Author: Lachlan Forster
Sub-editor: Yiwei Deng
Mahatma Gandhi’s death on January 30th 1948 led to immediate canonisation in the public eye for the lawyer turned revolutionary. The impact of Gandhi’s protests in establishing a self-determining India, along with his pacifist form of civil resistance called Satyagraha, lead to the world recognising his ideological piousness. For example, The New York Times wrote in their obituary ‘(Gandhi) made himself the living symbol of India’. As is often the case for public figures, Gandhi’s death made him more relevant, especially as his autobiography, The Story of my Experiments with Truth, was published for the first time outside of India in 1948, meeting a large readership eager to take in the words of the departed ‘light of India’.
One of these readers was British icon George Orwell, who having finished the final draft of his landmark novel 1984, decided to write a review of the autobiography and reflection upon Gandhi as a political figure for Partisan review. In his piece ‘Reflections on Gandhi’, Orwell levels a number of criticisms against the ideology of Satyagraha and the effectiveness of Gandhi’s proposed method of fighting oppression. Although noting that Gandhi was ‘genuinely liked’ amongst even Britons, and that ‘(Gandhi’s) natural physical courage was quite outstanding’, Orwell’s major issues with Gandhi include his flattery of martyrdom, tendency to side with ‘the other-worldly’ over man, and crucially his inability to ‘understand the nature of totalitarianism’.
Orwell built this final criticism around a number of comments that Gandhi had made regarding the Second World War and particularly the oppression of Jews during the Holocaust, with the ethicist stating in interviews that German Jews ‘ought to commit collective suicide’, as this act ‘would have aroused the world and the people of Germany of Hitler’s violence.’ Further comments made by Gandhi surrounding the supposed effectiveness of ‘non-violent resistance against a Japanese invasion’ lead Orwell to conclude that Gandhi’s interpretation of totalitarianism was naïve, and his methods of resistance towards domineering political powers were suited likely only to India, where British colonial control was idle compared to the fascist practises of Nazi Germany. As Gita V. Pai notes, Gandhi ‘never lived in a totalitarian regime’ and his manner of non-violent protest ‘could not have worked in Stalin’s Soviet Union’ because Satyagraha’s success relied heavily on media coverage, an impossibility in totalitarian societies. As Orwell would clearly state in his essay, ‘it is difficult to see how his strategy of fasting and civil disobedience could be applied in a country where political opponents simply disappear and the public never hears anything that the government does not want it to hear’.
It has been thoroughly observed that ‘many features of the totalitarian movements of the century’ are heavily rooted within ‘colonial practice and thought’, with H. Ridley further claiming that colonialism provided the continuity of ‘race-thinking within totalitarianism’. However, Orwell would consistently maintain that the rule of the British empire was not brutal enough to be deemed totalitarian. As Orwell wrote in an article for New English Weekly concerning author Rudyard Kipling, the imperialistic actions of the British empire, particularly during the late 1800s, was ‘not entirely despicable’, and that one could ‘be an imperialist and a gentlemen’ similar to Kipling. Orwell would eventually concede in his book Shooting an Elephant that the ‘white man’ becomes a ‘hollow posing dummy’ through the nature of his barbarism, brought about by his ‘dominion in the east’, and further noted that he was himself ‘part of the actual machinery of despotism’ during his service in Burma. Yet the author, noting the faults of imperialism, would still assert that the force Gandhi fought was not totalitarian and incomparable to European figures of total authority, leading to two questions. Is there a specific criterion to label a totalitarian, and what is the appropriate manner of fighting such governments?
There is no singular form of totalitarian government but characteristics which define a state as such. These governments have an all-encompassing policy of authoritarianism, with an autocratic elite ruling the nation, typically in the form of either a dictatorship or monarchy, repressing objectivity in politics and broadcasting propaganda through control of the media. Some factors encapsulate operations of the British empire, including its monarchical rule and autocratic-puppeteering elite. However, some are untrue to the British Raj, like the lack of control in media, as demonstrated earlier by Orwell’s statements of Satyagraha’s success relying on media coverage. This muddled profile makes it difficult for us to call the British empire totalitarian, and the debate on the profiling of the commonwealth has been common. Enzo Traverso notes that whilst British India ‘remained a model for Hitler’, ‘their logic was internally different’. Here, it would seem that totalitarian governments are deemed as such based upon their logical intentions for conquest, with the British Empire not matching due to its desire for India’s resources, a completely different intention vis-a-vis the Nazi invasions of neighbouring states to destroy and exterminate. This profiling is crucial in understanding how totalitarianism should be fought, as the limits and goals of a government define whether peaceful protests are possible or if a violent approach is necessary. Personal experience is also key in shaping opinions on this topic, as it was for both Gandhi and Orwell, whose understanding of totalitarianism and the best way to topple an oppressive system is intrinsically rooted within their experiences against such institutions.
Orwell’s understanding of totalitarianism is easy to define, as it is interlaced within his landmark novel, 1984. Totalitarianism takes the form of complete government domination over a country, relying the oppression and surveillance of citizens, a society where it is ‘conceivable that (the government) watched everybody all the time’, where ‘continuous alteration’ is applied to fact and parents are ‘frightened of their own children’ due to a heightened feeling of paranoia. A sickening sense of patriotism is continually injected within this society through propaganda, with people simultaneously fearing and loving the government. Although these descriptions may take the concept to its logical conclusion, Orwell makes his understanding very clear within these words and the scope of control that a regime must maintain to support this ideology. This interpretation deeply ties to how Orwell believed totalitarianism should be combatted, through a united moral front, using military force. Orwell took issue with Gandhi’s claim that close friendships were ‘dangerous’, and that one’s goal in life should be to transcend human vices to ‘escape from the pain of living’. Rather, he thought this pain gave humans the ability to empathise with others, creating an ethical line in the sand by which humans measured when actions or beliefs had to be combatted. Friendship and this sense of morality were key in Orwell’s personal experience of fighting autocracy, his service in the Spanish civil war, where he sided with the ‘morally superior’ the republican army. 1984 also represents the importance of morality as protagonist Winston Smith becomes empathetic towards his fearful comrades while growing to rebel against the domineering ‘Big Brother’. Force, backed by morality, was simply necessary to combat any government that was truly totalitarian as Orwell saw it, and the only effective manner that didn’t end with needless death or wilful martyrdom.
Gandhi’s interpretation of totalitarianism was also extremely closely linked with his personal experiences within the British Empire, gaining a firsthand view of the effects of colonialism. Within South Africa, Gandhi experienced the suppressive force of colonialism, as he focused his efforts towards helping Indian-South Africans. His forcible removal from a whites-only carriage upon a train demonstrated to Gandhi that some Britons thought of themselves as superior to him, brought upon by ‘a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice’. This, and other similar personal experiences contributed to Gandhi’s understanding of evil as a moral stain within the soul, something that had to be triumphed over both spiritually and physically but without burdening oneself in the process. Further, Gandhi’s understanding of evil leads to his thoughts on what totalitarianism was, just a facet of a government that operated in the spirit of this evil. As he would state, it did not matter whether ‘destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty and democracy’; evil was simply evil and could be defeated through peaceful means, his own Satyagraha. As passive resistance could ‘manifest itself as violence’, Gandhi established his form of civil disobedience, centred around self-discipline, spirituality and experiments with rebellion. Satyagraha was not a solidified approach from the start but full of experimentation aimed to fight against anger rather than provoke it. By wearing pain inflicted upon them as a badge of honour, Gandhi imagined that Indians could hold a moral mirror towards the British empire and their racially motivated laws for the governments, autocrats and armies to recognise their injustices, to convert rather than to fight. The effectiveness of Satyagraha was clear for the world to see as British rule in India ended in 1947, although Orwell suggests that a number of other factors were key in the destruction of the Raj, including the presence of a Labour government. It has been further suggested that Satyagraha was suited only for the specific conditions of British India, and Gandhi was simply the right thinker in the right place to deliver a message of peace. So can the effectiveness of Satyagraha be judged through other examples?
In 1999’s final issue of Time Magazine, an article called ‘The Children of Gandhi’ was published, listing examples of individuals who had used civil disobedience in the image of Satyagraha to achieve the goal of overcoming oppression. Notable figures such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela were included on the list, touted for their toppling of racist regimes that discriminated based upon skin colour. Whilst these figures certainly used satyagraha derivative forms of protest, they weren’t necessarily fighting totalitarian governments, but rather nations that had an inherent social bias influencing political structures. There was no Hitler like figure that these people fought, nor a dominating regime in the shape of the Nazis. Thus their contribution, whilst significant, would not disprove Orwell’s criticism of Gandhi’s method. Another inclusion on the list, the Dalai Lama, has used methods of peaceful protest in his quest to free Tibet from the grasp of totalitarian China, but this has been unsuccessful, as The Communist Chinese Party has governed the region from 1951 to the modern day without much significant change. It is also worth noting that Gandhi himself wrote a letter to Hitler in early 1939, reminding the dictator that he was ‘the one person in the world who can prevent a war’ whilst encouraging him to shun his autocratic ways. This letter was never delivered to Hitler, as it was infiltrated by the British government, but it does demonstrate that an effort to spread the reach of his efforts was made by Gandhi. It is my opinion that there is no one way to overcome totalitarianism, but different practises that consider the specific conditions of a region and the motivations of a people to help overcome regimes and ideologies. Gandhi was undoubtedly the right man for India and the level of his contribution to the world should not be judged on the effectiveness of his thoughts but rather their usefulness in helping us understand how evil should be dealt with. Gandhi proved that autocracy can be toppled without violence and set forth ideas that would help ‘convert’ rather than ‘provoke’. Orwell, whilst maintaining Satyagraha could not combat severe oppression still marvelled at ‘how clean a smell (Gandhi) has managed to leave behind’, suggesting the leaders personal morality was unquestionable, even if his ideas were somewhat naïve. In combatting totalitarianism, there is no one-size-fits-all, leaving both of these monumental thinkers correct in their criticisms and methods of overcoming evil in the world.
Left: Elliot & Fry, Studio Photograph of Mohandas K. Gandhi, 1931, courtesy of Hulton Archive, London.
Right: Branch of the National Union of Journalists, George Orwell Union Card, 1943, courtesy of The Orwell Foundation, London.
Gandhi, Mohandas. ‘An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth’. Penguin Random House: New York, 1948.
Orwell, George. ‘Reflections on Gandhi’. Partisan Review, Vol. 16 no. 1 (January 1949): 85-92. Doi: https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/reflections-on-gandhi/.
Orwell, George. ‘Rudyard Kipling’. New English Weekly, 23 January 1936.
Orwell, George. 1984. Penguin Random House: New York, 1949.
Orwell, George. ‘Shooting an Elephant’. New Writing, Vol. 2 no. 1 (October 1936): 4-8. Doi: https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/shooting-an-elephant/.
Orwell, George. ‘Road to Wigan Pier’. Penguin Random House: New York, 1937.
Bylund, Lynnea.‘The Children of Gandhi’. Time Magazine, 31 December 1999. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,993026,00.html.
Chakrabarti, Anupam. ‘The Ethical Imagination of Gandhi as Seen Through the Critical Eye of Fischer, Louis. Gandhi and Stalin: Two signs and the worlds crossroads. Victor Gollancz Ltd: London, 1947.
Pai, Gita V. ‘Orwell’s reflections on Saint Gandhi’. Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies, Vol. 40 no. 1 (March 2014): 51-77. Doi: 10.6240/concentric.lit.2014.40.1.04.
Ridley, Hugh. ‘Colonial Society and European Totalitarianism’. Journal of European Studies, Vol. 3 no. 1 (June 1973): 147-159. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/004724417300300203.
Traverso, Enzo. ‘Totalitarianism between history and theory’. History and Theory, Vol. 55 no.1 (December 2017): 97-118. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/hith.12040.