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Gandhi and Lenin

Nirmal Kumar Bose

In the midst of the gloom which encircles mankind on all sides, there are always men who struggle with the surrounding darkness and succeed in saving their souls from its oppressive influence. Of such men in the present age, we can think of two who carry the marks of having successfully fought the battle, and whose lives bear testimony to the enormity of the suffering they have undergone: Lenin and Gandhi. Both these men resemble one another in their tireless pursuit of truth, as well as in their great passion for the poor and the oppressed portion of humanity. Yet, in the matter of their inner convictions and attitudes, they differ as widely from one another as possible.

According to both Lenin and Gandhi, the world’s suffering is mostly caused by the existence of an unjust social system which allows one class of men to live upon the toils of another. The system not only blights the lives of those who are exploited, but also degrades those who live upon the toil of others. It has therefore to be destroyed if we want men to gain the opportunity of free and full exercise of their talents. In this, both Gandhi and Lenin agree. But it is with regard to the means, as well as the mental attitude which they bring to bear upon their task that the two drift completely away from one another.

Lenin was of opinion that the unjust social and economic system exists today because the exploiters hold the power of the State in their hands. If that power can be transferred to the exploited by means of a revolution, then they can so build society anew that a continuance of the present wrongs will become impossible. All his endeavours were therefore directed towards securing such a revolution as would bring the State under the dictatorship of the proletariate. Under that dictatorship, property relations will be entirely recast, men’s outlook on life reshaped by education, and no scope left anywhere for the exercise of the former desire to exploit.

Gandhi however holds quite another view. He is opposed fundamentally to the coercive centralization involved in Lenin’s scheme. He is of the opinion that such coercion will only perpetuate the passive aspect of human character on which the structure of capitalism itself is based today. He believes that the root of the problem does not lie in the authority of the State, but in the character of the individual which has made the existence of the State possible. Those who rule, do so because others are afraid of violence all the time. Therefore, we can enjoy the right of freedom only if we cast the fear which lies buried in our heart, and at the same time, labour with our hands for the production of our daily bread. All his efforts are therefore directed towards bringing about the necessary change in individual character; and this he proposes to do by his constructive economic and social programme, on the one hand, and by non-violent non-co-operation, which advances by progressive stages, on the other.

But what be the shape of things when labouring humanity succeeds in reorganizing social life completely by means of its own effort and the help of those who cast in their lot with the former? Gandhi has said that inequalities of wealth, power and position will be equalized to the utmost extent practicable. But even when man-made inequalities have been completely reduced, there will remain certain inequalities due to nature. These should not be interfered with if they are beneficial; only, they should not be turned into a justification for the formation of privileged classes. To prevent exploitation arising out of natural inequalities, it is necessary to do something more. Every man should be inspired with the idea that whatever his special talents may be, they should be turned to social use and not to personal advantage. This is true of individuals as much as of nations; every one should place his resources and his abilities at the service of humanity taken as a whole. The aim of those who employ satyagraha in order to convert either individuals or communities, should be to convert them into this ideal of common possession and of trusteeship.

The wide divergence between Lenin and Gandhi with regard to the means, as set forth above, springs ultimately from a fundamental difference in their opinion regarding the role played by the individual in human history. Lenin held that, in spite of rare exceptions, men are mostly creatures of circumstances; so that if they are to be made moral, they should be placed under circumstances which render a particular moral code imperative. His principal endeavour was therefore to build up an architectural system of the necessary kind. But Gandhi has little faith in good life based principally upon compulsion or habit, if it is blind. Such morality, in his opinion, fails to develop the best of which the human personality is capable. Really fruitful change can only come from within; and the principal object of social change should therefore be to bring it into being through change already wrought in the individual. All change in outward form should be an expression, as well as a measure, of the degree of inner progress attained. We may describe the difference between Lenin and Gandhi by saying that the former builds his plans on man as he actually is today, while the latter bases his upon what it is possible or desirable for him to be.

Lenin was like a mighty warrior who held aloft a great hope for mankind, while his soul was steeped in the dream of a millennium when no man would live in cruelty and idleness but in love, and actively employ his talents for the service of mankind. With his strong taste for reality, he turned to History for a sanction of the hope which swelled within his bosom; and there he discovered the finger of Fate pointing towards such fulfillment as he desired for mankind. It was because of the fatalistic nature of this belief that Lenin could employ the most ruthless weapons of destruction in order to overcome the obstacles which came in his way. The path, he thought, may lie today through violence and hatred, but the day will surely dawn when it will be time to lay down the sword, or perhaps melt it for building the plough, for then man will have no reason to hate man. But until that day arrives, our path must lie through violence and bloodshed, for that is the inevitable law of History. Lenin was like a workman, passionately hammering way at the anvil at night, in the glow of a lamp which he had lighted out of his own heart’s desire, while he was oblivious of the dark sky which hung over his head. And in that sky, the cold stars shone with a glitter which knew no compassion either for the love or the hate which alternatively burned within the bosom of the workman.

But Gandhi, the pilgrim soul, is ceaselessly on the march in a journey which seems to be without end. With the staff of the traveler in his hand, he moves towards a distant light which guides him inexorable towards itself. Hope burns in his bosom, and he yields to its impulse, for there is nothing else for him to do. In the inner depth of his being, he knows, it is not his business to enquire if ever the millennium will come or not. All that he is called upon to do is to submit, at the present moment, to the forces of his purified nature and thus fulfill the task for which he was appointed by God. It is his ideal ‘to become merely like a lump of clay in the Potter’s divine hands’. And this is also the reason why he can say in true humility that his task is the ‘service of God and therefore of humanity’.

Gandhi believes that God never admits us into the design of the future. He has given us no control over the end, and only a limited one over the means; and the means is love. And Gandhi claims that he has discovered the secret whereby love can be employed to transform one’s environment and free human life from the oppression which weighs down upon it from all sides. The secret is to love the oppressors of mankind as oneself, even when we are opposing them by militant non-co-operation in order to end the system which has so far been built upon injustice. We seek to transform the mutual relationship between the exploiter and the exploited, and this will eventually lead to the extinction of the present system by common effort, and the creation of a new order based upon transformed social relationship. It is a terribly difficult adventure to which Gandhi invites us, to oppose a tyrant while bearing no malice, but positive love and respect for his personality in our hearts. But as this is the noblest way, Gandhi asks us to spare no pains in following it to perfection. All his genius is exercised in discovering this path of non-violent non-co-operation in order to remedy wrongs; the results he leaves to the keeping of God.

But weak as we are our strength fails us when we are confronted by the heights to which we are expected to rise. We find that Gandhi’s absolute insistence upon the means often leaves us despairing of our own weaknesses. So we turn to him and ask him if it is wrong to be intoxicated with a dream and a hope when darkness presses upon our soul from all around. Gandhi answers: Indeed you should believe in the promise of the day when man shall disdain to enrich himself at the cost of his neighbour, but live instead by means of Work and Love. In the meanwhile, he asks us to take care of the means, to guide our next step in accordance with our own strength, with single mindedness in the direction of universal good and of complete human brotherhood.

Secretly, to the chosen few who can bear it, he whispers a less luring truth. To them Gandhi says that the promise of the dawn is but the bait with which God tempts His creatures to action, along paths which He chooses. And if He so wills, He may any day sweep aside all our hopes and joys and hurl us into the depths of unutterable misery, for He is above all the greatest Tyrant ever known. Our business is to toil unceasingly at our appointed task, and throw ourselves against every obstacle which oppresses human life without regard to consequences. We belong to the gang of workmen employed to keep the road ready for God’s chariot to pass by. Even with regard to his motherland, he says that it is true that he wants his countrymen to enjoy political freedom, he wants food and raiment for the hungry millions, but these are only the things with which India will clothe herself before she is called upon, in the interest of humanity, to embrace death as her divine bridegroom. ‘My idea of nationalism is that my country may become free that, if need be, the whole country may die so that the human races may live.’

These are indeed awful words. But Gandhi consoles us by saying that the powers of patience which reside within the human soul are of unlimited measure. If we throw aside all attachment to the flesh, which is the root of all fear, and have our being in God who is repository of all strength, we shall never lack in the necessary strength to bear His message of love in our lives.

This is the prospect which Gandhi holds before his comrades; no vision of any distant millennium, but only a vision of the thorns which we shall encounter in our pilgrims march. He shows us only the way, even while seeking it himself whereby we can lay down our lives so that humanity may live. And in that path, God Himself is transformed into the Flaming Sword which leaps and plays over the road of thorns. The sole aim of our existence is to surrender ourselves to the Almighty Being. Our own joys and sorrows sink into the uttermost insignificance, while life and death are transformed into so many milestones in our lonesome march.

This ultimate acceptance of the permanent nature of that which we call sorrow and suffering, and from which we shrink instinctively does not spring in Gandhi from any inner morbidness of spirit. It comes from a recognition of the fact that both light and darkness, life and death, are parts of one Universal Being which we may not accept in fragments. It is this aspect of Gandhi, with its apotheosis of labour and suffering, which drew forth the instinctive repulsion of the poet Tagore, whose admirable temper was now and then ruffled by the prospect of a flood of morbidity overcoming the land in the wake of Gandhi’s political movement of ‘non-co-operation’. But in Gandhi himself, there is not the least trace of morbidness; for his whole soul has been bathed clean by the tears of humble admission of weakness before God. Love of man has given him the strength to bless all sufferings which come in its train; indeed it is the same kind of heroism which a mother displays when her child is torn out of her being.

If that be the character of Gandhi’s philosophy, devoid of hope, of romance, how is it, one may ask, that men follow him in thousands even when he calls upon them to proceed to the portals of death? The secret lies in the character and personality of the man in which this philosophy has clothed itself, rather than in any direct appeal which lies in that philosophy. And here perhaps we reach the inner truth of the present revolution in India, as we also do of all those great movements which have affected the human family in the past. Russia today is inexplicable except in terms of Lenin, the movement of Christ except with reference to the personality of Jesus, while India’s satyagraha is likewise understandable only with reference to the character of the man who stands at the head of the movement today.

A lone man marching with set purpose upon the road of God; whose heart beats in unison with every sorrow in the human breast; determined to share all suffering and degradation, and ready to sacrifice himself in the effort to eradicate all that oppresses human life; but who is never prepared to betray the sacred trust of human unity even for the sake of temporary gain; such a character holds an appeal and an encouragement far greater than the cold star of truth towards which the pilgrim may be marching himself. It is only when the light of the stars shines forth through the life of a man that we can feel its glow and light our own life’s path by means of its radiance.

It is good to live at a time when such men are born on earth; for their living testimony to the might of the human spirit restores to us faith and gives us the strength to hope afresh and try to build the world anew.

Source: Studies in Gandhism, Nirmal Kumar Bose, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad – 14.