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A Gandhian Model For World Politics
By Paul F. Power
Many interpreters of Gandhi’s life and thought agree that he combined two aspects, the prophetic and the strategic. There is less agreement as to which of these currents prevailed in the career and ideas of a leader of the modern age, although a variety of commentators have decided that he both witnessed and struggled in rare and great ways. Without attempting to suggest whether Gandhi was more teacher or strategist, I will restrict myself in this essay to some observations about how both characteristics contribute to a Gandhian model for world politics. I have chosen international politics as a frame of reference because I believe the extranational lessons of free India’s principal architect have been understated owing to his immediate and much publicized impact on the history of the subcontinent. My undertaking begins with a summary of key essentials of Gandhi’s teachings as they seem to bear on world affairs. The operation of a Gandhian strategy in international politics will then be explained, followed by an assessment of the significance and utility of the model as it appears in today's interstate milieu.
At least as early as 1906 Gandhi exhibited the quest for truth which in his lifetime manifested itself in concerns from vegetarianism to brahmacharya, with the central point the commitment to an activist search for proximate certainty, hinged on a confidence in a ground of being or God. Gandhi did not expect to find certainty in a temporal sense. Instead he left a theological realm that transcends human affairs to define unchanging truth. Numerous commentators from E. Stanley Jones to Dhirendra Mohan Datta have explored the importance of this realm which is clarified with the help of Paul Tillich’s thought. At least there is wider audience today for Gandhi’s “theism” when it is understood as the well of being rather than as a personal divinity who guides history. Gandhi prepared the way for this reinterpretation by his Truth-God which shocked the orthodox in the 1920s but is itself too narrow for many today.
There is less difficulty in finding assent to Gandhi’s call for courageous, selfless actions as the rule of life, and to ahimsa. I understand ahimsa as the optimum, functional good on the way to ultimate truth, and not as an unconditionally binding law of nonviolence on social and political affairs. Here there is a division among the interpreters, the bulk of them insisting, as I do not, that the prophet laid down an ethic of absolutist pacifism. Obviously this discussion has far-reaching implications for a Gandhian model for world politics. To elaborate on my understanding is not possible in this space. I can only state in an inadequate fashion that I find Gandhi’s political thought to say that the superordinate requirements of national interest may require the adherent of a Gandhian approach to condone violence without recommending it. This view is not necessarily escapist casuistry, although it may have been in certain phases of the Gandhian movement before and after Indian freedom. For loyalty to the nation, although it is not the good, is a considerable good in the Gandhian hierarchy of values. It is above familial, class and regional loyalties, as proven in decisions which Gandhi made himself. The Gandhian model is clearly a nationalist model, a point not overturned by arguments that the object of the Indian leader's loyalty was and is something less than an integrated, national society. The saving quality of this nationalism is not in its juridical nature which is underdeveloped and not even in its domestic social values, beneficial as they are in raising depressed segments and moderating intergroup struggle, but in the political ethics of nationalism. For Gandhi insisted that loyalty should be organized in keeping with the rule of selfless action, the merits of ahimsa and a coordinate national state. Writing about the relations between the village and higher authorities, Gandhi once said that “there will be ever-widening never ascending circles... at last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals, never aggressive in their arrogance but ever humble, sharing the majesty of the oceanic circle of which they are integral units. Therefore, the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle, but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it.”1 The idealized nation of Gandhi’s thought is organized for protection of constituent units and their citizens, a negative achievement at the cost of total effectiveness, but worthy in a Lockean perspective. The division of power and the ethical obligations of the “outermost circumference”, i.e., the central government, suggests that any Gandhian nation would not commit internal aggression. Gandhi’s reluctance to industrialize further suggests that a national state established on his preferences would not have the military capability to do more than to provide for its own territorial integrity. His self-sufficiency notions and call for non-injury may imply that this minimum defence would be difficult to achieve for the country producing few modern arms and reluctant to use them because of normative inhibitions.
Externally, Gandhi’s teachings suggest interstate relationships based on domestic values and institutions. The international community of a Gandhian type rests on the internal nature of Gandhian politics. Social harmony is basic to this nature. The unity and agreement of social classes in their “true” needs and aspirations, and the denial of the inevitability of class warfare are important elements of the harmony. In his letter of 12 May 1936 to Nehru, reprinted in the late Prime Minister’s A Bunch of Old Letters, Gandhi indicated some of his thoughts on the symmetry of classes and how he disagreed with Nehru’s Marxian analysis. Aware and critical of exploitation, Gandhi had confidence that appeals to stewardship and an inherent charity would bring about a redistribution of wealth without calling in the power of the state. Despite his opposition to many institutional devices to solve or moderate social ills through the power of the state, it is reasonably clear that he consented sufficiently to the use of governmental power for these purposes to say that his lesson is to reform without increasing tensions and antagonism. The work of Rabindra Nath Bose and V. B. Kher on Gandhian ideas and practices in industrial relations indicates the details of the social and economic reforms. By projection into international affairs, they deny the Marxist-Leninist proposition that the relations of states are the conflicts of classes, subject to the law of inevitable struggle. In its place he offered a genuine doctrine of peaceful coexistence whereby classes are the phantoms of social life and real interests are identifiable in everyman’s being without regard to stratification according to education, income, tasks or other differentiations. There is a Gandhian theme in today’s Arab and African “socialism” that rules out class warfare and stresses unity. The Gandhian tradition prescribes relationships which are established on the grounds of ahimsa and works against existing or proposed relationships that alienate, oppose or conflict. Nonetheless reform is sought, not the preservation of iniquities, a subject I will return to in the discussion of operational questions.
If the clash of interests said to flow from class memberships is not part of a Gandhian model for world affairs, what of the collision of sovereignties? Considered as power or force that must rest on violence, sovereignty does not seem to be compatible with Gandhi’s ethical thought. Yet the “India of His Dreams”, nonviolent as it would be, is not stateless; there is sovereignty in the meaning of authority which directs the national community through consent to legitimate power. Gandhian states possess this kind of sovereignty which emerges from within national societies to give them identity, substance and purpose. In their dealings these states would tend to avoid creation of an inter-sovereign system, including military alliances and international organizations. Rather they would emphasize right conduct with fellow Gandhian states and also with those political entities, sovereign in the traditional way, that hopefully will reorganize their internal life to become Gandhian. The absence among the Gandhian states of conventional international organization will facilitate the growth of the number of units in the fellowship.
The United Nations, for all of its virtues, is no help to creating, maintaining or enlarging the number of Gandhian states. The. United Nations was established with few Gandhian principles, which argue against its stateness, non-observance of Swadeshi, and attraction to exclusivist ideologies.
A resume of the prophetic side of the Gandhian paradigm could not fail to mention the pervading atmosphere of comity. Self-reliance in domestic matters does not mean self-help in interstate relations. Independent action is not prohibited, but dharmic responsibilities exclude military or economic expansionism and any drive for power and goods at the expense of others. Foreign policies are shaped by national interest but these are always subject to values that minimize the impact on policy of capability in the usual power terms. Although Gandhian ethics do not explain away the uneven distribution of power, they purpose that the gradations ought not to weigh most in the calculations of how interstate behaviour should take place.
The strategic and tactical operation of Gandhian prescriptions might first be discussed with reference to the dynamics of sacrifice and struggle. The origins of the first go deep into the Indian and Western sources of Gandhi's thought and of the second into his South African phase when he developed satyagraha from diverse materials. To sacrifice in one's own being is to cooperate with truth, and to cooperate is to endure sacrifice, including loss of life if necessary to uphold truth. Adjustments are permissible and perhaps obligatory in both processes. Reconciliation of opposing forces may or may not take place in these processes. There is an assumption that the opponent is redeemable, whoever he may be. Gandhi’s open letter to Hitler in July 1939 illustrated this conviction. Negotiations between States are thereby implicitly supported in many situations and there is a call for the adjustment of adjustable things. But there are truthful things to be struggled for that do not permit of adjustment, but must be obtained or, if not, no compromise can be made about them. Joan V. Bondurant and other writers on the Gandhian contribution have done much to show the resolving power of satyagraha In conflict situations. I would only stress that non-resolvable matters are integral to the Gandhian strategy which sometimes runs the risk of becoming unbending in demanding that certain positions or objectives are not subject to negotiation. Gandhi would have agreed with Adam Smith about man's basic propensity to barter and trade, but there are other fundamentals that require determination and perhaps rigidity unaffected by the solvent of the usual types of bargaining. Reconciliation in the Gandhian direction, yes, but not in the sector of fixed values. It is difficult to believe that Gandhi bargained for temple-entry, although he did for the release of imprisoned followers. In world affairs, the Gandhian strategy is not likely to permit negotiations about the remnants of imperialism and nuclear deterrence, although it might about racial segregation. The sacrificial characteristic will appear whenever there is no room for bargaining. During moments of permissible bargaining, active engagement of the parties is required, together with frank, advance disclosure of intentions by the Gandhians and their willingness to settle for less than their demands. Within the bargaining process there is a sense of timing that is concerned with what pacific technique can be employed to the best advantage, but more importantly with an awareness as to when either positive results are imminent and a change in tactics is indicated or the frontier between negotiable issues and those which are not is approaching. Throughout means remain means and not ends-in-the-making. The Gandhian view of ends and means is traditional in that he saw them as discrete things. Granting the “purity of means” idea to be true for the Gandhian strategy, I find reason to believe that he kept a distinction between ends and means that the Huxley and Dewey schools may have overlooked. For interstate conduct this implies that Gandhian states will differentiate between their techniques with which they seek to advance their principles and the norms themselves. There should be no confusion leading, for example, to negotiations for their own sake, as in certain phases of the Macmillan approach to summit meetings. There are times when it is necessary to fast in diplomatic silence. As to struggle which is not part of bargaining, the Gandhian tradition suggests some irrelevant lessons and some that may be valuable. About the Indian leader's recommendation of nonviolent direct action between states in World War II, there was wisdom in Jawaharlal Nehru’s comment in the Lok Sabha on 26 July 1955, that “no government will or can perform satyagraha”. Although the Indian government subsequently condoned private force to try a nonviolent invasion of Goa, it may be well to note that the attempt and the tragic results were “a travesty” of Gandhian principles according to Pyarelal. The Goan issue was resolved finally, of course, through traditional violence, much to the dismay of Western critics. But the West should remember that Delhi used restraint of a high order for many years, even if the 1961 takeover of Portuguese India raised some questions about consistency in the statements of the Prime Minister. As to other proposals for nonviolent action against a state, there is the instance of Bertrand Russell’s call for neutralist ships to enter the Christmas Island testing site. However judged, these proposals, many of them involving private citizens, seem clearly in keeping with Gandhian ideas.
More relevant in my analysis is the contribution of the Gandhian strategy to socializing dissent. This is hardly a historic innovation, but it is a significant development. For the Gandhian strategy progresses through group action and responsibility. There is no place for a Thoreau, no matter how important the need to have atomic convictions about injustice and individual acts of disobedience. Socialized dissent, as the American people have learned in the Negro Revolt, and the United Kingdom in the demonstrations of nuclear pacifism, is considerably more dramatic than isolated convictions and acts of disobedience in the name of justice. But is it effective in reaching goals? Dissent of this kind may be counterproductive. It has become so in the civil rights activities of the United States. Actually there has been doubt for some time about the extent of Gandhian belief outside of elite pacifists like Martin Luther King, Jr. and N. Bayard Rustin. Effective or not, socialized protest of the Gandhian type is potentially an international device to pressure governments for interstate reasons as well as for what may seem to be domestic issues. The general strike tradition proved to be a failure. The Gandhian strike, bypassing courts and legislatures, is a tool for bringing about changes in foreign policies through the withdrawal of services, the interruption of communications and similar actions. To take only one example, it is not improbable to foresee an American Negro protest on behalf of Africans in South Africa. That there are serious impediments to the emergence of these interstate protests is equally clear. Protest is often culture-bound, leading to a circumscribed vision that would keep “wrongs” below the horizon of the dissenters. The grievance to arouse is probably local, otherwise it may go unheeded by those who are not directly affected. None the less international race consciousness may prove to have the psychological bonds to overcome these limitations.
Satyagraha resistance against totalitarianism has received the endorsement of several Gandhians and there are signs that there is increased interest in this use among students of nonviolent action. I would hold that the human costs are too high to justify this use. Without reviewing the debates about this employment, other than to mention that the “nature of the enemy” approach is central to many of them, it might be valuable to suggest that a related field is that of civil disobedience and civil resistance. In this area there is the possible utility of Gandhian type resistance in post-nuclear-strike circumstances when the opponent tries to occupy the “defeated” nation. This resistance must be distinguished from guerrilla struggle, passive resistance, and monastic-type disengagement. Discussion of resistance cadres for use after a nuclear attack and the landing of the attackers has usually focused on paramilitary forces that are not Gandhian. On the other hand, true believers have tended to avoid discussion of satyagraha after the evil deed. There is an opportunity to consider two “unthinkables” that are infrequently joined, nuclear conflict and satyagraha resistance. At a minimum the Gandhian tradition recommends a study of these two by policy makers, however sceptical they may be about political effectiveness, sufficiency of morale and other problems.
A final comment on the socialization of dissent is that it implies the collaboration of Gandhian states when they differ with other sovereignties. Alliances would seem inconsistent with the ideals of the model, but they would support cooperation for mutual principles and interests of the Indo-American type. In the prosecution of their differences with other states the Gandhian nations would have mutual obligations, the chief one being to keep the struggle ahimsatic so that the ethical costs of “winning” or “losing” are less than the costs in conventional struggle using coercion or violence.
Gandhi's Relevance Today
It is no easy task to consider the relevance of the Gandhian prescriptions and strategy for the contemporary world. But if one accepts R.R. Diwakar’s teaching that satyagraha made Mahatma Gandhi, and not the reverse, and that it would outlive him, the Gandhian model offers norms and techniques for our age. Among the general contributions is a nationalism of universal rules, no small achievement in a time when nationalism, especially in the new States, suggests that the defects of former norms justify the creation of another set of parochial standards for domestic and external behaviour. For example, the play-off game of the uncommitted with the superpowers is non-Gandhian, however understandable it may be in terms of economic and military weakness.
Both large and small powers can benefit from the Gandhian lesson that correct relationships avoid violence and militarism, and passivity and appeasement. Concretely, the arms control field is a zone where Western pacifism, which Gandhi criticized for its simplicity and either-or characteristics, might benefit through a re-examination of unilateralism and the exact geometry of nuclear deterrence and peace-keeping. Doubtless the Gandhian model is without this deterrence, but it also suggests how those with a problem can gradually extricate themselves from an awesome burden without sacrificing honour. The current phase of “mutual example” in American-Soviet efforts to achieve at least surface progress towards disarmament is in the Gandhian tradition, although concepts of psychological bargaining are involved that pay scant attention to Gandhian trust in the opponent.
Scepticism about the model is warranted in several areas. For the complex problems of reducing the defence segment of the American economy, the Gandhian norms and methods have little relevance. The record on transferring nonviolent resistance, even if limited to the Western imperialism the Indian leader did so much to destroy, is discouraging in view of the recent history of Algerian nationalism, British Guiana, Central and Southern Africa, and Southeast Asia. The exceptions have tended to be individuals rather than movements―Chief John Luthuli is an outstanding case. The responsibility for the meagre results can be placed with the un-British Dutch, French and Portuguese imperialists, turning aside from Gandhi’s thesis that satyagraha does not depend on English scruples. Satyagraha did transfer, apart from imperialism, to the English-speaking democracies to fortify prior traditions of direct action in the new quests for peace and equality. It has also persisted, as Minoo Adenwalla has observed critically, as a disturbing factor in India to feed discontent and challenge a national regime. For all its high norms the Gandhian tactic of disobedience may have weakened the better institutions of the world, i.e. those which are more rather than less democratic. Satyagraha may have caught hold where the need has not been critical.
There is also the question whether the Gandhian strategy really avoids inflicting psychic, social or political damage on the adversary, an important and vexing issue I can only raise in this essay. At a minimum there seems to be a problem of unintended results that are not consistent with Gandhian ethics when the struggle over the non-negotiable values or objectives inflicts harm on the opponent. Although individuals and political parties may become Gandhian, States may have to adopt a modified policy that admits that the ethical costs of world politics are likely to exceed those of internal affairs.
To return to the positive side, the Gandhian model implies the placement of particular values above the rituals of law, the restoration of obligation and sacrifice as effective concepts, and the elevation of self-reliance from an individual to a collective norm. The contributions to peaceful change, anti-imperialism and social justice require no special mention other than to cite them as elements of continuing worth.
Karl Jaspers has commented that the Gandhian way creates a suprapolitics summed up in the renunciation of violence but not of politics itself. Although he admires this ability to do both, Jaspers does not believe that the contents and methods of Gandhian politics are transferable and exemplary. I have expressed doubts about the first question. Yet I would argue that another view is tenable. For the Gandhian model, despite difficulties of transference that cannot be dissolved with hope, offers an international society of autocephalous units that does not require a world culture to transmit the Gandhian outlook and methods. They arise from the impact on national institutions of certain prophecy. This prophecy is exemplary because it closes the distance between civic health and private charity, and in the world community, lessens instabilities through encouragement of self-development under moral restraints.
The Gandhian model is further distinguished by its liberating message of good news. This is not a message of unilinear progress, but it does break through cyclical theories of history known to the West as well as the East. For all of his Hinduism Gandhi represented a departure from any tradition which accepts recurrent patterns of life and thought. He proclaimed a freedom and power of man to refashion destiny and to move, however painfully, out of fatalism and into a time of self-determination in individual and collective affairs.
1. Harijan, 28 July 1946,