I find Gandhi’s thought in at least three areas of abiding relevance for me: His views on nationalism, on capitalism and on solidarity.
The nationalism that Gandhi stood for, which informed India’s anti-colonial struggle, differed fundamentally from the nationalism that came into vogue in Europe in the 17th century, following the Westphalian peace treaties. At least three differences stood out. First, Gandhi’s nationalism was inclusive; there were no “enemies within” as with European nationalism. Second, it did not see the nation as standing above the people, an entity for which the people only made sacrifices; rather, the raison d’etre of the nation was to improve the living conditions of the people, or to “wipe away the tears from the eyes of every Indian”. Third, unlike European nationalism, it was not imperialist itself; the people whom the nation was to serve treated other people with “fairness”, which is why Gandhi wanted India to give Pakistan the Rs 55 crore that were its due after Partition, despite the bitterness caused by Partition.
This nationalism was not a mere idealist construct, it was based instead on a very practical understanding of what was required for the people’s freedom. If the people were to be free then that required the formation of such a nation.
Gandhi was also clear that capitalism as we know it, for which he used the term “the English system”, could not serve such a nation. It was incompatible with the people’s freedom. He wanted a different economic system altogether, where the capitalists could at best be the “trustees” of people’s property.
He was not a socialist but, in common with the socialists, he believed that capitalism could never solve the problem of unemployment, and the mental dullness it produced. Since he saw poverty as inextricably linked to unemployment, capitalism could also never overcome poverty. What we call “development”, whose essence must be the overcoming of unemployment and poverty, was incompatible, therefore, with the institution of capitalism.
Gandhi’s views on the relationship between capitalism and unemployment, and hence poverty, were deeply insightful.
It is commonly believed that even though capitalism initially destroys petty production, the displaced petty producers ultimately get absorbed within the growing capitalist sector, and that too at a higher wage than they earned earlier. This is neither theoretically valid nor historically borne out. The fact that European capitalism was not saddled with massive unemployment arising from the displacement of petty producers, was not because capitalist growth absorbed all those who had been displaced, but because of massive emigration to the temperate regions of White settlement, such as Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand where they drove out local inhabitants from their land and set themselves up as farmers. It is neither possible nor desirable to repeat this historical experience today, so that Gandhi’s rejection of capitalism acquires pertinence.
Gandhi’s rejection of the capitalist mode of production as exemplified by Europe, his rejection of European-style nationalism, and his linking of the two, was also a product of deep insight. It is not surprising that our embrace of unbridled capitalism in the neoliberal era, which predictably has brought in its train growing unemployment and absolute poverty, manifest in massive under-nutrition, has led to a denouement where the prevailing concept of nationalism has undergone a fundamental change. The inclusive, people-centred and non-aggrandising nationalism that characterised our anti-colonial struggle has given way to the old European-style “nationalism” that sees “enemies within” (indeed everyone opposed to the government is considered nowadays an “enemy within”), that sees the nation as standing above the people, and that rides roughshod over the people, trampling upon their rights as in Jammu and Kashmir today. The fact that the same government which unblushingly equates capitalists with “wealth creators” and which considers massive corporate tax concessions as a “win-win” situation for 125 crore people, also imposes an indefinite curfew on the people of Jammu and Kashmir, is not an accident. This route, however, leads to a perpetuation of unemployment, poverty, strife, and a break-up of the nation. And Gandhi saw this more clearly than almost anyone else.
Gandhi’s solution to the problem of unemployment was a restraint on the rate of technological change, which of course was impossible under capitalism in its spontaneity. But Gandhi did not advocate state-imposed restrictions towards this end. He wanted instead a voluntary eschewing of consumerism that always privileges technologically-sophisticated goods. He wanted the development of a “community” among the people where one foregoes the “fineries of Bond Street” so that one’s “brother” the weaver can get employment, a “community” where every person sees his or her well-being as dependent upon that of others.
The need for restraining the pace of technological change for achieving full employment is undeniable — the only countries which have achieved full employment, indeed labour shortage, in recent times, are the erstwhile socialist countries which restrained technological change and kept labour productivity growth in check.
Gandhi wanted such restraint to be voluntary, embedded in a sense of solidarity with one’s “brethren”. Gandhi’s emphasis on solidarity, on overcoming self-centred isolation, an emphasis reminiscent of Karl Marx’s stress on overcoming alienation through the formation of working class solidarity that would ultimately lead to a transcendence of capitalism, was crucial for his concept of human freedom. While their visions and analyses differed, Gandhi and Marx had this concept of freedom in common, as the development of a sense of community, which capitalism destroys.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 5, 2019 under the title ‘Nationalism without Other’. The writer taught economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University.