Between The Lines

charka and hammersickle image

K.P. Shankaran


andhi and Marx were two thinkers deeply committed to the idea of a non> hierarchical social order. Both of them advocated the need for a Socialist society by morally critiquing Capitalism. Gandhi borrowed his definition of Capitalism from Marx; it was the private ownership of the means of production. Despite these similarities, however, there were fundamental differences in their philosophical orientation. For Gandhi, it was ethics, which distinguished humans from the rest of animal life.  Marx, on the other hand, identified productive capabilities as the distinguishing feature of human life. It is the primacy accorded to productive capabilities and the relations of production, which make Marx’s philosophy a materialistic understanding of human destiny differentiating it fundamentally from Gandhi’s philosophy, which was based on the primacy of Ethics (concern-for-the-well-being- of-others).

Marx, according to Gandhi, made the future of Socialism precarious   by placing ethics in the domain of the superstructure that was ultimately determined by the economic base of production and relationships of production. It was clear to Gandhi that a Socialist society cannot be built on the Marxian premises. It can be argued that this structural flaw in Marxism, identified by Gandhi, was exposed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and by China’s move towards capitalism.

The Marxian prediction that Capitalism would stagnate and eventually collapse is again an unlikely proposition. As Thomas Piketty suggests in his ‘Capital in the 21th century’, capitalism will in all likelihood continue to exist uninterrupted, while throwing up conditions of severe economic disparities.

Is there a Gandhian solution for this malaise? For Gandhi, capitalism is inherently unethical because a capitalist society, which is also a consumerist society, can exist only by perpetually enhancing human selfishness. As people become more and more selfish within a capitalist dispensation they tend to lose concern for the well being of others. When the moral fabric of a society degenerates it becomes imperative for the State to control human behaviour through heavy policing. This in turn leads to the erosion of people’s autonomy and freedom. Evidence of this can be seen in the compulsive and widespread use of surveillance cameras in human societies across the globe. The obvious underlying premise for this State activism is that humans cannot be trusted and accordingly there is a need for the State to monitor their behavior through policing. This is only one of the many visible symptoms of the erosion of human autonomy caught up in a capitalist structure. The other symptoms of the malaise have been thoroughly articulated by Michel Foucault in his book ‘Discipline and Punish’ and in his writings on governmentality in which he demonstrates the multifarious ways in which power is exercised over individuals in order to create a well>ordered and efficient population for the uninterrupted growth of capitalism.

Thus the popular association of capitalism with freedom begins to unravel upon close scrutiny and it becomes clear that under capitalism individuals and communities are subjected to unprecedented controls of various kinds.  A consumerist society, which is very much a product of Modernity/Enlightenment that celebrates human autonomy and freedom, in fact ends up negating the very same autonomy and freedom. While there seems to be a paradox here, past experience has made it clear that as institutions of modernity become more and more entrenched in society, whether capitalist or those associated with Soviet /Mao type Socialism, human behavior becomes increasingly susceptible to external controls. Gandhi did not see this as a paradox, but rather recognized this as a contradiction built into the project of modernity/enlightenment. He therefore outrightly rejected social structures based on presuppositions of enlightenment/modernity, be it capitalism or Marxian forms of Socialism.

Marxian socialism is of course just one among many types of socialism. Socialist thought has a long and rich history, and various visions of socialist societies have been articulated both before and after Marx. Marx himself acknowledged the existence of other kinds of socialist thought but he disparagingly referred to these as “Utopian Socialism” because he believed that these were unattainable and therefore beyond the realm of possibility.

While the viability of Marxian socialism has been seriously questioned following the fall of the so called Marxian states, there has been renewed interest in other socialist voices that had so far been dismissed as “utopian”. Gandhi, a strong critic of Marxism articulated his own vision for a socialist society, which was based on the idea of Swaraj. Grounded in ethics, Swaraj exemplifies a concern for the well being of others. It is this concern for the other and the need to reduce selfishness among human beings that also animates Gandhi’s other well known principles such as ahimsa, satya , aparigraha etc. Central to Gandhi’s Swaraj was a belief in the possibility of and need for a stateless society and he realized that such a society could only be brought about through a considerable weakening of selfishness.

In early 1940s Gandhi formulated 18 constructive programs, and these programs were aimed at setting up a non>hierarchical social order (Swaraj). Their declared purpose was to bring about “self >improvement by building structures, systems, processes, and resources that are alternatives to oppression and promote self> sufficiency and unity in the community.” Gandhi believed that ‘essential capabilities’ by which he meant a series of freedoms, like freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from oppression, freedom from exploitation etc. could be attained only in a non>hieratical social order.

Gandhi recognized that under the Indian State these freedoms/capabilities would continue to elude large sections of the Society. Not only would they continue to be plagued by hunger and disease, but they would also remain victims of oppression and exploitation. He therefore advocated the implementation of the constructive programs through communes within the boundaries of the Indian State. These socialist communes within the Indian State were intended to put an end to capitalist exploitation and to the ethical degradation that was, for Gandhi, a characteristic feature of all societies under capitalism. The Indian state’s failure to rid its people of hunger and destitution demonstrates not only the prescience of Gandhi’s thought but also its continuing relevance in today’s world.

K.P. Shankaran was Associate Professor. St. Stephen’s College New Delhi where he taught Philosophy. He also taught Political Philosophy and Gandhian Thought at Delhi University. He has written a book “Marx and Freud on Religion” and many essays on Gandhi. He is currently working on a book about Brancusi, a Romania-born French sculptor.


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.