Revolutionary economist

Gandhian economics is difficult to explain as a coherent system of thought, but its ethical principles can never be ignored. Many of his economic thoughts stemmed from what he considered ethically right or wrong. In his words: ‘That economics is untrue which ignores or disregards moral values

Revolutionary economist

Mahatma Gandhi was a more radical revolutionary than Mao Zedong. His indictment of modern civilization represents a moral and spiritual standpoint that is seen even more clearly in his attitude to politics. His view of politics was a consequence of, and not independent of, his view of morality.

In his essay, ‘On the Discordance Between Moral and Politics’ Immanuel Kant wrote: “I can easily enough think of a moral politician as one who holds the principles of political expediency in such a way that they can coexist with morals: but I cannot conceive of a political moralist who fashions a system of morality for himself so as to make it subordinate and subservient to the interest of the statesman.”

In this Kantian sense Gandhi could be seen as a ‘political moralist’; he was certainty not a ‘moral politician.’ His moral standpoint was absolutist in all spheres. Turning to modern economics, and its suitability as a path to morality Gandhi felt the need for conceptual modification. He sought to combine Lincoln’s love of liberty with Lenin’s urge of equality without resorting to a barrel of gun.


He was also influenced by the Marxian doctrine of neutrality, and its emphasis on the ‘exploitation of labour’ and much infatuated by John Ruskin’s heterodox doctrine that the wealth of a nation consisted not in its production and consumption of goods but in its people. Gandhi remarked, “I don’t draw a sharp or any distinction between economics and ethics. Economics that hurts the moral well-being of an individual or a nation is immoral and therefore sinful.”

Basically, Gandhi was not an economist in the conventional sense of the terms. But economic ideas are part of his philosophy of life; they are reflected in his writings and speeches. With Gandhi economics was a part of a way of life. Only two life principles seem to govern all his economic, social, political and other considerations, viz. truth and non-violence.

Anything that cannot be satisfactorily tested on these touchstones, as it were, cannot be regarded as Gandhian. However, his economic thought was based on a strong background. He studied The Economic History of India under Early British Rule by Romesh Chunder Dutt, wherein unbearable sufferings of the Indian people were caused mainly by a heavy land tax upon the peasants, the destruction of handicrafts, the recurrence of famines, and the annual drain of revenues to Britain were vividly described.

Gandhi was so moved that he wept when he read the book. After returning from South Africa, when he witnessed the intolerable poverty of the country, he modelled his lifestyle exactly after that of his countrymen and started wearing just a loin-cloth. It was for the same reason he travelled in the third class of trains all over India and interacted with common people to ascertain their sufferings. He also read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Marx’s Das capital.

Moreover, he had been in constant touch with the world’s different trends of thought, and he was engaged in a struggle against the world’s mightiest empire. Gandhian economics is difficult to explain as a coherent system of thought, but its ethical principles can never be ignored. Many of his economic thoughts stemmed from what he considered ethically right or wrong.

In his words: “That economics is untrue which ignores or disregards moral values.” Interestingly, it is not unrealistic if we seek parallels between the agnostic Adam Smith and the religious or spiritual Gandhi. For this we need to go back to Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, published some seventeen years before The Wealth of Nations. This outstanding work on moral philosophy can be seen as a precursor and as the foundation without which his treatise on political economy would not have a proper context.

Smith, the father of economics, pointed out that social morality flows from balancing of self-interest and natural human sympathy for human beings who live in the same society. But Smith used the core idea to conclude that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

The theory suggests that each of us derives a personal moral compass by referring to ‘an impartial spectator’ who exists as a ‘man within the breast.’ The ‘impartial spectator’ presumably stands close to but outside a human being and watches actions and behaviours of that person.

The analogous nature of Gandhi’s “still small voice within” of his conscience is not to be missed. Gandhi did not seek to directly bring in God or religion. He adopted completely a humanist vision and said: “Man has two windows to his mind: through one he can see his own self as it is; through the other, he can see what ought to be.”

Gandhi was the philosopher of a new age and the first man who provided a practical alternative economic system, integrated with morality and non-violence, against the prevailing economic system. He did not give any model regarding the development of economics, but gave some canons based on which we can decide what kind of economic composition is preferable for
the Indian economy.

Reconstruction in the rural areas is the main sources of development. He talked and dreamt of revival of small and village industries, abolition of untouchability, ban on liquor, Gram Swaraj and independent villages which would fulfil their needs. When the question of utilising non-renewable natural resources comes, Gandhian economy sponsors the rule of control over wants and advises taking care of one’s need and not greed.

So, instead of fulfilling unlimited wants, attention should be given to welfare of the poor and the weakest. This is indeed the essential part of the moral view of Gandhian economic thought. Rousseau was the first modern writer who asserted that democracy would be impossible to attain unless people were allowed to exercise their sovereign power by decentralisation of power. The special characteristics of the Gandhian conception of decentralisation are two:

In the first place, Gandhi regarded decentralisation of power as an essential corollary to non-violence; secondly, such decentralisation would be possible in a nonindustrial society with the selfsufficient village as the primary unit. It is the only way out of the problem of unemployment. His theory of decentralisation was the result of his keen and almost prophetic insight into the numerous political, social and cultural ills which the age of large-scale industrialisation had brought in its wake.

Decentralisation is not to be confined merely to industries. It applies to the authority of the State. Gandhi conceived of decentralised political authority as being necessary at every stage and period, and for all time. According to Gandhi, if we want Swaraj, villages should be made self-reliant through decentralisation of power and production.

There is little in the concepts that may indicate that the Gandhian world is an old world. On the contrary, it could be argued that Gandhi is the first major philosopher of a post-industrial age and that his philosophy constitutes a major challenge for modern science.

He pointed out time and again that machine should never be a substitute for man. Of course, he was not totally against the use of machinery. What he opposed was ‘the craze for machinery’. He explained: “Mechanisation is good when the hands are too few for the work intended to be accomplished. It is an evil when there are more hands than required for the work, as is the case in India.”

Gandhi adopted the traditional concept of varna-vyavastya (socio-economic order), but put an entirely new meaning and spirit in it. Those who object to the words varna and varna-vyavastya need not be startled at Gandhi’s use of them. We should not be concerned with words but with their content: (a) equal wages for all work; (b) absence of competition; (c) a system of education which takes the fullest advantage of the hereditary capacities of people make up the essence of varnavyavastya. Gandhi’s economic thought would not be complete without dealing with his doctrine of ‘Trusteeship’. It is a social and economic philosophy aiming to bring justice in society. It provides a means by which the wealthy would be the trustees who ensured welfare of the people. Gandhibelieved that even the rich people ~ the so-called capitalists ~ are after all human beings.

As such they also have an element of goodness that every man necessarily possesses. The rich people should be made to realise that the capital in their hands is the fruit of the labour of the poor. Indeed, it is nothing but sincere practice of the doctrine of non-possession.

Thomas Aquinas viewed that bringing justice is not only the responsibility of the state but also of individuals by being emphatic. The concept is manifest in our cooperative policies, the community development policy and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Gandhi’s visualisation of societal relations in his famous oceanic circles is perpetually sustainable compared to the concentric circle visualisation of stoic society which gives primacy to individual egos. Gandhi conceived a system of supported sustenance of the centrally situated centre and spatially distant world and yet with both willing to sacrifice for each other.

What we need today is to devise a new mode of economic development based on Gandhian ideology. It is imperative that we should adopt a new matrix of economic development in which progress is measured in terms of development of human capacity, dignified employment for every one, equitable distribution of income and wealth, ecological sustainability and social wellbeing of the community.

(The writer is a retired IAS officer)