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Commentary :: Human Rights
Does Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence have validity and utility in our time?
19 Aug 2004
I set out to answer the question on whether the methods and tactics used by Gandhi and the organization he ran the Indian National Congress were indeed non-violent. I then set out to answer the main point of the question as to whether non-violent social change is relevant to our current needs for social change.
Who was Mohandas Gandhi and what does his life mean to us? These two questions are some of the most frequently asked questions by people who are attempting to effectualize trying top effect permanent social change. Mohandas Gandhi is the one person that is looked up to most by people wishing to exert power in what they feel is oppressive government systems. These questions are usually answered by people without a detailed knowledge of the historical situation which led to the British withdrawal from the Indian subcontinent. They base there thesis on the presumption that Gandhi’s tactics were indeed non-violent.
The incorporation of the Indian sub-continent into the British Empire was an accident of history. The military and civil intervention that led to this Imperial endeavor was done on behalf of the interests of British Capital. This historical by struggle for independence from British Imperialism of the people of the Indian subcontinent started with the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885. This struggle for National Liberation involved a complex network of differing class and cultural interests.
The Indian National Congress can be seen as the most effective organization in the struggle social change for the Indian Subcontinent. It was a vast collective of organizations that utilized a grass roots connection with all levels of Indian society. Jim Masselos in his book, Nationalism on the Indian Subcontinent, describes the process that led to the formatting of the Indian National congress,
“One of the leading figures of the Indian National Congress was Allan Octavian Hume…. Who was he who was largely responsible for making it a viable and continuing organization. For this reason he became known as the father of the Indian National Congress”. (Masselos 1972:62)
This organization gave validity to the Indian independence movement of which Gandhi was to lead in the not so distant future.
The use by the British Government of the Indian National Congress to help build democratic institutions on the Indian subcontinent. The political institutions that formed the structure of the Indian National Congress was based on were those of British political institutions. The class orientation of the Indian National Congress as its conception is explained to us by Masselos, “the Congress was an organization which consisted exclusively of the educated class.” (Masselos 1972:69) This shows to us how the British Government helped foster the Indian National Congress and were attempt to establish democratic institution before withdrawing from the Indian subcontinent. Gandhi was a British educated lawyer and certainly benefited quite substantially from the class based system.
The outbreak of the First World War saw the start of the decline of the British Empire. This affected the nature of the British Imperialism and had a drastic effect on the political situation on the Indian subcontinent. The major influence in post WW1 Indian politics was an English woman by the name of Annie Besant. The failure of the working class to seize power in Great Britain saw such figures as Annie Besant attempt to change the mode of British Imperial politics by trying to deny corporate interests the access to natural and human resources in colonies such as India.
Through her association with the Theosophical Society that had its international headquarters in Madras Annie Besant helped change the nature of both British and Indian society. Masselos adequately describes the role Annie Besant played in India politics,
“Her rise to prominence was meteoric. She attracted a following as an omniscient avatar and she utilized the network of Theosophists scattered around the country as her initial base.”(Masselos 1972:114)
Annie Besant, through her role as president of the Indian National Congress expanded its membership base its mainly Hindu base to include Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Atheist elements, as well as instituting a process that saw an active participation by the working class in leadership positions. Annie Besant through her many publications developed a philosophy of social change without the use of violence.
Mohandas Gandhi who was born into the Modh Bania class in the Indian class system which is an upper Middle Class sect that are usually small businessmen. Gandhi as a child of privilege received a more than adequate education which led to him receiving an education in law in Britain. The Indian ruling class were integrated into the British upper class system and both benefited from the exploitations of resources in India. Gandhi’s class orientation is shown to us by Yogesh Chadha in her book, Rediscovering Gandhi,
“It did not suffice merely to be well dressed. He therefore directed his attention to other qualities that went to the making of an English gentleman. He decided it was necessary for him to take lessons in dancing, French and elocution,” (Chadha 1998:25)
Gandhi with his class orientation and British education found it hard to adapt to seeing life through a western perspective. This contradiction between his subjective and subjective nature lead to his resolute determination from freedom of his nation.
The influence of Annie Besant on Gandhi and his ideas can not be underestimated, she was the major influence on Gandhi in both Britain and Indian and it was from her teaching that the developed hid philosophy of Satyagraha. Chadha helps shows us the influence Annie Besant had on a young Gandhi,
“From being a free-thinker and an atheist, she had recently turned to theism, and since she was already well known for her work as a journalist, Fabian Socialist, labour organizer, and fighter for birth control, her conversion was highly publicized. Gandhi attended a meeting where she arose to answer as charge of inconsistency, and the concluding words of her speech never faded from his memory, ‘She said she as she wound up her great speech,’ he recalled, ‘that she would be quite satisfied to have the epitaph written on her tomb that she had lived for truth and she died for truth’.” (Chadha 1998:37)
It was during this time in University that Gandhi existing ideas were challenged and a new philosophy developed with his mind.
Gandhi attempt to secure his class position and his ownership over capital led him in an attempt to unset British rule in India. Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall explain how Gandhi’s class orientation affected his philosophy in there book, A Force More Powerful,
“He beseeched landlords and employers to take responsibility for the poor (though he deflected calls for economic redistribution , such a land reforms). (Ackerman and Duvall 2000:72)
Ackerman and Duvall teach us how Gandhi’s privileged position in India’s class system lead him to believe that the Indian owner of capital were the rightful rulers of India. Ackerman and Duvall also show to us how Gandhi was not interested in bringing about equality for all people through social change, but was only interested in gaining power for himself to protect and to improve his social positioning.
The use of violence by the Indian elite in an attempt to secure themselves a greater share of wealth can be shown in the events in Ahmebad in 1920 where Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha were put into practice. Ackerman and Duvall provide us with evidence on how provocative violence was used by the followers of Gandhi’s theory of Satyagraha and how provocative violence was the basis of the Gandhi’s theory of social change known as Satyagraha,
“The hartal went off more or less as planned: All over the country people stopped work, closed their shops, and went to meetings. After the hartal, however, event’s spun out of Gandhi’s control. Rumors that he had been arrested sparked a rampage of mill hands in Ahmebad, where more than fifty buildings were burned down and twenty-eight people were killed. In the Punjab, in the north of India, strikes and rallies turned into street fights between protestors and police.” (Ackerman and Duvall 2000:74)
These provocative actions that knowingly produced a violent reaction makes Gandhi ultimately responsible not only for the acts of provocation, but also for the acts of violence that were used in reaction, to the provocation. This use of violence by Gandhi to promote social change led directly to the injury and loss of life for many thousands of Indians.
Gandhi’s practice of using the working class to provoke a violent reaction by British authorities in his attempt to obtain power is shown to us by Ackerman and Duvall. They show us this as an example of how Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha was violent in its nature,
“Congress explained its network of provincial and local committees, absorbed new members, and took up the provocative work of mounting mass protest.”(Ackerman and Duvall 2000:75)
Gandhi and the Indian National Congress used provocative violence techniques in an attempt to force the British Government to immediately leave India. The British who were attempting to set up functioning democratic institutions before leaving India were opposed by Gandhi and the followers of Satyagraha with both violence and violence provoking acts.
This campaign of violence waged by the Indian National Congress under Gandhi’s leadership is exposed brilliantly by Ackerman and Duvall,
“Younger, more combative members objected to any compromise and were enticed by violent tactics; the Bengal Congress committee and its leader, Subhas Candra Bose, even had close links with terrorists.” (Ackerman and Duvall 2000:79)
The tactics of Gandhi caused much pain amongst the people of India and drew out the British plan of withdrawal by several years. Gandhi’s campaign of Satyagraha caused problems for those in the Indian community and there supporters in foreign nations who were trying to effect violence free social change.
The self serving nature of Gandhi’s theory of Satyagraha by Ackerman and Duvall when they quote Gandhi’s own words in relation to the Indian People’s Struggle for National Liberation,
“I know well enough how to lead to civil disobedience a people who are prepared to embark upon it on my terms.” (Ackerman and Duvall 2000:79)
Gandhi’s belief that he was more important than those who were working for him exposes his class orientation of his ideology, which focuses on his leadership and gives justification to the cast system which was oppressing India.
Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha lacked utility in the way his ideology reinforced the cast system and had no clear vision for how India could be transformed into a modern society. Gandhi would have been well advised to take note of the advice on the nature of a peaceful society offered to us by Rudolf Steiner when in his book, The Philosophy of Freedom, he writes,
“The human individual is the source of all morality and the centre of earthly life. State and society exists only because they have arisen as a necessary consequence of the life of individuals.” (Steiner 1979:144)
This underlining principle of life according of Steiner’s philosophy can show us how the true nature of humanity, that is individualism, must underpin any campaign for true freedom. Without a social base of equality of the individual, violence will inevitability reign. This was Gandhi’s greatest weakness and was the major contributing factor in the outbreak of violence by the followers of Satyagraha. Both Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha and the British Imperialist system denied the rights of true freedom to individuals, this is the nature of oppression.
Gandhi’s theory of Satyagraha does not have either validity or utility in our times and can actually harm attempts to build our way towards the perfect society. This can be seen by the attempt of westerners to provoke violent social change
in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Whilst Western individuals, NGO’s and Government representatives may have had good intentions by trying to impose social change using the Gandhian principles of Satyagraha. The attempt ultimately failed because
of the educational levels of Chinese citizens as well as the fact that the government of China has the legitimacy of Nationalism where as those attempting to impose social change were seen an illegitimate foreign imperialists.
Violence free action can be an effective weapon in social change but only when applied in a non provocative manner. It is a philosophy that must be applied to both our subjective and objective natures. Jiddu Krishnamurti provides a good philosophical underpinning of the violence free social change,
“What matters is to come into conflict with our traditions and values of the society and religion in which you are caught, and not intellectually escape through an ideal. When you begin to question these values, you begin to awaken that true intelligence which alone can solve the many human problems.” (Krishnamurti 1996:14)
This approach can show us how the true nature of social change can be actualized with validity, by ourselves on ourselves. To attempt to force self change upon someone whether in there subjective or objective nature is an act of violence and as such has neither validity nor utility.
The base nature of oppression comes from restrictions imposed on ones self. True liberation is a struggle for freedom from this self imposed prison. The psychoanalytic philosopher Eric Fromm, in his book Marx’s Concept of Man shows to us this nature of oppression, which is self imposed,
“It is that idols are the works of man’s own hands they are things, and man bows down and worships things; worships that which he created himself. In doing so he transforms himself into a thing. He transfers to the things of his own creation the attributes of his own life, and instead of experiencing himself as the creating person, he is in touch with himself only by the worship of an idol.” (Fromm 1965:44)
Fromm shows us in this passage the true nature of our struggle for freedom and liberation. The idolatrous practice that is capitalism is imposed upon us by ourselves and the only way to defeat this evil is work collectively in building a New Model society here on earth. Thus the need for non-violence is established because if we struggle in a violent manner against ourselves we can only but do harm upon ourselves.
In conclusion the struggle for true freedom and liberation can only have validity in a nation where individuals are education in balancing there subjective and objective natures. This process of change is known as the conflict and unity of opposites. Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha does have utility in the understanding of the historical process of social change and is one of the most important philosophies of the twentieth centaury in regards to this. It does not, however show us a path to non-violent social change at this stage.


Ackerman, P. & Duvall, J., 2000, A Force More Powerful,
Palgrave, New York.

Besant, A., 2002, Thought Power: Its Control and Culture, The
Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar.

Chadha, Y., 1998, Rediscovering Gandhi, Arrow Books,

Fromm, E., 1965, Marx’s Concept of Man, Frederick Ungar
Publishing, New York.

Krishnamurti, J., 1996, Total Freedom, HarperSanFrancisco,
New York.

Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1973, Selected Works, Progress
Publishers, Moskva.

Masselos, J., 1972, Nationalism on the Indian Subcontinent,
Thomas Nelson Limited, Melbourne.

Steiner, R., 1979, The Philosophy of Freedom, Rudolf Steiner
Press, London.
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