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Distinctiveness of Gandhian Socialism

In the previous article we saw that Gandhian socialism is centered around:

  1. Equality of social status irrespective of class, profession, gender, age or wealth.
  2. Equitable distribution of wealth.
  3. Equality of opportunity (with special aids for the needy and disabled.)

In this article we’re going to see how Gandhian socialism is unique in its own way. Although Gandhi was opposed to the racial or cultural superiority of any nation, he believed that his socialism or Indian socialism cannot be a carbon copy or imitation of western socialism. “Socialism and Communism of the West are based on certain conceptions which are fundamentally different from ours.”

He emphasized social equality, the ideal of Sarvodaya, non-violent socialism, concept of Bread Labour, theory of Trusteeship, and above all, the doctrine of socialism through the diminution of state power.

Ethical and Spiritual Centrality over Materialism

What are the values that we Indians cherish that are fundamentally at variance with those of the West? He believed that spirituality and religiosity are the anchor points of Indian culture. The spirit of India encompasses equanimity, contemplation, and inward vision as opposed to materialistic conception of life of the West.

This land of ours was once, we are told, the abode of gods. It is not possible to conceive gods inhabiting a land which is made hideous by the smoke and the din of mill chimneys and factories, and whose road ways are traversed by rushing engines, dragging numerous cars crowded with men who know not for the most part what they are after.

He was opposed to mindless industrialization causing irreversible damage to the environment and biosphere. While material prosperity of the individual should not be completely neglected, the emphasis should be on his moral and spiritual development as on his material prosperity.

Western socialism is based on the assumption of the fundamental selfishness and greed of each individual, whereas the Indian approach presumes just the reverse. Selfishness and violence belong to the beast and not to the immortal spirit of the man.

One must believe in the possibility of every person, however depraved, being reformed under human and skilled treatment. We must appeal to the good in human beings and expect response.

Particularly in the context of the Indian cultural heritage of Vaishnavism, Buddhism, Jainism, and their emphasis on non-violence, non-injury, renunciation and self-sacrifice, adoption of violent technique for the attainment of socialism in Indian conditions was considered superfluous by Gandhi. He opined that the rich and the privileged can be persuaded to be altruistic.

For the Soviets, socialism and communism are different; socialism is the means and the communism is its end. They considered socialism as a necessary intermediate step moving from capitalism towards communism. But Gandhi did not distinguish between socialism and communism. He cared about an egalitarian society free from exploitation and disparity.

Social Equality in a Class-conscious Society over a Class-less Society

Western communism aims to achieve a classless society. Because, according to them, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. Western socialism originated due to the alleged dichotomy between the oppressor and the oppressed (e.g. rich vs. poor, bourgeoisie vs. proletariat, landlord vs. peasant, owner vs. worker, &c.). They somehow believe that by remedying the economic inequality, they can generate a class-less society of equals fostering fraternity. However, Gandhi actively pushed social equality independently and hand-in-hand with economic and political equality.

Gandhi revolted against the pyramidal structure of caste (i.e., jāti) system with the upper classes looking down upon the lower classes, especially the untouchables. He was a devout Hindu and stood firmly by the side of the Vedic concept of social stratification. Yet, he did not subscribe to the view that the Hindu social order perpetuated inequalities in the name of a hierarchical classification. Rather he was a votary of Varnashrama Dharma, or the Hindu concept of division of society into four different classes depending on the nature of the social obligations that the individuals are expected to perform. The four fold classification of the Hindu society as enjoined by the Rigveda – the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas and the Shudras – was considered by Gandhi as division of society into four social classes interrelated to one another by the common bond of duty in their respective capacities to the society. As he said:

The law of Varna means the following on the part of us all of the hereditary and traditional calling of our forefathers in a spirit of duty. If Varna reveals the law of one’s being and thus the duty one has to perform, it confers no right and the idea of superiority or inferiority is wholly repugnant to it. All Varnas are equal, for the community depends no less on one than on another.

Under the influence of the Vedic concept of Varnashrama Dharma, Gandhi likened the four Varnas to four limbs of the body of which none is superior or inferior. As the health of each part of the body is essential for a perfect body, balanced development of all the four classes of a society is equally important for a perfect society. Any attempt to prop up the concept of class superiority will cut the very root of a healthy society.

Untouchability has been abolished in India, as laid out in the Article 17 of the Constitution. Such a discrimination is not taught by Hinduism. Even a thousand years ago, jāti-based discrimination was eradicated by social reformers like Bhagavad Ramanujacharya who promoted social equality.

In short, while Westerners argued for a classless society, Gandhi favoured a “class-ful”, varna-based (not jāti-based) social order of equality rooted in Varnashrama Dharma.

Universal Welfare, not just the Welfare of the Lowerclass

Western socialism is essentially a class philosophy. Marxists did not hesitate to prescribe forcible deprivation of the privileged classes for the economic freedom of the under-privileged. The unity of the working class was paramount, even if the privileged people trembled, tottered and toppled or even eliminated.

On the other hand, Gandhian socialism propounds Sarvodaya (“Upliftment of All” or “Universal Welfare”), a social philosophy and not a class philosophy. It not only seeks the betterment of the poor and downtrodden; it is a scheme of social reconstruction that encompasses the upliftment of all in the society or the welfare of all – not just the lower class but also the upper class. Does it mean that under Sarvodaya, the rich shall be allowed to enjoy more privileges? Emphatically, no. That goes against the idea of socialism of closing the economic gap between the rich and the poor.

By Sarvodaya, he meant not just material development – a western notion of welfare – but the wholesome or all-round development of all the individuals including their moral, ethical and spiritual development. Hence, it embraces the welfare of the rich and the privileged; the emphasis here is not on the material enrichment of the rich men, but the promotion of their ethical, moral and spiritual enrichment so that their integrated and balanced development will be possible.

There must be economic growth so that the poor can raise their standard of living. But production of riches requires certain knack and tact that all do not possess in equal measure. Therefore, the skills and services of those who produce wealth by honest means can be garnered for the purpose of multiplication of wealth which may be then be equitably distributed among the members of the society. Hence, instead of advocating killing of the geese that lay golden eggs -— the rich, the capitalist, and the privileged class – he wanted their domestication so that they may be useful to realise a socialist society. Gandhi suggested that the rich can gain their moral and ethical stature by practising renunciation, surrendering their privileges, devoting their surplus wealth for the good of the community and acting as trustees of the society.

Thus, as against the Western notion of socialism, the Gandhian concept of Sarvodaya does not propose the liquidation of any section of the community, including the rich.

Trusteeship: Societal Interest over Self-Interest

Trusteeship means that the privileged class, while still in possession of their entire wealth, shall spend only that portion of the wealth for themselves as are essentially required for satisfying their basic needs or honourable livelihood and hold the rest of their wealth as “trustees” on behalf of the society. The rich shall hold their superfluous wealth on behalf of the society as its custodian and spend it for the benefit of society. This enables to usher in an egalitarian society automatically without violence or bloodshed.

Gandhi realised that there may be some among the capitalists, who in spite of all attempts at converting them may not yield to the moral influence and refuse to develop the spirit of trustees. Hence he switched on to the technique of “Statutory Trusteeship” or trusteeship brought about with the help of statutes or legislative enactments. Yet, Gandhi did not overlook the danger of associating the state with this act of legislation since he was all along conscious of the violent nature of the state. Hence, he contemplated that the legislation shall be enacted by Grama Panchayats that are democratically constituted with people at the helm of affairs.

The Trustee shall not have anything, even a rupee more than his neighbour. In other words, the trustees therefore shall be entitled only to have their absolute minimum in form of a balanced diet, a decent house to live in, education of their children, medical care of their family members and no more. Trusteeship is not necessarily inheritable by the children of the trustees. It is not a right but a duty which can be assigned to those who have the requisite qualification.

Decentralized and Minimum Governance over an All-Pervasive State

Gandhi was against the communist idea of a government that owns, runs and manages all the economic enterprises in the state. He was well-aware that an all-pervasive state will curtail personal freedom and individual liberty – “There will always be liberty tomorrow but never today.” If the state penetrates into every aspect of individual and social life, it simply stifles the onward development of all. He not only considered that government as best that governs the least, but also that state as best that performs a minimum of functions. He aware how concentration of power in the hands of the state facilitates abuse and misuse of such power for promoting sectarian ends. He argued for diminution of the powers of the state and decentralized smaller village communities or societies as the basic units of political and economic authority.

The centre of power now is in New Delhi or in Calcutta and Bombay, in the big cities. I would have it distributed among the seven hundred thousand villages in India. That will mean that there is no power.
Independence must begin at the bottom. Thus every village will be a republic or panchayat having full powers. It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained, and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world.

Thus his socialist community shall proceed from a system of economically self-sufficient and politically self-governing villages, autonomous, but impelled by the societarian motive to sacrifice its interest for the greater good of the society. He likened it to the ripples in water:

In this structure composed of innumerable villages there will be ever widening, never ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose centre will be the individual always ready to perish for the village, the latter ready to perish for the circle of villages, till 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

The Ugly Side of Gandhian Socialism

Gandhi believed that only manual labour (e.g., farmer) is worthy of payment of wages. People engaging in primarily intellectual labour must work for free.

Mere mental, that is, intellectual labour is for the soul and is its own satisfaction. It should never demand payments. In the ideal state, doctors, lawyers, teachers and the like, will work solely for the benefit of the society, not for self.

In his view, a doctor should not only engage in his medical profession but also do physical labour (“bread labour”) if he wants to earn money. This reinforces the stereotype that socialists want all the good stuff for free but who’s gonna pay for it? Medical education doesn’t come for free!