“Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilization; it represents a great sin”
Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) was a political activist who played a key role in the successful Indian struggle for independence.
His involvement in the resistance to British imperialism went hand in hand with a deep opposition to the life-crushing industrial capitalism which it imposed on the sub-continent.
Ranchor Prime notes: “Gandhi was opposed to industrialization. It wasted resources and took people’s work from them. What was the point of labor-saving devices when they created unemployment?” (1)
Gandhi himself wrote in 1909: “Machinery has begun to desolate Europe. Ruination is now knocking at the English gates. Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilization; it represents a great sin… Railways accentuate the evil nature of man. Bad men fulfil their designs with greater rapidity”. (2)
Later he added: ” The incessant search for material comforts and their multiplication is an evil. I make bold to say that the Europeans will have to remodel their outlook, if they are not to perish under the weight of the comforts to which they are becoming slaves”. (3)
In opposition to industrial capitalism and its insane frenzy to exploit, produce and consume, Gandhi proposed a future in which humankind lived in organic harmony with the rest of the planet.
He wrote: “It is a fundamental law of nature that nature produces enough for our wants from day to day; and if only everyone took enough for their own needs and nothing more, there would be no poverty in this world”. (4)
Gandhi’s vision for India, betrayed by his capitalist successors, was a return to the simple village life his land had known for thousands of years.
Writes Prime: “Mohandas Gandhi, called by his people Mahatma, which means ‘great soul’, loved India’s villages. He believed that they were the key to its happiness and prosperity. In the face of powerful political and economic forces, he tried courageously to preserve their simple way of life.
“Economic behavior determines the way a society treats the earth, therefore any discussion of environmental values has to include economics. The village economics of India give a practical example of an environmental way of living”. (5)
Gandhi argued: “Given the demand, there is no doubt that most of our wants can be supplied by the villages. When we become village-minded we shall not want imitations from the West or machine-made products”. (6)
He saw that this decentralised village economics was the only sustainable long-term way forward for humankind as a whole.
He wrote in a letter to fellow independence campaigner Jawaharlal Nehru in 1945: “I believe that if India, and through India the world, is to achieve real freedom, then sooner or later we shall have to go and live in the villages – in huts, not in palaces. Millions of people can never live in cities and palaces in comfort and peace”. (7)
Gandhi referred to himself on several occasions as a kind of anarchist and always opposed the centralised state and its inherent use of violence. (8)
He was greatly influenced by John Ruskin and translated the title of the Englishman’s Unto This Last as Sarvodaya, or welfare for all. He was also influenced by Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy and Peter Kropotkin, notably by the latter’s vision of a decentralized society of autonomous village communes.
However, Gandhi’s organic radicalism arose primarily from Indian metaphysics and its belief in the cosmic unity of all beings.
Prime writes: “A way of life does not exist in a vacuum. It is based on a way of thinking, a philosophy of life. Gandhi recognized this truth. He believed that it would not be possible to bring about change in society without a corresponding change in the way people behaved.
“To change the way people behaved meant to change the way that they thought. Therefore Gandhi’s primary objective was to influence people’s philosophy of life”. (9)
Central to the Gandhian world-view were the principles of satya (truth), karmayoga (self-realization through disinterested action), varnasramdharma (the Hindu law of right conduct), and ahimsa (non-violence).
Peter Marshall adds: “The most revolutionary aspect of Gandhi’s teaching was undoubtedly his social and political interpretation of ahimsa in which he turned the principle of individual self-realization into a principle of social ethics.
“He also drew on the traditional Indian values of village life and the joint family and the practice of making decisions by consensus”. (10)
Gandhi promoted the idea of swaraj, or self-government, which was the first step towards his ideal of an enlightened anarchy in which social life is self-regulated and “there is no political power because there is no state”. (11)
For him, swaraj had a far deeper meaning than mere political independence. He wrote: “Swaraj is a sacred word meaning self-rule and self-restraint, not freedom from all restraint which ‘independence’ often means”. (12)
At the end of his life, Gandhi was disappointed that India, which gained independence in 1947, was not fundamentally different from India under British rule, except that whereas previously Englishmen had lived in the imperial palace, now Indians did. He feared for the direction India was taking.
Prime comments: “He had always said that real independence for India was not just to become free from British rule. It was also to become free of British culture and industrial way of life and to reestablish the traditional Indian village-based culture for which he had always struggled”. (13)
1. Ranchor Prime, Vedic Ecology: Practical Wisdom for Surviving the 21st Century (Novato, California: Mandala, 2002), p. 84.
2. Mohandas Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, 1909, cit. Prime, p. 86.
3. Mohandas Gandhi, Young India, cit. Prime p. 78.
4. G.A. Nateson, Speeches and Writings of Mahatma Gandhi (Madras: 1935), p. 384, cit. Prime pp. 84-85.
5. Prime, pp. 78-79.
6. Gandhi, ‘Constructive Programme’, cit. Prime, p. 87.
7. Gandhi, letter to Nehru, October 5, 1945, cit. Prime p. 91.
8. Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (London: Fontana, 1993), p. 422.
9. Prime, p. 81.
10. Marshall, pp. 422-23.
11. Gandhi, Young India, July 2, 1931.
12. Gandhi, Young India, 1931, cit. Prime pp 83-83.
13. Prime, p. 90.