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Gandhian Socialism: The Constructive Programme


The Constructive Programme

 Mahatma Gandhi's genius as a social reformer lay in his intuitive ability to fuse timeless principles with evolving strategies. This is best seen in the vast array of activities he initiated under the single umbrella of the Constructive Programme. From the twenties until his death in 1948, Gandhi gradually shifted the emphasis of his political endeavours from non-violent resistance to constructive schemes for the social good. For him, non-violent resistance (satyagraha) and the Constructive Programme – a concrete embodiment of sarvodaya – were logical corollaries of the same philosophical perspective. Non-violent resistance, however, aimed to set right entrenched abuses or to abolish some patently unfair law or practice. But persisting non-cooperation with perceived evils cannot by itself create a socialist society. Gandhi's position was not wholly like Thoreau's and he could readily concede the importance, stressed by T.H. Green, of invoking the public interest (sarvodaya). He could also concur that the dictates of individual conscience, if genuine, would culminate in social action that would arouse and appeal to the conscience of others. But he could not make the enlightened individual's duty to follow his conscience dependent upon social recognition or public approbation.

 Gandhi's continual concern was always with duties rather than with rights; in fact, there is no concept of "rights" as such in Indian political thought. Further, his lifelong emphasis on ahimsa as the sole means to be used in the vindication of satya required him to hold that the courageous resistance to injustice, properly conducted, could not lead to general anarchy. Thus Gandhi differed from Thoreau chiefly in that his language and his emphasis were less anarchistic, but he distinctly differed from T.H. Green (whom he never read) in his own moral conception and political justification of the right of resistance to the State.1 Cessation of persistent wrongdoing is a necessary prerequisite for, but is hardly identical with, positive social welfare. The Constructive Programme did not rule out non-violent resistance or non-cooperation, but it simply focussed upon constructive ways of rebuilding a demoralized society. It sought to transform a servile nation habituated to sectional loyalties and social apathy into a fearless community of mutual service and sacrifice, in which every responsible individual readily identified with others, especially the poor and the meek.

 By instilling a lofty conception of labour, Mahatma Gandhi sought to uplift the whole of society, whilst encouraging self-sufficiency in each sector and region. If civil disobedience and non-violent resistance could arouse the conscience of others, the Constructive Programme could channel that awakened sensitivity in beneficial ways. Within the Indian context, this meant nurturing communal unity, abolishing untouchability, fostering adult education and systematic improvement of villages. It meant uplifting the peasants and developing non-violent labour unions, working towards economic and social equality, promoting cottage and small-scale industries as a means for decentralizing economic production and distribution, and eradicating a wide variety of social evils. The Constructive Programme drew its hidden inspiration from the hoary concept of trusteeship which could sustain both a narrower economic interpretation and a broader social application. If labour is as much social capital as metal, everyone capable of working should consider himself or herself an ethical trustee, even if one's own sphere of effective action is no larger than the village or the home.

 Since each facet of the Constructive Programme is related directly to trusteeship, the various programmes are coherently if loosely associated with one another. Such an overarching conception allows for efficient coordination of different endeavours, whilst permitting each line of action to develop on its own and at its own pace. At the same time, since the whole Constructive Programme is based on trusteeship as a shared ideal, it can proceed even when there is varying resistance to the effective realization of the ideal. The scope and simplicity of the Constructive Programme was a source of annoyance to those socialists who tended to look for detailed plans and quantifiable criteria of accomplishment. Gandhi, however, thought that its unique virtue lay in its generality, both because it avoided the psychological defeatism which readily emerges when rigid objectives are not met, and because it gave ample recognition to the intangible and unquantifiable elements of human progress.

 When an inflexible calendar for social reform is established, the repeated failure to meet its publicized deadlines tends to nurture the suppressed tendency to show violence of various sorts as the only decisive means to secure the desired ends. The Constructive Programme, with its almost unlimited plasticity, embodies the realistic perspective required for social revolution as well as specific criteria by which to measure what is in fact possible. By fusing means and ends in the Constructive Programme – so that the means cannot contain any element which would be unacceptable in the ends – one could guarantee that the ends would be right when realized. This familiar problem is poorly handled by State socialists and communists who find themselves "extending" the timetable of the revolution to explain the failure of ends. At the same time, the continual adherence to morally acceptable means would increasingly make clear just what ends were actually attainable in any given time and place. Rather than imposing preconceived ends upon a people incapable of or unwilling to accept them, Gandhi sought to uphold the highest ideals while making full use of what was actually possible in respect to specific situations. The intense wish to ameliorate depressing conditions was not in itself sufficient to effect a real change for the better. He wrote to a village worker in 1925:

 It is only recently that we thought of going into the villages. At first, we wanted things from the village people. It is only now that we are going to the villages in order to give the people something. How can we expect to win their confidence in such a short time?... We have to win back our honoured place among the village people, and will get nothing through impatience. Some persons serve their own interests under the guise of service. What other means do the village people have, except experience, to distinguish between such persons and genuine workers? Public workers, therefore, must cultivate patience, forbearance, selflessness and such other virtues. The masses can have no other knowledge but experience to guide them.2

 Gandhi remained sceptical of imposing any social reformation from the top, and he parted company with ideological and State socialists on this crucial point. To them, his bold attempts at non-violent resistance at least had the merit of being national in scope even when local in origin, but the Constructive Programme seemed to them like pouring water through a sieve into local villages and small community groups. Gandhi respected innate intelligence and acquired scholarship, but he felt that urban intellectuals could be useful as creative leaders in social reform only when they identified with and merged themselves with the rural masses. They could not, as Marx thought, conveniently fire the proletariat from revolutionary cloisters and then be drawn along by the mass fervour they had helped to kindle. Rather, they could light the fire of non-violent revolution only by living in villages and working conscientiously to improve the lot of the peasantry. Replying to a critic who maintained a Marxian perspective on the strategic role of intellectuals in the social revolution, Gandhi said:

 Whereas you have before your mind's eye that microscopic minority, the educated Indian, I have before my mind's eye the lowliest illiterate Indian living outside the railway beat. Important as the former class undoubtedly is, it has no importance in my estimation except in terms of the latter and for the sake of the latter. The educated class can justify its existence only if it is willing to sacrifice itself for the mass.3

 Revolution has to be from the bottom up, if it is to be non-violent, successful and permanent. Neither panaceas in the form of ingenious reorganization of fixed components in the social structure nor the wholesale reassignment of unaltered roles can make any significant difference to the human condition. If dissatisfied intellectuals genuinely wished to help, they must not preach to the multitudes and encourage incendiary reactions while they themselves remain aloof from the muddy arena of conflict. Instead, they must merge with the masses of the disinherited and demonstrate collective uplift through their own heroic labours. Thus Gandhi divorced sattvic or noetic politics from the turba of ideological froth. Fusing the political art with the gospel of service to the community, he restored to politics its classical concern with the Good, the Agathon. He was firmly convinced that the persuasion of helping hands would generate a more lasting, if more gradual, revolution than ideological pronouncements could possibly achieve.

 The harder the task, the fewer willing workers will there be.... But understanding workers, when they observe the paucity of volunteers, will become more devoted to their work and make greater sacrifices. If they do so, the number of workers will increase again. There is no exception to this law.4

 If Gandhi had little faith in the presumed capacity of modern institutions to ameliorate unacceptable social and economic conditions, he was also fully aware that arduous work in villages would not miraculously transform most political workers. Just as he had employed the enigmatic methods of satyagraha on a national scale, so too he found that they could be utilized on a micro-level to preserve cohesiveness and direction amongst voluntary workers in the Constructive Programme. When critics wrote to him of the manifold ways in which dedicated workers seemed to succumb to the enticements of power, he advised appropriate forms of non-cooperation. But, he warned,

  During my long experience, I also noticed that those who complain of others being ambitious of holding power are no less ambitious themselves, and when it is a question of distinquishing between half a dozen and six, it becomes a thankless task.5

 Workers in villages would not miraculously escape the pervasive ills which infect the noisy advocates of State socialism, but cultivating social reform at the local level could afford the best conceivable opportunities for holding them in check and even eradicating them. At least, the tendency to leap to hastily drawn conclusions regarding what could and could not be accomplished would be moderated. Proclivities arising from the weaker side of human nature could be mitigated. Tangible improvements should not be overlooked because the "big picture" failed to enthuse volunteers, whilst the intangible transformation of human consciousness must not be missed out owing to the excessive psychological generalizations of large theories. Workers should refine and renew their activities, not on the basis of abstract models but out of their well-earned experience. In 1947 Gandhi spoke plainly to a large gathering of socialists on the eve of Indian independence.

 No doubt the transfer of power will remove many obstacles. But we shall have to do solid work among the people. Since you look upon me as an adviser and seek my advice of your own free will, I have only one advice to give, and that is that, if you wish to establish socialism, there is only one way in which it can be done: go and live among the poor in the villages, live as they live, be one with the village people, work for eight hours daily, use only village-made goods and articles even in your personal lives, remove illiteracy among the village people, eradicate untouchability and uplift the women. I will even go so far as to suggest that you should establish such a living bond with the village people that, if anyone amongst you is unmarried and wishes to marry, he or she should choose a partner from among the village girls or boys. If anyone else seeks your advice on this subject, give him or her, too, the same advice. Make your life an ideal one in this way; when the people see your transparent lives every minute of the day as clearly as we see pictures on a screen, their influence will be felt throughout the country and reform its life.6

This is a bold vision, but one which Gandhi believed could be embodied with increasing approximation and one which would remain an index of progress in social reform.

 Except for strict adherence to non-violence as a principle and a policy at all times, Gandhi did not dispute the socialist and communist ideals of a society in which basic economic, social and political equity supported a fundamental equality amongst all citizens. He doubted that the centralized State could serve these ends unless it had actually arisen from a people already dedicated to them. Like Marx, he thought that a people so dedicated would not need the State in its contemporary form, since much of its socio-political apparatus would have become irrelevant. The social transformation of a nation could not be achieved in purely social terms, if for no other reason than that social action and political authority cannot be wholly disentangled. Gandhi was deeply convinced that political power could be brought to bear on institutionalized practices which subvert social and economic ends, but just as his radical ideas of social and economic reform require that these arenas be purified and understood in a new light, politics too must be purified and understood anew. When criticized for his political action, he once responded, "Is not politics too a part of dharma!",7 but he thought of political power – like all power – as a means and not an end.

 Political power, in my opinion, cannot be our ultimate aim. It is one of the means used by men for their all-round advancement. The power to control national life through national representatives is called political power. Representatives will become unnecessary if the national life becomes so perfect as to be self-controlled. It will then be a state of enlightened anarchy in which each person will become his own ruler.... In an ideal State there will be no political institution and therefore no political power. That is why Thoreau has said in his classic statement that that government is the best which governs the least.8

 Recognizing that "enlightened anarchy" was an ideal, Mahatma Gandhi nonetheless believed that only the loftiest ideal could effectively motivate the advancement of a people. Gandhi was closer to Marx than to Weber in his insistence upon an open-textured vision of human nature, a fundamental standpoint which allowed him to point to social perfectibility without the arbitrary restraint of predetermined time limits on its realization. In practice, he was always ready to settle for much less at any given time, provided it did not foreclose further progress nor actually negate the ideal. Gandhi's entertaining dialogues with socialists and communists, as well as his ready application of their basic vocabulary to much of his political work, reveal a deep insight into the methodology of social transformation. In addition to the need for a bold vision, which all social reformers accept, and the principle and policy of non-violence, which many socialists and all traditional communists would reject, Gandhi discerned a number of requirements for permanent social reform which cannot be ignored without peril by reformers of any persuasion.

First of all, Gandhi comprehended that the key to lasting social transformation lay in securing constructive change in the social and economic infrastructure of a nation. He knew that governments and policies pass and are forgotten, whilst the roots of the social structure remain firm if nurtured in the villages and amongst the people. For Gandhi, India had to revitalize these roots precisely because myriad villages were allowed to decline steadily from the seventeenth century under colonial rule. Drained of their traditional resources, they were promised very little of the fascinating and deceptive goods of "modern civilization" and given much less. What others bemoaned as a horrendous lack Gandhi saw as a distinct advantage. The villages had been more abandoned than altered, and so he saw the possibility of revitalizing them along constructive lines even while encouraging social democracy and self-reliance, ideas that depend upon character, not capital.

Secondly, a critical factor in radically renewing the entire infrastructure, but also valuable at every level, was the necessity for both individual and collective yajna or sacrifice. No nation can expect to reconstitute itself on an equitable basis without its people giving up at least those things necessarily dependent on inequities. Yet, merely to divest portions of the population of cherished privileges or properties is to provoke class war. Therefore, Gandhi saw that the potent ideal of voluntary sacrifice for a larger common good had to become mandatory common sense within the social system and of exemplary nobility in the eyes of peers. If trusteeship is to bring about social reform without bitter conflict, a broad conception of stewardship must command the allegiance of leaders and the people alike. Socialist and communist systems have already demonstrated the awesome capacity of the masses to sacrifice in vain for a vague ideological promise of a glorious future. Gandhi uncompromisingly insisted that those who would be responsible leaders of a socialist society must lead the way in making tangible sacrifices. Failure to do this voided all claims to wisdom, insight and credibility. Sacrificing freely amidst the people demonstrated minimal and authentic understanding of equity and equality, and every honest effort could foster a contagious change in all arenas of society.

Thirdly, and closely related to the need for the sacrificial spirit, was Gandhi's own continual realization in his intensely active political life that reformers need the very reforms they sought for others. For Gandhi, there were not two species of human being – those who needed reform in a socio-economic context and those who advocated reform and yet had marvellously remained untouched by the societies in which they lived. If modern civilization is a disease – as Gandhi believed – all are more or less infected by the virus. Though he acknowledged the rich resources of some individuals in wisdom and knowledge, and even in experience, he held to the uncompromising equality of all in the need to transform thinking, motivation and modes of action. Though this powerful realization came from a penetrating insight into the complexities of human nature and social structures, Gandhi expressed it in Euclidean terms: the ideal society is not a closed circle, but an open one in which all its citizens work towards extending the horizons of human perfectibility, knowing that they can always do much better, whilst no one is in a position seriously to claim that he can in no way do better.

Fourthly, whilst Gandhi cherished the grand vision of social possibility offered by optimistic socialists and communists, and indeed expressed a distinct vision of his own that they found daring in its long-term faith in the human race, he could not concede the practicability of magisterial demands for total reformation all at once. Gandhi's embryonic plan for social transformation is properly called revolutionary not in respect to time but rather to its texture. The revolution he projected must be total but gradual. It is essential to nurture the revolution by degrees, however vast the whole picture might be. Gandhi felt that many self-styled revolutionaries were not really committed to a transformation they would not live to see. The willingness to labour patiently for incremental gains towards an end which one would not live to share was for Gandhi part of the sacrifice required of all, especially those who would lead.

Fifthly, the Constructive Programme was designed not only to disseminate Gandhi's basic principles but also to ensure that a variety of shifting opportunities could be taken to secure modest successes wherever possible. A mere succession of violent thrusts at the existing social structure is not acceptable. Gandhi preferred modest gains, each of which stood a reasonable chance of enduring. Leaving the dramatic action of demolishing the old social structure to those who preferred what he saw as misguided activity, he sought to build a new edifice brick by brick. The Constructive Programme could slowly build upon every success whilst leaving the future open to bold experimentation, in which there are invariably errors, without threatening to lose the gains already made.

 Gilbert Murray, who was an early admirer of Gandhi and also grasped the significance of satyagraha as early as 1914, thought it necessary in 1928 to attack the Tolstoyan doctrine of non-resistance to evil as anarchic and subversive.

 It is all very well... to ridicule the law and peace and conventional morality when you are not in danger of being left with no law and no peace and the standards of behaviour broken. But we of the present generation have walked too deep in the valley of the shadow.... Our ship has got to be saved; saved with all its faults of construction and all its injustices, because only while it is safe shall we be able to correct the things that are wrong, reform the structure, improve the conditions of the cabin-boy, and bring ease to the starved and broken-legged cattle who are moaning in the hold.... Let us think first of the great society of which we are members and to which we owe our loyalty.

This noble and wise exhortation is specially applicable to the Ship of State in India today, in which it is more essential to teach the Gandhian concepts of swadeshi and sarvodaya than the methods of mass satyagraha. At the same time, we can think of pressing situations in India and elsewhere in which, even today, the revolutionary doctrine of satyagraha has its continuing relevance.9

 Many Indian socialists were fervently attracted to Gandhi's political, social and economic aspirations, but they were periodically frustrated by his specific policies, which they saw as strangely anomalous in the twentieth century. Yet, he was a deeply committed socialist and even a communist at heart. His appeal to past experience as well as his openness to thorough social experimentation outstripped the impetuosity of many whose wills were neither so strong nor so one-pointed. He combined rock-like convictions with a resilience and willingness to learn that gave credibility and credence to his terse utterance nearly six months before he died as a martyred Mahatma:

My life is my message.10

 Gandhi's faith in Truth (Sat) implied a concrete, if unconditional, confidence in every human being far surpassing the negative and suspicious notions of systems and ideologies. He could honestly call himself a "socialist" and a "communist" though he rejected many of their modern assumptions, methods and perspectives, if only because he truly lived out their deepest moral aspirations in his daily life. Towards the end of his life-odyssey, he enshrined the essence of those dateless and deathless aspirations and strivings in a striking and unanswerable challenge to all sincere Theophilanthropists:

 I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.11

Hermes, October 1985
by Raghavan Iyer


1 by Raghavan Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Oxford University Press (New York, 1973). Second edition: Concord Grove Press (Santa Barbara, 1983), pp. 268-269.

2 "Who Is to Blame?", Navajivan, June 28, 1925.

3 "Letter to Captain J.W. Petavel", SN 12648, Sabarmati Sangrahalaya, Ahmedabad.

4 "Letter to Dahmibehn Patel", GN 9206, Gandhi Memorial Muaeum and Library, New Delhi.

5 "Speech at Prayer Meeting", Harijan, March 2, 1947.

6 "Talk with Socialists", Bihar Pachhi Dilhl, pp. 14-19.

7 "A Letter", Bihar Pachhi Dilhi, p. 350.

8 "Enlightened Anarchy – A Political Ideal", Sarvodaya, January 1939.

9 by Raghavan Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, p. 337. The quotation is from Gilbert Murray, The Ordeal of This Generation, Allen and Unwin (Winchester, Mass., 1929), p. 210.

10 "Message to Shanti Sensa Dal", The Hindustan Standard, September 7, 1947.

11 "A Note", Mahatma, vol. VIII, p. 89.

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