George Orwells Admonition In His Essay On Gandhi

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Related post for George orwell39s admonition in his essay on gandhi

Summary

"Reflections on Gandhi" begins by stating, with Orwell's signature irony, that “all saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved to innocent” (209); and all saints, he claims, need to be evaluated by their particular case of saintliness. In Gandhi's case, Orwell feels that the questions that need to be asked center around Gandhi's self-consciousness and performance of asceticism, as well as the possible compromise that his political life imposed on his ascetic commitments.

Orwell discusses Gandhi’s character as it comes across from Gandhi’s autobiography, which Orwell recalls having read in serial form "in the ill-printed pages of some Indian newspaper" (209). Orwell feels that, according to the autobiography, Gandhi’s saintliness holds up insofar as Gandhi speaks openly about his humanness, or degenerate qualities. This honesty about one's human qualities is paradoxically, for Orwell, testament to "saintliness."

Orwell recalls that at the time the autobiography first appeared, Gandhi didn’t make a very good impression on him. This was due not only to Gandhi’s vegetarianism and clothes of “home-spun cotton” (210) that Orwell finds distasteful; it was also because of how convenient a political figure Gandhi was, at the time, for the British: he wasn’t waging an actual physical fight, which British imperialists appreciated. By the time Gandhi's non-violence succeeded in achieving Indian independence, Orwell claims that British officials still seemed to like and admire him.

Still, Orwell points out that Gandhi’s critics hold him to an impossibly high standard, and as a result his better qualities often go unobserved. Some of these are: his courage and resolve, which led to his death; his avoidance of the common Indian vice of superstition; his willingness to give everyone he met the benefit of the doubt; his lack of inferiority complex despite his very small stature; and his interracial friendships amidst racial divisions of South Africa. Orwell praises the “commonplaceness” of Gandhi's autobiography itself, and points to this as further evidence of Gandhi's integrity, again impressed that Gandhi does not attempt in it to glorify his life or make himself out as a saint.

Instead Gandhi shows the banality of his early days and is honest about his youthful ambitiousness. Orwell imagines that even after Gandhi renounced his personal ambitions he was likely a fastidious political organizer. He concludes this part of the essay by positing that Gandhi was an incredibly unique individual who “enriched the world by simply being alive.” (213) Regardless, Orwell is not sure if his teachings can be of value to those who do not accept his religious beliefs. This question of the possible universalism or transferability of Gandhi's political tactics is what Orwell is most interested in.

Analysis

The essay, which will focus on the question of the effectiveness of non-violence as a political tool, begins with a discussion of Gandhi’s character. This discussion is important, because Gandhi’s character plays a significant role in his politics. Indeed, Gandhi's political philosophy gives personal character an explicit political role. In order to be an effective Satyagrahi (one who practices Gandhi's tactic of political non-violence), one must be thoroughly committed to a personal practice of honesty, self-interrogation and what Gandhi calls "non-violence."

In analyzing Gandhi, Orwell avoids either praising or detracting from the man's attributes. This is something that he suggests typically distracts Gandhi's other critics from the work of holding Gandhi up to his politics. Instead, Orwell attempts to present a sober, critical analysis of the man’s biography. The purpose of a discussion of his character is explained in Orwell’s concluding statement in this section: to weigh the value of Gandhi’s teachings in a broader political spectrum.

This evaluation is critical to Orwell, as he feels that the question of the viability of non-violence has become urgent in the global political climate at the time. Orwell is writing the essay in 1949. The Cold War is in its early stages, and the nuclear threat is real. Gandhi's successful use of non-violence in getting the British out of India has a powerful appeal. It seems revolutionary. But Orwell argues that it's not possible to separate Gandhi's practice of non-violence from his personal experience. The one derives from the other. In this way an analysis of his biography becomes imperative to any analysis of his politics. The "homespun cloth" and vegetarianism that Orwell mentions are not mere anecdotes in this biography. They are part of Gandhi's personal life that operate as weighty political symbols. Most importantly, they are material aspects of Gandhi's practice of non-violence that Orwell is intending to evaluate.

If Gandhi's method is to be effectively transferred beyond his unique historical circumstance, than all of the elements of his method need to be taken into account. One cannot select one aspect of his practice while dismissing others. More specifically, Orwell argues, the asceticism of Gandhi's personal life cannot be removed from his politics.

According to Orwell, this asceticism has an entirely Hindu derivation. Recognizing this is imperative to understanding and potentially re-deploying his method. Western humanists, communists, progressive leftists, etc, may admire Gandhi for his effective resistance to imperialism; but, Orwell feels, they will be mistaken to imagine that they can seamlessly adopt his method without also adopting his religious philosophy.

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