“Unless something radical is done to Capitalism, it would seem that through it humanity is likely to be wiped out”
Bharatan Kumarappa (1896-1957) was a scholar, writer and activist close to Mohandas Gandhi and, like him, strongly opposed to industrial-capitalist imperialism.
The younger brother of J. C. Kumarappa, he was the Indian editor of Gandhi’s collected works.
He wrote the book Capitalism, Socialism or Villagism, published in 1946, while a political prisoner of the British occupying regime.
Gandhi, in his foreword to this work, credits Kumarappa with coining the word “villagism” to describe their shared vision of a decentralised community-based way of living built on traditional crafts and culture.
Kumarappa aimed the book at Indian village workers, rather than at intellectuals and used it to convey a powerful anti-capitalist message.
He declared: “Unless something radical is done to Capitalism, it would seem that through it humanity is likely to be wiped out”. (1)
Kumarappa said that capitalism’s cult of uncontrolled selfishness was the worst possible basis for any civilization and had created societies “where men in their greed for gain become worse than brutes and compete with each other in fraud, deception, inhuman cruelties and world-wide exploitation and destruction”. (2)
In the religious language of the Bhagavad Gita, he said, capitalism had in fact led “to the establishment of a world of demons”. (3)
In common with Gandhi and other thinkers who inspire organic radicalism, Kumarappa insisted that complete rejection of capitalism must go deeper than the surface of its political presence and address the physical existence of its centralised industrial infrastructures.
He wrote: “The instinct of the anarchist is right when he wants to do away with the tyranny of organisation. But, as we have already pointed out, this can be no more than a dream so long as large-scale production and distribution are adopted”. (4)
An advocate of what would today be termed “degrowth”, Kumarappa challenged the dominant definition of progress, warning that it should not be taken as meaning “a multitude of goods”. (5)
He explained: “If it is realised that progress is not so much a matter of the material environment as a growth in the intelligence, character and artistic sense of the individual, it would seem that it is only under a decentralised economic order that true progress will be possible.
“On the other hand, today, under the centralised economic order, we appear to be descending below the level of the beast, hating, exploiting and destroying each other on a world scale, and reducing the average man to a standardised automaton incapable of thinking and acting for himself”. (6)
In putting forward the idea of barter as a healthy means of exchange, he questioned why modern societies insisted on “interposing this purely human device of money between food and starvation”.
He asked: “Why should not a man who is eager to give his labour or his produce have direct access to the commodities he wants without first having to change them into money?” (7)
Kumarappa said that however much an economic system might succeed in bringing riches, it would be unstable and prove a failure if in the process it caused human suffering, or in any way hindered people from a full life.
He added: “And, conversely, even if an economic system secures only a subsistence, it will prove stable and adequate if it tends to promote the well-being of all”. (8)
This alternative Gandhian system, villagism, was rooted in ancient pre-capitalist ways of living and was not directly drawn from the Western socialist tradition, he explained.
“The idea of social ownership of production and sharing of things in common was not original to Socialism. Such an arrangement existed in some form or other even in early times, when a whole community or village held land and other property in common and distributed wealth among its members”. (9)
Indeed, Kumarappa was highly critical of orthodox socialism for its dependence on a central state to manage its supposedly egalitarian society.
He warned: “As Capitalism took away wealth which rightly belonged to the people and accumulated it in the hands of the capitalist, Socialism takes away the power which rightly belongs to the people and concentrates it in the State.
“And concentration of power is not less dangerous than concentration of wealth; for men get intoxicated with power and can use it with disastrous effect against those who disagree with them”. (10)
A decentralised village-orientated way of life was a bulwark against all concentrations of power, on the national and international level: “We must not think of Villagism therefore as only a matter of economic arrangement but as a social order aiming at ridding the world of imperialism and war”. (11)
In his 1934 book The Hindu Conception of the Deity, Kumarappa set out to counter “critics who think that morality finds no place in the philosophical and religious thought of India”. (12)
To do this, he focused on the teaching of his Tamil predecessor, Ramanuja, the medieval Hindu theologian and philosopher of the Sri Vaishnavism tradition, as opposed to the earlier theology of Adis Shankara or Samkara
Kumarappa said some in the West seemed to imagine that Hinduism regarded the world of experience, the world of life and activity, as unreal.
He objected: “Even if such a criticism be true of Samkara’s philosophy, it certainly cannot claim to be true of all Hindu philosophy.
“Ramanuja, at any rate, repudiates at every turn the doctrine of the illusoriness of the material world and the finite self, and postulates that ultimate Reality is one in which the material world and finite self find a necessary place.
“Nay more, he claims that the ideals by which we live – the perfections of truth, goodness and love – are rooted in the very heart of the Eternal”. (13)
1. Bharatan Kumarappa, Capitalism, Socialism or Villagism (Madras: Shakti Press, 1946), p. 11.
4. Kumarappa, Capitalism, Socialism or Villagism, p. 104.
5. Kumarappa, Capitalism, Socialism or Villagism, p. 193.
6. Kumarappa, Capitalism, Socialism or Villagism, pp. 193-94.
7. Kumarappa, Capitalism, Socialism or Villagism, p. 153.
8. Kumarappa, Capitalism, Socialism or Villagism, p. 112.
9. Kumarappa, Capitalism, Socialism or Villagism, p. 58.
10. Kumarappa, Capitalism, Socialism or Villagism, p. 105.
11. Kumarappa, Capitalism, Socialism or Villagism, p. 192.
12. Bharatan Kumarappa, The Hindu Conception of the Deity: As Culminating in Ramanuja (Luzak & Co, 1934), p. xiv.
13. Kumarappa, The Hindu Conception of the Deity, p.xiii.