Orwell and Gandhi

A reader writes:

I think you and Hitchens are both overly enamored of the provocative opening line of Orwell's "Reflections on Gandhi," which reads:

"Saints should always be judged guilty until proven innocent..."

Go back and read the entire essay, which I treasure. To say, in the end, that Orwell dismissed Gandhi's "pacifism" as "idiotic" is simply wrong.

Written on the occasion of Gandhi's murder, it is the intersection of two of the towering figures of decency of the 20th century. Their mutual intellectual honesty always cheers me up.

For one, Orwell clearly acknowledges Gandhi himself utterly rejected the concept of "pacifism" and advocated something much closer to aggressive "non-violent warfare."

And in response to your dissent of the day, let me quote Orwell himself from the actual essay:

"At the same time, there is reason to think that Gandhi, who after all was born in 1869, did not understand the nature of totalitarianism and saw everything in terms of his own struggle against the British government. The important point here is not so much that the British treated him forbearingly as that he was always able to command publicity...It is difficult to see how Gandhi's methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary. Is there a Gandhi in Russia at this moment (1949)? And if there is, what is he accomplishing?"

60 years on, what were the answers to those questions? It's not just a question of publicity. It's a matter of engaging over time the individual consciences of the human beings who must always be the instruments of power. Without question, that takes time and sacrifice and absorption of defeat. But do you think the unspeakable bravery of theĀ  monks in Burma have had no effect? There will be a next time and a next. And there will be more death. But one day, faced with the pressure of their own corruption and doubt, the instruments of power won't function if the mirror itself doesn't crack.

Orwell writes: "One should, I think, realize that Gandhi"s teachings cannot be squared with the belief that Man is the measure of all things.."

The immediate pleasure of experiencing social and political freedom or in seeing someone like Saddam get what's coming to him fall squarely within those things man measures. Gandhi was most concerned that men not live as slaves to their fear or anger or impatience. In that sense, he was deeply, classicly conservative. He knew that culture would change government given enough time. He knew that men can't control events, but they can control themselves.

Most of us don't want to believe that. We don't want to wait and suffer. We want to see and enjoy what we've done. Violence is faster. It's the easiest way to feel the fruits of our wills. It's also the only way to make monsters suffer, which, is a petty and meaningless impulse if we think, as Gandhi did, of any individual lifetime on earth as a passing moment in relation to eternity.

Finally, in assessing Orwell's opinion of Gandhi and his philosophy, consider this line from the same essay: "It seems doubtful whether civilization can survive another major war, and it is at least thinkable that the way out lies through non-violence. It is Gandhi's virtue that he would have been ready to give honest consideration to the kind of question that I have raised."

Not sure I can think of greater Orwellian compliment.