Gandhi, Marx and the Ideal of an ‘Unalienated Life’

Akeel Bilgrami interviewed by Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M.

Akeel Bilgrami interviewed by Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M.

In your famous essay “Gandhi, the Philosopher”, you were making a fresh reading of Mahatma Gandhi as a philosopher. In your own words you were “struck by the integrity of his ideas”. What do you mean by “integrity” in Gandhi’s ideas?


That essay was written over 20 years ago and it is almost as if I was prompted to write it in order to register something quite personal. I grew up in a home, a secular Muslim home, in which Nehru was held in such affection and admiration that one thought of him as if he were an elderly member of one’s own family. My father would refer to him as “Jawaharlal” even though he hadn’t, so far as I know, ever met him. Growing up, I had read almost everything he had written, including many of the speeches and less well-known writings that have been collected. Gandhi was respected, of course, but he was a more distant figure. And I had not read anything but his autobiography. When I began to read Gandhi in the early 1990s, I realised—slowly, reluctantly, overcoming my upbringing—that he was a far deeper and far more original thinker than Nehru. Even where one disagreed with him, one saw how strikingly independent his thinking was, how he came to familiar issues from surprising angles. And one very striking feature of his work, I realised, was that, at its most ambitious, you couldn’t see many of the things he said about politics as being independent of his much more abstract thought about human nature and experience, about moral values, and about the nature of what he took the concept of “truth” to be. Very specific political claims he made were of a piece with, perhaps even derivable from, his views regarding these more remote notions. It is this integration of politics with high philosophy that I described with the term “integrity”.


Mahatma Gandhi was a mass leader who fought the British and led the national movement. At the same time, he was leading a spiritual life and experimenting with spiritual practices and what he himself described as “my experiments with truth”. This was quite unique and rare. No modern great figure combined both in such a unique fashion anywhere in the world. Would you agree?


Yes, I would. There is a great tendency today to think that Gandhi’s political successes (as a historical figure who made a tremendous difference to the direction that Indian politics took) have an interest for us quite independent of his philosophy. I think, actually, that this is a preposterous view. Not only would he not have had those successes in the effect his actions had on people and, therefore, on events, but I don’t think we would be talking about him incessantly today in classrooms and in drawing rooms in the way we do, not to mention writing about him in journals and books, if he wasn’t the philosopher he so manifestly was. He simply would not have had the impact he did on his colleagues and he would not have generated the prodigious mobilisations he did, if his political actions were not integrated with his philosophical ideas. That integrity is undoubtedly an essential element in the appeal he had for the Indian masses. It is those who don’t see the mass of a country’s people as capable of responding to such integrity and who see them responding only to his political skills that have this cramped view of Gandhi; and I think it is a view that reveals an undemocratic understanding of mass politics, of what the mass of people are capable of and of what they are responding to.


Generally, Gandhi and Marx are considered as two great figures who are at two poles. But you have identified some important similarities between them. This is based on your argument that both shared a similar critique of modernity as they considered alienation from nature and us as the basic traits of modernity. What are the similarities of thought in Gandhi and Marx and how do you explain it in the context of modernity?


Yes, as you know, Gandhi was quite roundly criticised by the Left both in India and abroad for many decades. I don’t particularly want to comment on the contemporary Leftist writers who have taken to anti-Gandhian invective. And, in any case, it would be absurd to think that Gandhi did not make some serious political mistakes or to deny that he had views that were sometimes quite wrong. But I do think that there is a very interesting and very original “radical” or left-wing Gandhi to be unearthed from his writings and many of his deeds as well. In doing so, one has to be selective, of course. But that is true of most important thinkers. Like all of them, Gandhi’s thought and writings contained inconsistencies, but in a way it is worse with him, no doubt because, though he was a remarkable philosopher, he was not a salaried philosopher who strives for consistency—he often said and wrote things in the context of immediate political demands from the world around him and those remarks were, as one should expect, sometimes at odds with what he said in more reflective writings.


It was Irfan Habib, in some articles, who first broke away from some of the Leftist clichés about Gandhi. I had not read these when I wrote that early essay. Irfan Saheb’s sympathetic perspective was, in any case, historical. My initial interest in Gandhi was far more philosophical.


The affinities with Marx that I have recorded are admittedly not on the surface of either of their writings. It is a matter of interpretation both of Gandhi and of Marx. In Marx, I stress the early writings and the very late writings of his last decade on the Russian mir. And I try to understand the monumental analysis of capital through both these. As for Gandhi, I see him—in a work like Hind Swaraj but also in a vast number of dispatches and letters of his that have been collected (including the remarkable correspondence with Tagore)—as someone who thought that India, at the time he was writing (Hind Swaraj was published in 1909), was on the cusp that Europe was in the Early Modern period. And he did not want India to go down the path that Europe had taken from Early Modernity to Late Modernity. He thought that alternatives to that path were entirely possible for India and in this respect his outlook shares something with Marx in the last period of his life when he was writing about Russia’s peasant communes. In these writings, Marx argued that countries like Russia (and there is some discussion of India, too, with very revealing criticism of people like Henry Maine) need not go through the incubation of capitalism that Europe had gone through in order to seek a revolutionary transformation. Of course, Gandhi was not a socialist and didn’t seek, in his visionary hopes, a socialist future for India. I would go so far as to say that Gandhi had no serious understanding of the notion of “class”, as we have come to think of it. But he hated capitalism and what it did to human mentality and human society. Hind Swaraj is really about this last theme. And Hind Swaraj is so shrill and extreme in its anti-modernism, I think, because Gandhi was anxiously (but shrewdly) aware that if capitalism begins to take hold, it really gets very entrenched in ways that it had in the passage from Early to Late Modernity in Europe, and it then affects all human attitudes and social relations very adversely and very pervasively and deeply.


But even putting aside these affinities with Marx, if I am right that Gandhi thought India was at the crossroads that Europe was in the Early Modern period, and that he wanted to pre-empt the developments in political economy (and their deleterious cognitive and social effects) that occurred in subsequent European modernity, then an equally good comparison is with other radical dissenting voices in Early Modern Europe. For that reason, I have situated a lot of Gandhi’s thinking as being in intellectual alliance, not just with Marx, but with pre-Marxian radical thinkers like Gerrard Winstanley in Early Modernity, who sought to pre-empt developments (in England, in his case) that he presciently foresaw as emerging from the enclosures movement and the privatisation of the commons and the converting of agrarian ways of life into what we would now call “agri-business”.


How do you intellectually deal with the concept of modernity? How modernity shaped and influenced us in all parts of the world. What about the criticisms of modernity raised by many theorists for its “instrumental rationality”, “Western-centric nature”, “anti-religious”, “Grand narrative”, etc.?


I do feel that one cannot have been anti-imperialist through the last century without having, in some sense, been anti-modern. I say “in some sense” and mean it. It’s not obvious at all what that sense of anti-modern exactly is and ought to be. That is a very complex question. Many bad answers have been given to that question. A lot of my work has been struggling with that question. Though there are many more subtle things to say, the first and obvious thing to notice is an elementary transitivity: imperialism is essential to capitalism and since capitalism is an economic formation of modernity, being anti-imperialist in any fundamental way is necessarily to be opposed to capitalism and that would, eo ipso, mean being opposed to modernity. Of course, many who sought independence from colonial rule were not opposed to imperialism in any deep way, so they never accepted this simple point. But it is this point that brought Gandhi and the Left together. The Left, of course, focussed much more directly on the economic structures of colonialism and an emerging capitalism in its opposition, whereas Gandhi’s opposition, as I said earlier, was more focussed on the cognitive and cultural fall-out of capitalist modernity.


You list a number of portmanteau terms towards the end of your question to summarise recent theoretical critical angles on modernity. I find each one of them, as they have been wielded by critics of modernity, a little too blunt. So take, for instance, “instrumental rationality” used as a term of opprobrium. What is it meant to convey? Very broadly speaking, it is meant to capture how, in modernity, we have made reason too focussed on how to identify and pursue the most efficient means for the goals that have emerged in bourgeois society. Now, opposing this tendency of reason (let us, for the sake of abbreviation, call that anti-instrumentalism), would require very careful attentiveness to the detail of what “instrumentality” or “instrumentalism” amounts to. Gandhi understood this well. As I say in some of my writing on him, he asks a genealogical question about modernity that seems to be anti-instrumentalist, that seems to have located a very general instrumentality that he opposes: “How and when did we transform the concept of the “world” as not merely a place to live in but a place to master and control?” But that question is so general, so omnibus, that one has no idea how to go about answering it. In Gandhi’s work, we find that he breaks it down to four different detailed questions: How and when did we transform the concept of nature to the concept of natural resources? How and when did we transform the concept of human beings to the concepts of citizens? How and when did we transform the concept of people into the concept of populations? And, how and when did we transform the concept of knowledges (to live by) into the concept of expertise (to rule by)? Now, if one goes on to answer all these questions in specific detail and then return to show in detail how these answers are not answers to four miscellaneous questions, but, at bottom, answers to the same question (the initial omnibus question) only then would we have said something meaningful by deploying the term “anti-instrumentalism”. Until then, it is all just airy hand-waving and clichés about “means and ends”. Similar cautionary points can be made about all the anti-modernity critical terms you cite.


One line of criticism I pursue in trying to understand the failures of modernity is to point out first (what is surely widely known) that its two chief sloganised ideals of “liberty” and “equality”, as soon as they were articulated by the political Enlightenment, were theoretically and methodologically developed in such a way that they were in tension with one another. This is for reasons that have been well-studied such as, for instance, most conspicuously the fact that the possession of property bestowed on the possessor a notion of liberty that became erected into the law of the land as a fundamental right everywhere in the spread of liberal modernity. How this generates tensions with the goal of equality are so well-known and so well mined that I don’t need to say anything more about it. Much less well-studied is another source of the tension between liberty and equality, which comes from the incentivisation of talent that owes to liberty attaching to notions of dessert. For centuries, when there was some excellence of production (say, a work of art), it was the zeitgeist which produced it that got the praise and admiration. If you take the long historical view, it is relatively recently that individual talent began to get the praise and reap the reward for such productions. And this happened partly out of a growing ideological view that to praise the zeitgeist for such excellence was to deny a person’s individuality, it was to see the individual person responsible for these productions as mere physical embodiments of the zeitgeist. Thus, notions of dessert became tied to the notion of individual liberty and talent thereby got incentivised. Indeed, it became part of a generalised liberty because it spread over to the idea of the liberty of others to enjoy the excellence of the productions of individual talent since the latter now was incentivised to be as excellent as it could be. So, by the time you come to our contemporary times, you have merit raises for salaried professionals, bonuses for bankers, endorsements for sportsmen, prizes for authors of books, on and on… all in the name of individual liberty; and it should be obvious how all this too gives rise to tensions with aspirations to equality. For these (and other) reasons, then, modernity’s main political tradition developed its two great ideals of liberty and equality in a way that they could not be jointly realised.


Having observed this, I turned again to Marx and Gandhi and observed further that they never made either of these ideals central to their thought. Marx explicitly dismissed liberty and equality as bourgeois ideals. And Gandhi, as is well known, showed a complete indifference to these liberal notions and the codes and institutions that were supposed to enshrine them. I think these sources of the tension between liberty and equality were central to their rejection of both ideals, even if they did not put it in just the way I have. And I believe that they both sought something much more fundamental, much more human, and even ageless, than these ideals of Enlightenment modernity.


What they both sought to make the fundamental and eventual goal of their respective conceptions of revolutionary politics (which were no doubt very different since Gandhi was not a socialist in any obviously recognisable sense) was the overcoming of alienation, or what I call the ideal of an “unalienated life”. They both saw the most underlying malaise of modernity to be the alienation that was generated by its tendencies, chief among which were the tendencies of capital. I believe learning these lessons from Gandhi and Marx is a good start in identifying the right and relevant sense of “anti-modern” that I had mentioned.


Can you elaborate on what you mean by the Marxist and Gandhian ideal of the “unalienated life” replacing the modern liberal ideals of liberty and equality?


Yes, sure. This reading of Gandhi and Marx as replacing the ideals of liberty and equality does not mean that those ideals are irrelevant. But they cannot be the notions any longer that are found in liberal modernity. Let me try to explain. Put aside Marx and Gandhi, who are the inspirations for this form of critique of modernity, and let us look at this general issue of how to reconfigure our political ideals along these lines. In my writing, I’ve presented it basically in Kuhnian terms. Thomas Kuhn had said that radical changes in theory (what he called paradigm shifts) do not retain the old concepts and say better things about them. Rather, they change the subject. They re-conceptualise the old concepts in a new framework. It’s a meaning-change, not a theory-change. For theory change, the meanings have to be constant. But what happens in radical shifts is that the meanings get revised. So, for instance, “mass” in Einstein’s physics does not mean what it means in Newtonian mechanics. Thus, it cannot be counted as an improvement of Newtonian mechanics. It really changes the subject rather than improves the theory on that subject. Exactly that is the proposal with the ideals of liberty and equality. One shouldn’t be trying to improve on the theories of the Enlightenment, one should discard those theories as being based on the wrong (“bourgeois”, as Marx called them) ideals.


The next question, obviously, is: what would bring about the change in their meanings? And my thought has been that if we remove liberty and equality—riddled with inner tension as they are—from the theoretical centre stage that they have had in European modernity and put on centre stage instead the ideal of an unalienated life, then one can bring liberty and equality back (from the back door, as it were) but no longer as central now, but only as necessary conditions for this more fundamental ideal that is on centre stage. The idea is that if this is properly done, there would be a serious chance of removing the inner tension between liberty and equality that was present when they were the central notions.


So, everything turns on what is meant by “properly done” and much of my recent theoretical exertions have been focussed on that task. The first task, obviously, is to say something about what is meant by “alienation”, so that one can be clear about what one is seeking in seeking the ideal of an unalienated life.


Right at the outset, it should be said that if you take up this dialectic that I’ve set up between these three ideals, “alienation” becomes an ambiguous term. How so?


It’s an interesting fact about alienation that all its most well-known theorists (Rousseau, Marx, Gandhi, Sartre, to name just a few) saw it as a malaise only of modernity. Premodernity had many horrible defects but alienation was not one of them. Even slaves and serfs had a sense of belonging, whatever else they didn’t have. In fact, the introduction of liberty and equality as central ideals in modernity was intended partly to address those defects and deprivations suffered in premodern societies. But now, if in my dialectic liberty and equality are supposed to be necessary conditions for the achievement of the unalienated life, what is meant by “unalienated life” cannot possibly be the unalienated life of premodernity since in premodernity it was precisely un accompanied by liberty and equality. So, the term is being used ambiguously.


The theoretical task here is quite ambitious—because I’m trying to transform three concepts at once. I’m trying to transform the concepts of liberty and equality, as I said at the start, by removing them from the centrality they have had in the modern period and making them merely necessary conditions for the more central ideal of the unalienated life, but now I am also saying that I am trying to transform the notion of an unalienated life from what it was as exemplified in premodernity. So, it is a triangular transformation of all three concepts in concert, all at once, that I am seeking.


You are highly influenced personally and intellectually by Noam Chomsky. As a philosopher what is your take on the influence of Chomsky’s theory of language, the universal grammar, and so on?


Only recently, I had to write a long foreword to his book called What Kind of Creatures Are We, in which he elaborates his most current views on linguistics, philosophy, etc., and it would perhaps be best if I just directed you to that Foreword rather than try to spell out my understanding of his remarkable corpus of work in a short while now.


But let me just say one very general thing about his work in this area since there is so much unnecessary controversy about it. There is a lot of criticism of him that quite fails to understand what he means by “language”, and so the criticisms are quite beside the point. Even so thoughtful a philosopher as Charles Taylor is guilty of this in his otherwise very interesting recent book on language.


What one has to keep in mind about Chomsky is that one will never understand what his account of language is unless one is clear about the fact that he takes it to be first and foremost a biological phenomenon, not a social and communicative phenomenon. He starts with the idea that our (human) biology is unique in being the location of, or for, a capacity for language. And it is, as such, that he proceeds to analyse and explain that capacity. As a result, for him, the communicative function of language is quite ancillary. He is not primarily interested in the vocalised language that has a social purpose for human beings and with which words we produce refer to things in the world. He doesn’t have anything against studying those aspects of human life, but he does not think that those things are scientifically tractable and explainable. You can say scattered wise things about them, you can say very interesting things about them, but they can’t be what the science of language is about. And Chomsky’s work is primarily the work of a scientist of language. He has nothing against other people being interested in other interesting things about language, but what he wants to produce is a scientific account in the way that scientists try to produce explanatory accounts in physics, chemistry, biology . . . So, he is focussed on something relatively limited and he is very modest about these self-consciously imposed limitations. For him, language has a structure that is very close to the structure of thought or cognition and those structures are ultimately biologically grounded, though till we know more about the biological science involved, one has to track them at the cognitive and computational level. Chomsky was one of the two or three people who founded the subject of cognitive science. Even evolutionary accounts of language will get things wrong if they don’t identify the phenotype correctly in this way. We need an evolutionary account of a biological capacity, not of how we gradually came to develop the sophisticated communicative skills that we have.


I am just pointing all this out because I think the incessant critiques of Chomsky by anthropologists and sociologists of language (and many others) are just off beam. They are talking about a notion of language that he is not talking about at all. (I still remember hearing—as a graduate student—a quite brilliant anthropologist at the University of Chicago giving a shrill, almost hysterical dithyramb against Chomsky one day, and remember coming away from it thinking, “Is he talking about the same person that I’ve been reading in my theoretical linguistics class?”) They are just ships passing Chomsky by at night while pretending that they are engaging with him.




Akeel Bilgrami is an Indian philosopher of international eminence and scholarship. He currently holds the Sidney Morgenbesser Chair in Philosophy at Columbia University.


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