Gandhi’s Philosophy Of Industrial And Economic Prosperity

Author:  Image of Bal PatilBal Patil
Published: 15.11.2008
Updated: 30.07.2015

My following article was published on 08.05.1977 in National Herald a daily founded by Jawaharlal Nehru (now defunct). I am submitting it on the occasion of the 3rd International Dialogue On Economics Of Non-Violence being held in Jaipur on 13th and 14th November, 2008. However I would like to add a post-script to it in the context of the global financial meltdown, which is reminiscent of the Great Depression of 1930s. The world leaders of Group-20 are meeting in Washington to find a solution to the unbridled, US-style capitalism. This global crisis confirms the need hearken back to the Gandhian economics and his stark reminder to the G-20 world leaders that:

“the economic constitution of India and for that matter of the world, should be such that no one under it should suffer from want of food and clothing. In other words everybody should be able to get sufficient work to enable him to make the two ends meet. And this ideal can be universally realized only if the elementary necessaries of life remain in the control of the masses. Their monopolization by any country, nation or group of persons would be unjust. The neglect of this simple principle in the cause of the destitution that we witness not only in this unhappy land but in other parts of the world too.”

This G-20 meeting is also a second Bretton Woods Conference, which led to the International Monetary Fund. It would be also pertinent to remind ourselves what the godfather of the IMF had no illusions about the eventual capitalist doom. The Keynesian observation in his Essays in Persuasion in The End of Laissez-Faire:

 "Let us clear from the ground the metaphysical or general principles upon which, from time to time, laissez-faire has been founded. It is not true that individuals possess a prescriptive "natural liberty" in their economic activities. There is no compact conferring perpetual rights on those who Have or on those who Acquire. The world is not so governed from above that private and social interests always coincide. It is not so managed here below that in practice they coincide. It is not a correct deduction from the Principles of Economics that enlightened self-interest always operates in the public interest. Nor is it true that self-interest generally is enlightened; more often individuals acting separately to promote their own ends are ignorant or too weak to attain even these. Experience does not show that individuals, when they make up a social unit, are always less clear-sighted than when they act separately."

This is the politics and economics of social justice. And hence it was natural for the Father of the Indian Nation, Mahatma Gandhi to give a dire warning: "Economic equality is the master key to non-violent revolution. A non-violent system of government is clearly an impossibility so long as the wide gulf between the rich and hungry millions persists. The contrast between the palaces of New Delhi and the miserable hovels of the poor, labouring class cannot last one day in a free India in which the poor will enjoy the same power as the richest in the land. A violent and bloody revolution is certainty one day unless there is a voluntary abdication of riches and the power that riches give and sharing them for the common good."

But, alas, even after more than half century of freedom the gulf is ever widening and with all the glitter of globalisation hunger, starvation and suicide deaths are increasing amidst agricultural surplus, and sometimes fifty million tonnes of grain in go downs rots but cannot be sold at subsidised prices for fear of pushing the market prices down. That is the harsh economic reality! I would like to give a link to my article “Whither Globalisation?” published on 22nd February, 2007:

Gandhi’s Philosophy Of Industrial And Economic Prosperity

“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 the 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 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 … self melting away.”

The Mahatma had an uncanny way of making things simple to the meanest intelligence. And the test mentioned above was Gandhiji’s philosopher’s stone for turning into the gold of service the base metal of doubt in our work a day world. The test, at the same time, provides a very important clue towards an understanding of the Gandhi’s economic and industrial philosophy.

This down-to-earth test should also guard us, I believe, against coming to hasty conclusions about the practicability or other wise of the Gandhi’s economics. India today is poised on the threshold of a full-fledged industrial era in conformity with the international ethos, which categorically commands; industrialise or perish. And yet the misery of the common masses does not show any signs of abating. Why should such be the case? Is it due to any inherent defects in an industrial civilization? Or is man being overpowered by the technological genie which he himself brought into being and which he can no longer control?

These are far-reaching questions. They go to the very root of the problem of progress. They even raise the metaphysical questions of the nature and destiny of man. And that is why they become relevant in any consideration of human economic and social welfare. And Gandhiji concerned himself with such questions quite early in the course of his momentous experiments with truth.

“According to me”, Mahatma Gandhi said “the economic constitution of India and for that matter of the world, should be such that no one under it should suffer from want of food and clothing. In other words everybody should be able to get sufficient work to enable him to make the two ends meet. And this ideal can be universally realized only if the elementary necessaries of life remain in the control of the masses. Their monopolization by any country, nation or group of persons would be unjust. The neglect of this simple principle in the cause of the destitution that we witness not only in this unhappy land but in other parts of the world too.”

Hindi Swaraj

It will be my constant endeavour to keep this principle in mind in this brief discussion of the Gandhian economic philosophy. The earliest glimpse of Gandhiji’s thinking on material civilization is to be found in his pamphlet Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule) published in 1909. It was originally written in ’Gujarati during Gandhiji’s return voyage from London to South Africa in “answer to the Indian school of violence and its prototype in South Africa.”

Even a cursory examination of the booklet shows that it is a sincere outburst of a soul against the galloping malady of the so called modern civilization with all its accoutrements of speed and comfort and stream-lined production. Gandhiji begins by asking what ‘civilization stands for. He said: “ India’s salvation consists in unlearning what she has learnt during the last fifty years. The railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors, and such like have all to go, and the so-called upper classes have to learn consciously, religiously, and deliberately the simple peasant life, knowing it to be life giving true happiness.”

This Gandhian fiat is so drastic as to appear absurd and make one wonder whether Gandhiji says it in all earnestness. But there is no doubt that Gandhiji is in dead earnest. These sentiments were the natural and logical consequences given his basic conviction that the English were intruders upon the Indian soil and they must go to enable us to order our life in accordance with our ancient genius cultural heritage.

But this was not due to any hatred towards the English. It was simply due to the merciless logic of Gandhiji’s Swarajist principles: that real home-rule is self-rule, passive resistance is the way to attain it and to activate this force “Swadeshi in every sense of the word is necessary.”

Hind Swaraj was the first concrete expression to the intense ferment that was going on in Gandhiji’s mind for more than a decade concurrent with his epic South African struggle. It expressed the essence of all that he experience, felt and read. His thought had undergone a sea-change during this period and it was in no small measure due to Ruskin’s Unto This Last which was given to him by Mr.Henri S.L.Polak to while away the boredom of a journey. Little did he realize the momentous impact it would have on the future Mahatma.

The book gripped him and Gandhiji confesses that of the few books he had read and digested “the one that had brought about an instantaneous and practical transformation in my life was Unto This Last. Later he translated it into Gujarati as Sarvodaya. Gandhiji believed that he discovered some of his deepest convictions in Ruskin’s book. One of these convictions was that a “life of labour i.e. the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.” So impressed was Gandhiji by this new awakening that he immediately set about translating the principles he learnt from Ruskin into reality. The first visible fruit was the establishment of the Phoenix ashram near Durban.


It is ironical though that the instrument of this metamorphosis was an Englishman and a romanticist at that. A mystic at heart Ruskin brought to the force of social conscience the cult of service and asserted once more the primacy of man. Ruskin longed for the humanization of industry by the re-establishment of small work-shop. It is no wonder that such an idea came to Gandhiji as a godsend.

Thus evolved Gandhiji’s aversion to industrialism. But his opposition to machinery was not without reason. What he objected to was the ‘craze’ for machinery, not machinery as such. This distinction is very important. “Men go on saving labour”, Gandhiji explained, “till thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labour not for a fraction of mankind but for all, I want the concentration of wealth not in the hands of a few but in the hands of all. Today machinery helps merely a few to ride on the backs of millions. The impetus behind it all is not the philanthropy to save labour but greed. It is against this constitution of things that I am fighting with all my might.” (Young India, Nov.13, 1924).

But we must note that the driving passion behind this opposition to machinery was the burning concern for the impoverished and dying villages of India. “Industrialization on a mass scale”, Gandhiji feared, “will necessarily lead to passive or active exploitation of the villagers as the problems of competition and marketing come in, Therefore we have to concentrate on the village being self- contained, manufacturing mainly for use. Provided this character of the village industry is maintained there would be no objection to villagers using even the modern machines and tools they can make and can afford to use. Only they should not be used as a means of exploitation.” (Harijan, August 29, 1929).

In all this endeavour Gandhiji emphasized that “ the supreme consideration is man. The machine should not tend to make atrophied the limbs of man…” Gandhiji’s solicitude for the common man and his anxiety to save his soul from mechanical damnation is something very akin to Marxian indignation at man’s alienation. To Marx alienation of man appeared to be the fundamental evil of the capitalist society. But there can be no more incongruous comparison than between Marx and Gandhiji: the one inveighed against religion as the opium of the people” while the other regarded religion as the very breath of life. Gandhiji sought to humanize modern civilization by injecting spirituality in it while Marx endeavoured to purify humanism by denuding it of the religious illusion. All one can say is that the dilemma of the modern man with regard to religion is still in the process of evolution.

Despite all this it is significant that Gandhiji would not oppose” heavy machinery for work of public utility which cannot be undertaken by human labour.” He agreed it would have its “inevitable place.” (Harijan, June 23, 1935) But Gandhiji was “ socialist enough” to insist that all such heavy industries employing large numbers of people be “ nationalized or State-controlled” and worked for the benefit of the people “ under the most attractive and ideal conditions, not for profit, but for the benefit of humanity.” (Young India, Nov. 13, 1924).

And yet Gandhiji would not have industrialism. “Pandit Nehru wants industrialization”. Gandhiji wrote, “because he thinks that if it is socialized, it would be free from the evils of capitalism. My own view is that the evils are inherent in industrialism, and no amount of socialization can eradicate them” (Harijan, September, 29, 1940) He would not countenance methods of mass production. Therefore he averred: “My machinery must be of the most elementary type, which I can put in the homes of the millions”(Harijan, November 2, 1934) And naturally enough he described the spinning wheel as “science reduced to the terms of the masses.”

Self- Contradictory

Does Gandhiji contradict himself here? Is he being ambivalent? “In spite of the closest association with him, for many years,” Nehru wondered, “I am not clear in my own mind about his objective. I doubt if he is clear himself.” On the contrary, a careful consideration of these views should convince us that there is nothing vague about them. In fact they bring us to the heart of the Gandhian position on the place of industry in an underdeveloped country like India. And that is what Gandhiji meant when he answered once the question whether he would not industrialise India by stating categorically, “But I am industrializing the village in a different way.” (Harijan, February 27, 1937),

Gandhiji’s insistence on resuscitation of village crafts and supplementary industries was the economic solution par excellence for the under-employed millions in rural India. After two decades and four Five Year Plans we cannot say that the lot of the agricultural sections (which means almost the whole of India) has ameliorated in the sense of economic viability. And today we find eminent Western economists hearkening back to the sound economic sense of the Gandhian emphasis on rural industries as the only tangible hope in the Indian context of underdevelopment.

A most valuable point made by Prof. Gunnar Myrdal in the context of industrialization, in his monumental study of the South Asian under-development, Asian Drama is concerning the strategic importance of craft and village industries. He says: “But because of the low level of industrialization from which these countries begin and the rapid population increase, modern industry, even if it grows at an extremely rapid rate, cannot absorb more than a small fraction of the natural increment in the labour force for decades ahead.. This situation arises both because the direct expansionary impact of modern industrial growth on employment is likely to be slight in the early phases and because the risk of backwash on traditional manufacturing is substantial”. (p.1202).

Prof. Myrdal emphasizes that agriculture and traditional practices will have to bear the burden of the rapidly increasing labour force and suggests that the “Gandhian position could be given an intelligent rationale even in a modern context.” (P.1214). And he further warns: “To accept the idea that agriculture and crafts - and often small scale enterprises as well- must remain technologically backward, and to confine planning efforts to building up enclaves of modern large scale Industry, is to invite failure on a grand scale. There was an essential element of rationality in Gandhiji’s social and economic gospel, and the programmes for promoting cottage industry as they have evolved in the post war era have come more and more to represent purposeful and realistic planning for development.” (p. 1240).

Eye-Openers Trusteeship

I think that these observations should serve as veritable eye openers to those who scoff at the Gandhian economics as a hotch-potch of spinning wheel, cow protection non-violence and Satyagraha. The simple reason is that such detractors never paid any attention to Gandhiji’s supreme test quoted at the beginning of this essay, in moments of doubt. Indeed, the test deserves to be inscribed in all documents pertaining and development endeavour. It should prove a salutary corrective to our inordinate faith in industrialism.

The so-called modern industrial economy of the Western nations is really shaky in its foundations. It has been seriously suggested that a true ‘relaxation’ of the present international tension leading to large-scale disarmament would in all probability result in a grave economic crisis, lasting perhaps for years. One wonders then what sort of economy is it, which needs the mass-production of the means of destruction to keep it going?

Western economists discovered after the shock of the Great Depression that the economy can be stabilized through the Government controlling about 20 percent of the gross national product. Such control largely eliminates the gross fluctuations of boom and slump, which were a recurring phenomenon in the first 30 years of this century. Now how to exercise this control? In principle, as Keynes suggested, the control could be exercised simply by digging large holes in the ground, and if nothing useful could be done with them it would be best to follow up by filling them again.

That is the sum and substance of our much-vaunted industrial civilization. True, man has at last reached the Moon and Mars. But so long as we have not learned to keep our planet intact and prosperous what earthly use is it to reach out to other planets? It is just scientific vanity and utterly unconscionable waste of human resources when two thirds of humanity is in want and misery.

The developed nations may help now and then the underdeveloped ones. But what is their real objective? The United States is more anxious with halting the spread of Marxist-Leninist ideas rather than promoting industrial development, while the Soviet Union is always on the lookout for new evidence that non-Communist regimes are bound to come to grief. And in this ideological tussle of the big the small ones are apt to go awry aping the alien models now this now that and miss to come to terms with their own indigenous genius.

A great visionary economist that Gandhiji was, he clearly saw through this self-defeating game of the Western civilization. And like therefore he made it his life’s mission to stress the humanistic primacy of man against the machine. Truth, non-violence and God were interchangeable terms for him, But his religion was not ritualistic. And therefore he could say that God can only appear in the form of bread and butter to the starving. “For the poor the economic is the spiritual”, Gandhiji declared.

Even more trenchantly Gandhiji said: “I suggest that we are thieves in a way. If I take anything that I do not need for my own immediate use, I thieve it from somebody else… If somebody else possesses more than I do, let him. But so far as my own life has to be regulated I do say that I dare not possess any thing, which I do not want. In India we have got three millions of people having to be satisfied with one meal a day, and that meal consisting of a Chapaticontaining no fat in it and a pinch of salt. You and I have no right to anything that we really have until these three millions are clothed and fed better.”

Gandhiji was in fact more revolutionary in his social and economic outlook than the so-called firebrand revolutionaries who are out to change the world at a stroke. In his passion for egalitarianism he would yield place to none. And that is why he could say in his Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place:

“Economic equality is the master-key to non-violent independence… A nonviolent system of government is clearly an impossibility so long as the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions persists. The contrast between the palaces of New Delhi and the miserable hovels of the poor labouring class cannot last one day in a free India in which the poor will enjoy the same power as the richest in the land. A violent and bloody revolution is a certainty one day unless there is a voluntary abdication of riches and the power that riches give and sharing them for the common good.” (p.18)

It is prima facie unbelievable that the apostle of non-violence would express himself in such final, and even ruthless terms. And yet how characteristically Gandhian this utterance seems! To my mind at least this forthright expression represents the summum bonum of the Mahatma’s social, political and economic philosophy.

Gandhiji wanted the rich to hold their riches in trust for the under-privileged. His trusteeship idea was the golden mean between class-conflict and non-violence. It was also the Gandhian answer to the Marxist expropriation of the expropriators. Because Gandhiji perceived rightly that even after expropriation had been accomplished there would remain inequalities resulting from varying capacity and talents which in turn would again give rise to privilege and class unless held in trust in the interests of society.

But all the same Gandhiji feared the above possibility if the rich were not to see the writing on the wall and mend their ways in time. One has to bear in mind that the concept of non-violence as a way of life is capable of being put into practice only on an elevated level. It would be absurd to expect a majority of the people to get attuned to such a level for too long and without apparent results. And therefore this is a very real possibility of an abrupt social conflagration.

One can recall in this context Jawahararial Nehru’s words in his presidential address at the Lahore Congress: “The new theory of trusteeship is equally barren. For trusteeship means that the power for good or evil remains with the self-appointed trustee, and he may exercise it as he will. The sole trusteeship that can be fair is the trusteeship of the nation and not of one individual or a group.”

The persistence and growing incidence of violence in our times though apparently stemming from local and parochial causes is in reality a symptom of deep-seated and chronic economic malaise of the masses and from which they are despairing of recovering. The temper of the times seems to be moving inexorably towards some sort of confrontation. Could it be that the worst fears of the Mahatma would materialise? Or would Indian rally back from the brink and thus give a new lead to the world?

But it would be wrong to give way to such dark misgivings. Gandhiji loved India dearly. “I cling to India”, he once declared, “like a child to its mother’s breast, because I feel that she gives me the spiritual nourishment I need. She has the environment that responds to my highest aspirations.” And he was even noble enough to say: “Let India live though a hundred Gandhis have to perish”. And therein lies at once the hope and the challenge for all Indians.

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