It is difficult to say anything with certainty about socialism. It has been differently interpreted by different people and very rarely two definitions are alike. In fact, socialism has lost its real shape because everybody tries to interpret it according to his own special views and viewpoint. This is obviously due to the fact that socialism has come to mean something more than a mere political system. However, there is something common to all the interpretations as regards the aims of socialism. To all, socialism aims at providing first of all the conditions under which liberty can exist. This is as much as to say that the creation of equality is its aim, because it holds that liberty is not worth having without the security which equality provides. From the economic of view every socialist argues that industry will be more efficient when it is socialised, and from the moral point of view he claims that socialism will ensure justice. Socialism thus proposes to complete rather than oppose the liberal-democratic creed. It will use the victories already won in a parliamentary democracy democracy to extend democratic principles to industry. In the name of liberty the machinery of Government has been altered; will it not be possible to alter the economic organisation of society in the name of equality?


Mahatma Gandhi, himself born in the Baniya community, a community which is commonly deemed an economically dominant community in India, became conscious, at an early stage of his life, of the acquisitive nature of this community. He held the Baniya community mostly responsible for the poverty of the Indian masses and, as such, he showed his hostile reaction to capitalism in general. Also, he studied the different theories of European socialism and communism and felt the sickness of an acquisitive society fully. As a result, he accepted socialism as a part of his programme with a view to ending social and economic inequality in India. But as it was his habit to interpret every theory and every programme in the Indian context as well as to judge its validity on moral grounds, he did not accept the western socialism wholeheartedly, but gave a new interpretation to it and tried to fit it in the Indian circumstances and conditions. Anyway, he accepted socialism as a central belief of his life.


His faith in socialism was so ardent that some interpreters are prepared to feel that Gandhian socialism is Marxism minus violence. It means that Gandhiji agreed with Marx so far as the ends are concerned; he differed only in the approach and methods of Marx. But, Gandhian socialism is different in approach, philosophy and outlook, from the entire thesis of Marxian philosophy. Marxism is based on the edifice of the economic interpretation of life; beyond the material needs there is little to be worried in life. But in Gandhism, life is positively placed on a higher pedestal than the mere economic one. Humanism and the importance of the inner life make Gandhism fundamentally different from Marxism. The inclusion of the concept of soul, and its redemption, ought to make Gandhism substantially a theory of the Utopia, which appears difficult, if not impossible, to be practised. Gandhiji’s emphasis on the role of the inner man, and the importance which he attached to the spiritual aspect, make Gandhism a matter of blissful contemplation. This interpretation of socialism in terms of spiritual beatitude makes it non-scientific and dogmatic. This also leads to a possible assertion that Gandhism is opposed to socialism of any sort, for socialism is basically scientific, rational and mostly objective. There is nothing in western socialism and Marxism where any trace of the Gandhian approach to life may be found.


Notwithstanding, Gandhiji fervently believed that he was a socialist in a true sense. In answering the question “What is socialism?” he said, “Socialism is a beautiful word, and, so far as I am aware, in socialism the members of the society are all equal–none high, none low. This is socialism. In it, the prince and the peasant, the wealthy and the poor, the employer and the employee are all on the same level.” He described this kind of socialism, as pure as crystal, and suggested the need for adopting crystal-lake methods for its achievement. The Gandhian end was to be achieved by Gandhian means. Unlike the western socialists, he did not differentiate between the ends and the means. He was convinced that only truthful, non-violent and pure-hearted socialists would be able to establish a socialist society in India and the world. And he was perfectly right in his thinking. Why socialism alone, no political system in the world which aims at the establishment of a just social and economic order in society, can be successfully evolved unless the people are truthful and honest in their thinking and behaviour. A mere tinkering with the social and political institutions will not bring about a new heaven and a new earth unless people’s character, their daily habits, and attitudes, are equal to it. The socialist state is a wonderful ideal provided the nation has the character and leadership to work it in practice.


The Gandhian theory of socialism, truly speaking, was not meant for any particular country or state. Gandhiji was world-minded and he thought that with the principles of truth and non-violence the whole world could be re-organised for world socialism. Brilliantly enough, he planned a world order and that too with no hatred towards any particular group. While for the western socialist thinkers like Marx and Sismondi there is a class conflict, protest against some group or other and some friction in the social order, for Gandhi all these frictions and conflicts do not exist. He wanted to construct a new, non-violent social system, in tune with India’s ancient cultural traditions, according to which the spirit counted more than the material forces. In place of class-conflict and social friction, he preached gospel of renunciation, voluntary poverty, dignity of labour, equality of men and women, and universal friendship. He did not think that the cause of socialism would be furthered by class-conflict, creating group consciousness and hatred, and propagating the cult of tension between individuals or groups of individuals. Thus Gandhian socialism is of a different pattern and of a different colour from all other forms of socialism.


Gandhian socialism is mainly based on his ethical concepts. He confronted all traditional socialists with the most complex question of God. His supreme reliance on the unrealisable, at least unseen, power made all socialistic thinking a matter of faith. He posed a question whether the socialists can believe in god or not and whether those who believed in God could be socialists or not. He found out from his practical knowledge that most of the socialist thinkers had founded their systems on the negation of God. In fact, the greatest of all socialists, like Marx and Lenin denied the existence of any concept of God and went much further saying that the idea of God had been the main source of social exploitation and inequality. These socialists believed that socialism would be lost in prejudices, dogmas and superstitions if it is associated with anything which is not strictly material or practical. However, Gandhiji did not believe that all the socialists were atheists or had anti-God feeling. There might be many who did not connect God with social problems; possibly they felt no need to assemble these two different concepts. They separated God and ethical life from political problems and institutions, possibly because they thought that the association of the idea of God and the ethical life with socialism would make the latter a dogmatic creed. But this presumption is baseless. In Gandhian thinking the concept of God never meant the too dogmatic and extremely doubtful existence of the unknown and unrealisable. Gandhiji had correlated God with Truth and Truth according to him meant something different from the usual meaning normally attached to it in the common language. From this he expounded the concept of Satyagraha. And he laid down the path of Satyagraha as the only means for attaining any higher ideal of socialism or democracy. By laying so much emphasis on Satyagraha as a method of attaining socialism, Gandhiji made it clear that the violent methods which were usually advocated by the earlier socialists would be impossible and undesirable in a search for true socialism. It is of the utmost importance to note that Gandhian socialism is based on concepts and forces which were completely new to the whole domain of western socialism in particular, and western thinking in general. ‘Satyagraha is a force which, if it became universal, would revolutionize social ideals and do away with despotisms and the ever-growing militarism under which the nations of the West are groaning, and almost being crushed to death, and which fairly promises to overwhelm even the nations of the East.”


From the above exposition of Gandhian socialism it must not be thought that it was only a matter of the mind. Gandhiji was intensely practical and his principle was that the life of the individual must find all possible expression only in the context of the society. He added to this the possibility of the application of non-violence and truth in all activities and thought. Gandhian ideology in general, and Gandhian socialism in particular, is no mere theory, no mere intellectual grasp or philosophic satisfaction which can be attained by simple speculation and thinking. The most peculiar and significant aspect of Gandhian socialism is the emphasis Gandhiji laid on the internal aspect of life. Even in the case of the theory of Sarvodaya, and the Sarvodaya Samaj, Gandhiji did not give much importance to external forces in organising the institutions. He did not believe that revolution or evolution when imposed from outside will bring about any fundamental change in the nature of the individual or the society. The whole responsibility for reconstruction, in social, economic and political life, must start with the individual himself, and without the individual’s consistent and constant attempt at reorientation no amount of community or state effort will bring about the socialist order.


The Gandhian idea of Sarvodaya was the apex of Gandhian socialism. And the idea of Sarvodaya or universal uplift is based upon an optimistic interpretation of human nature. That man is essentially altruistic and, consequently, social reform must concentrate on bringing to the surface this altruistic element, is the basis of the Gandhian theory of trusteeship. An appeal to the hearts of the people to respect their obligations towards the weaker and less fortunate, is the most effective way of bringing about a change in society. And Sarvodaya believes that voluntary sacrifice of one’s riches or pleasures will certainly be forthcoming if only the moral approach is strictly followed. Acharya Vinoba Bhave’s suggestive phraseology like Bhoodan, Shramdan and Sampattidan reiterates the Gandhian stress on individual volition as the basis for all social reform.


The above reference to the concept of voluntary sacrifice introduces one essential difference between the ethics of Gandhism and Socialism. No doubt, among socialists too, there are some who believe in the innate altruism of man. But these are prone consider the prevailing social circumstances as hindering the free play of such morality and, consequently, agitate for corporate social reform by which the mellifluous human nature may play its part. There is, thus, a desire on their part to reform social conditions by the instrumentality of law. But Gandhiji is against any sort of authority trying to coerce man directly or indirectly into realising his social responsibilities. To him organised power is more an evil than a blessing. The power of persuasion is far more fruitful than the power of the state, which happens to be the normal channel for the expression of the social will in the present-day politics.


Yet the Gandhian suspicion towards organised power should not be interpreted to mean a rejection of all norms of social control. Gandhism does believe in Government regulations and sanctions. But these should not be the concern of specialised institutions, which make Government their profession and monoply. Government and law must become part and parcel of the life of the common man, things in which he must really have a share. In other words, the overwhelming domination of political power–the feature of present-day society–must cease and power must sublimate itself into a spirit of voluntary social obligation.


Such a distrust of political power has a streak of extreme individualism in it. His insistence on social revolution through voluntary conversion of the people, his distrust towards the instrumentalities of the state and, finally, his immense faith in human nature, cannot but remind one of the extreme individualist or anarchist notion that the evils of society are, more or less, the consequences of the existence of the State. As a matter of fact, Gandhiji’s whole emphasis is on the creation of a new type of man with a new vision and outlook. One cannot have socialism nor move towards it without a new type of human character. Gandhian socialism, therefore, is mainly an individualistic approach, and it moreover contains particular solutions for the peculair problems of India and Asia. It may be true that Gandhian socialism with all its ethical implications may be unsuitable in the western hemisphere. But in the East, individualism has not lost its sway. Any socialistic theory must make this distinction between the East and the West. Gandhian socialism may seem confusing in that it implies that there can be anything like individualism in socialism, for socialism by itself means the suppression, if not the negation, of the individual. But in Gandhian socialism the whole approach was from the bottom; Gandhiji was sceptical of the possibility of building up society from the top.


The whole range of Gandhian thinking is superimposed by the influence of the concept of the soul. As in the case of machines, the idea of the State and Government have also been encircled by the higher ideals of life and soul which will not come into the strict orbit of economic socialism. He felt that decentralisation is the best method and on this ground he said, “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West.” Concentration of power will not enlighten the individual; on the other hand it frustrates the inner genius of the individual. Gandhiji believed that every individual has equal responsibility for the society and so the possibility of making everybody as big as everybody else must be widened. This will be possible in a socialism of decentralised power. In this approach to socialism Gandhian socialism strikes new ground. Socialism always has meant some kind of regimentation and State control over the individual. Though Marx himself had supported, of course very vaguely, some kind of decentralisation of power, other socialists had wanted that power should be centralised as much as possible. In the 20th century, and particularly after the Second World War, this trend for centralisation has been prominent. But in the case of Gandhian socialism, as in the case of the Guild Socialists and the Fabians, there has been an attempt for making power as much diffused as possible”...every village will be a republic or Panchayat having full powers….every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs, even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world. It will be trained and prepared to perish in the attempt to defend itself against any onslaught from without….such a society is necessarily highly cultured, in which every man and woman knows what he or she wants and what is more, knows that no one should want anything, that others cannot have with equal labour.”


In emphasising the role of the individual and underestimating the position of the central power, Gandhian socialism is tending to be Utopian. Like the Utopian socialists he was visualising a society wherein there will be no army, no police force, no control and no oppression, where men and women will enjoy the same rights and privileges, and where everybody will be left to his own individual judgement. This type of Utopianism is, particularly, out of date in the present political world. Gandhiji himself admitted, “I may be taunted with the retort that this is all Utopian and, therefore, not worth a single thought.” Gandhian socialism is unnecessarily overburdened with the hope and greed of the golden age of the past. His repentence for the past made it difficult for him to think for the future to come. In being Utopian he was not wrong, but his Utopia, rooted in the past, made him unaware of the new forces of the changed world. He would have certainly become a progressive socialist, had he suggested a real remedy for the economic problems. His understanding of human nature and human problems was mostly ethical and spiritual. By his saying, “I do not share the socialist belief that centralisation of the necessaries of life will conduce to the common welfare when the centralised industries are planned and owned by the State,” he was unprepared to accept the basic economic phenomenon of the present economic atmosphere. But history seems to prove that no socialist society will be possible without a strong State. This is due to the fact that contrary to the Gandhian idea that the individual is endowed with all virtues and the individual will never stand against the society, the individual has been the greatest enemy of the group. The State has to come in for the sake of the community or the society. Society cannot thrive without the State. But in Gandhian theory the approach is quite different.


It is a fact that Gandhiji, due to his divergent and sometimes self-contradictory ideas, himself made his own theories very difficult to understand. He said, “Communism of the Russian type, that is communism which is imposed on a people, would be repugnant to India. I believe in non-violent communism…my emphasis on non-violence becomes one of principle. Even if I was assured that we could have independence, by means of violence, I should refuse to have it. It won’t be real independence. I base my faith in God and his justice.” Such were the ideas which made Gandhian socialism a matter of inner faith and internal realisation rather than one of practice, proof or experiment. Gandhiji himself was aware that his socialism had been the subject of doubts and criticisms. He said, “I am engaged in solving the same problem that faces scientific socialists. It is true, however, that my approach is always and only, through unadulterated non-violence. It may fail….I may be a bad exponent of the doctrine–Trusteeship, as I conceive it, has yet to prove its worth.”


Whatever the doubts of Gandhiji may be in the context of socio-economic attainment, his conviction always found outlet through Indian beliefs and thoughts. Gandhian socialism is more a serious attempt to revive the ancient Indian culture and less to attain socialism. He had the feeling that “this (European) civilization is irreligious and it has taken such a hold on the people in Europe that those who are in it appear to be half mad. This awful fact is one of the causes of the daily growing movements.” The efforts of Gandhiji were mainly concerned with emancipating men and women on the spiritual level. He could not appreciate the notion that women should seek their own opportunities or that men should try to find out how to be economically comfortable and wealthy. For Gandhiji, wealth in terms of money and property was a matter of responsibility, not a matter of achievement. Such ideas on socialism made the theory of Gandhian socialism less socialistic than probably it was meant to be. Socialism had been a matter of struggle throughout the world and throughout history.


Uniquely in Gandhian approach, there is no strife with the capitalists or struggle with any person or institution to extract mere economic benefits. He believed that everything is a gift of God and it is His duty to provide for every one. This assertion, Gandhiji believed, will not degrade the role of man and human society in attaining the socialist society. Gandhiji’s references to Indian socialism are found in the Upanishads. It finds clear expression in the first verse of the Isaupanishad. Gandhiji felt that socialism was not the fruit of the industrial economy, but it existed long before–thousands of years prior to the Western attempt to conceive anything called socialism. This complex citation to the earliest references of Indian literature placed Gandhian socialism on a different plane from the rest of world socialism. There was much to be unproved and unchallenged and this privilege allowed Gandhiji to live the life of a communist, thoughh he was opposed to the very thesis of the Marxian followers. He was not in the least against the capitalists as well. “I do not bear any ill-will to the capitalists; I can think of doing them.  I want, by means of my suffering, to awaken them to their sense of duty–God help you.” Gandhian sociology is full of such saintly statements and appeals. True indeed, that such statements do not make his theory of socialism scientific, but when understood in the context of the purity of the heart of a crusader and one who had nothing to hope for, except the emancipation of humanity as a whole, Gandhian socialism is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most significant of all intellectual contributions of the 20th century. Few others had so much love for men and possibly no other socialist was prepared to sacrifice one’s own stand to benefit the world and the civilization of every man irrespective of caste, creed and colour. Gandhian socialism with all its seeming inconsistencies and lack of scientific treatment deserves the highest attention at least as an appeal from one who was deeply conscious of the human destiny. In the case of the other socialists this aspect of human understanding as a part of socialist thought was visibly lacking.


In fact, the follower of Gandhian socialism does not have to wait for a large-scale revolution; he starts one inside himself and with his own hands. He immediately starts controlling his share of the means of production for the public good. He immediately starts to serve the masses and by his life helps to bring an ideal Bharat nearer into being.


Any very great widespread change of ideas or of heart takes usually at least three generations. As examples, consider the ideas of Einstein and Freud. The generation in which the new idea is propounded, is startled, often repelled, and opposes out of habit, inertia, prejudice and reluctance to think new thoughts. The second generation has become moderately familiar with the new idea, has watched it longer in action, probably accepts it intellectually, but is still hampered by the unconscious attitudes they accepted from their parents. Only the third generation is free from unconscious prejudices and bias, has realised the values of the new idea, and is heartily willing to explore all the implications and possibilities of it. From thereon it really begins to show its power.


To conclude, the Gandhian outlook, despite the deficiencies, of the Gandhian approach to socialism as a scientific theory, itself is a climax, never reached by any other socialist. Combined with the highest rationality and the widest sympathy for all living creatures in general, and human (beings in particular, the soul in the Mahatma was after the search for Truth. In his search for the highest ideals and eternal verities he sacrificed his life, his own comforts, and whatever he had. This personal sacrifice was never possible in any other socialist or any other political thinker. And thus Gandhian socialism is bound to stand as a solid piece of contribution to human salvation, whereas others have faded or shaken in their ground.