Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi - 1948

Note by web site editor:
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869
and died on January 30, 1948. This 1848 article was
reprinted in 1998.
Vol. 107 No. 11



(WEEKLY PEOPLE, Feb. 14, 1948)

The assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi by a fanatic Hindu nationalist plunged the whole capitalist world into mourning. Editorials in the press were uniformly extravagant in admiration and praise of the Indian leader. "Practical men in London," THE NEW YORK TIMES reported, made the most sincere tribute of which the bourgeoisie is capable: "Indian securities dropped in price." Everywhere thoughtful members of the ruling class felt their system less secure for Gandhi's passing.

The spectacle of bourgeois mourning is not a misleading one. Despite his carefully cultivated asceticism, and despite his opposition to industrialism and his yearning for the simplicity of the primitive village economy, Gandhi was essentially a political representative of Indian capitalism. This was inevitable for the reason that the struggle for Indian national independence was essentially a struggle for the independence of Indian capitalism.

In an interview with Louis Fischer (published in SURVEY GRAPHIC, October 1942), Gandhi admitted that the Congress Party's being financed by rich Hindu capitalists "creates a silent debt," but "actually," he added, "we are very little influenced by the thinking of the rich. The dependence of Congress on rich sponsors is unfortunate. I deliberately use the word unfortunate. But that does not pervert our politics."

Nevertheless, the Congress politicians, who expressed their aims in lofty language, worked in practice for the emancipation of Indian capitalism. Moreover, the tactics that Gandhi introduced to the struggle for national independence, particularly the tactic known as Satyagraha (literally "insistence upon truth"), suited admirably the Indian bourgeois needs because it enabled the capitalist leaders to make use of the Indian masses without risking independent action by the workers and peasants. Satyagraha, in Gandhi's own words, excludes "the use of physical force or violence for the purpose of gaining one's end." Thus, while the Indian masses were enlisted in a crusade of passive resistance -- admirably suited to weakening the grip of imperialism -- they were kept totally unprepared to take the struggle beyond the point desired by the millionaire Hindu millowners of Bombay. By restricting the struggle to the passive methods of civil disobedience, Gandhi rendered a notable service to Indian and world capitalism. Indeed, it is one of the "miracles" of modern history that India won a qualified political independence without awakening the stupendous forces that slumber in the oppressed masses of that vast subcontinent.

In the capitalist eulogies there is a persistent emphasis also on Gandhi's enormous influence as an individual. It is recalled that in India it is almost sacrilege to refer to the Mahatma as anything but "Gandhiji" or "Mahatmaji" -- the "ji" being an affectionate suffix. His fasts exerted a compulsion and brought about reactions that are difficult to appreciate. Markets would close. Trade would come to a standstill. Whole administrations would resign and apprehension would sweep the country. The earl of Mountbatten once wrote to Gandhi after the latter's Calcutta fast: "My dear Gandhiji: In the Punjab I have 55,000 troops, and riots, on my hands. In Calcutta I have one man and peace. May I pay my tribute to my one-man boundary force?" And in its editorial on "The Shadow of One Man," THE NEW YORK TIMES asserts that Gandhi's death dramatizes "the supreme importance of a human individual."

The exaggerated emphasis on Gandhi's personal influence is obviously intended to bolster the idealistic conception of history, which ascribes great historic events and social changes to great historical personages. At the same time it is meant to detract from the Marxian materialist conception of history, which views such events and changes as ultimate consequences of changes in the mode of production and exchange. Actually, however, the materialist conception of history does not deny the influence of individuals on events; what it says is that the PRIMARY motivation for social changes and political revolutions is to be found in changes in the economic substructure. Gandhi was the product, not the cause, of the struggle for Indian independence. The modern Indian nationalist movement had its PRIMARY motivation in the conflict between the needs and aspirations of Indian capitalism and the restrictions imposed by British imperialism.

There is no doubt that Gandhi was a superb showman. He recognized in asceticism a valuable political asset, and one that endeared him to the Indian masses. The latter esteemed him no less because their "Gandhiji" lived starkly from choice and not from necessity. The spinning wheel and other primitive props helped to dramatize a way of life that contrasted sharply with that of most well-to-do members of the Bania (merchant and trader) Hindu caste in which Gandhi was born. Nevertheless, and despite his unique influence on tens of millions of poverty- stricken, superstition-ridden followers, Gandhi had no sympathy for the workers' aspirations for economic and social emancipation. In exalting him, the capitalists exalt one of their own.