Evelyn Roy

Mahatma Gandhi
Revolutionary or Counter-Revolutionary?

A Reply to Romain Rolland and Henri Barbusse

Source: Labour Monthly Vol. V, September 1923, No. 3.
Publisher: 162 Buckingham Palace Road, London., S.W.1
Transcription/HTML: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

THE learned articles from the pen of M. Romain Rolland, which recently appeared in the monthly review Europe, and the reply thereto in Clarté by Henri Barbusse, on the subject of Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Non-violent Non-Co-operation Movement of India during the years 1920-1922, have opened a new field of discussion between the two opposing camps of European radical intellectualism. M. Rolland, the protagonist of Non-violence, has offered to the world a new argument and, as he conceives it, a new proof of the efficacy of this doctrine as applied to political struggles. He discovers Mr. Gandhi a year after the latter has been consigned to the oblivion of a six years’ gaol sentence, and in eloquent and poetic language describes and interprets his career as leader of the Non-Co-operation Movement, in order to prove his own theory that Non-violence, based upon suffering, self-sacrifice, and brotherly love, is the only philosophy that can save European civilisation from ultimate annihilation.

M. Barbusse, belonging to the opposite camp of those who believe in opposing force to force, dictatorship to dictatorship, and the ultimate survival of the fittest, replies to the articles of M. Rolland by attempting to upset the whole basis of the latter’s thesis as to Gandhi’s true rôle in the Indian movement. Mr. Gandhi, he asseverates, is not what M. Rolland imagines him to be—an apostle of love, sacrifice, and suffering, come to redeem the world with a new gospel and a new vicarious atonement. On the contrary, Mr. Gandhi is a revolutionary to whom Non-violence is but a masterly tactic in the face of a difficult situation. Had Lenin been in Gandhi’s place he would have spoken and acted as did the latter, declares M. Barbusse; both are for compulsion; both are realists. Gandhi took care to base himself upon the working and peasant masses. He always defended the poor and the oppressed. The revolutionary movement of India is more a social struggle than a nationalist one, and the fight against the British bureaucracy is a characteristic form of the class-struggle.

So writes Henri Barbusse in a valiant effort to disprove the arguments of Romain Rolland and to defeat his object of using Gandhi as a new stick wherewith to beat the programme and tactics of Bolshevism. It may not come amiss for those who have spoken and written critically on the Non-violent Non-Co-operation Movement in India, during the past two years, to add a few words to this controversy in an effort to shed new light on what is, after all, a dark subject for the majority of European intellectuals. It is not our present purpose to analyse the Non-Co-operation Movement here; this has been done exhaustively in two books by Manabendra Nath Roy, published in 1922 and 1923 (India in Transition and One Tear of Non-Co-operation; from Ahmedabad to Gaya[1]). Therein the social forces underlying the Gandhi movement, as well as the significance and rôle of the latter upon Indian life as a whole, have been dealt with from the standpoint of historic materialism. Our immediate object is to take the articles of M. Rolland and to point out in them certain outstanding misstatements of fact and consequent wrong conclusions which are in themselves sufficient to negate the whole force of his argument without going to the opposite extreme of declaring Gandhi to be that which he is not and never will be—a “true revolutionary,” whether of the violent or non-violent variety.

M. Rolland is to be felicitated upon his praiseworthy study of the Gandhian polemics, and of his more or less accurate knowledge of the main course of events in Indian political life up to the time of Mr. Gandhi’s incarceration. Such knowledge is rare in a European, and betrays a real interest in the subject on the part of this distinguished savant and litterateur. It is not his knowledge of the main events of Mr. Gandhi’s spectacular career that we call in question, but his interpretation of those events to suit his own purposes. We regret that the first two articles on Mahatma Gandhi which he wrote have not come to our hands. We have only the final two, but they contain enough to prove that M. Rolland, in his enthusiasm for the new prophet that is to save the world, has taken too much for granted as to the rôle of Mr. Gandhi in the Indian Nationalist Movement, and has been too hasty in his conclusion, vital to prove his own thesis, that that movement has already attained its goal, or is indisputably about to do so, as a result of Mr. Gandhi’s leadership, based upon the doctrine of suffering, sacrifice, and soul-force.

Let us touch briefly upon some of the threads of M. Rolland’s arguments that all tend towards the main conclusion. In the first place he vastly over-estimates the success of the programme of Non-Co-operation in that which concerned the boycott of schools, law courts, and government posts and titles. The number of those resigning their places and titles under government was infinitesimal; the giving up of practice by lawyers was confined to a limited number of Congress politicians and patriots, for a very limited time. The majority returned to their practice before the year was ended. Only in the schools was there a notable response on the part of the young, enthusiastic, and idealistic students, and this was later acknowledged as one of the greatest mistakes of the whole campaign to bring these thousands of young men away from their studies without supplying them with any alternative means of study or of gaining a livelihood. This whole part of the Non-Co-operation programme has been such a recognised failure that it is no longer spoken of nor regarded as part of the national activities, although theoretically it has never been abandoned.

The boycott of foreign cloth and of liquor shops attained greater success, because here Mr. Gandhi and the Congress hit upon a means of directly attacking the government exchequer at its source. The boycott of liquor is not, as M. Rolland mistakenly observes, intended as a measure of “healthful discipline” and “necessary hygiene.” On the contrary, it was an attempt to cut off one of the great sources of revenue of the Indian Government, which retains control of the liquor traffic and reaps huge profits therefrom. The boycott and picketing of liquor shops was so largely successful in cutting off this source of Government revenue that huge deficits were admitted in that Department, and the Government energetically opposed itself to this side of the campaign from the very outset. As M. Rolland rightly observes, Mr. Gandhi deserves to be remembered as a social reformer long after his political triumphs and failures are forgotten. His plea for the removal of untouchability was a righteous one, but we cannot say with truth that it has attained any measure of practical fulfilment among those Hindu orthodox who constituted the chief followers of the Mahatmaji. Social revolutions are not made from above, but from below by the inexorable working of economic laws. Untouchability and caste will disappear from Indian society, and are disappearing, not as a result of the impassioned pleadings of a Mahatma, but because of the advent of industrialism and the break-up of patriarchal traditions.

The boycott of foreign cloth constituted the most important clause of the Non-Co-operation programme, not only because it coincided with Mr. Gandhi’s reactionary social philosophy that decried the advent of modern civilisation and preached the cult of the spinning-wheel and homespun, but because the backbone of the Non-Co-operation Movement founded upon sacrifice, suffering, and soul-force was the native mill-owners, whose competition to Lancashire products was immensely stimulated by the preaching of the doctrine of boycott of foreign cloth and the wearing of Swadeshi (home-manufactured goods). It was the mill-owners of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras who financed the Non-Co-operation Movement, who, together with the landlords of India, represent the rising bourgeoisie which insistently claims for itself a place in the sun. The Congress fund of one crore of rupees raised in 1921-22 was largely donated by the rising capitalist class of India, to whom the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms did not grant the economic expansion which it craved. This fund, largely on paper, constituted the string which controlled the activities and dictated the tactics of the Mahatmaji in critical moments; it lay behind his “address to the hooligans of Bombay and Madras”; it lay beneath his exhortation “not to make political use of the factory workers; it constituted the real reason for his failure to declare mass civil disobedience and non-payment of taxes, and for his insistence on the tactics of non-violence and respect for law, order, and private property.

We do not make these statements for the sake of disillusioning M. Rolland as to the spiritual rôle of his new Messiah, but in the interests of truth and the correct interpretation of historical events. The proof for these statements can be found by referring to the list of contributors to the Tilak-Swaraj Fund, and to certain very interesting disclosures made by members of the Congress opposition on the manipulation of the Tilak-Swaraj Fund in the interests of Indian capitalism. It will be replied that Mr. Gandhi was not responsible for the sins of his followers, but Mr. Gandhi made himself responsible for them on innumerable occasions; does not M. Rolland himself exclaim: “He had become in truth the conscience of India.” This was on the occasion of the riot of Chauri Chaura, when Mr. Gandhi for the last time repudiated mass-action and ordered the retreat from Bardoli, which every honest Indian now recognises to have been the greatest betrayal of the movement that could have been made.

The riot of Chauri Chaura and the right-about-face of Mr. Gandhi from the road that led to revolution back to the blind alley of reformism constitute the turning-point of his career and the acid test by which his whole philosophy will be judged by generations to come. Mr. Gandhi, after having for the third time declared the inauguration of mass civil disobedience, for which the Indian masses expectantly waited, for the third time retracted his order and disowned those simple followers who had taken him at his word. Not only did he urge the rioting peasants to deliver themselves up for judgment and make confession, but he stands personally responsible for the passing of the Bardoli resolutions in the face of his countrymen’s opposition, which denounced, once and for all, all forms of aggressive action and limited the national activities to weaving, spinning, and praying. Here stands the revolutionary exposed in his true colours as a timid social reformer, terrified at the greatness of the movement he was called upon to lead, and endeavouring vainly to crush it within the limits of his own reactionary philosophy.

The result of Chauri Chaura and the shameful retreat of Bardoli, which M. Rolland describes as “an act of exceptional moral value,” was the condemnation of 228 peasants to death by hanging for the crime of having attempted to better their miserable condition (a sentence whose barbarity put even the British Government in India to shame and was later reduced to nineteen death sentences); and the temporary dislocation of the whole Non-Co-operation Movement, followed by the arrest of its leader, and wholesale Government repression and police terrorism throughout the length and breadth of India. But Mr. Gandhi never flinched from his resolution and the Bardoli “Constructive Programme,” which enjoins upon the Indian peasants to pay rent to the Zemindars (landlords), and assures the latter that the Non-Co-operation Movement in no way attacks their property rights, remains the measuring stick by which to judge Mr. Gandhi’s status as revolutionary or reformer.

“Why did the Government arrest Gandhi?” inquires M. Rolland, naïvely. And he replies, “Because his non-violence was more revolutionary than all violence.” M. Rolland is once more mistaken. The British Government in India arrested Mr. Gandhi because it realised that his hold upon the country, and by country we mean the rebellious masses, was so weakened that it could safely put him away without awakening any great popular resentment. And such in fact is the case. The silence that fell upon India at the arrest of the Mahatmaji was not the triumphant vindication of the philosophy of soul-force, nor the disciplined obedience of the masses to the injunctions of their leader, but the acquiescence of the multitudes in the arrest of a leader who had ceased to lead them; whose repeated acts of betrayal of the true interests of the rebellious workers had cut him and the Nationalist Movement as a whole completely off from the dynamics of massaction.

Never did M. Rolland speak more truly than when he refers to the vast upheavals of the Indian proletariat and peasantry as “having only the slightest connection with the Non-Co-operation Movement.” The great mass-awakening that shook the Indian continent at the close of the war, and which came as a result of many world-factors as well as internal economic forces, coincided with the rise of the aggressive campaign of Non-violent Non-Cooperation, but was not synonymous with it, nor even identified with it until Mr. Gandhi, by dint of his compelling personality and instinctive political sagacity, succeeded in welding the two together into a temporary and artificial unity, much as he succeeded in binding together the Hindu-Mussulman communities. Not by means of an honest, straightforward programme of social and economic emancipation for the Indian masses, even at the expense of the propertied classes, but by means of playing upon the religious superstitions and susceptibilities of the ignorant and illiterate workers and peasants, to whom “Gandhi Raj” was promised within one year and to whom “Gandhi Raj” meant non-payment of rent and taxes and access to land with better living and working conditions for the exploited city proletariat—thus did the Mahatma win his ascendancy over the rebellious mass-movement and seek to combine it with that of the bourgeois intellectuals and propertied classes for an increased share in the exploitation of these same Indian masses.

But such tactics, depending upon the compelling personality of one man and the religious frenzy of the multitudes, were built upon sand. After repeated and innumerable betrayals at the hands of their bourgeois leaders, the Indian workers and peasants have fallen away from the Nationalist struggle and have resumed their interrupted fight for better wages, fewer hours of work, better living conditions, and the amelioration of their desperate economic condition. The divorce of mass-energy from the Non-Co-operation Movement, signed and sealed by the Bardoli decisions repudiating all aggressive tactics and forbidding the declaration of civil disobedience, resulted in the collapse of the latter, and delivered it over as an easy prey into the hands of the waiting Government. The only strength of the movement had lain in its backing by the rebellious masses; it was the threat of direct action on a nationwide scale, of which the demonstrations and hartals during the visit of the Prince of Wales were but a foretaste, that made the Government stay its hand so long. It was only when the movement rendered itself impotent by repudiating all mass-action that the Government lifted its hand and struck with deadly ferocity.

As a result of the Bardoli retreat the Indian movement was thrown back into hopeless confusion, from which it is only just recovering, slowly and painfully. The arrest of Mr. Gandhi assisted this recovery by removing what had proved to be a force making for reaction and leaving the field clear for new leaders to take his place. M. Rolland is mistaken in observing that “the Movement has victoriously resisted the redoubtable test of the first year without a guide.” There have been guides—able and competent ones, who sprang to take the place of those removed from the scene of action. Mr. C. R. Das, late President of the All-Indian National Congress, and founder of the Swaraj Party, is the acknowledged successor of Mr. Gandhi as an All-India leader. He has snatched the fallen standard and is carrying it forward in the struggle between Indian bourgeois nationalism and British Imperialism—a struggle which is destined to be a long one, and which M. Rolland is far too sanguine in declaring: “It appears certain that Indian Home Rule is no longer in question; in one shape or another it is inevitable. India has conquered—morally!”

In that final word lies the whole crux of the dispute at issue. To M. Rolland the gigantic struggle that is convulsing the Indian continent to-day is a moral battle between the forces of good and evil, between the Adversary and the Hosts of Heaven. Mr. Gandhi is the new Messiah who has appeared to lead this spiritual warfare, waged not only on behalf of India, but of the entire world. India’s triumph will be a world triumph of the forces of light over darkness, of spirit over matter, of God over Satan. With such a conception of the Indian struggle for freedom we have nothing to do; it embodies the exaggerated subjectivism of the disillusioned post-war intellectual, flying to the realm of metaphysics to escape from the cruel logic of facts and realities. For the scientific Marxist, who conceives the world to be built upon economic forces, subject to material laws, such a conception has all the grotesque mediævalism of the gargoyle, and we conceive of the minds of these sentimental idealists as full of such gargoyles—unreal, grinning, and out of tune with the age in which we live. They cease to be romantic curiosities and become dangerous when they seek to put their conceptions to political use—and the exploitation of Mr. Gandhi in the interests of counter-revolutionary pacifism is such a political application of these ideas. M. Rolland and the whole school of Spiritual Imperialists, who hold that the world is to be redeemed by soul-force, self-sacrifice, and suffering, are endeavouring to use Mr. Gandhi as a proof of their own thesis that Europe has brought about its own annihilation by the use of violence, of which Bolshevism is the final and concentrated form making for ultimate destruction of all that remains of European culture and civilisation. India, they declare, has been saved by the use of spiritual weapons—let Europe emulate India’s example and save herself.

The argument sounds convincing till we examine its premises and find them false. India is not yet saved; she is still struggling to pull herself out of the slough of economic backwardness; social degeneration, and political subjection—all more or less contingent one upon the other. Her present struggle is a very material one for land and bread. It is for this that the peasants of the Punjab, the United Provinces, Bengal, Madras, and the whole of India have shed their blood; it is for this that the rising proletariat has organised great strikes of months’ duration, often at the cost of freedom and even life. It was for this that the Indian workers and peasants followed the Mahatmaji, and when he repudiated this goal it was for this that they left him, to resume the struggle on the economic field, eschewing political action. The political struggle, which will enthrone the Indian bourgeoisie in a living partnership with the Imperial overlord, is far from finished; but the lines of class-cleavage in Indian society grow every day more marked, and the development of the class-struggle side by side with the Nationalist one, and often antagonistic to it, is ever more distinguishable. In this struggle Mr. Gandhi definitely aligned himself on the side of the bourgeoisie; and however much of a religious prophet he may be, however largely he may figure as a social reformer, and despite his really great contribution to the progress of Indian nationalism in the field of agitation and organisation in the future development of the Indian revolutionary movement, Mr. Gandhi must be counted among the counter-revolutionaries and not, as M. Barbusse mistakenly supposes, among true revolutionaries. He it was who conceived of the brilliant tactics of aggressive Non-Co-operation, based upon non-payment of rent and taxes; he it was who found an outlet for the movement by the slogan of Non-violence; he it was who for the first time carried the idea of Swaraj among the Indian masses. But it was equally he who, frightened by the shadow of revolution that hung over the land; alarmed at the threat to the established order which such a revolution implied; terrified at the thought of bloodshed and his own inability to control the forces of mass-energy once aroused—it was equally he who sought to beat back this rising tide of revolution by repudiating those very forces which he was called upon to lead.

The tired intellectuals of Europe may look to the East in search of a new Messiah, destined to appear miraculously to save them from the clutches of reality. But to all honest revolutionaries who understand the real forces that underlie such great movements as the Russian and Indian revolutions, all talk about “spiritual warfare,” and the triumph of non-violence over violence, is dismissed as the babble of children or the fevered eloquence of intellectual degeneration in search of new illusions. Mr. Gandhi sought to pit his individual philosophy and moral scruples against the armed might of the greatest power in existence—the British Empire—and he inevitably failed. But he would not have failed so miserably had he been gifted with the revolutionary understanding which places economic forces and material laws above the weakness of the individual, and had relied upon the resistless power of the Indian masses to fight their way to freedom. Mr. Gandhi sought to interpose his own will between the Indian masses and this inevitable struggle, and was swept aside to make way for others better able to interpret the imperative needs of the movement. Well for him that he is canonised by the disillusioned, post-war intellectualism of the West.


1. The Vanguard Bookshop, Post Box 4336, Zurich, Switzerland.