throughout Europe and later Asia, as Gandhi indirectly adopted More s socialist views from British contemporaries and Karl Marx. Although Gandhi does not credit More as a great influence, Gandhi s ashrams and his vision of the perfect village closely resembled the ideal utopia of More where a classless society prevailed.
More’s Utopia was a response to the presence of severe inequality and exploitation that existed lacks classes, everyone shares in the same work, everyone is equal, and everyone has the same rights a society that is the absolute opposite of contemporary India. All people spend time in the country working the land, as this is an agriculturally based society they must assure themselves of continued crop growth. In addition to creating the same conditions for everyone, this assures that they will have ample supplies to suppress the animal instinct of greed and desire. All clothing is plain and simple, designed only for utility and practicality. More points out that if someone was dressed in finer material, he would not be better protected against the cold, nor would he appear better dressed to the Utopians. Hereditary distinctions do not exist because children are easily moved around from household to household, depending on which occupation he would like to learn. Since there is very little distinction in occupation, dress, lodging and riches, greed and desire were non-existent in More s utopia. but More sees more than just this change of state. He sees a moral revolution, whereby institutional values are replaced by true Christian morality and more humane values, an idea that was of cardinal importance to Gandhi.
William Morris, a more modern utopian socialist, adopted many of the same ideas of both More and Ruskin. Following the lines of these socialists, Morris argued that the modern world only provided opportunity for the rich and that true equality can only be achieved by the reintroduction of simple village life. Morris disgust of the modern industrial world and his preference of the medieval-style of life is revealed in his work News From Nowhere.
England was once a country of clearings amongst the woods and wastes, with a few towns interspersed, which were fortresses for the feudal army, markets for the folk, gathering places for the craftsmen. It then became a country of huge and foul workshops and fouler gambling dens, surrounded by an ill-kept, poverty-stricken farm, pillaged by the masters of the workshops. It is now [after the eradication of capitalist machinery] a garden, where nothing is wasted and nothing is spoilt, with the necessary dwellings, sheds, and workshops scattered up and down the country, all trim and neat and pretty. For, indeed, we should be too much ashamed of ourselves is we allowed the making of goods, even on a large scale, to carry with it the appearance, even, of desolation and misery (Morris, 91). News from nowhere
Morris envisions a utopia where machinery and large urban centers have disappeared. London is again a collection of villages, mingled in great woodlands and meadows, where there are shops from which one takes the necessities of life for the asking and people work for the joy of it, and all labor for useful ends (Laidler, 142). became convinced that a political revolution was needed to restore humanity to a state in which work could once more be enjoyed, without the exploitation of workers that seemed to him prevalent in Victorian England. Morris theme to return to the simple village was readily adopted by Gandhi and amplifed his belief that the reconstruction of the village was the only way to save India from economic blight.
Like More and Morris, Gandhi was also in search of a utopia where class was eradicated and everyone shared in the same work, not only to realize economic equality, but to reintroduce morality and ethics to a world that was preoccupied with materialistic greed and unconcerned with the conditions of fellow humans. Combined with Gandhi s Hindu background, the literary works of utopian socialists motivated Gandhi to abandon modern society and return to the ancient village style of life where dharma could be sufficiently practiced. Thus Gandhi initiated ashrams, which closely followed the ideals of the utopian socialists where the oppressive caste system was abolished and the small community jointed in the work that needed to be done. These small communes were completely self-sufficient, like the utopias of More and Morris, and were upheld by Gandhi as models for Indian villages. The similarities between the utopias of More and Morris and the South African and Indian ahrams of Gandhi are staggering.
Considering Gandhi Today
Today, in the age of unethical multinational corporations and severe environmental pollution, it is important to consider Gandhi s disapproval of and alternatives to capitalist machinery in order to regulate careless and underhanded corporations. Big business and capitalist domination ultimately results in a harsh reality for international laborers, who are often economically uncapable of purchasing the products which they produced. Furthermore, the gap between the rich and poor and the bad maldistribution of wealth continually expands as capitalist governments promote multinational corporations. Considering that these truths are completely unacceptable, it blatantly appears it is our responsibility to push for more business regulation and to restrict the permissible capitalist dynasty that controls America, simply to ensure social stability in the future. Business domination in America has led to the infelicitous position of American jobs depending solely on private corporate decisions in hiring and firing, investing and producing, and on the judgement of investors as to whether higher interest rates and more unemployment are in order. Furthermore, today business now regularly takes advantage of their mobility and knowledge, and the financial plight of local, state, and national governments, to extract concessions from them. A recent Wall Street Journal article described how the very profitable firm, Intel, drew the New Mexican town, Rio Rancho, into tax abatements that contributed to serious financial shortages in local schools. Intel explained that they had to bargain down sales and property taxes to compete, and that the schools were not their responsibility (Ken Hill). And everyday, big business corporations, like Intel, continue to commit harsh social crimes that go uncriticized by Americans. Wage-slavery at Taco Bell, environmental contamination care of Shell, and a number of jarring offences committed against humanity by the tobacco companies are only a few of the revolting crimes executed by American corporations. We must follow in the footsteps of Gandhi to buy locally and boycott the products of these multinational corporations that immorally exploit laborers cause environmental and human degradation in hopes that the American government will abolish all disastrous effects of big business.
However, Gandhi realized that a government that over limits capitalism and wealth is a dangerous mechanism that can impede individuality. In every real sense a badly paid unskilled worker in a capitalist nation has more freedom to shape his or her life than many employers in socialist Germany. If he or she wants to change their job or the place where they live, if they want to profess certain views or spend their leisure in a particular way, they face no absolute impediments. There are no dangers to bodily security and freedom that confine the laborer by brute force to the task and environment to which a superior has assigned them. Many have forgotten that the system of private property is the most important guaranty of freedom. It is only because the control of the means of production is divided among many people acting independently that we as individuals can decide what to do with ourselves. When all the means of production are vested in a single hand, whether it be nominally that of society as a whole or that of a dictator, whoever exercises this control has complete power over us. In the hands of private individuals, what is called economic power can be an instrument of coercion, but it is never control over the whole life of a person. But when economic power is centralized as an instrument of political power it creates a degree of dependence scarcely distinguishable from slavery. It has been well said that, in a country where the sole employer is the state, opposition means death by slow starvation.
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