MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 14

International Socialist Review, October–November 2000

Meneejeh Moradian & David Whitehouse

Gandhi and the Politics of Non-violence

From International Socialist Review, Issue 14, October–November 2000.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

THE IDEAS of Mahatma Gandhi have had a lasting impact on the left, from the civil rights movement of the 1960s right through to the movements against corporate greed and racism that are developing today. Many see Gandhi as the embodiment of politically-effective pacifism.

The success of his non-violent strategy, however, is largely a myth.

The most common version of the Gandhi myth is the simple assertion that a struggle based on pacifism forced the British out of India. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed this view many times when explaining the methods of the Civil Rights movement he led:

This method was made famous in our generation by Gandhi, who used it to free his country from the domination of the British Empire. [1]

King believed that

Gandhi was inevitable. If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore Gandhi at our own risk. [2]

This view of Gandhi’s contributions has lent credibility to the principle of non-violence in the fights against injustice around the world since then.

But the Indian revolt against British rule was anything but non-violent. Gandhi’s tactical ideas, moreover, had serious limitations as a guide to struggle. Movements that began under Gandhi’s sponsorship often ended in premature retreats or escalated into physical confrontations. And the final ouster of the British in 1947 can’t be counted as a victory for Gandhi’s methods, since India’s independence came as the movement was shoving Gandhi and his non-violent philosophy to the political margins.

Gandhi, nevertheless, did make major contributions to the movement. Most crucial was his success in leading masses of people into struggle against British rule – something he did better than any other Indian leader. But while Gandhi’s political leadership was the spark for these struggles, it was not their cause. The struggles arose from real, deep grievances against British rule, and the masses, once mobilized, showed repeatedly that they were willing to adopt militant tactics when non-violent ones didn’t work.

To understand the grievances and the struggles they inspired, we have to look at the background of British colonial rule.

“India must be bled”

To the British conquerors, India was a source of profits and a base for military operations – using Indian troops – from Africa to Indonesia. From the early stages of conquest in the late eighteenth century, the British began setting up taxation to finance their presence and to send money home. [3] As early as 1765, the British East India Company also set up monopolies on common necessities like salt in the lands it controlled. [4]

These monopolies bred resentment and rebellion in the next two centuries. But the British innovation that brought misery to millions was the imposition of market relations – the cash economy – in agriculture.

The first step in introducing cash relations was to tax all the land. As the British replaced the crumbling Mughal empire, they took over and greatly expanded the Mughal system of land-revenue, which had been based on local tax collectors known as zamindars. The British generalized the system where it existed and allowed zamindars to help themselves to ten percent of the revenues. Elsewhere, the British instituted direct taxation. [5]

Peasants now needed to sell a portion of their produce on the market to raise cash to pay the taxes. By 1860, this market began to spread throughout British India, facilitated by a new railway system that carried cotton, food grains, and indigo out of the country to Britain and other markets. [6]

The effect on the villages was to shift power to the moneyed classes, including zamindars and moneylenders who, backed by British legal guarantees of their property rights, began to buy up large tracts of land. Ownership allowed them to charge rent to peasant cultivators on top of the taxes they extracted. [7]

Dispossessed peasants became agricultural day laborers, a class that grew from almost nothing in 1852 to 18 percent of the rural population in 1872. [8] By the mid-twentieth century, agricultural proletarians – those who owned no land, or so little land that they had to work for others to survive – constituted half of the rural population. [9]

So market relations shuffled wealth into the hands of Indian landowners, a process that Marx had dubbed the “primitive [i.e., initial] accumulation of capital” when it happened in England. But dispossessed Indian peasants could not seek out industrial jobs as English peasants had. England’s head start in industry was allowing it to flood the Indian market with factory goods, and these imports began to crush India’s skilled handicraft industries, including metalworking and, especially, cloth production. [10]

The result was to trap the peasants into rural misery and to further expand the rural proletariat with unemployed spinners and weavers.

British rule thus marked a dramatic setback in the material welfare of most Indians. Before conquest, India suffered an average of one major famine every 50 years, but famines or scarcity gripped some part of India for 20 out of the 49 years in the period 1860–1908. [11] The reserves that peasants formerly held to tide themselves over through periods of low rainfall were now routinely being sold to pay rent and taxes – and shipped out to be consumed overseas.

Lord Robert Salisbury, British Secretary of State for India, summed up British aims in this period by declaring that “India must be bled.” [12] Karl Marx put some numbers to it:

What the English take from them annually in the form of rent, dividends for railways useless to the Hindoos, pensions for military and civil servicemen, for Afghanistan and other wars, etc. etc. – what they take from them without any equivalent and quite apart from what they appropriate to themselves annually within India, speaking only of the value of the commodities the Indians have gratuitously and annually to send over to England, it amounts to more than the total sum of income of the 60 millions of agricultural and industrial laborers of India! This is a bleeding process, with a vengeance! [13] [Marx’s emphasis.]

Resistance before Gandhi

Indians did not merely accept this situation. The history of the British raj (that is, British rule) is marked by different forms of resistance, including local uprisings of peasants and “tribal” groups.

Up until 1857, however, no movement connected local grievances into an all-India effort to expel the British. Indians were divided from each other by caste, class, religion, language, and region. At the time, the only all-India force that could stand up to the British were the soldiers – known as sepoys – in the army. When the sepoys rebelled in 1857 against racial and religious abuse, they sparked and linked up to peasant rebellions in north, central, and western India. [14]

The revolt was nearly national in scope, but it was not nationalist in consciousness. The revolt’s demands were to expel the British and to return power to local princes – the only legitimate authority the rebels could conceive. [15]

The rebellion broke down in the face of British repression. As a spontaneous uprising, it lacked planning and coordination. What’s more, the nearer the movement got to the goals of “local control,” the weaker and more divided it was bound to become against British terror.

Thus, although the Sepoy Mutiny was anti-imperial, it was backward-looking. The classes and the consciousness that could carry a truly nationalist movement in the future were only in embryonic stages at the time.

Nationalist politicians arose in the following decades from a new middle class of Indian lawyers and civil servants. To the extent that this class existed in 1857, its members stood aside from the Sepoy Mutiny. They saw their own future connected to modernization, and thus would sooner strive for acceptance as equals in the British raj than put their fate back into the hands of the princes.

But the nationalist middle class was motivated by more than ambition. In the first place, they saw that the racism that held them back professionally fell even more brutally on other Indians:

For the less fortunate, racism took cruder forms of kicks and blows and shooting “accidents” as the “sahib” disciplined his punkha coolie or bagged a native by mistake [while hunting] ... No less than 81 shooting “accidents” were recorded in the years between 1880 and 1900. White-dominated courts regularly awarded ridiculously light sentences for such incidents, and a glance at contemporary Indian journals or private papers immediately reveals how important such things were for the rise of nationalism. [16]

The middle class could also see the poverty inflicted by British rule – in contrast to the prosperity of England, where many Indian lawyers and civil servants went to school. Many of the students became attracted to the ideas of the nationalist Dadabhai Naoroji, who was living in England and is best known for promoting the “drain of wealth” theory of Indian poverty – the anti-imperialist complement to Salisbury’s “India must be bled.”

In 1885, many of these former students founded the Indian National Congress to press the interests of Indians under the British raj. [17]

Congress’ methods in its first decades were confined almost entirely to petitioning the administration behind closed doors. Even as some nationalists became radicalized enough to demand swaraj (home rule), Congress remained an elite affair – a yearly conference dominated by lawyers and professionals. Although Congress became known for increasingly radical speeches, it did not have roots in other classes – or much concrete achievement to show for itself. In fact, it barely existed between its annual conferences.

By the time Gandhi arrived in 1915, Congress was moving in two directions. One faction kept up the usual method of petitioning. Others who had become impatient with this ineffective “mendicant” (begging) method became known as “Extremists” and moved toward individual terrorism. But both were still elite strategies, separated from popular movements of resistance.

One important breakthrough did occur in this period to connect the official national movement to popular struggle. In 1908, when Congress “Extremist” Balgangadhar Tilak was sentenced to prison for publishing an article sympathetic to Bengal terrorists, workers in Bombay struck in protest. They mounted a six-day strike, one day for each year of Tilak’s sentence. The strike affected 76 of 85 Bombay textile mills and a railway workshop. [18]

This strike marked the appearance of the working class as a force in politics. Only at this time was India’s trend toward de-industrialization beginning to turn around, with the appearance of major Indian-owned enterprises. By 1921, the working class in industry and on big plantations would reach 2.7 million and exercise disproportionate influence in a country of 300 million. [19]

Just as important was the growth of the Indian bourgeoisie, segments of which became solidly nationalist as they chafed under British control of currencies and tariffs.

Practically every class had grievances against British rule: lower and middle peasants, workers, the professional middle class, and the bourgeoisie. It was a matter of time before enough of these sections of society would unite to throw off British rule. The real question was which sections would coalesce into an alliance to lead the rest – and with what ideas about the shape of post-independence India.

Gandhi, more than anyone else, would pull together the leading alliance of forces. His political vision put a stamp on the direction of the movement at crucial turns. Ultimately, though, social forces stronger than Gandhi’s personality were to shape the outcome.

Gandhi’s approach to politics

Mohandas K. Gandhi was born in 1869 in the Indian province of Gujarat. His family was in the commercial bania caste that produced, along with the Brahmins, much of the middle class. As a young man he went to England to receive legal training. He would end up abandoning his profession, however, and adopting the lifestyle and dress of the Hindu peasantry, using traditional Hindu symbolism to relate to villagers.

His deep religious convictions, however, did not come from orthodox training in childhood but from adult studies that he began as a political activist in South Africa. Upon his return to India from England, he had had a rough start as a lawyer and accepted an offer in 1893 to work on a commercial case in South Africa. He ended up staying, with brief returns to India, for more than 20 years. [20]

In South Africa, racism was even more intense than in India, and Gandhi became an advocate and leader of the Indian immigrant population. Struggles for Indian rights escalated over his stay in South Africa, and Gandhi had to teach himself skills that would make him unique upon his return to India, including how to overcome caste, class, and religious divisions to build a base for dramatic mass actions. Far from being unworldly, Gandhi also learned the fundraising and accounting skills necessary to sustaining mass politics. [21]

In the process, Gandhi’s religious development increasingly influenced his politics. In the writings of Leo Tolstoy, with whom he corresponded, and the writings of social theorist Robert Ruskin, Gandhi found a philosophy that – along with an idiosyncratic reading of Hindu scripture – diagnosed modern oppression as arising from industrialism and proposed nonviolent political action as a cure. [22]

He believed that the search for truth was the goal of human life, and since “no one could ever be sure of having attained the ultimate truth, use of violence to enforce one’s own necessarily partial understanding of it was sinful.” [23]

By 1907 he had worked out the basic strategy of nonviolent resistance, which he called satyagraha. It consisted of training a core of volunteers who helped to lead mass marches and mass violations of specific laws that resulted in intentional mass arrests. [24] Three satyagraha campaigns in the next seven years, along with a growing body of articles and pamphlets, made him famous in India even before he returned.

While still in South Africa, Gandhi wrote about India in his 1909 pamphlet, Hind Swaraj (Indian Self-Rule), and targeted what he thought was the real enemy, industrial civilization:

It would be folly to assume that an Indian Rockefeller would be better than the American Rockefeller ... India’s salvation consists in unlearning what she has learnt during the past 50 years or so. The railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors and such like have all to go, and the so-called upper class have to learn to live consciously and religiously and deliberately the simple life of a peasant. [25]

This vision of Indian society going backwards in time was, of course, unrealistic, especially given the new growth of an Indian working class and bourgeoisie, and it found no real support among the leading elements of the national movement – Indian intellectuals and industrialists.

It was utopian particularly in upholding the idea that the “so-called upper class” would willingly give up its privileged position to live like peasants. Far from this scenario, the Indian upper class increasingly wanted the British out of the way precisely to become the new “Indian Rockefellers.”

Although Gandhi’s anti-industrial vision had little appeal for India’s rising urban classes, it struck a chord among India’s larger masses – especially the poor peasants and unemployed weavers and spinners – who had been crushed by their connection to Britain’s industrial system.

Gandhi was to put the anti-modern current of his thought into practice through the village social workers who organized self-help among the rural poor. [26] Although this “constructive work” made little real headway against poverty, it was later to create mass support for the Congress Party – and mass bases from which to launch future campaigns. [27]

Despite the evident oddities of Gandhi’s philosophy, his strategy of mass nonviolent action seemed to provide a way forward for the resistance movement at both the elite and popular levels. When Gandhi arrived in India in 1915, Congress militants had been committing individual terrorist acts which didn’t really change anything, and the masses had mounted local uprisings that were brutally suppressed – to be followed by everyday submission to oppression. Gandhi’s ideas presented an alternative to these unhappy options.

The appeal of Gandhi’s strategy was two-fold. It appealed to masses of villagers because it was a collective way to resist, to try to rise above all the violence and show the dignity of their cause. It also appealed to the wealthy merchants, landlords, and small-holding peasants who supported Gandhi because it offered the hope of getting rid of the British while not threatening to destroy their property or endanger their economic and social position. [28] Gandhi pitched his methods of struggle to the more conservative Congress leaders as a way to win leadership back from the militants:

The growing generation will not be satisfied with petitions ... Satyagraha is the only way, it seems to me, to stop terrorism. [29]

India finds a mass leader

Gandhi returned to India and joined the Indian National Congress in the midst of the First World War. The war was bringing an economic and political crisis for the British, and space opened up for Indian textile bosses to get a greater share of the home market. A growing section of them was impatient with British control of the market, and many became fervent supporters of the nationalist movement. [30]

They were particularly drawn to Gandhi’s promises of a non-violent removal of British rule. Through Gandhi’s appeal, Congress began to receive funding from many of the biggest industrial concerns, including the Sarabhais textile magnates in Gujarat and the Birlas, the second largest industrial group in India. They became Gandhi’s regular consultants throughout his political career. [31]

For ordinary people in India, the war also awoke new aspirations. Indian soldiers fought for the British in a war they had no stake in and returned home wanting to be treated as equals. As Eqbal Ahmad described the situation,

On the battlefield they were every day recognizing that they were equals, but they were also experiencing patterns of racial discrimination. Therefore they came back from World War I burning with anger. They and their relatives gave the push to the nationalist movement. [32]

The Russian Revolution of 1917 had a radicalizing impact on oppressed people throughout the world, and India was no exception. Wrote one historian:

In the post-war years – what is repeatedly evident is a combination of multiplying grievances with new moods of strength or hope: the classic historical formula for a potentially revolutionary situation. [33]

The aftermath of the Russian Revolution saw a growing militancy among workers and peasants that erupted into massive struggles. Gandhi tried to play the role of mediator and acted as a restraint on the movement.

In 1918, a dispute broke out at a textile factory in Ahmedabad when the owner tried to end a system of bonuses that he had introduced during a devastating plague. The mill owner was actually a contributor of Gandhi’s, and his sister was a Gandhian disciple who set up night schools for mill workers. Gandhi intervened to convince the workers to drop their demand for a 50 percent wage hike down to 35 percent and forbade militant picketing in favor of a hunger strike.

He advocated a labor philosophy of peaceful arbitration of disputes and argued that bosses were “trustees” for the workers. [34] This message of class collaboration cloaked in the language of non-violence would be Gandhi’s continued approach as the class struggle intensified. His position on strikes was clear:

In India we want no political strikes ... We must gain control over all the unruly and disturbing elements ... We seek not to destroy capital or capitalists, but to regulate the relations between capital and labor. We want to harness capital to our side. It would be folly to encourage sympathetic strikes. [35]

This was an unfortunate position, since the power of the strike, in factories and on the railroads, could economically cripple the British in India – and permit workers to pose a concrete alternative to the exploitation over which the British presided.

The potential exploded in 1919. Mass agitation against repressive British legislation, the Rowlatt Act, which sought to extend war-time restrictions on civil rights, coincided with a strike wave by mill workers.

Gandhi’s approach to the Rowlatt Act was to launch a satyagraha to channel people’s anger in a non-violent direction. He called for mass demonstrations nationwide, but called them for a Sunday so as not to encourage work stoppages.

Gandhi made special efforts to include Muslim groups in the campaign. In the province of Amritsar, for example, there were massive peaceful marches of Muslims and Hindus. The British officials were particularly alarmed by the breakdown of divisions they worked so hard to maintain. Scenes of Muslims and Hindus drinking from the same cups in public frightened them terribly. [36]

The British resorted to sheer savagery to put down the movement. The massacre known as Jallianwallabagh was an assault on unarmed villagers in an enclosed area, not to disperse the crowd but to produce a “moral effect,” as General Dyer put it. [37] At least 400 people were murdered, and a wave of repression followed, including random arrests, torture, and public flogging.

In the city of Lahore, peaceful demonstrations of Hindus and Muslims escalated into clashes with police as news of the Amritsar events spread. Factory and railway workers struck, and the British withdrew their forces from the city. A mass rally elected a People’s Committee that ran the city for four days. Middle class members of the committee tried to call things off unsuccessfully until the British attacked and imposed martial law. [38]

Mass marches and strikes broke out in many other cities, and the middle class started to fear the militancy of workers and peasants. Gandhi expressed this concern by condemning the violence that had broken out on both sides, though it was far from equal. The Rowlatt disturbances left 4 whites dead and at least 1,200 Indians dead and another 3,600 wounded. [39]

Gandhi said he had committed a “Himalayan blunder” in calling for mass civil disobedience without enough organizational and ideological control over the movement. [40]

But the next mass movement, the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1921–22, also unleashed forces beyond Gandhi’s control, and he called the campaign off when a crowd in Chauri-Chaura responded to police beatings and gunfire by killing 22 cops. The Congress Party later raised no protest when 19 Indians were hanged for their act of retaliation. [41]

The fact that Gandhi could call an all-India movement – and then call it off when it got too militant for his taste – shows how crucial he had become to the national movement. It also exposes the lack of an alternative revolutionary leadership in the potentially revolutionary situation of 1919–22. [42]

It was clear by the early 1920s that Gandhi brought two elements to the anti-imperial struggle that had been missing since the Sepoy Mutiny. His political skills, plans, and charisma drew a mass base into the first all-India struggles since 1857, and the struggles themselves connected popular grievances against aspects of British rule to the final goal of ending British rule. Neither the “mendicant” or terrorist traditions in Congress had been able to do these things, and Gandhi’s success made him into the Congress Party’s preeminent – and indispensible – leader.

In the course of these struggles, Gandhi remolded Congress from an organization of intermittently-active nationalist clerks and lawyers into a genuine mass party. Although to the mass of peasants he was known as a Mahatma (a “great soul” or holy man), Gandhi was also a shrewd political organizer and infighter. In 1920, he insisted on reorganizing Congress into a hierarchy of committees built up from the villages to the district level, reworking provincial committees on a linguistic basis, and creating a 15-member Working Committee as an ongoing executive to oversee the whole party’s work. [43]

Leading and limiting the struggle

Despite his skills and the powerful influence of his personality, Gandhi kept igniting forces that got beyond his control. The basic pattern could be seen again in the Civil Disobedience Movements of the early 1930s, which began with the famous campaign to violate the British salt monopoly.

The salt satyagraha escalated quickly. Mass marches to the coast to break the British salt monopoly led to mass arrests. News of Gandhi’s arrest sparked a strike by textile workers in Maharashtra who attacked police outposts, law courts and other official buildings. In the Central Provinces, a satyagraha to violate restrictions on the use of forests escalated into attacks on police pickets and mass illegal cutting of wood. And throughout the country, peasants who had refused to pay their land taxes physically resisted police attempts to seize their property. [44]

Though he emphasized the plight of peasants, Gandhi’s attitude towards their class demands was not unlike his attitude towards workers’ struggles. When the Moplah uprising in Malabar occurred back in 1921, Congress was downright hostile. Some of the peasant strikes hit tea plantations owned by Congress members, who did everything possible to stop the revolt. Gandhi gave a speech in which he declared that the objective was to “turn zamindars into friends.” [45] He made it clear that he

deprecated all attempts to create discord between landlords and tenants and advised all the tenants to suffer rather than fight, for they had to join forces against the most powerful zamindar, namely the Government. [46]

He went so far as to reassure the landlords that,

I shall be no party to dispossessing propertied classes of their private property without just cause. My objective is to reach your hearts and convert you so that you may hold all your private property in trust for your tenants and use it primarily for their welfare. But supposing that there is an attempt unjustly to deprive you of your property, you will find me fighting on your side. [47]

Peasants, who were becoming increasingly radical, felt betrayed. In one village, the same people who had showered him with garlands later refused him food.

Gandhi was always trying to reconcile class divisions, and his commitment to nonviolence was one way to keep the struggle reigned in. The refusal to endorse selective use of physical force virtually ruled out strikes as a method of struggle. As one Bombay mill owner remarked about strikes in 1929, “peaceful picketing does not really exist,” since the point of picketing is to prevent scab workers from getting into the mill. [48]

Despite Gandhi’s efforts, class divisions could not be smoothed over, and Gandhi’s campaigns would continually move beyond the boundaries he tried to impose. This was because, in order to build up a mass base, he would deliberately tap into people’s real grievances, which often had a class aspect.

When those he mobilized met with repression, they felt justified in using any means necessary to get what they felt they deserved. What’s more, civil disobedience campaigns led their participants to draw natural conclusions about resisting all unjust laws, such as those laws that defended the landlords’ rights to crushing rents.

Gandhi, who in 1930 had promised a “fight to the finish” for Indian self-rule, wound up the massive Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930–31 after extracting only token concessions – disappointing even close collaborators like Jawaharlal Nehru, who remarked in T.S. Eliot’s words, “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” [49]

Then, in May 1933, when Gandhi abruptly suspended a second Civil Disobedience Movement that he had begun the year before, his party comrades were furious. Said Nehru:

After so much sacrifice and brave endeavor, was our movement to tail off into something insignificant? I felt angry with him [Gandhi] at his religious and sentimental approach to a political question and his frequent references to God in connection with it. [50]

Subhas Chandra Bose, a Congress militant, was scathing about Gandhi’s retreat:

Today our condition is analogous to that of an army that has suddenly surrendered to the enemy in the midst of a protracted and strenuous campaign. And the surrender has taken place, not because the nation demanded it, not because the national army rose in revolt against its leaders and refused to fight ... but either because the commander in chief was exhausted as a result of repeated fasting or because his mind and judgment were clouded owing to subjective causes which it is impossible for an outsider to understand. [51]

Class struggle vs. communal strife

Gandhi refused to take up class demands on moral grounds, and his party’s bourgeois backers certainly weren’t interested in supporting class struggle. As a result, the Congress Party, the main force for India’s national liberation, passed up the chance to forge a bond of common class interests among Hindu and Muslim peasants and workers. Such a bond would have counteracted India’s second most powerful political trend after nationalism: communal politics.

Communalism, the politics that posed religion as India’s key division, led Hindus and Muslims to attack each other in bloody riots. Communalism tended to grow in the years of nationalist ebb tide, as in late 1920s, when people’s grievances did not get channeled into mass campaigns. Thus communal struggle is not built on rising expectations, but instead taps into disappointed hopes – and channels people’s bitterness toward scapegoats. Although their professed enemies are those who belong to a different religion, communal organizations actually serve to discipline lower-caste and lower-class Indians to the authority of elite members of their own religion. As one study argues,

Organized Hindutva [”Hinduness”] emerges right from the beginning as an upper caste reaction to efforts at self-assertion by downtrodden groups within the Hindu fold ...

The RSS [a Hindu fascist group founded in 1925], from its inception down to today, has been overwhelmingly middle class Brahmin or Bania in composition, drawn together on the basis of a fear psychosis directed against other social groups: Muslims, most overtly, but by implication also lower caste Hindus. [52]

The Muslim League, formed in 1906 by middle class Muslims, never developed a street-thug type of organization like the Hindu RSS. The League’s ongoing politics were reactionary, however, as they professed concern about the vulnerable status of worker and peasant Muslims while holding them back from class and national struggles – which would inevitably involve alliances with Hindus.

The Communist Party of India (CPI), founded in 1925, was an effective antidote to communal divisions in the places where it grew. Building unity on the basis of class, the CPI had the most success in organizing unions like the Girni Kamgar Union, which was strongest in Bombay. In 1929 the CPI had 42 workers’ committees in the textile mills and had led a successful industry-wide strike for higher wages. [53] Communists were gaining influence among railway workers and oil workers as well.

Unfortunately, by 1930 the labor movement and the Communist Party were being beaten back. Fierce repression from the British combined with the disastrous twists and turns of the CP’s strategy to weaken the only organized working class alternative to communalism and bourgeois nationalism. In 1928, the CPI adopted Stalin’s policy of attacking relatively left Congress leaders. As a result, the CPI removed itself – and, tragically, removed most workers – from the next wave of nationalist struggle, the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930–31. [54] Their later support of Stalinist Russia in the Second World War, and thus, of the British war effort, would also remove them from the Quit India Movement of 1942.

Despite the bizarre twists of CPI policy, their class-unity position remained the only counterweight to communal division in the countryside – where “the failure of Congress leaders to espouse agrarian radicalism even in Depression conditions, encouraged Muslim peasant movements to develop increasingly on separatist lines.” [55]

Independence, partition and communal bloodbath

A combination of factors pushed the British to finally accept that they could no longer hold India. Some factors operated outside India, including broad pressures to decolonize – both from national movements and from the U.S., which had demanded that Britain open its colonial markets to postwar American penetration in return for its lend-lease military support. [56]

It was clear that the empire was crumbling. Japanese forces had swept through British colonies in Asia with little difficulty, showing Indians that the mighty British could be defeated. Inside India, Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement in 1942, which became the biggest revolt since 1857. [57]

But after the war, when Britain was negotiating terms of departure with Congress and the Muslim League, the revolt continued without Congress sponsorship. In 1946, nearly 2 million workers, more than half of the working class, went on strike. They earned the condemnation even of Nehru on the Congress left, who was headed toward being India’s first prime minister and did not want to inherit an undisciplined workforce. [58]

The CP called general strikes in Calcutta and Bombay that saw the unity of students and workers, Hindus and Muslims, battling the police together in the streets.

Even more spectacular was the the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of 1946, which was also founded on Hindu-Muslim unity. The mutiny sparked sympathy strikes of 300,000 in Bombay – and was also condemned by Gandhi and Congress. [59]

At the same time, with Congress having left the field of mass action, upsurges of united struggle periodically gave way to gruesome communal violence – inspired both by the Hindu right and by the Muslim League’s campaign for a separate Pakistan. In general, mass politics after the war was a patchwork of communal bloodletting and its opposite – united class revolt.

In the end, Congress agreed to partition off Pakistan because the party was not prepared to support the only real alternative – class struggle on an increasingly leftist basis. In this way, the refusal to polarize the struggle along class lines virtually guaranteed a bloodbath along communal lines. The British, for their part, were eager for Congress to take over, since they realized that an Indian government could more easily put down the wave of strikes and mutinies than they themselves could. [60]

Sumit Sarkar describes the ramifications of the final deal:

For far too many Muslims in India and Hindus in Pakistan, freedom-with-partition meant a cruel choice between the threat of sudden violence and squeezing of employment and economic opportunities, or a forcible tearing out of age-old roots to join the stream of refugees. [61]

In 1947, millions celebrated the independence that they had won through decades of struggle. But the year was also marked by a holocaust of violence and ethnic cleansing that accompanied Partition. Seventeen million people were forced to migrate and 1 million people were killed. Hundreds of thousands of corpses littered the streets of cities like Calcutta and Delhi. There are descriptions of train cars arriving full only of dead people. [62]

Gandhi, now in his late seventies, personally journeyed to areas where communal violence had broken out and did his best to persuade people to stop, walking barefoot through the riot-torn slums and threatening “to fast unto death.” [63] His moral authority was able to stop the violence sometimes, but when he left, all the social and economic problems that led people to see another religious group as their main enemy were still in place.

Gandhi was disgusted with the opportunism he saw in Congress, and up to his death he displayed a principled anti-communalism. While riots raged in Punjab, Gandhi told a leader of the Muslim League:

I want to fight it out with my life. I would not allow the Muslims to crawl on the streets in India. They must walk with self-respect. [64]

Gandhi died for upholding Muslim equality, assassinated in 1948 by a Hindu fascist. The killer, Nathuram Godse, had been trained as an organizer in the RSS in the 1930s. [65] It is appalling to note that, just two days ago as we write this, president Clinton (whose insistence on sanctions against Iraq has killed more than half a million children) dedicated a statue of Gandhi in Washington, D.C. – assisted by India’s prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who belongs to the RSS.

Moral force and class forces

Gandhi’s principle of non-violence, whose moral force propelled several mass movements forward in their initial phases, repeatedly held back the struggles at key moments. As a result, privileged groups in the urban centers and countryside were able to detach the struggle for political independence from the struggle for radical social change – and thus thwarted Gandhi’s own goals of social justice. The British were gone, but the bureaucracy and police they built up still functioned with little change – and continued to repress workers’ and peasants’ uprisings. Gandhi’s will had been strong, but class forces proved stronger.

And Gandhi never promoted the class force – workers – that could have helped him in his final struggle to unite Hindus and Muslims. Only class struggle could have achieved what Gandhi’s purely moral mission attempted.

The movement didn’t have to turn out in such a mess. Potentially revolutionary situations existed in the periods 1919–22 and 1946–47, but no mass party with revolutionary goals had been forged to steer the movements to victory.

In the post-Second World War movement, the same social forces that had overthrown the Russian Tsar in 1917 were at the center of the upsurge – the industrial working class, along with peasants and workers in uniform. But in India’s case, the country’s only mass party saved the British from being overthrown by taking power “peacefully” themselves – at the price of leaving the class rebellion to be consumed in the fires of communalism.

Different alignments of class forces were possible, since most classes opposed British rule. The independence movement would have produced a different outcome if industrial workers and the agricultural proletariat had been able to form a revolutionary socialist party – and drawn the middle class and small-holding peasants behind their class-struggle leadership. Instead, Gandhi’s party reversed these relations, with the bourgeoisie included in the leadership with the middle classes of village and city.

Gandhi’s life was history’s longest experiment in nonviolent political action. The result of the experiment is fairly clear: An exploitative class structure cannot be broken without violence somewhere along the way. Property rights, defended by state violence, have never yielded to the peaceful pressure of the exploited class. Put in other terms, no exploiting class has ever left the stage of history without being pushed.

But moral force is, in fact, necessary to help draw together even a socialist movement. In some ways, our methods must indeed foreshadow a society that is more humane than the current one. Carpet-bombing civilian targets, showering thousands of anti-personnel weapons into rice paddies, or inflicting a starvation blockade upon an entire population, to take three examples, have been characteristic tactics of bourgeois war. Indeed, their use is a good reason to overthrow the bourgeois order. Conversely, it’s hard to conceive of them as tactical options in a movement that aims at the liberation of ordinary people.

Moral force alone, however, cannot win a struggle against a class whose interests are inherently antagonistic to ours. Violence has to be part of the movement’s arsenal. In a society founded on a violent class antagonism, our political aim cannot be like Gandhi’s – to win over the whole of society. We must learn, instead, to draw the right battle lines.

Meneejeh Moradian is a member of the International Socialist Organization in New York, and David Whitehouse is reviews editor of the International Socialist Review. This article benefited from the authors’ conversations and correspondence with Ganesh and Deepa Lal, Pranav Jani, and Alpana Mehta.

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2. Quoted from <http://www.engagedpage.com/gandhi.html> as of September 18, 2000.

3. Sam Ashman, Indian: Imperialism, Partition and Resistance, International Socialism 77, Winter 1997, p. 82.

4. Anthony Read and David Fisher, India’s Long Road to Independence (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), p. 227.

5. Ashman, p. 82; Sarkar, pp. 32–33.

6. B.M. Bhatia, Famines in India (Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1991), p. 16.

7. Bhatia, pp. 18–20.

8. Bhatia, p. 18.

9. Barrington Moore Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), p. 368.

10. Sarkar, pp. 28–30.

11. Bhatia, p. 8.

12. Quoted in Dadabhai Naoroji, India Must Be Bled, in 100 Best Pre-Independence Speeches 1870–1947, ed. by H.D. Sharma (New Delhi, HarperCollins Publishers India, 1998).

13. Karl Marx, letter to N.F. Danielson, February 19, 1881, in Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works, Vol. 46 (New York: International Publishers, 1992).

14. Ashman, pp. 83–84.

15. R.C. Majumdar and P.N. Chopra, Main Currents of Indian History (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1994), pp. 149–50.

16. Sarkar, p. 22.

17. Sarkar, p. 88.

18. Sarkar, p. 134.

19. Sarkar, p. 174.

20. Judith Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 28.

21. Brown, pp. 46–48.

22. Brown, pp. 78–81.

23. Sumit Sarkar, Modern India (Macmillan India Limited, 1983), p. 179.

24. Sarkar, p. 179.

25. Quoted in Sarkar, p. 180.

26. Sarkar, p. 181.

27. Sarkar, p. 230.

28. Sarkar, p. 180.

29. Quoted in Ashman, p. 91.

30. Ashman, p. 89.

31. Alec Kahn. Gandhi – hero or humbug? How non-violence failed in India (Australia: International Socialists, 1982), p. 2.

32. Ahmad, p. 8.

33. Sarkar, p. 169.

34. Sarkar, p. 186.

35. Sarkar, p. 208.

36. Sarkar, p. 190.

37. Sarkar, p. 191.

38. Sarkar, p. 192.

39. Sarkar, p. 192.

40. Sarkar, p. 194.

41. Sarkar, pp. 224–25.

42. Sarkar, pp. 225–26.

43. Sarkar, pp. 197–98.

44. Sarkar, pp. 286–296.

45. Ashman, p. 91.

46. Siddharth Dube, In the Land of Poverty: Memoirs of an Indian Family 1947–1997 (New York: Zed Books, 1998), p. 36.

47. Dube, p. 55.

48. Sarkar, p. 280.

49. Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography (New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, 1996), p. 259. First published 1936.

50. Quoted in R.C. Majumdar and P.N. Chopra, Main Currents of Indian History (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1994), p. 197.

51. Subhas Chandra Bose, The Fickle Leader, in 100 Greatest Pre-Independence Speeches.

52. Tapan Basu, Pradip Datta, Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar and Sambuddha Sen, Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1993), pp. 16–17.

53. Sarkar, p. 271.

54. Sarkar, p. 297

55. See Sarkar, pp. 302, 323, 354, and 364.

56. Sarkar, p. 386 and Gabriel Kolko, The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy (New York: Pantheon Books, 1968), pp. 249 and 286.

57. Sarkar, p. 391.

58. Sarkar, p. 429.

59. Sarkar, pp. 423–25.

60. Sarkar, p. 431.

61. Sarkar, p. 453.

62. Ashman, pp. 97–98.

63. Sarkar, p. 437.

64. Quoted in Sarkar, p. 437.

65. Khaki Shorts, pp. 23–24.

Last updated on 29 0ctober 2021