The Anarchist Gandhi


By Anwesh Satpathy

Mahatma Gandhi has served as an inspiration to many in their fight against injustice, racism and oppression. His influence on the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, James Lawson, etc. is well known. Yet, Gandhi as a political philosopher continues to be elusive among the masses, if not the academia. Gandhi’s conception of the state and the nation, while being broadly close to the anarchist school of thought, derives from his overarching philosophy of non-violence and his critique of modern civilization. Gandhi’s anarcho-pacifist ideas, to use the term roughly, were not mere ideals but a part of his experiments, which continued even after his death among some of his followers.

Key Gandhian concepts

It is not possible to properly comprehend Gandhi’s political philosophy without elaborating on his influences and personal experiences. Combining his experience with rampant racism in South Africa, influences from Indian philosophical and religious schools of thought and the influence of other prominent thinkers like Leo Tolstoy, John Ruskin and Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi formulated his own coherent philosophy in Hind Swaraj .

After returning to India, Gandhi organized a non-violent resistance campaign among Indigo workers in 1917. His resistance campaigns, i.e., satyagrahas quickly grew from regional to national and united a large number of people in non-violent resistance against British oppression. Gandhi’s struggle was not primarily against the British but against violence in all its forms. Thus, Gandhi campaigned against untouchability, opposed violence towards animals and committed himself to fasting unto death for communal harmony.

In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi introduces many key concepts that continue to define Gandhian thought. Swaraj, or self-rule, for Gandhi, did not merely refer to political freedom from the British colonizers. It meant the ability to self-control and rule over oneself. Political revolution is only possible after the individual empowers oneself through an internal revolution. The proper way to achieve swaraj is through satyagraha, or soul force, which refers to a strong commitment to truth. A satyagrahi must be prepared to resist, obey unjust laws and prepared to face the consequences for the cause. Only those who are courageous and willing to suffer can be called true satyagrahis.

Civilization and the state

The roots of Anarchism is intimately tied with the political left. In recent years, a growing movement led by American libertarian thinkers has tried to break this distinction. They profess their belief in capitalism but are ideologically committed to the dismantling of the centralized state. Stateless capitalism or Anarcho-capitalism is relatively recent. Along with the leftists, they share an emphasis on economic materialism and modernization.

Gandhi, on the other hand, is a staunch critique of industrial society. The leftist movement, coinciding with the anti-imperialists, took scientific knowledge and secularization as a tool for emancipation. Gandhi, on the other hand, considered technology to be a symptom of spiritual and cultural damage. Diverging from the enlightenment’s primacy on reason, Gandhi preferred a pre-modern condition. This pre-modern condition was not to be stasis.

Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj can be read as his most comprehensive political and social manifestation. It is structured in the form of a dialogue between “Editor” and “reader”. The opposing views presented by the “reader” in the book was partly inspired by his encounter with the revolutionaries, including the Hindu nationalist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, as evidenced through the references to the revolutionary and Savarkar’s disciple Madan Lal Dhingra.

For Gandhi, civilization was a disease. India was not being kept down due to British imperialism. It was kept down by the “monstrous” modern civilization which gnawed even as it “soothed”. He considered lawyers, doctors, railroads, factories, machineries and English education to be representatives of the immoral modern civilization. A crucial aspect of modern civilization is its drive for profit. The only reason the British have dominions is due to their desire for profit. The army and the navy are to protect their hold over profit and turn the world into a global market. This assessment is particularly relevant in the contemporary world engulfed in globalization. Using violent methods to attain independence would mean the acceptance of modern civilization as a whole. Thus, Gandhi’s opposition to violence and his critique of modern civilization were inextricably linked.

Gandhi’s primary aim was not to achieve political power. It was to build a “self-controlled” society. A society of “enlightened anarchy” would be one where every individual becomes his own ruler. In this society, every individual’s conduct would be so moral that it would not harm another’s well-being. This would be society explicitly without “political institutions” or “political power”. Gandhi’s envisioning of such society seems to have been inspired from his readings of Tolstoy and Thoreau, who famously argued that the best government is one that governs the least.

This is not to say that Gandhi’s program had no political aims whatsoever. On the contrary, Gandhi’s political program and his campaign were aimed at the removal of the British in “every shape and form.” These were as crucial as the removal of British and Indian capitalists and the removal of armed defence forces altogether. A country can only be morally free when it has no army. Independence has to start at the local level, i.e., the villages. It is only when the villages are self-sustaining and capable of defending against the whole world that true independence will be achieved.

As India became independent, Gandhi’s ideals remained unrealized. His closest followers, including Nehru and Patel, had no time for his ideas. He was shunned politically by those who had latched onto his movement due to his ability to mobilize the masses. However, a close group of committed Gandhians remained loyal. Their contributions will be discussed further but it is important to emphasize on one more aspect of his ideals which separated him from other oppo9nents of technology.

Like Gandhi, the poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore was a staunch critic of modern industrial society and civilization. Tagore saw nationalism as “immoral” and alien to Indian roots. Indian-ness, for Tagore, implied the acceptance of plurality and diverse civilization. Gandhi, on the other hand, was a staunch nationalist. The English held the view that India was not a united nation. This was primarily due to the prevailing idea of a nation as a single heterogeneous territory. The development of railways was seen by many as an effective tool of spreading nationalism. Gandhi rejects the idea that Indian nationalism developed due to modern means of communication. He argues that Indians have travelled throughout the length and breadth of the country in bullock carts before. They learned each other’s languages and were not aloof to different parts of the nation. As an example, Gandhi cites Shankaracharya who cemented pilgrimage places in the South, East and North. The fact that the majority of Indians consider the Ganges to be sacred and keep its water in their home furthers the idea that the consciousness of unity has always been present among Indians. Railways, on the other hand, brought the influence of modern civilization and thus made people aware of distinctions. Here, Gandhi unites the idea of a sacred geography and nationalism. While doing so, Gandhi argues against the conflation of religion with nationality. He argues for an India where Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and Christians live together and consider India as their homeland. Gandhi’s idea of nation is not to be conflated with the nation-state. The nation-state, by its very definition, requires political power over a territory and a people. Gandhi’s ideal nation, on the other hand, can exist on its own without political power or the monopoly of violence.

Gandhian experiments in Sarvodaya

The idea of a centralized unitary state is alien to India and a late addition that gains popularity among India’s elite due to developments around the world and British education. For centuries, different communities in India lived in clearly demarcated spaces with local autonomy and customs. The arrival of the British forced these self-regulating communities to be dependent on a wider, centralized power as an arbiter of legislation. Some historians dismiss the idea of village republic as being a colonialist and Orientalist concoction of tradition in East versus modernity in West. The question of whether village republics ever existed in their purest form is a trivial one. What matters here is that thinkers like Gandhi proposed an indigenous alternative to the prevailing idea of the centralized state.

During Gandhi’s lifetime, the idea of a self-sustaining village-republic was only experimented through the communities and Ashrams that he established in India and South Africa. This idea remained largely unarticulated in the Constitution of India even though many members of the Constituent Assembly were Gandhians. Those advocating for self-sustaining village republics were by no means ignorant of the evils of patriarchy and the caste system which were retained through tradition. It is only when society is restructured and the shackles of oppressive tradition and organized religion are broken that a society without formal governmental relations would achieve its ideal state.

The word “Sarvodaya” was first used as a title of Gandhi’s translation of Ruskin’s Unto this Last. It literally refers to the “upliftment of all.” The Gandhian thinker Vinoba Bhave organized the first Sarvodaya meeting after Gandhi’s death to continue the work that the Mahatma left unfinished. For him, Sarvodaya referred to “freedom from government” and “decentralization of power.” In an ideal society practicing sarvodaya, decisions will be taken based on “unanimous consent” of the ordinary people. “Swaraj” can never be realized when the individual is in someone else’s control or when the individual exercises control over others. It is only when there is no exploitation and no submission that true Swaraj will be realized.

The localization of production, distribution, defence and education will not happen through a revolution that the communists envision. It is only when villages seek to organize themselves into self-sustaining units with minimum state interference purely due to the authority of moral force that a stateless society would be possible.

This manifested through Bhave’s Bhoodan movement, aimed at persuading landowners to follow their conscience and give holdings to peasant collectives to be managed in a self-sustaining manner in perpetuity. While the Bhoodan movement was successful for a while, Bhave retreated into spiritualism soon after. The baton was carried on to Jayaprakash Narayan (JP).

Unlike Bhave and Gandhi, JP had clear affinities with Marxism. He saw the idea of redistribution of wealth in self-sustaining village republics through persuasion as a more effective pathway to the eventual eradication of the state. This was further strengthened in the 1940s when he became disillusioned with Soviet Marxism as well as the Communist Party of India. He no longer believed that the principles of Marxism can be applied everywhere uniformly and dogmatically. For JP, achieving social revolution through democratic and peaceful means was possible in Indian society. To resort to violence in such a society would be “counter-revolutionary.” The dictatorship of the proletariat was no longer a viable option since it merely entailed the “dictatorship of bureaucratic oligarchy”. The socialism that JP believed in was not limited to collectivization of agriculture. It meant “the end of exploitation, injustice, oppression and insecurity, equality of opportunity and an equitable distribution of the good things of life.” Dismissing the socialist state as a Leviathan that sits on the freedom of people, JP proposed the alternative Sarvodaya through “voluntary endeavour of the people.” This would be characterized by “co-operation, self-discipline, equality, self-management and a sense of responsibility”. The ideal social structure would be balanced. It will be based on both agriculture and industry. It will be neither completely urban nor completely rural. The use of science and technology to serve one’s end will be promoted. Food, clothing, shelter, and education would be taken care of by the members of the gram sabha. This was not a return to the past. On the contrary, JP argued that this was a “community for the future.” Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, JP travelled across the country to promote and implement Bhoodan. He advocated for greater autonomy in Kashmir and Nagaland. Political turmoil, however, led him to join conventional politics through the student’s movement in Bihar. His call for a total revolution and mass agitation against Indira Gandhi served as a trigger for the declaration of Emergency.


The anarchism of Gandhians must not be conflated with European anarchism. Gandhian anarchism refers to a movement, a tendency to continuously move in a direction of less concentrated power, hierarchy and more self-rule or swaraj through participation at the lowest level. It does not assume that there is a perfect recipe to achieve the goal of a stateless society. It does not even make the attempt to imbibe the eventual ideal among its village republics. It rests on the assumption that individuals need to undergo a process of self-realization that its experiments at the local level will provide. It is only through collective self-realization that the leviathan, or the centre’s hold on the people will decrease. Gandhian anarchism can be rightfully termed as a form of decolonial anarchism, rooted in the experience of India’s rural life. The question of how such an experiment will unfold and under what circumstances is yet to be seen. The success as well as the realization of Sarvodaya depends entirely on whether the people are willing to strive for swaraj.

Anwesh Satpathy is an author and a student at Jindal School of International Affairs.


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