King’s improvement on Gandhi

Tomorrow the United States celebrates a holiday in honour of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boston University, where I work, is always eager to remind everyone that King got his doctorate there. They are not always as eager to remind you that King studied at the School of Theology – and clearly learned his lessons there well, for he was not merely a great activist but a great philosopher.

I have come to know King’s thought through the courses I have taught in BU’s philosophy department – even though the courses were on Indian philosophy. I have nevertheless included King on the syllabus for that class, with guest speakers introducing him to the students, because I wanted to show students the contemporary relevance of Indian philosophy. Specifically, King drew a great deal of his ideas from Gandhi – who was a philosopher-activist like King, and in turn drew on earlier Indian thought like Jainism and the Bhagavad Gītā. It seems to me on reflection, though, that the student surpassed the teacher: that what King said and wrote with Gandhi’s influence was profounder and more valuable than Gandhi’s own thought was in itself.

Martin Luther King Jr.

The core idea that King drew from Gandhi, of course, was nonviolence – which Gandhi used to translate the Jain vow of ahiṃsā. Ahiṃsā more literally means “non-harm”, which is not exactly the same thing. Gandhi’s major achievement is to turn ahiṃsā into the idea of nonviolent action: changing unjust social conditions by means of peaceful mass protests that call attention to them. This idea was not in traditional Jainism, which like its sister tradition of Buddhism, was not politically active; nor was it in the Gītā, a more political text whose explicitly stated message is the opposite of nonviolence. But Gandhi put it to powerful effect, drawing enormous sympathy for the cause of Indian independence, which eventually became successful.

King learned from Gandhi and used the same tactics, similarly successful, to end the official régime of racial segregation in the American South. In their activism – deploying nonviolent resistance to end an unjust situation – they were very similar. Where they really differed was in their political thought. King had philosophical training where Gandhi didn’t – and it shows.

Gandhi pushed his theory of nonviolence much further than King, into a sort of anarcho-libertarianism that considered state action an unacceptable form of violence. He proclaimed that “I shall be no party to dispossessing the propertied classes of their private property without just cause” – and providing food and livelihood to the poor and hungry did not count, for him, as just cause. Instead he encouraged a voluntary redistribution, where “the rich should regard themselves as trustees for the whole of society rather than as owners of the wealth they might possess.” Gandhi’s followers, like Vinoba Bhave, made a sincere effort to convince the rich to share their land and wealth with the poor – but it didn’t work. A few noble souls were convinced, but not enough to make any meaningful dent in the poverty of the villages where it was tried. And on a more fundamental level, Gandhi never seemed to object to the state violence involved in keeping property in its current hands, through laws against theft.

King had a much more realistic view. Like Gandhi, he believed that guarding power was bad for the powerful: segregation harmed the white man’s own soul. But from his other great influence Reinhold Niebuhr – coiner of the Serenity Prayer – King learned to reject a “false optimism”. Niebuhr, drawing in turn on Augustine, knew that the darkness in human nature runs deep. Voluntary changes of heart benefit everyone and they are to be celebrated. But they are not sufficient to bring about social change. Thus King’s Poor People’s Campaign demanded a more standard form of social democracy, where the government would tax the rich to fund housing and income for the poor.

I greatly admire King’s political vision because it forms an admirable synthesis of two crucial political currents. I think that James Doull is right to bemoan a politics of “division” in which the interests of different human groups and individuals are fundamentally set against each other, with no larger picture of a common good. Such a division got much worse in the decades after Doull’s death: my Facebook feed in the mid-2010s (pre-Trump) was full of feminist advice not to say that patriarchy hurts men too (even though it absolutely does), because the fight against patriarchy should only be for women and not men. Such views of intrinsic antagonism set in motion what Hobbes called a war of all against all – and in a war of all against all, all will lose.

Doull regularly criticized Marx as one responsible for promoting that division. But Marx, I think, saw what Doull and Gandhi did not: that power structures tend to be captured and serve the interests of the powerful. Public shaming can end such obvious injustices as colonialism and segregation – but even there, it does so through a change in the state and its apparatus of coercion. Moreover the powerful are often blinded to the unjust operations of their power. One can see that blinding just by reading Doull’s own heroes, Aristotle and Hegel: one cannot imagine Aristotle writing of “natural slaves”, or Hegel writing that slavery “causes the increase of human feeling among the Negroes”, had they ever been slaves themselves. Appeals to the common good can all too easily become appeals to the good of the powerful.

And I cannot name any thinker from any era who navigated this problem better than Martin Luther King. King refused the naïveté that trusted the rich to give up their land voluntarily. And yet he never stopped believing in the common good. Segregation did hurt white people as it hurt black people; it’s just all too difficult for white people to see that. When the powerful wield power unjustly, one must take some of that power from them by force – but in a way that ultimately makes a better world for everyone.

Happy Martin Luther King Day.

EDIT (4 Jul 2023): “the student surpassed the teacher” had originally been written “the student surpassed the pupil”, which didn’t make any sense.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

11 Replies to “King’s improvement on Gandhi”

  1. Pingback: King’s improvement on Gandhi | Love of All Wisdom

  2. Babasaheb ambedkar criticized gandhi’s approval of the varna dharma. in that sense ambedkar was closer to king. ambedkar argued that hindu social doctrine could be changed, and he chose the buddhist dharma as the necessary alternative.

  3. It looks like Mr. Lele doesn’t understand either the Bhagavadgītā nor ahiṃsā very well – for he states pejoratively “nor was it in the Gītā, a more political text whose explicitly stated message is the opposite of nonviolence.”

    Ahiṃsā is not = context-free (at-all-times/everywhere/to-everyone) non-violence.
    Rather ahiṃsā means not hurting others unprovoked (i.e. not passive acceptance of the hiṃsā that others seek to inflict on you).

    Allowing oneself to be killed or wounded in war (a war that you didnt call for or declare) is not ahiṃsā.

    Facing the hiṃsā that originates elsewhere, and countering it with and equal and opposite force effectively to blunt its effect (and thereby restoring ahiṃsā) is part of ahiṃsā. So the dharma of the bhagavadgītā teaches an interpretation of ahiṃsā that is pragmatic (and can be applied in real life), not an interpretation of ahiṃsā that is eventually useless for the one practising it (for one needs no ahiṃsā to remain a walkover or to get killed passively without resistance).

    • As noted in the post, I don’t think ahiṃsā means nonviolence, let alone context-free nonviolence. But Gandhi disagreed with me. He always rendered “ahiṃsā” as nonviolence, and was so opposed to violence, in any context, that he wouldn’t even allow for state redistribution of property. Meanwhile, the explicitly stated message of the Gītā is to go fight a battle and kill your cousins. Gandhi tried to reinterpret the Gītā in a way that fit his view of nonviolence, but I don’t find it particularly convincing.

  4. Just a few notes here. Redistribution has always drawn flak. As has Utilitarianism. I had always admired Dr. King’s methods and tactics and wondered whether other influences had led him there. I have asserted that religion (or, if one prefers, faith) and philosophy are the same thing. I think they at least require similar thinking. Gandhi has been a model for others, for years. Some people recognize this and emulate his philosophy in their own lives. This is a great tribute for Dr. King on his day.

  5. Once again, I found your post to be quite stimulating Amod!

    There is actually a passage in Gandhi’s writings that I use in my book (Gandhi’s Thought and Liberal Democracy, Lexington 2019) that speaks to this issue. In discussing socialist proposals to forcibly remove wealth and redistribute it Gandhi states:

    This violent action cannot benefit society. Society will be the poorer, for it will lose the gifts of a man who knows how to accumulate wealth. Therefore the non-violent way is evidently superior. The rich man will be left in possession of his wealth, of which he will use what he reasonably requires for his personal needs and will act as a trustee for the remainder to be used for the society. In this argument, honesty on the part of the trustee is assumed.
    If, however, in spite of the utmost effort, the rich do not become guardians of the poor in the true sense of the term and the latter are more and more crushed and die of hunger, what is to be done? In trying to find out the solution to this riddle I have lighted on non-violent non-cooperation and civil disobedience as the right and infallible means. The rich cannot accumulate wealth without the co-operation of the poor in society. If this knowledge were to penetrate to and spread amongst the poor, they would become strong and would learn how to free themselves by means of non-violence from the crushing inequalities which have brought them to the verge of starvation

    As a side-note, Swasti Bhattacharyya comments in her chapter “Vinoba’s Sarvodaya: A Gandhian Example of Radical Inclusion” (in Gandhi’s Global Legacy, Lexington 2023): “While the Bhoodan (Vinoba’s land movement) may have fallen short of its own goals, it exceeded the work of any other group in the country at the time.” Interestingly, as Bhattacharyya notes, socialist groups were also quite active in Indian during this time.

    I bring all this up just to offer some additional points to think about regarding your central point.

    • Thanks, Sanjay. I do wonder what Gandhi had in mind for the poor freeing themselves from inequality nonviolently if it wasn’t through government force. Was the idea to have mass civil actions in front of the rich until they gave up wealth voluntarily? If so, was that ever tried?

  6. Although there is considerably more I wanted to respond to, other commitments preclude that ambition, so I will confine myself to just few matters (and even here, much more could be said) which I hope will prompt one to re-evaluate some of the claims made in the original post. Amod and I happen to have keen interests, to put it feebly, in many of the same subjects, which is heartening, even if I find myself in spirited but amicable disagreement on occasion.

    “From about 1930 onwards Gandhi’s views on the nature of the state and the functions of government underwent an important change. Although he still continued to plead for a loosely structured polity base on the institutionalised partnership between the people and the government, the latter now began to assume a more dominant role. Hitherto he had thought of the state almost entirely as a ‘soul-less machine’ based on and sustained by violence and only necessary because the weak human required the coercive discipline of the law. When such exploited and long-oppressed groups as the untouchables, the poor, the tribals, the agricultural labourers and the landless peasants began to campaign for social and economic justice and threaten the unity of the independence movement, Gandhi had to take serious notice of them. He had always been solicitous about the about the first two but not the rest, and he also began to appreciate that poverty and untouchability could not be as easily eradicated as he had hitherto thought. The increasing pace of industrialisation created a large class of poor, discontented and organised industrial workers, and he could not ignore them either. He realised that many of these groups were too weak to compete on equal terms with the rest of their countrymen, and that they threatened to unleash violence and tear apart the social fabric of India unless something was done to meet their demands.

    Gandhi began to appreciate that the state had a vital role to play in promoting social and economic justice. He put the point well in at the Round Table Conference in 1931:

    ‘I am afraid that for years to come India would be engaged in passing legislation in order to raise the down-trodden, and the fallen, from the mire into which they have been sunk by the capitalists, landlords, by the so-called higher classes, and then, subsequently and scientifically, by the British rulers. If we are to lift these people from their mire, then it would be the bounded duty of the National Government of India, in order to set its house in order, continually to give preference to those people and even free them from their burdens under which they are being crushed. And, if the landlords, zamindars, monied men and those who are today enjoying privileges—I do not care whether they are Europeans or Indians—if they find that they are discriminated against, I shall sympathise with them, but I will not be able to help them, even if I could possibly do so, because I would seek their assistance in that process, and without their assistance it would not be possible to raise these people out of the mire.

    Look at the condition, if you will, of the untouchables, if the law comes to their assistance and sets apart miles of territory. At the present moment they hold no land, they are absolutely living at the mercy of the so-called higher castes, and also, let me say, at the mercy of the state. They can be removed from one quarter to another, without complaint and without being able to seek the assistance of the law. Well, the first act of the Legislature will then be to see that in order somewhat to equalise conditions, these people are given grants freely.’

    Gandhi also began to acknowledge that the deeply entrenched social and economic inequalities and injustices could not be removed by moral persuasion alone. As we shall see, he conceded that capitalists were unlikely to become trustees of their property unless compelled so by law. He realised too that independent India could not do without large industries and could have to nationalise many of them ‘with or without compensation.’ He saw that the state also had an important role to play in the national regeneration of India. Although much of the work was to be done by dedicated voluntary workers, the state could greatly assist their efforts. In some areas, its intervention was critical, for example, the prohibition of alcohol and the removal of untouchability; in yet others it could lend its moral and material help and expedite voluntary efforts, for example, the development of regional languages.

    These and other related functions Gandhi now assigned to the state implied that it was an instrument of social and economic justice, a promoter of the public and some aspects of private morality [what we call ethics], a custodian of Indian civilisation, and the patron of the grand yajna of national regeneration. Indeed, when it sought to level up the poor and the oppressed, it did nothing other than put into practice the spiritual principle of active love. He now began to realise that the state was far more complex than he had hitherto imagined, and had a potential for both good and evil. It was not entirely a soul-less machine but also a moral and spiritual institution capable of playing a vital role in the moral development of its citizens. It did, no doubt, represent concentrated and organised violence; it was also, however, a vehicle of some of their deepest moral aspirations. It was a soul-less machine; it was also, however, a custodian of the spirit of Indian civilisation and a vehicle of justice. Although Gandhi appreciated all this, he did not reconsider his earlier theoretical analysis of the nature of the state and continued to talk about it in highly critical terms. Like his theories of ahimsa and satyagraha, his theory of the state lagged behind his practice. [….]

    When the Constituent Assembly met to determine the profile of the new polity, Gandhi did not press his views on it. When it opted for the modern state, he did not take a public stand against it either. He does not seem to have spoken about it to Nehru or even to such loyal supporters as Patel and Rajendra Prasad either. When his close associates offered to mobilise public opinion and mount pressure against the new constitution [in which, of course B.R. Ambedkar played a leading role], he advised them against it and urged them instead to ‘leave it to those who are labouring at it.’ No doubt, during those critical months he was deeply involved in arresting the rising tide of communal violence and acutely frustrated by the way his erstwhile colleagues had deserted him. However, he was too tenacious a fighter to give in easily n matters as momentous as the nature of the Indian state. If anything, the communal violence seems to have convinced him how much India needed the modern state to maintain even a modicum of order. The readiness with which he approved of both the dispatch of the Indian army to defend Kashmir and the use of the police to put down communal violence points in that direction. His confession toward the end of his life that India under his leadership had never really believe in the principle of non-violence showed how far in his view it had to go before it could dispense with the state [the same could be said of course with Marx and the communist ideal!].”

    From Bhikhu Parekh’s Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination (University of Notre Dame Press, 1989): 117-121. Short of reading the entire book, one might simply read, for our purposes, the chapter, “Theory of the State,” pp. 110-131.

    • Thanks for this, Patrick. I hadn’t read before that he had had that kind of change of heart. If he did, it might well change my views of him. Most of my knowledge of Gandhi’s thought comes from Raghavan Iyer’s three-volume collection of his moral and political writings, and I don’t recall anything in there about him coming to accept the use of the state for redistribution. Maybe I missed it? Or maybe Iyer left it out?

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