A complex man with a controversial legacy, Mohandas Gandhi remains one of the pioneers of civil disobedience as a political weapon and a giant in 20th century anti-colonialism. An individualist anarchist who motivated millions to fight to liberate themselves from British rule, his success showed a potentially powerful application of libertarian ideas during a major political crisis and the ability of those values to inspire positive, peaceful outcomes.
Gandhi’s principles of radical liberation existed within a moral framework that abhorred violence but empowered ordinary people, intellectually and spiritually, to prevail against oppressors and shatter a miserable status quo. According to the research of Erica Chenoweth, Gandhi’s template of non-violent resistance has been immensely successful for later generations around the world in creating lasting improvements in civil rights.
Modern activists and political thinkers shouldn’t discount the essential libertarian qualities of Gandhi’s philosophy, as they were among its most powerful and effective attributes. A commitment to natural law, self-determination, individualism and an abhorrence of government were core to his thinking and largely responsible for his success as an activist.
Satyagraha, Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, which translates to “truth force” or “love force” carries with it some distinctly libertarian ideas. It incorporates elements of both the “knowledge problem” (applied in a moral sense) and the non-aggression axiom, although taken a step further into moral obligation to others — which is more than libertarianism demands. According to Gandhi:
In the application of Satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.
Gandhi noted the purpose of Satyagraha was to “convert, not to coerce, the wrong-doer.” Success is thus defined as cooperation towards a just end, rather than a political “win.” He also spoke of means and ends as inseparable, rejecting the use of violence or the “victory, by any means necessary,” mentality of some who have practiced passive resistance in the West. Gandhi knew using violent means would embed injustice in whatever ends are attained, exacerbating the cycle of violence that plagues so many societies. In this way, the practitioner’s authority is rooted in moral force instead of violence, and has the potential to reduce antagonisms within a society without harming the antagonists.
Gandhi developed a set of very particular rules and mores for Satyagrahis to follow, including mandatory spinning, chastity and abstinence from alcohol. With these we are unconcerned, since different disobedience movements employed different particulars in their belief systems. What is interesting and relevant is the commonality among them, and the parallels to libertarian beliefs: The notion of the moral abhorrence of coercion, and the acknowledgement of coercion’s role in perpetuating injustice; the belief in natural rights that oblige disobedience to unjust laws; finally, and most pertinently, the almost mystical ability of this approach to inspire entire populations to mass action is an historical fact.
Foundations of Indian Liberty: Satyagraha in Action
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 13, 1919 (also known as the Amritsar massacre) has been characterized as the turning point in the history of British India, the event that lost Britain her ‘jewel in the crown’ and eventually her empire. The event, condemned by Winston Churchill, nevertheless produced an escalation of tension and insults against Indian subjects and shattered the notion that Indians were British subjects with the same rights as the British themselves, much in the way the Easter Rising created that same clarity for the Irish.
The Tribune of India described the massacre as a
[M]ilestone in the struggle for freedom which brought Mahatma Gandhi on the scene in his capacity as a leader of the masses whose presence inspired millions of people for three decades.
In the annals of our freedom struggle the Jallianwala Bagh massacre occupies an unforgettable place. Overnight, men and women resolved to defy the British might. For Gandhiji, the incident was a turning point. He became a ‘rebel’ and realised the futility of achieving freedom through British cooperation. The seeds of his ‘do or die’ movement were thus sown then and there.
Noted the Tribune:
History bears ample testimony to the fact that the ill-conceived and unwarranted 1919 military operation proved to be a catalyst for bringing the doom of the British Raj as it created an unbridgeable gulf between the British Government and the Indian people, leaving the British with no other option but to transfer power to the Indians.
Gandhi capitalized on the anger against British rule with the first concerted civil disobedience campaigns, the non-cooperation movement that began in the 1920’s. The Salt March of 1930 was among his most famous successes. The march began with a mere 78 people, swelling to throngs of 30,000-50,000 as they marched through four provinces to protest the salt tax. Gandhi went to sea to make illegal salt, a highly symbolic and dangerous act that challenged British authority. The result was widespread support and media attention, and the building of a broad-based movement. That movement contributed to Indian independence from the British in 1947.
Gandhi’s Libertarian Ideology
Though Gandhi the monolithic figure is widely revered, his actual political philosophy is seldom discussed, perhaps because he was an anarchist who believed in a cooperative agrarian economic model that prevented stratification of classes and political power.
It is well known that Gandhi was motivated by a desire to see India gain independence from the British Empire. Beyond that, his experience with governments seemed to have led him to a deep abhorrence of the institution, and an embracing of individualism, self-reliance and spontaneous order, part of a moral system he called the Swaraj, which translates literally to “self-rule.”
According to Swaraj.org:
The call for Swaraj represents a genuine attempt to regain control of the ‘self’ — our self-respect, self-responsibility, and capacities for self-realization — from institutions of dehumanization. As Gandhi states, “It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves.” The real goal of the freedom struggle was not only to secure political azadi (independence) from Britain, but rather to gain true Swaraj (liberation and self-rule).
Gandhi scorned the representative democracy due to its conflict with his deeply held reverence for the rights of the individual, noting “Swaraj will be an absurdity if individuals have to surrender their judgment to a majority.”
Gandhi recognized inequalities would persist. He was, however, deeply skeptical of government as a tool of social improvement:
I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress. We know of so many cases where men have adopted trusteeship, but none where the State has really lived for the poor.
It is my firm conviction that if the State suppressed capitalism by violence, it will be caught in the coils of violence itself, and will fail to develop non-violence at any time. The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence.
Gandhi was a believer in spontaneous order as well: “We find the general work of mankind is being carried on from day to day be the mass of people acting as if by instinct.”
Influenced by Western traditions in part due to the time he spent in Britain in his youth, Gandhi was also a believer in individualism, and the use of reason to underwrite a person’s morality. According to Professor T.N. Madan, Honorary Professor of Sociology at New Delhi University:
One of Gandhi’s outstanding contributions to social and political thought, I suggest, was the conception of altruistic individualism within a cultural setting that was generally considered group-centred … In regarding reason and moral sense as the primary sources of good conduct, Gandhi asserted the right of the individual to arrive at judgments and, if necessary, to defend them against collective opinion, whether traditional or contemporary. His excoriation of the practice of untouchability was not merely an assertion of his own individual right to make moral judgments — indeed he considered this an obligation but more importantly the assertion of the moral worth of every single human being, irrespective of his or her ascribed social status. Such moral worth is the basic premise of good society; whether it is enhanced or eroded depends on the dialectic of social pressures and individual agency.
Gandhi not only believed in asserting individual rights against the coercion of the state, he evidently believed market processes and private property would best meet man’s needs and scorned the use of parliamentary systems in attempting to achieve social ends. He was hostile to centralized authority of any kind and believed strongly in individualism and self-rule. “If we become free,” he said, “India becomes free and in this thought you have a definition of Swaraj. It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves.”
It is worthwhile to note the relevance of natural law in radical liberation. Like with most governments, the British claim that their colonies enjoyed rights as British subjects was farcical. Whenever conflict arose, those rights seemed to dissolve quickly into coercion and bloodshed as the British fought to maintain unquestioned supremacy. Gandhi, like the Sinn Fein and the American founders before him, used the notion of a higher “natural” law and an emphasis on self-rule to motivate the oppressed to seize their own freedom.
Gandhi angered some by extending his notion of power and Swaraj to the history of colonization. While acknowledging the British Empire’s cynical intentions in India, he places the responsibility for the disaster of colonization on the Indian people. “It is truer to say that we gave India to the English than that India was lost … to blame them for this is to perpetuate their power.” Because power resides in the people and they can only lose it by relinquishing it (often through coercion by others), petitions to the government get a new meaning with Gandhi. “A petition of an equal is a sign of courtesy; a petition from a slave is a symbol of his slavery.”
Here again is a similarity with Sinn Fein’s embrace of natural rights — rights don’t come from government, but from within. Therefore, rights continue to exist when they cannot be openly expressed due to coercion. This is a crucial intersection for libertarians. Radical ideologies succeed in part by inculcating oppressed and apathetic populations with a sense of self-worth. The concept of natural rights was important during the colonial period, when colonized people believed rights were rare morsels tossed to them on the whim of their superiors. Gandhi’s philosophy sought to rob Britain of their power to determine the law as a sort of demystification of white rule.
Anarchic India of course, was not to be. Gandhi, not being able to realize his “oceanic villages” system with Indian liberation in 1947, settled on minarchism:
Gandhi recognized that there would be a national government, and his anarchic, oceanic circle would not yet be possible. Nevertheless, he used the terms of nationalism to move towards the ideal of Anarchy. He advocated for a minimal level of State organization to fund some education programs and to promote his economic concept of trusteeship. Hence, Gandhi was a compromising Anarchist.
Gandhi had to compromise his principles in some cases. But of greater import is the fact that his individualist principles caught fire and exploded in popularity in the face of severe oppression. Indian independence was a complicated endeavor, but in the end, Gandhi proved to be on the right side of history. The radical anarchist who had been repeatedly imprisoned, classified as a terrorist by the British parliament and derided as a threat to law and order, was described by former U.S. Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall as “a spokesman for the conscience of all mankind.” With the positive impact non-violent resistance movements have had in the last seven decades, he might also be considered a true political visionary.