Mohandas Gandhi: The “Gentle Anarchist”

For our meeting on November 19, we’ll read selections drawn from Gandhi’s voluminous writings. While Gandhi is not often discussed as an anarchist thinker, the major themes of his work suggest an affinity with those of the classical anarchists, including a strong antipathy to state violence and a belief in an inherent human capacity for cooperation. Many historians have noted his epistolary relationship with Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy (according to George Woodcock, he was Tolstoy’s “greatest disciple”),  while others argue that his work betrays influences from Henry David Thoreau, Peter Kropotkin, and even Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. As Peter Marshall writes in his history of anarchism:

The most important and outstanding libertarian thinker to emerge in India this century was undoubtedly Mohandas Gandhi. On several occasions he called himself a kind of anarchist and always opposed the centralized State and the violence it engendered. In a famous speech in 1916, referring to India’s violent revolutionaries, he declared that he too was an anarchist, ‘but of another type [than the terrorist kind]’. (Marshall 2008, 422)

Still, it is particularly difficult to know what to read of Gandhi’s work because his writings “chiefly consist,” as Marshall puts it, “of the monotonous repetition of a few basic themes” (Ibid. 423). I had initially planned to trace the citations in Jason Adams’s classic pamphlet, “Non-Western Anarchisms,” which attributes to Gandhi the following quote:

[T]he state evil is not the cause but the effect of social evil, just as the sea-waves are the effect not the cause of the storm. The only way of curing the disease is by removing the cause itself.

This sounds like something Emma Goldman might have said and it has been recycled again and again and again by people who don’t bother to check their sources. So where does the quote come from? Adams cites this piece by Adi Doctor in The Ecologist. But where did he get it? He cites Young India, Gandhi’s weekly journal—namely the February 23, 1921 edition—but as it turns out, the quote isn’t Gandhi’s at all. It certainly appears in Young India alongside a number of articles written by Gandhi, but the quote is specifically part of an article titled “Non-co-operation: It’s Theory and Practice,” prefaced with this note:

The following is published not for its originality but as an able contribution by a young Punjabi student who has non-co-operated lately.

No name is given for the author, but it is not Gandhi. Irritated, I went through each one of Doctor’s notes. Most of them are completely fabricated, which is a pity because I had hoped that his citations would make compiling a list of Gandhi’s anarch-ish writings a bit easier. Instead, his shoddy scholarship (if not outright academic fraud) wasted my entire evening so I recommend instead these materials, though I don’t think it particularly matters what you read of Gandhi. To briefly summarize the readings I suggest, Tolstoy Farm was an agricultural commune Gandhi founded on Leo Tolstoy’s principles very early in his political career. I’ve included some of his reflections on the project. The Hackett text offers a fairly comprehensive overview of the major themes in Gandhi’s political and social philosophy. It might not be worth reading everything there, so pick and choose whatever you find to be of interest. Finally, Iyer’s superb three-volume The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi actually includes a short subsection on Gandhi’s opposition to the state, which just calls out for our group to discuss.

As several people pointed out last meeting, the discussion might benefit from reading Gandhi in conjunction with more critical accounts of his work. Of the secondary sources listed below, Ambedkar’s piece, “The Annihilation of Caste,” was specifically mentioned. If you have time, consider taking a look at that as well.

Primary Readings:

  • Mahatma Gandhi, “Tolstoy Farm,” in Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy Letters, ed. B. Srinivasa Murthy (Long Beach, CA: Long Beach Publications, 1987), 62-78.
  • Mahatma Gandhi, Selected Political Writings, ed. Dennis Dalton (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1996).
  • Mahatma Gandhi, “Towards a Stateless Society,” in vol. 3 of The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, ed. Raghavan Iyer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 595-609.

Download these and several other scanned selections here.

Secondary Readings:

November 19, 2014 – 7 PM
CUNY Graduate Center
Department of Political Science
365 5th Ave. Room 5200.07
New York, NY 10016

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