Gandhi’s life was essentially a quest for truth; it led him to enunciate two principles, both of which he believed to be essential to any improvement in the human condition. It is one of the great tragedies of the unfolding drama of modern history that whilst one of these principles has gained wide popular recognition, which is a long way from saying that any government has come remotely close to adopting it in practice, the other has been almost universally ignored. Gandhi’s reputation today rests largely on his advocacy of nonviolence as being one of the keys to a stable and peaceful world. In doing so he was updating a great deal of ancient teaching of several world religions. In Luke, to quote but one example, we find Jesus saying:
Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other. (Luke 6.37)
Unlike the generality of modern religious leaders who preach such doctrines Gandhi, as a political leader, sought to put them into practice, and paid with his life for doing so.
But Gandhi was aware that the intensely personal nature of such teaching was not enough, that in itself, and despite its urgency and importance, it did not answer the problem of applying it to the relationships between nations, and especially between those which ranked as ‘great powers’. He came to see that it was possible for vast numbers of people to accept the principle of nonviolence, but who could none-the-less be swept up in a tornado of war and violence between such powers and which they were powerless to stop. He realised people were not controlling events; it was events which were controlling people.
The point is expressed as poignantly as can be by the way ordinary German and British soldiers climbed out of their opposing trenches on the first Christmas Day of World War One and played a game of football. Was it not the birthday of the Prince of Peace? What better way to celebrate than by rejecting violence and by competing with each other in a game that expressed something of their common humanity?
It was more recently expressed when millions of people marched in vast peaceful crowds in cities around the world against US and British plans to attack Iraq. They paraded for peace, but all they got was war. Gandhi would not have been surprised by this, he realised that modern states did not, indeed could not, express the moral aspirations of ordinary people, especially in the matter of violence and war. His thinking was a developing growth which brought him to see that the matter of personal relationships was paramount in any discussion of moral practice and objectives, and that the key to their effectiveness lay not in seeking to convert giant states, which, because of their size, had an inbuilt propensity to subordinate any moral objectives to the maintenance and augmentation of their power, but in empowering the small, local village, and enabling the villagers to hear his message and respond to it.
This was his second basic principle, people’s power, village power. His first principle, of nonviolence, helped to beget a huge literature on the subject of peace; books, pamphlets, leaflets and journals, all proclaiming peace as their message, poured out of the presses, peace organisations erupted into being, peace demonstrations became the order of the day and peace concern became the central focus of multitudes of well-meaning people’s preoccupations, as indeed they still do.
It has to be said that none of this activity appears to have had any more effect on the problem of war than that historic game of football in the no man’s land of World War One. Those soldiers were not members of any peace movement and apart from their bibles (sic!) probably read no peace literature. But they wanted peace! All they lacked was the power to insist on it. The war danger today is infinitely greater, so great indeed that questions are being asked about whether civilisation can survive the use of the weapons ostensibly created to defend it.
What has gone wrong here is an almost total failure to attend to Gandhi’s second principle, the principle of people’s power in local village hands. It needs to be recalled that Gandhi was no stranger to the mechanics of power-mongering on a giant scale; had he not taken a leading part in the struggle for Indian independence from British rule? It was doubtless his awareness of how such power, even if labelled for apparently worthy ends, could be ruthlessly abused, which must have prompted his realisation of the need for power to be in people’s hands at the base of society, at the village level, if its abuse was to be effectively checked. There was also a deeper reason; he could see that peace, like freedom, democracy, justice and other attributes, was a moral principle and he realised that morality was a function not of people’s relationships with power structures, whether with giant political parties, or government institutions, or giant commercial enterprises, but with each other.
This meant that the significance of personal relationships in local, human-scale communities, the moral principles they expressed and their capacity to enable those principles to impinge on the social order, was one of the vital mainsprings on which the well-being of society rested. He was saying that community power and community relationships were bedrock necessities to the effective maintenance of any moral principle in society, whether it was peace, justice or any other quality, if only because in the wider sphere of national affairs moral principles were inevitably subordinated to the quest for power or the play of power. In Gandhi’s view it was essential that the power of government should be widely dispersed and be in the hands of the only social unit where morality based on personal relationships could take precedence — the village community. Hence his insistence, to use his own words,
“You cannot have morality without community”.
He also saw clearly that the problem of war was not simply one of politics out of control because giant units cannot be controlled either by their electorates or even by their leaders, it was also a matter of economics out of control. He also saw what all events since his death have amply confirmed, that giant industrial and commercial growth would not solve the problems of India’s village poverty, they would only make it worse. India, like the rest of humanity seems to have forgotten the meaning of an ikonic, bespectacled figure, clothed in homespun and seated at a spinning wheel.
The Mahatma was not opposed to technology, was not his spinning wheel one example of it? But he wanted people to use and control technology for the supreme moral ends of human betterment; he did not want technology to use people for ends that were merely mercenary and of benefit only to a minority. He saw khadi and other village industries as not simply a mean of relieving village poverty and making life decent and tolerable for millions, he saw it as a means of enhancing village power and reducing state power, so that village moral options would play their own part in the political process.
It is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century that the significance of this aspect of his teaching has been almost completely overlooked by those who have sought to promote change under the banner of ‘peace’. They have made the error of assuming that in human affairs the shortest distance between two points is a straight line: that peace could be achieved with knee- jerk reactions to any moves towards war made by governments, that if only enough people would read enough peace literature, join enough peace organisations, attend enough peace conferences and peace rallies, even if they were only talking and meeting with each other, one day, somehow or other, ‘peace’ would prevail.
Mass Democracy Fallacy
One reason for this confusion arises from our readiness to accept that because each of us has a vote perhaps half a dozen times in a lifetime, that gives us control of the giant machinery of political power and that we are thereby entitled to assume it is our moral options which prevail and that our form of government is therefore democratic. This is one of the most momentous illusions of the modern era and has done more to destroy the effectiveness of the peace movement than any other factor.
The meaning of the word ‘democracy’ is based on the concept that people control the power of government, what prevails today is the exact opposite; it is the power of government which now controls people. The reason for this stems from our failure to see the force of Aristotle’s remark:
“To the size of a state there is a limit, as there is to plants, animals, and implements for none of these retain their natural facility when they are too large”.
Rousseau made much the same point: The more the state is enlarged the more freedom is diminished.
It is an illusion based on a failure to absorb the elementary arithmetic of power; that the smaller the political unit the bigger the significance of the individual member, contrawise the larger the political unit the smaller the significance of the individual: so that, for example, a unit of just two persons, each having the right to vote of course, means that each person has one half of the power: a unit of 100 means each has one hundredth, a million yields a one millionth. The UK has around 50 million voters, and if one 50 millionth of the share of governing power may give cause for discontent just think of the luckless inhabitant of the democratic Chinese paradise enjoying about one and a third billionth of power!
Why do these numbers matter? Because as the size of the unit increases and the power of the individual diminishes, where then does the power go? The answer is, to the centre. The mere factor of growth itself transfers power from the individual to central government, and the bigger the unit the more power the centre is able to wield.
But, a voice will object, the people control the government with their votes. It is a theoretical objection based on an illusion. The voters may elect the persons who govern, but on a mass scale is quite unable to control what they do. This is why we are in the midst of the greatest crisis of civilisation that has confronted humanity in all its history, for once in power the leaders control policy decisions, they control appointments, patronage, the power to influence the media, taxation, foreign relations, the power to make war, even the power to destroy the country’s very identity by submerging it in a federation of other mass powers. The voters may be aghast at what is happening, but on a mass scale all they can do is to vote into power another mass party leadership of different personalities which will tend to have almost identical policies.
Mass Party Illusions
Why should this be so? One reason is the leaders of all mass parties find themselves obliged to pursue the same objectives, if only because they are subject to the same constraints promoted by giant economic forces. These forces largely determine the values by which people live, which in turn are largely determined by consumerist propaganda, and no party leader dare oppose these values and hope to attain office. It is not for nothing that the sums spent on advertising today rival the budgets of educational authorities. The need to abandon mass motoring in favour of public transport is one of the utmost urgency if we are to heed the voices warning us of global warming and oil bankruptcy. What mass party leader dare propose as much ? Not even when the Astronomer Royal is now warning us that because of our love of cars and our acquiescence in the everlasting need for economic ‘growth’ the chances of human survival by the end of this century are only 50/50.
Another reason relates again to size; mass party members do not control the party, it is the party machine which controls the members. At party conferences it is the leaders who decide what resolutions are on the agenda and who will speak, they also decide what resolutions will not be tabled and who will not speak.
Power Out of Control
Peace activists have been banging their heads against the war makers with no understanding that what governments did was quite secondary to what they were, that they were so large as to be beyond the control of anyone for any sane social purposes at all, and that big leaders were blindly bent on nothing else but developing precisely those drives for power and money which had made them gigantic in the first place, drives which of course, make war inevitable.
Our peace brigades have failed to see that the problem was not just one of war as such, but of moral control, and that such control as was required if ever peace was to be secured, could only come from small-scale community power which was in the hands of people who, on the basis of their personal relationships, could give priority to moral principles which might yield peace, as well as a nonviolent social order and a general respect for moral integrity.
The failure of peace seekers to see the relevance of the inevitable powerlessness of people to influence events on a mass scale, and the need for democracy to be on a small scale if it was to be effective, meant that for a generation or more the peace movements of the world have been seeking to move forward by marching on one leg. The result, in these opening years of the 21st century, is a general movement for peace and social progress more confused, divided, and ineffective than it has ever been, even as the danger of increasingly destructive war continues to dominate the human outlook.
The Power Pyramid
It will be clear from the foregoing that a quite Herculean task confronts all who would follow the Mahatma in his quest for peace; it consists of nothing less than re-inventing the already inverted pyramid of power in our societies so that their moral priorities at last become effective and take precedence over power questing; it means abandoning our 19th century concepts of statehood, where it is accepted as normal that the power to run local matters, schools, health, police, planning, welfare and so on, is not in the hands of local people. It means stripping national government of all powers that are not essentially national; it means trusting people to make the necessary coordinating arrangements for their services with neighbouring communities without reference to the national government; perhaps above all it means local people taking collective community command of local resources so that no government can command them for purposes of war without their full consent.
Gandhi the Realist
Yet if Gandhi’s teaching went beyond nonviolence to embrace the political and economic imperatives of his time, let it never be forgotten how it stemmed also from an acute and profound perception of the moral and spiritual nature of human destiny. There was nothing facile in his reasoning; he was always conscious of the complexity of any approach to the moral transformation that life demands and no one reading his voluminous writings, especially his answers to specific questions or problems, can fail to see just how deeply he had penetrated the philosophical depths of the human dilemma. Gandhi still appears to many influential people whose values are steeped in the tragic market imperatives of giant ‘consumerist’ oriented societies as a dreamer and a utopian idealist. In fact no leader of his time was more practical and realistic.
Instead of war he advocated nonviolence, instead of giant mass parties as instruments of social improvement he urged the need for village power to solve village problems, and instead of giant industries and markets as the path to economic betterment, he promoted the powerful symbolism of the spinning wheel as the type of village industry that could accomplish village regeneration. The world today is in travail because it persists in ignoring the lessons one of the astutest economic and political theorists of the modern era.
The programme he promoted requires a vast educational trans formation to enable people everywhere to become aware that if they wanted peace, or any other decent social objective, then the power to achieve it needs to be in their own hands. People’s Power for Peace is a mantra that can rescue aspirants for any form of genuine social progress from their current slough of despond and ineffectuality more decisively than any other route available.
How would Gandhi have responded to this need? He would not have joined or formed some giant (and centrally controlled) mass party, he would have taken his message to the villages and local neighbourhoods, he would have encouraged and inspired local people, by nonviolent means, to assume power to decide and control village affairs at village level, and so open the floodgates of village talents and abilities to create a new life, one which reined in the power of big governments to perpetrate big mischief and big evils so that goodness, decency and creative beauty might flourish.
That was Gandhi’s way, that is the route he would take today. The fate of our civilisation now depends on the speed with which we follow his teaching and take it.
This essay was submitted for the Rodney Aitchtey Memorial Prize in 2004.