From New International, Vol.14 No.4, April 1948, pp.119-120. 
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
“Now Gandhi belongs to the ages.”
These words contained more than the triteness implied by the self-conscious westernized intellectual, Jawaharlal Nehru, as he gazed at the white ashes of his spiritual father. We think instinctively of the famous chapter on The Struggle for the Image of Jesus, contained in Kautsky’s book, Foundations of Christianity. Gandhi, of course, is not comparable to Jesus either in a moral, spiritual or religious sense. He was no founder of a world religious order ushering itself in together with a new world social order. The doctrine of “non-violence” and “passive resistance” associated with Gandhi’s name, together with other aspects of his personal philosophy, are bits and scraps collected from other religious and moral systems and shrewdly put together for the fulfillment of flexible goals.
Yet if Gandhi bears no resemblance to Jesus or any other great religious founder as the creator of a new idea, there is bound to be a marked resemblance in a different sense – a struggle over which movement, in the future, best lays claim to the rounded meaning of the man’s life, his works and activities. Let us recall the words of Kautsky, writing of the period after the death of Jesus:
... a crown of legends began to form about this character, into which pious spirits would weave whatever they wished their model to have spoken or done. But as Jesus thus came to be regarded more and more as a model for the entire sect, the more did each of the numerous contending groups, of which the sect had consisted from the start, attempt to assign to this personality precisely those ideas to which each group was most attached, in order then to be able to invoke this person as an authority. Thus the image of Jesus, as depicted in legends that were at first merely transmitted from mouth to mouth and later set down in writing, became more and more the image of a superhuman personality, the incarnation of all the ideals developed by the sect, but it also necessarily became more and more full of contradictions, the various traits of the image no longer being compatible with each other. [Foundations of Christianity, p.38]
So now is it also with Gandhi. As a doctrinaire, saint, and religious figure, the Gandhi known as the Mahatma is dwarfed by the Gandhi who was the head of the All-India National Congress and leader of his country’s civil-disobedience movements.
Yet here we do not wish to assay Gandhi’s doctrine or his role as the nationalist leader of India. To begin with, all this is well known and has been familiar for years. The question that interests us is: What place will Gandhi occupy in India’s future struggles? Will the conservatives and industrialists succeed in completely burying his true image beneath the cold and artificial saint they are now attempting to manufacture?
This effort began with the emphasis on the religious rites surrounding the cremation and burial of Gandhi. Every custom and practice of orthodox Hinduism was faithfully carried out as the process of enshrining and sanctifying the Mahatma got under way. All the ritual and mystification associated with holy beings, including the preservation of ashes and bones, the carving of statues, etc., has begun.
The aim of all this is clear: to mummify the image of Gandhi in the interests of “the nation” – that is, the governing group represented by the increasingly reactionary Congress party; and to synthesize from his being a sacred symbol, standing for inner unity of the nation, to which the ruling class can appeal in time of crisis. In China, a similar operation was performed upon Sun Yat-sen, but every indication signifies that the Congress leadership will attempt to go much further with Gandhi.
Then who can justifiably claim the image of Gandhi? Shall we leave him to the Indian bourgeoisie whose spokesman, organizer and tactician he most certainly was? Or to various among the intellectuals who concern themselves solely with the psychology and personality of the man, seeking to relate these to their own doubts and difficulties with the modern world? Gandhi, an anti-modernist and a traditionalist in the most naive and backward sense of the term, has a particular appeal for our intellectuals.
Thus, on the one hand, we find a chronic vulgarizer of Marxism, J.R. Johnson, who writes in The Militant that the death of Gandhi “is an important political event”! To him, the sum and substance of the Gandhi problem is exhausted by calling him an agent of the Indian capitalist class. Or again, on the other hand, we find a series of “appreciations” of Gandhi penned by various intellectuals in the winter 1948 issue of Politics magazine, each of which assumes the man to be “purely” an individual, and a non-political one at that! From Mary McCarthy, who thinks the real horror is “that any man could look into the face of this extraordinary person and deliberately pull a trigger,” to the absurd Paul Goodman who, in a brief piece performs a quickie psychoanalytic job (Gandhi was an “oral sadist”) with attached poem, the same impression is presented. A man with an appealing personality, abstracted from his life and reality, one in whom each one can find the image sought by his confused and bewildered soul. Gandhi’s appeal is truly a broad one, but we cannot accept either the cheapening of the sectarian Johnson or the self-projections of Macdonald and his friends. Both distort the man and his relation to the life of our time.
Here is not the place to attempt any elaborate estimation. One must see and watch the evolution of India over another decade for that. Will the subcontinent disintegrate into warring communal and semi-national sects, or will it achieve a reunification under a new leadership? Only the answer to this question, at present unanswerable, will permit a final placing of Gandhi’s role as the organizer and leader of India’s national consciousness.
Clearly, his lifetime was not crowned by success. He was the founder of a semi-independent and disunited India, that is, his two great goals of complete independence and a united India failed of achievement – at least under his leadership. In this sense, one may say that he was the last great bourgeois national figure that we shall probably see, with all the properties and limitations that this implies. Likewise, as a personality, it strikes me that all the self-conscious intellectuals who seek to sing his praises have missed the real appeal of the man and thus lost the key to understanding the full measure and qualifications of his popularity throughout the world.
Gandhi was both loved and ridiculed, sympathized with, but laughed at by the masses of people. Why? They knew little about his so-called theology or life doctrines and justifiably ignored them as of no consequence. It was his activities, his actions, which awakened responses everywhere. He opposed imperialism (oppression and foreign domination); he opposed war (violence and killing); he wanted a harmonious society (peace and constructive building). It was his utter simplicity in presenting these ideas and attempting to activate them which made him popular among great masses. Far more than any complex intellectual, he understood the simple things.
Why was he, at the same time, laughed at? Because his methods struck people as woefully inadequate in relation to the focus standing between himself and his objectives, because his simplicity of style and conception appeared grotesque in the world of power, violence and absurd complexity. Convention, authority, government and power – Gandhi, with all the limitations of his tactics, had the capacity for making all these appear ridiculous. And this corresponded to a fundamental feeling, as widespread as it was inarticulate, among the masses of people. What Gandhi referred to as the voice of God guiding him was really his keen instinctual sense for what was disturbing people and his ability to give it expression.
The real Gandhi, the organizer of the civil-disobedience and non-cooperation movements, is a man of the masses, not a spiritual confessor for intellectuals nor a calculating politician. It is this appreciation, we believe, that provides the answer to the problem of the struggle for Gandhi’s image.
Gandhi’s strength derived from his organic ties with the Indian nationalist movement. Without this movement he would have been a quaint and unimportant utopian doctrinaire. But the handful of Hindu landlords and industrialists, now heirs to Gandhi’s Congress Party, do not exhaust this movement. The reactionary politician Sardar Patel, who claims the mantle of Gandhi, has nothing in common with the Gandhi who launched half a dozen mass campaigns, marched to the sea in defiance of the then powerful British Empire and courted death to halt communal violence. Just as Gandhi drew his power out of the nationalist movement, so did this movement obtain everything from the masses poor peasants and city workers.
Thus, the real origin of Gandhi’s role lies in his relation with the vast Indian peasantry and working class. All that was progressive and reactionary, right and wrong, revolutionary and limited, can be discovered by a study of Gandhi links with the people of his nation.
The present leaders of India, including Nehru, would evoke the image of Gandhi to halt the progress of the nation and rest content with its present semi-independent, disunited status. Nehru, who never understood the sources of his master’s strength, has rapidly cut his ties with the masses and a accepts the characteristic intellectual’s vision of Gandhi. But the struggle between the Indian bourgeoisie, now a substantial partner of imperialism, and the people of the country will obviously continue. It is a struggle for the completion of the national revolution which has been halted in its tracks. And the struggle for the true evaluation of Gandhi is a part of this new struggle.
The Indian bourgeoisie must not be permitted to claim without challenge, and sanctify the image of Gandhi. Rather does he belong to the masses of people and the new, revolutionary socialist leadership which it is slowly and painfully attempting to build up. If it is true that Gandhi’s work is incomplete, that full independence, unity and a peaceful social system have yet to be built, then it is also true that only the achievement of socialism can bring this about. The present leaders of India will not only never finish Gandhi’s work but will betray it each day.
In this sense, it is perfectly correct and justified for Indian revolutionary socialists to struggle for the image of Gandhi as his continuators and as the only ones capable of successfully concluding the tasks he first brought to the consciousness of the Indian people.
1. Henry Judd was the pseudonym of Stanley Plastrick.
Last updated: 13.9.2008