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Does Gandhi Deserve a Place in the Libertarian Tradition?

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Tags BiographiesFree MarketsWorld History

02/02/2011Jeff Riggenbach

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Mohandas K. Gandhi"]

Mohandas K. Gandhi was born October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, a port town in Western India on the shores of the Arabian Sea. His father was a high-ranking official in the government of the small principality that nominally ruled the immediate area; in effect, the elder Gandhi reported to the local princes, and they in turn reported to the local British officials, who really ran things. The younger Gandhi was interested in a medical career, but he abandoned that idea in favor of pleasing his parents, showing his humility and obedience, and carrying on family traditions: in 1888, at the age of 18, he moved to London to study law.

He returned to India three years later, only to discover that he was unable to earn a decent living as an attorney, at least in his own country. After his attempts to establish a private practice in Bombay failed, he took up residence in Porbandar once again, working under the supervision of well-established lawyers, doing what we would describe today as the work of a paralegal. By the spring of 1893, 23 years old and apparently unable to support himself in the profession he had only entered in the first place in order to satisfy his relatives, he found himself forced by economic realities to accept a position in the legal department of an Indian company in the city of Durban, on the eastern seacoast of South Africa, yet another part of the British Empire.

Up to this time in his life, Mohandas Gandhi had been a model of self-effacing cooperativeness. As his biographer, the late B.R. Nanda, put it, "he had so far not been conspicuous for self-assertion or aggressiveness." Gandhi himself, much later in life, observed that he had been brought up "to carry out the orders of the elders, not to scan them." And he did not scan them; he carried them out, uncomplainingly and faithfully. Nor did the young Mohandas Gandhi betray even the slightest interest in politics and public events. Nanda put it this way:

Until the age of 18, Gandhi had hardly ever read a newspaper. Neither as a student in England nor as a budding barrister in India had he evinced much interest in politics. Indeed, he was overcome by a terrifying stage fright whenever he stood up to read a speech at a social gathering or to defend a client in court.

By the time he got to South Africa in the spring of 1893, however, things had changed. His parents were both gone now, and though other older members of his family remained, he was more than 4,000 miles from home and was no longer able to hear their comments and advice.

Whether these were among his reasons or not, the fact is that the meek Mohandas Gandhi known well to all those who had made his acquaintance during his early years in India and England disappeared after the move to South Africa and was never seen again. He was replaced by a Gandhi made of sterner stuff, a Gandhi who had had his fill of living as a doormat for other human beings, a Gandhi who would rise up with a vengeance against anyone who dared to employ force against him.

Nanda names a few of the indignities forced upon Gandhi shortly after his arrival by South African laws mandating second-class treatment for people who qualified as "colored." One day,

while travelling to Pretoria, he was unceremoniously thrown out of a first-class railway compartment [for which he had paid] and left shivering and brooding at Pietermaritzburg Station; in the further course of the journey he was beaten up by the white driver of a stagecoach because he would not travel on the footboard to make room for a European passenger; and finally he was barred from hotels reserved "for Europeans only."

In response, as Nanda writes, Gandhi

blossomed almost overnight into a proficient political campaigner. He drafted petitions to the [colonial] legislature and the British government and had them signed by hundreds of his compatriots. He … infused a spirit of solidarity in the heterogeneous Indian community. He flooded the government, the legislature, and the press with closely reasoned statements of Indian grievances. Finally, he exposed to the view of the outside world the skeleton in the imperial cupboard, the discrimination practiced against the Indian subjects of Queen Victoria in one of her own colonies in Africa.

Beginning in the fall of 1906, Gandhi began using still another tool, which he called "satyagraha." It called for those he had organized to peaceably defy any unjust law and to suffer any and all penalties resulting from their defiance. Nanda translates "satyagraha" as "devotion to truth," but it is also sometimes translated as "firm insistence on truth" or "persistence in the pursuit of truth." It was, Nanda writes, "a new technique for redressing wrongs through inviting, rather than inflicting, suffering, for resisting the adversary without rancor and fighting him without violence."

Jim Powell reports in his book The Triumph of Liberty that

around 1907, Gandhi campaigned in South Africa against laws that prevented Indians from traveling, trading and living freely, and a friend gave him a copy of [Henry David Thoreau's] Civil Disobedience, which he read while imprisoned for three months in Pretoria. He acknowledged that Thoreau's "ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian independence. … Until I read that essay, I never found a suitable English translation for my Indian word Satyagraha."

The Thoreau scholar Walter Harding wrote that after first reading "Civil Disobedience" in that Pretoria jail cell, Gandhi "always carried a copy with him during his many imprisonments" in the years to come.

Mention this connection between Thoreau and Gandhi and you virtually guarantee that someone will ask (whether plaintively, sarcastically, or in a spirit of genuine curiosity), "But was Gandhi a libertarian?" Well, of course, that depends on how you define your terms — what you mean by the word "libertarian" and what kind of evidence you think counts when it comes to deciding whether a particular writer or teacher or political activist is or was a "libertarian." A great many people who are willing to honor Glenn Beck's or Bob Barr's claim to be a "libertarian" are strangely unwilling to extend the same benefit of the doubt to, say, Emma Goldman or Rudolf Rocker.

In the case of Mohandas Gandhi, these are the facts:

B.R. Nanda reports that in Durban in January of 1897, Gandhi

was assaulted and nearly lynched by a white mob … but [he] refused to prosecute his assailants. It was, he said, a principle with him not to seek redress of a personal wrong in a court of law. … [T]he distrust of the apparatus of government was almost as deeprooted in [Gandhi] as in Tolstoy. He would have agreed with the nineteenth-century doctrine 'that government is best which governs least. … [T]his Jeffersonian maxim was central to Gandhi's thinking. "A society organized and run on the basis of complete nonviolence," he stated repeatedly, "would be the purest anarchy. … That State is perfect and non-violent where the people are governed the least." And again: "The ideally non-violent State will be an ordered anarchy. That State will be the best governed which is governed the least."

The intellectual historian George H. Smith puts the matter very similarly. "Gandhi's hatred of State oppression," he writes, "was as passionate and deeply-felt as any contemporary libertarian." Smith quotes Gandhi as having said that "any man who subordinates his will to that of the State surrenders his liberty and thus becomes a slave."

According to Smith,

Many analysts have pointed out that Gandhi was in the anarchist tradition and that his anarchism was strongly individualistic. In contrast to the supposedly Oriental view that the individual counts for nothing, Gandhi argued that "the individual is the one supreme consideration." "No society," Gandhi wrote, "can possibly be built upon a denial of individual freedom. It is contrary to the very nature of man. Just as a man will not grow horns or a tail, so will he not exist as man if he has no mind of his own. In reality even those who do not believe in the liberty of the individual believe in their own."


Smith cites the supporting opinion of the Indian academic philosopher Raghavan Iyer, who spent most of his adult life in the United States, teaching at the University of California. "It would not be extravagant," Iyer wrote in 1973, "to consider Gandhi as one of the most revolutionary of individualists and one of the most individualistic of revolutionaries." Smith quotes Iyer as claiming that Gandhi "could not believe in the moral priority of any collective agency over the individual."

Smith's own judgment is unequivocal. "By any reasonable libertarian standard — the same standard we apply to a Sam Adams, a Thomas Paine, or a Lysander Spooner," he writes, "Mohandas Gandhi qualifies as heroic." Smith acknowledges that "in the enormous corpus of Gandhi's writings, we find no systematic treatise on political theory. Yet scattered throughout letters and articles we find unmistakable indications of his anarchist tendencies." Gandhi, Smith maintains, "was predominantly libertarian in his outlook." Throughout his career as an activist, Gandhi was guided by his "vision of an anarchist society."

Nor is this all. "Gandhi repeatedly called himself an anarchist," Smith writes,

He refused positions of political power … he called for the abolition of the Indian Congress after independence … he criticized Nehru's government … he desired the abolition of the Indian military and the maintenance of, at most, a minimal police force. … his entire social program revolved around establishing decentralized "village republics" which would use social sanctions to maintain order and which would be free of State control. … Gandhi was a vigorous opponent of imperialism … war (including World War II), censorship, and virtually every other kind of State intrusion."

In the end, of course, the case for Mohandas Gandhi as a libertarian is closed by the fact of his pacifism. In online forums where blowhards with little information pontificate on subjects in which they are particularly uninformed, you often run into the assertion that "libertarianism is not pacifism." "Perhaps you have confused libertarianism and pacifism," a self-appointed pundit will intone, with an air of great confidence and certainty. And there is a grain of truth behind all this posturing.

It's true that libertarianism is not pacifism — at least, not necessarily. On the other hand, pacifism is libertarianism. If you abjure all violence, you must abjure the state. Thus, while not all libertarians are pacifists, all pacifists are libertarians, whether they realize it or not (and, admittedly, a great many pacifists have not realized it). Gandhi, it appears, did realize it.

As all the world knows, Mohandas Gandhi returned to India in 1914, at the age of 44, just after the outbreak of what later came to be called World War I. Over the next three decades he organized and led the movement to free India from British control, a movement that succeeded in its aims.

On January 30, 1948, while on his way to the platform from which he was to address a prayer meeting in Delhi, he was murdered by a Hindu nationalist wielding a pistol — "assassinated" is the term usually employed, because Gandhi was both a political activist and a public figure. He was 78 years old.

Does he deserve a place in the libertarian tradition? I'd say so.



Contact Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach is a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he has written for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach has also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.

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