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[Henry Judd]

World Politics

Gandhi: Man and Politician

(9 February 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 6, 9 February 1948, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Gandhiji, as he was known to the masses of India, was a great man. There can be no question about this. If we are prepared to speak of him as one of the great individuals of the 20th Century, we do not mean this in terms of his historic importance, but rather in terms of his personality, his character and example. Gandhi cannot measure up to men like Marx, or Lenin, or Trotsky, but he is far above a Wilson, or Roosevelt, or Churchill. Trotsky described Gandhi as a “false prophet,” which is correct, if we understand him to mean that Gandhi was a prophet who was wrong, but nevertheless a prophet. The ironic violence of his death may be the ultimate decision on the Utopian character of his doctrine of “non-violence,” but it also contains another reminder of the reactionary violence, ever increasing, prevalent in our times.

The eulogies to Gandhi from the leaders of today are false and hypocritical. They are eulogies to the old, conservative Gandhi, not the young Gandhi who marched to the sea and made salt in defiance of British imperialism. The spectacle of Churchill shedding tears over the Mahatma, the man whom he once insulted as a “naked faquir” and cast in jail, crowns the long career of an outstanding cynic. Gandhi, in his own way, spoke for the oppressed masses of a nation striving for freedom. The more consistent and militant his voice was during those days, the more strident and vicious were the voices of the imperialists directed against him, with Churchill in the lead. Nor do we recall the eloquent Roosevelt speaking for India’s cause at any time. Morally, spiritually, in terms of honesty and personal traits, Gandhi was as far above these men as he was below the great socialist leaders whose thoughts and actions he opposed, and feared.

What was Gandhi’s great role in Indian life and world history? It cannot be found in his social, political or religious thought which was primitive and thoroughly reactionary. His belief and practice of orthodox Hinduism, together with his own special development of the doctrine of “ahimsa” (non-violent passive resistance) have small interest in and of themselves, and concern us only insofar as they express important political characteristics of the nationalist movement founded and led by Gandhi. Gandhi’s social conceptions, based upon a false idealization of Hindu antiquity in which the spinning wheel, caste life and Asiatic backwardness reigned, were utterly reactionary. But his social thought, again, had little importance in relation to his practice. The man who opposed, in thought, all forms of industrialization and modernization of India; was, in reality, the closest friend, spokesman and champion of India’s rising industrial class (mill owners, bankers, merchants and manufacturers) and waged a shrewd fight in their behalf against the oppressing British master. The historic measure of Gandhi, thus, lies not in his doctrinaire attributes, nor his thought and theory. It would be too easy, and false, to estimate him on these grounds. It must be sought elsewhere.

It is in his role as organizer, founder, leader, spokesman and tactician of the Indian nationalist movement against imperialism that we find the answer. Gandhi, ultimately, will be remembered as the man who lifted India’s broken masses to the heights of national consciousness and gave its people a sense of the importance of the fight for national freedom. He gave meaning to the fight against British imperialism, he launched the great campaigns of the 1920’s and 1930’s (non-cooperation, etc.) and forced the world’s attention upon the crimes committed by imperialism against hundreds of millions. Gandhi was the highest possible achievement of nationalism, pure nationalism, possible in our century. His type will never return. The young Gandhi was a truly heroic national figure.

But, this objective evaluation must be completed by underscoring his limitations very definite in nature. His tactics and doctrine were important as symptomatic of these shortcomings, being determined by the weakness of the national bourgeoisie for whom he spoke. Gandhi organized the masses, it is true, but simultaneously he manipulated them. He threw them into battle with Britain, unarmed and untrained, and never hesitated to sound a retreat if matters seemed to be getting out of hand. He never aimed higher than compromise victories.

Was Gandhi’s life and career a success? Did he achieve his objectives, even in a limited way? The answer can only be no, in all respects. The unquestioned esteem in which he is held by people everywhere – not alone the Indian people – is a tribute to his personality, and also indicates the widespread sharing of his desires for peace, fraternity and brotherhood. But unfortunately, more is involved in a questioning of his career. Is India free and independent? Only in the strictly limited sense that direct foreign rule has been replaced by indirect foreign rule which how shares a partnership with the rulers of India itself. Has national unity been achieved? The threatening catastrophe of war between India and Pakistan answers this. Have the multitude of social, economic and political problems of the sub-continent been solved? Clearly, Gandhi’s career ended amid tragic circumstances, not success. Gandhi, who knew this, was prepared to die. He died a martyr to failure, not a hero of success. His lifetime saw the start, rise and extinction of the narrow nationalism he represented. It was tested and failed.

Struggle for Gandhi’s Image

But this does not mean we should dismiss his role or his career. India’s future, in fact, would not permit this. The entire conservative clique who surrounded Gandhi at his end will seek to seize his image and dangle it before the country as an emblem of social peace, conservatism, discipline and submission. Ignoring the militant nationalism of the youthful Gandhi, the Indian bourgeoisie will attempt to venerate the old Gandhi of extreme conservatism. Will it succeed in this? The fact that not a single major problem of India has yet been solved – beginning with that of complete national freedom and ranging through the series of social and economic problems – indicates the impossibility of this. Gandhi launched nationalism, but others – the socialists and revolutionists of India and Pakistan – must carry through where he could not because he never accepted the essential relation between the winning of national freedom and the winning of socialist freedom. We respect and recognize the loss of Gandhi, the nationalist leader who started 400 million people on the long and difficult road whose ascent only others, wider and more profound in perception, can now complete.

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