I wrote rather innocently a few weeks ago about the New York Times review of Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography of Gandhi, Great Soul. I wasn’t aware that, the same day I was writing, the Wall Street Journal published an incendiary review of the book by the British historian Andrew Roberts. (Roberts specializes in writing books about British military history. He has compared George W. Bush’s leadership in the invasion of Iraq to that of Winston Churchill in World War II—applauding both, of course—and has defended the use of waterboarding against “Islamofacism.” And more.) His review portrays Gandhi as “a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist.”
Here are some of the Roberts’s points—many which are either already well known or more controversial than he allows:
Gandhi’s native state of Gujarat has since voted to ban Lelyveld’s book. Unfortunately this seems to be mainly because reviews like Roberts’s allege that the book reveals Gandhi to have been to some extent homosexual. (Lelyveld apparently said to the Times of India, “I do not allege that Gandhi is a racist or bisexual in Great Soul. The word ‘bisexual’ nowhere appears in the book.” Plausible deniability at best, one gathers from the reviews.) But what if he was? Besides the homophobia implicit in the accusation—so what?
The most formidable response I’ve found so far comes from Michael Nagler of the Metta Center, a leading scholar and teacher of Gandhi’s legacy. I’m glad he did it. However, it only directly confronts one of Roberts’s claims—that about World War II. The rest seems to only mirror what it opposes. Roberts’s review is called “Among the Hagiographers,” and what Nagler gives us is hagiography. It describes Gandhi as “surely the greatest human being of the Twentieth Century, and perhaps more,” and then quotes an especially reverent follower of Bapu. While Nagler’s essay offers a welcome reminder of how completely Roberts misses the message and meaning of Gandhi’s life, it also gives the impression that criticism of Gandhi of any kind won’t be tolerated.
As an alternative, I’d offer for the record Gandhi’s own autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. The first time I read it, actually, I was shocked. There we meet a man who, while stubborn, is also intensely self-critical. He puts on display his rather unappetizing interest in dietary regimes, and writes of failures as well as successes. In the introduction, he explains, famously:
Far be it from me to claim any degree of perfection for these experiments. I claim for them nothing more than does a scientist who, though he conducts his experiments with the utmost accuracy, forethought and minuteness, never claims any finality about his conclusions, but keeps an open mind regarding them.
Gandhi’s life was a work in progress, a process of development, a piece of humanity. He had flaws, and he knew it, and he improved on some of them. His earlier attitude toward black Africans, for instance, was not something he maintained later in life. (Hardly “implacably,” as Roberts puts it.)
Actually, I would say, there is even more in Gandhi’s life to complain about than Roberts mentions, if one holds him against some candle of perfection. (I once presented an academic paper suggesting how much his private life resembled that of Osama bin Laden—while insisting on how vastly their public contributions differ.) Gandhi wanted his life—the good with the bad—to be a benefit to the “experiments” of future generations. “Many other experimenters will find in them provision for their onward march,” he wrote. In this spirit, we should deal with problematic parts of Gandhi’s life not by censoring them, or denouncing him, or worshiping him, but by evaluating them earnestly and within the context of what good he did. How, then, can we do better? Roberts is right to object to hagiography, but demonizing isn’t the answer.
The Gandhian thing to do, it seems, would be somewhere in the middle. Confront these matters openly and directly. Give them what due they deserve, but no more. More to the point, allow our understanding of Gandhi’s life and legacy to deepen in the process. It’s all a reminder, after all, that nonviolence is for ordinary and flawed people like us, not just saints.
For a refreshing extended review of Lelyveld’s book, which offers some balance against Roberts’s polemic, see Anita Desai in the New York Review. It’s a start.
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The Roberts review of Lelyveld’s book is plainly unfriendly to its subject, and if Roberts is a Churchill worshipper, he might be channeling his late hero’s personal dislike of Gandhi. Many in the British upper class were unnerved that a philosopher wrapped in homespun cloth had rocked the foundations of their Empire’s control of the subcontinent. As to a few of Roberts’ charges above that may not yet have been fully answered, these thoughts may be helpful:
1. That Gandhi allowed his most effective campaign of civil disobedience, just as it reached its zenith, to be demobilized is superficially true. But there were good reasons in Gandhi’s eyes why, in the wake of the Salt March, he chose to start negotiating with the British instead of continuing mass actions. He saw that the British had become alarmed about the threat to the raj represented by his ability to galvanize India’s struggle for freedom, the viceroy invited him formally to start serious negotiations, and Gandhi gambled that he could win substantial gains in self-rule. That that didn’t happen is more attributable to Gandhi’s overestimation of his negotiating skills or an underestimation of British guile than any serious flaw in his ability to lead campaigns of civil disobedience. But later history would vindicate Gandhi’s instinct that negotiations could be another way to make progress in a nonviolent struggle, because many successful nonviolent movements in the world, which have had national political reform or a new government as goals, have culminated in negotiations or a new election, instead of some sort of collapse or convulsive “regime change”.
2. Gandhi had no sympathy for the Germans in World War II, but if it was right for Britain and its allies to fight to disgorge the Germans from their violent occupation of much of Europe, it was equally right for Gandhi not to give up his effort to end British occupation of India, which had always been backed by armed force. It is also sheer alternate-history speculation for Roberts to assume that the Japanese might have committed genocide in India had British troops not been available to block their advance, much less to assume that Gandhi could have rallied Indians to stymie British actions in the war. (It wasn’t Gandhi who tried that, it was the violent avatar of the struggle against the British, Subhas Chandra Bose, who turned to the Axis powers to get help against the British in India.)
3. Roberts’ attempt to suggest that Gandhi countenanced discrimination against Untouchables is totally misleading, as anyone who’s read a single Gandhi biography knows. That he didn’t support the right to pray in temples in 1924 might have been explained by any number of factors at that time and doesn’t discredit his emphasis on the rights of Untouchables during the rest of his life. Should we fault Martin Luther King, Jr. for not speaking out in 1963 against the incipient war in Vietnam as he did in 1968? In 1963, King hadn’t yet acquired the full national stature he had five years later. In 1938, Gandhi reminisced: “My mother said. ‘You must not touch this boy, he is an untouchable.’ ‘Why not?’ I questioned back, and from that day my revolt began.” It was a revolt that went on his whole life. In 1947 he said: “If untouchability lives, Hinduism must die.”
Roberts attempts the impossible: to put the flowing life and work of Gandhi back into a limited, parochial context of events from which his ideas and influence were long since liberated by common consensus and by a continually expanding army of students and fellow practitioners in the ongoing history of nonviolent action. Most of us hope to transcend our mistakes and our idiosyncrasies, and many of us do. Gandhi certainly did.
Excellent riposte, Jack! I’m sending you an invitation on another matter by email. Warm regards, Michael