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Gandhi, the Jews & Zionism: "Gandhi, Politics and Us"

by Martin Buber (1930)

The Question of Success

While Gandhi lay in prison, shortly after he had received far-reaching plenary powers from the Congress of Ahmedabad (December 1921), and then issued the ultimatum to the Viceroy (February 1922), but a few days afterwards, upon the outbreak of the riots of Chauri Chaura, withdrew it, a high British official expressed himself in the following manner: “"He thoroughly frightened us. His programme filled our prisons - but one cannot for ever lock up and lock up, especially when it is a matter of a people of three hundred and nineteen millions. And if they had gone a step further and had refused to pay taxes - who knows where that would have led! What Gandhi undertook was the most powerful of all experiments that the history of the world has known and only fell a little short of succeeding. But in him the insight into human passions was lacking.”

That opinion was falsely formulated. What Gandhi ‘lacked’ was not insight into human passions but the readiness to exploit them. Both the actual insight and the lack of readiness are clearly expressed in the withdrawal of the ultimatum. The outbreak of riots he called a warning of God “that there does not yet exist in India that truthful and non-violent atmosphere that alone can justify mass disobedience”. The final judgment of the British official does not mean basically that political success is not possible without an insight into human passions, but that political success is not possible without exploitation of human passions. That certainly is not true. But from this starting-point we must inquire further concerning Gandh’s relation to political success.

When, not ten days after the withdrawal, Gandhi’s position met strong opposition at the conference of the All India Congress Committee in Delhi and “in order to avoid a painful discussion”, he had to renounce having the designations “"truthfu” and “non-violent” included in the programmatic resolution, he wrote that he had wanted, now as so often before, to remain in a small minority: “I know that the only thing that the government fears is this monstrous majority that I appear to command. They do not know that I fear it still more than they do themselves. I am literally sick over it. I would feel myself on surer ground if I were spit upon by them.” And further, “If I also, perhaps, stood before the prospect of finding myself in a minority of one voice, I humbly believe that I would have the courage to remain in such a hopeless minority. This is for me the only truthful position.” That is unquestionably the statement of a truthful man, and I know of nothing in modern Western public life to put by its side, unless it were, for all the difference in its source, the words of the American Thoreau in his classical treatise on the duty of civil disobedience.

But can this also be regarded as the statement of a political man, that is, a man who undertakes to influence the formation of institutions and their operation? In other words: is the statement of Gandhi’s that we have quoted a declaration against lies in politics or is it a declaration against politics? Can a political action change institutions, that is a political success, without a majority or a revolutionary-minority mass following, whether by dictation or voluntary assent? Is the aphorism of Schiller and Ibsen concerning the strong man who is most powerful alone or the man who stands alone being the strongest man in the world, not merely morally true, hence true on the plane of personal authentication, but also politically true, that is true on the plane of social realisation? Can this solitary man be politically effective otherwise than by masses “following” him, compelled by his charisma?

But it is just this following without inner transformation that fails to satisfy Gandhi, as shown by his words about his “fear”. “In the Ramayana”, he writes, “we see that when all was ready for Rama’s coronation, Rama was exiled into the wild woods.” Now in the Indian epic, after Rama had long refused to accept the rule because the time of the exile first had to be fulfilled, he was finally consecrated king. But that no longer implies a political hope, nothing directly to be realised in the public sphere through public activities, but only a religious one. This hope is not for an ostensible “following”, but only for their conversion.

In the memorable paper, “Neither a Saint nor a Politician”, Gandhi elucidates his position, “I seem to take part in politics, but this is only because politics today strangles us like the coils of a serpent out of which one cannot slip whatever one tries. I desire, therefore, to wrestle with the serpent.” And further, “I have experimented with myself and with my friends in order to introduce religion into politics.” Our question once again changes its form; it now reads: Does religion allow itself to be introduced into politics in such a way that a political success can be obtained?

Religion means goal and way, politics implies end and means. The political end is recognisable by the fact that it may be attained - in success - and its attainment is historically recorded. The religious goal remains, even in man’s highest experiences of the mortal way, that which simply provides direction; it never enters into historical consummation. The history of the created world, as the religions believing in history acknowledge it, and the history of the human person, as all religions, even those that do not believe in history, acknowledge it, is what takes place on the journey from origin to perfection, and this is registered by other signs than that of success. “The word” is victorious, but otherwise than its bearers hoped for. The Word is not victorious in its purity, but in its corruption; it bears its fruit in the corruptio seminis. Here no success is experienced and recorded; where something of the kind appears in the history of religion, it is no longer religion that prevails, but politics of religion, that is, the opposite of what Gandhi proclaimed: the introduction of politics into religion.

Once again, then: Can political success be attained through religious deed?

That Gandhi’s own attitude is religious in the most genuine sense remains beyond doubt. But already when he speaks of “experimenting with friends” the painful question concerning the views of many of these friends obtrudes. Some of his closest followers have declared before the court of justice that, as long as Gandhi proclaims the watchword of non-violence, they will steadfastly hold to it, yet if another word came from his mouth, then they would certainly follow that one; not to mention the broad circle of the movement. “I see”, wrote Gandhi after the day of Delhi, “that this our non-violence is only skin-deep... This non-violence appears to me to originate simply in our helplessness... Can genuine voluntary non-violence arise out of this apparently compulsory non-violence of the weak?” These are words that even today, despite Gandhi’s great educational effect, retain much of their validity.

So far as Gandhi acts politically, so far as he takes part in passing parliamentary resolutions, he does not introduce religion into politics, but allies his religion with the politics of others. He cannot wrestle uninterruptedly with the serpent; he must at times get along with it because he is directed to work in the kingdom of the serpent that he set out to destroy. He refuses to exploit human passions, but he is chained as political actor to the "political”, to untransformed men. The serpent is, indeed, not only powerful outside, but also within, in the souls of those who long for political success. The way in which Gandhi again and again exercises self-criticism, going into heavy mortification and purification when the inner serpent shows itself too powerful in the movement, is worthy of the purest admiration. But we do not follow him in this; we know that if we consider the tragic character of his greatness, that it is not the tragedy of an inner contradiction, but that of the contradiction between the unconditionality of a spirit and the conditionality of a situation, to which situation, precisely, the masses of his followers, even of the youth belong. This is the tragedy that resists all superficial optimistic attempts to bring about a settlement; the situation will certainly be mastered, but only in the way in which at the close of a Greek tragedy, a theophany (the so-called deus ex machina, in truth ex gratia) resolves the insoluble fate. But that is the very soft, very slow, very roundabout, not at all “successful” step of the deity through history.

In September 1920 Gandhi said and wrote that if the Indian people showed discipline, self-denial, readiness to sacrifice, capacity for order, confidence and courage, then Swaraj - Indian independence - would be attained in a year. Three months later, asked by the correspondent from The Times what he meant by that, he explained that the British people would recognise the strength of the Indian public opinion and at the same time the dreadful injustice that had been done to India in their name, and would forthwith offer a constitution “that will correspond exactly to the wishes of the Indian people”. Gandhi ended the conversation with a variation on the prophetic word, “The lion will then rest by the lamb.” One could not express more clearly the religious character of that expectation; but if it is taken seriously, the presupposition that Gandhi sets for it implies not merely an attitude of the people but an inner transformation. Gandhi unmistakably rejects the “political”, the untransformed, the men who are not changing themselves. “If India”, he once wrote later, “wants to become free, it can only do so with God’s help. God loves the truthful and the non-violent.” But God’s love is not measured by success. How God’s love works is His affair. One may be certain of the truthfulness and non-violence of the love of God, but not of the attainment of Swaraj in one year. “In one year” is a political word; the religious watchword must read: Some time, perhaps today, perhaps in a century. In religious reality there is no stipulation of time, and victory comes, at times, just when one no longer expects it.

In the last part of the year of expectation, Gandhi wrote that the“miracle” of so rapid an attainment of Swaraj must be “preceded by a miraculous conversion of India to the teaching of non-violence, at least in its limited purpose; that is, as an indispensable precondition for securing India’s freedom”. But does that not mean conversion to a religious teaching, “at least” in its political form? In religious teaching non-violence remains the way to the goal, even when it rejects it as means to an end. It must, of course, be sufficient for Gandhi as political actor, if the masses accept the right attitude, but conversion means the turning of the being, an innermost change of heart.

Certainly, when a religious man, one who is serious about his religiousness in any situation whatever, functions in the political sphere, religion is introduced into politics. But the way to the religious goal is essentially dissimilar in its conduct of the path, its perspective, its manner of going, its tempo, and, lastly, in the unforeseeableness of attainment and political success. The holy cause of “introducing” the religious reality into politics runs the danger, therefore, that the categories will mingle, that the goal will become an end, the way a means; that man, instead of treading in the path taken by that step of God through history, will run blindly over it. If religion is threatened at one pole by the ice of isolation in which it forfeits a tie with the communal-building human share in the coming of the kingdom, here it is threatened by evaporation in the rapid fire of political activity. Only in the great polis of God will religion and politics be blended into a life of world community, in an eternity wherein neither religion nor politics will any longer exist.

The most natural of all questions, the question concerning success, is religion’s ordeal by fire. If religion withdraws from the sphere where this question is asked, it evades its task, despite all hosts and sacraments of incarnation; and if it sinks into that sphere, then it has lost its soul. Gandhi, as no other man of our age, shows us the difficulty of the situation, the depth of its problematic, the manifoldness of the battle fronts, the potency of the contradiction, which is encompassed by paradox and must be endured in every hour.

As I write this, the Mahatma has set out on his march - a far-reaching symbolic counterpart of the flight of the aged Tolstoy. Manifestly this is no political journey, but a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage with political intent. But beneath the political aspect, probably hidden from the consciousness of most of those who accompany him, abides the religious, where the refusal to pay a tax no longer signifies an instrument in the fight against the British regime, but the recourse of the man whom in this world hour it avails to experience factually and through the devotion of self how much is Caesar’s.

I do not believe that the independence of India stands at the end of this pilgrimage. But I believe that this pilgrimage will essentially co-determine the nature of the man in an independent India, whenever and however that independence is attained. What would Swaraj amount to if it implied only a transformation of institutions and not a transformation of men also!

Gandhi’s work and Indian politics

Sources: GandhiServe Foundation - Mahatma Gandhi Research and Media Service (reprinted with permission)