I first learned of and read about Mahatma Gandhi in 1968 when I was a student at Grinnell College in Iowa, around the time that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed on April 4th. That was the event which got me going on my now-42-years-long life of political and social activism.
Martin Luther King was the closest the USA has come to having someone in the mold of India’s Gandhi. Both were completely committed to nonviolence both as a personal philosophy as to how to lead one’s life and as the most effective way tactically to struggle for justice, peace and fundamental social change. Both were prominent and public national leaders. Both were victims of racism and strong advocates of the need to struggle to end it. And both were assassinated because of their political activism.
But there were differences. Gandhi was, in the words of Eknath Easwaran in the foreward to Louis Fischer’s “The Essential Gandhi,” a “spiritual aspirant, a mystic. The crucial difference [from other mystics] is that he does not withdraw from public life to do it. Gandhi was transformed by his deep-running, passionate love of other people, wherein he found God, and an increasing desire to lose himself in salving their wounds and sorrows.” (p. xxi)
Gandhi was deeply serious about living as God-like a life as possible, which included a life of celibacy for his last 44 years, including 38 while married. This was not the path that King followed.
King undertook no hunger strikes during the 15 or so years that he was politically active, while Gandhi engaged in about 20 political fasts, the longest for three weeks.
Gandhi felt strongly about the need to combine the personal and the political: “One man cannot do right in one department of life whilst he is occupied in doing wrong in any other department. Life is one indivisible whole.” (1)
Gandhi’s vision for the kind of future he saw himself working toward was very radical: ‘There will be neither paupers nor beggars, nor high nor low, neither millionaire employers nor half-starved employees, nor intoxicating drinks nor drugs. There will be the same respect for women as vouchsafed to men. They will be all proudly, joyously and voluntarily bread laborers.” (2)
In the world in which he lived and worked, however, there were contradictions in his approach. On the one hand, in 1925, he called upon “Capitol and Labor to supplement and help each other. They should be a great family living in unity and harmony.” (3) But three years later he wrote that the only way that “no one [will] suffer from want of food and clothing. . . [is] if the means of production of the elementary necessaries of life remain in the control of the masses.” (4) In 1934 he wrote that, “I do not believe that there is a basic or irreconcilable antagonism between [capitalist and landlord] interests and those of the masses. All exploitation is based on the cooperation, willing or forced, of the exploited.” (5)
According to an article on Wikipedia, “Indian National Congress,” “all the socialists were expelled in 1939 by Gandhi,” apparently over differences as to whether or not to launch a mass campaign for independence while Britain was weakened because of its war with Naziism.
Gandhi’s political priorities as part of the independence movement were three: unity between Hindus and Moslems, the removal of the oppressive caste system of untouchability, and home-based hand-spinning of clothes throughout all of Indian society. He believed deeply that political leaders must live with and be close to the lives and suffering of common people. “We must share their sorrows, understand their difficulties and anticipate their wants. With the untouchables we must be untouchables and see how we feel to clean the closets of the upper classes and have the remains of their table thrown at us. We must see how we like being in the boxes, so-called houses, of the laborers of Bombay. We must identify ourselves with the villagers who toil under the hot sun beating down on their bent backs and see how we would like to drink water from the pool in which the villagers bathe, wash their clothes and pots and in which their cattle drink and roll. Then and not till then shall we truly represent the masses, and they will respond to every call.” (6)
According to Fischer, Gandhi “always resisted politics. After his return to India [from South Africa] he attended annual sessions of the Congress [Party], but his public activity at such assemblies was usually limited to moving a resolution in support of the Indians in South Africa.” (7) Yet his popularity among the masses of Indians was such that in 1929, when the Indian independence movement was very strong, Gandhi asserted his power within the party. “It accepted Gandhi’s condition that he was to determine the nature, scope and time of the movement.” (8)
On my wall is a saying about leadership from Lao-Tse, a 6th century BC Chinese philosopher: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, Not so good when people obey and acclaim him, Worse when they despise him. ‘Fail to honor people, They fail to honor you.’ But of a good leader, who talks little, When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, They will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’”
Over the years that I’ve been part of organizations trying to make social change, I’ve come to appreciate the deep wisdom of these words. And I have tried, when in a leadership position myself, to act accordingly.
Gandhi was a great man. Part of his greatness was his life-long commitment to sharing in the sufferings and struggles of the masses of his people. He was not a Christian but he lived out the best of the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth. But he was also “great,” and he allowed himself to be “great,” in not such a good way, as the most powerful man in India willing to sometimes use that power for essentially tactical, not principled, ends.
For those of us active in the 21st century, we need a different approach. As Italian socialist leader Antonio Gramsci wrote from jail in the 1930’s, “our mode of existence can no longer consist of eloquence, the external and momentary arousing of sentiments and passions, but must consist of being actively involved in practical life, as a builder, an organizer, ‘permanently persuasive’ because he is not merely an orator.” (9)
Those of us who want to be effective leaders have to be prepared, have to welcome even, taking a back seat so that others can step forward to speak up and give leadership. Our organizing work has to be about working with others in such a way that they grow to become not just leaders themselves but “leadership trainers,” bringing others along just as they were.
If there is one overriding lesson to be drawn from the centuries-long efforts to build truly just societies, it is that a commitment to and respect for democracy in its fullest and deepest aspects is essential if we are to have a chance of success.
Those who have come before, like Mahatma Gandhi, can teach and inspire us on our organizing journey, but we must appreciate more than just their positive life lessons.
Ted Glick is the Policy Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Past columns and other information can be found at http://www.tedglick.com.
1) Young India, January 27, 1927, as quoted in Fischer, p. 106
2) Fischer, p. 320
3) Ibid, p,. 201
4) Ibid, p. 201
5) Ibid, p. 248
6) Ibid, p. 191
7) Ibid, p. 133
8) Ibid, p. 225
9) Antonio Gramsci, “The Formation of Intellectuals,” from The Modern Prince and Other Writings