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Thursday April 18th, 2024

Does Gandhian Socialism Have Legs?

Illustrations by: Pubudini Sugandika

This excerpt reproduces the Conclusion from Mark Hager’s recently-published book, ‘Elusive Ideology: Religion and Socialism in Modern Indian Thought.’ Previous excerpts have appeared in Echelon and EconomyNext since August 2022. Readers can find the book through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Barefoot Cafe, Expographic Books and Sarasavi Bookshop(s).

Conclusion: Legacy or No?

The discussion above has pursued three overarching objectives: to highlight the existence and nature of a persistent problematic in modern Indian thought, that of considering religious themes alongside socialist ones; to offer interpretations of the various thinkers examined in terms of this problematic; and to explicate the development of Gandhian socialism as the quintessential resolution of it.

If the discussion above accomplishes these objectives, there is little to add here. It is worthwhile, however, to reflect briefly on this whole 11 tradition of thought from the standpoint of issues left unexplored above. I will do so with respect to four such issues: the Hindu-centered religiosity of the tradition; the reasons for shifts among Indian Marxists toward increasing sympathy with Gandhi; the significance of India’s failure to pursue Gandhian socialism; and Gandhian socialism’s current world-historical significance.

The Hindu-centered religiosity of the tradition can be explained in terms of several overlapping factors, including: Hinduism’s numerical and cultural dominance in India; preoccupation among Muslim leaders and thinkers with Pakistan’s nationalism and the place of Muslim identity in a Hindu-dominated polity; and Indian nationalism’s need for a usable past, leading it to stress the ancient and indigenous religiosity over its late-coming non-indigenous rivals.

It is appropriate to ask what responsibility this Hindu-centered intellectual tradition may bear for generating the religious strife that has racked India for the past century. Strife has fed on Hindu nationalism and Muslim fears of subjugation and cultural effacement. The tradition of thought explained here may perhaps be reproached for over-preciousness in exaltation of Hindu themes. Were its Hindu-oriented visionaries sufficiently aware that the subtleties of their religious interpretations might get lost or distorted when heard by chauvinist Hindus or anxious Muslims?

If such a charge has merit, it obviously sticks most heavily to Gandhi, due to his oft-proclaimed Hinduism and outsize influence. Of course Gandhi is not alone to blame for Hindu-Muslim antagonism. But it may be fair to assign Gandhi and perhaps other thinkers covered here with some fair share of responsibility while recognizing that historical circumstances may have been inevitably tragic.

Experience of colonial subjugation created need for a nationalist ideology impelling India towards freedom. In its vastness and diversity, India lacked unifying ethnic, racial, political, and linguistic identities that have elsewhere energized nationalist movements. India was unified, if at all, only through the reach of Hindu religiosity which, though extensive and predominant, was by no means universal. The visionaries leading India toward liberation might have labored long and hard before managing to forge a nationalist identity not rooted in Hindu themes. Did Gandhi choose rightly or should he have been less Hindu and in less of a hurry? Given Gandhi’s outlook, such alternatives are almost unimaginable.

Socialist thought may at least sometimes benefit when it uses religious sensibilities to supplement Marxist and other economic analytics. Several of the thinkers explored here—Mehta, Deva, Nehru, and, most compellingly, J.P.— moved in parallel ways through their careers from an economically-centered, state-oriented, Marxist “scientific” socialism toward a more religiously-tinged, grass-roots Gandhian socialism. They did so without abandoning certain key Marxist perspectives for analysis. In doing so, they managed, especially J.P., to forge a distinctive and important socialist vision.

One may wonder why these thinkers all manifested these parallel perspectival shifts. Personal biography, touched upon here only lightly, may have weighed significantly. Other factors can be considered as well.

First, Gandhi’s charismatic leadership and political effectiveness brought his methods and viewpoints onto center stage, making it increasingly impossible for any prominent thinker to dismiss them wholesale. Second, as suggested in Chapter 5, Gandhi’s increasing clear-headedness in grasping socialist analysis in his late career made him more and more accessible to socialist minds. Third, persistently negative features of the Soviet state system fueled attempts to envision both a socialist order and a transformative program explicitly concerned with avoiding those feares. Fourth, India’s character as a deeply challenged Third World agrarian economy provoked an impulse to focus theoretically on village reconstruction. Fifth, the Third World experience imparted a sense of damages and dangers from economic growth, thereby fostering search for a prosperity not overly growth-biased. Sixth, despite Marxism’s frequent skepticism of consumerism, Indian thinkers found the socialist tradition inadequate and their own spiritual tradition valuable for picturing an egalitarian economy not subverted by competitive greed and materialism.

All these factors made it increasingly imperative for leading Indian Marxists to convince Gandhi into thinking seriously about socialism, rather than simply dismissing him as a hopeless bourgeois romantic, as r in some of their early careers. Gandhi’s response, though diffident, ultimately sufficed to draw Marxist pupils toward perceiving an integrity in the project of “Gandhian socialism.”

India’s inferior development since Independence certainly cannot be counted as the failure of Gandhian social ism. The extent to which India’s political economy could ever have been designated “socialist” at all is debatable. Whatever its name, India’s current order appears to realize Gandhi’s nightmare for India’s future: crushing mass poverty, illiteracy and ill-health alongside dazzling wealth and a state apparatus ineffectual in crucial tasks of progressive development. It seems to manifest all the negatives of socialism, capitalism and feudalism combined. It is what Gandhi expected for an India that failed to pursue systemic satyagraha and sarvodaya in pursuit of transformation.

Had he lived longer, Gandhi’s charisma might possibly have been enough to lead independent India along his envisioned course of systemic non-violent village-centered transformation. In the early Independence years, India’s nationalist elan was perhaps at high enough pitch to support significant mobilization for rural reconstruction. Nothing could have succeeded short of simultaneous effort by both the state and a highly mobilized citizenry. By the mid-50s, even at the height of Vinoba’s bhoodan, the moment may already have been lost. A political economy driven by interlinkages between concentrated wealth and state power had fixed its grip. J.P. increasingly saw this, which impelled his activities during the 70s. But the time for Gandhian socialism in India was no longer ripe, if it ever was, and it may not be ripe (again?) for quite some time.

Circumstances like those at present may yield a dark conclusion that Gandhian socialism is irrelevant or impossible. Even highly diminished practice of satyagraha and sarvodaya may consequently wither. That would be unfortunate. We cannot know if or when circumstances may emerge in which such practice might bloom into transformative scope and potential. If that happens, those who have kept effort alive will deserve thanks.

The revolutions in Eastern Europe three decades ago may highlight the ongoing relevance of Gandhian socialism. First, they underscore state socialism’s limited capacity in fostering human fulfillment. Second, they prove how resisters and visionaries may sometimes harvest surprising fruit when circumstances turn advantageously.

By nature of its focus, Gandhian socialism does not on its own go deep on race, sex/gender, immigration, environment and other important concerns. Some may say that Gandhian socialism grapples inadequately with markets in positive functions like facilitating rational pricing and promoting innovation through competition. Reconciling Gandhian socialism with “market socialism” remains a task for another day. Envisioning how it could integrate with welfare-state social democracy in wealthy countries is another. Additional agenda items could include conceptualizing sarvodaya for non-village communities, training for satyagraha, and studying satyagraha’s usefulness for divergent situations.

Of course, no one can say whether a robust Gandhian socialism will ever come to pass. The world is no Indian village even for myriad millions who live in one. Any dream of organized, disciplined nonviolent mobilization against injustice and of spiritualized productive communities must reckon with vast complexity. By all means, consider viewpoints specifically contrary to Gandhian socialism: that capitalism’s orderly acquisitiveness helps subdue unruly and violent passions; that producing consumer luxuries provides jobs for the poor; that urbanism alleviates farm pressure on habitats. Still, there is reason to suppose that neither India nor the world at large can ever reach a humane, sustainable and fulfilling prosperity for all without some quotient of Gandhian socialism. It is hard to shrug off J.P.’s insistence that active citizenship. Yields spiritual experience that no one should miss and that such citizenship is found best in an order of vibrant direct community and organized non-violent action for justice. Is it plausible we could attain now? Gandhian socialism suggests that we foster local production units owned or governed by democratic communities and that we do so in part through nonviolent citizen confrontation recalcitrant wealth and power. For the sake of human fulfillment, justice and concord, we should ponder these suggestions.

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