The Political Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi
- ISBN: 9780190491451
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: August 2016
Anthony Parel, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary, seems like the ideal scholar to take on the task of making a case for understanding Gandhi primarily as a political philosopher. A widely published political scientist and Gandhi expert (he has written or edited five other books on Gandhi), Parel sets out to show why we should understand Gandhi as an important contributor to political thought. Though obviously Gandhi was an activist and organizer and not a professional academic, Parel argues that Gandhi’s direct engagement with on-the-ground politics enabled him to make original contributions to political theory. Gandhi’s great contribution was to bring together reflection on political realities with an awareness of how that reflection relates to action.
The core argument that Parel seeks to make is that social health results from bringing together all four of the main areas of life: “politics and economics, ethics, forms of pleasure, and the pursuit of spiritual transcendence.” Unlike the typical assumptions of professional political scientists who tend to separate politics from the other three areas, Gandhi—in his social philosophy and in his activism—held them together.
This is an important argument, not only for understanding Gandhi but for contemporary thought and practice in relation to politics. Unfortunately, Parel’s volume is not devoted to making a thorough case for how Gandhi embodied this holistic vision of human life. Instead what we have is a set of essays that in brief ways discuss various parts of Gandhian politics.
The essays are good; as is generally the case in such collections, some are better than others. The two in the middle, “Pax Gandhiana: The Political Basis” and “Pax Gandhiana: The Economic Basis,” probably contribute most substantively to Parel’s argument that Gandhi was a political philosopher. In the former essay, Parel makes the helpful and important distinction in Gandhi’s thought between “nonviolence as a creed” that is a “purely private virtue” and nonviolence as a guide for civic life that allows for “the minimum necessary use of force for the maintenance of internal order and external security” (94).
In response to those who read Gandhi strictly in terms of “nonviolence as a creed” and for that reason dismiss him as a potential political thinker, Parel helps us see that what Gandhi did was make nonviolence available as a practice that can be utilized in the civic sphere by all people of good will, but not as an absolute requirement for the state. Nonviolence is Gandhi’s ideal for all states, but there is a direct correlation between the number of people in a society who are “habitually inclined to behave nonviolently” and the ability of the state to be nonviolent (105). In other words, the nonviolent state may only be arrived at from the bottom up; in the meantime all states can work to be less violent. Gandhi’s political philosophy is well suited to help such a lessening of violence to emerge.
In his essay on the economic basis for “Pax Gandiana,” Parel summarizes Gandhi’s economics thus: “Gandhi wants to make room for an economic system based on benevolence. He is not suggesting that it should replace an economic system based on the profit motive. What he suggests is that these two economic systems should operate side by side. Society as a whole would benefit if they did so” (119).
These two examples—nonviolence and economics—show that Gandhi was more pragmatic and balanced that his reputation has tended to allow. Parel’s presentation helps us see how Gandhi’s thought has a great deal of relevance for the process of moving toward the Gandhian ideal (Pax Gandhiana). Part of the beauty of Gandhi’s political philosophy is that it was borne out of long years of practical experience, not the philosopher’s study.
I did miss the presence of a lengthy integrative essay that would have tied together Parel’s many stimulating ideas about Gandhi into an at least somewhat coherent general statement supporting the eminently sensible suggestion that Gandhi’s best contribution as a political thinker was his proposal for a political philosophy that integrates the four main areas of life. As it is, the book’s main contribution will at best be to stimulate more work and increase the chances that someday we will get the comprehensive treatment of “Pax Gandhiana” that we need.
Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University.Ted GrimsrudDate Of Review:October 6, 2017