‘Reflections on Gandhi’: George Orwell’s famous criticism of Gandhi’s ‘My Experiments with the Truth’

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Saints should always be held guilty until proved innocent, but the evidence to be applied to them is not, of course, the same in all cases. In the case of Gandhi, the questions one is inclined to ask are: how far Gandhi moved through vanity, self-consciousness as a humble and naked man, sitting on a prayer mat and shaking empires by pure spiritual power. To what extent did he compromise his own principles by entering politics, which by their nature are inseparable from coercion and fraud?

In order to give a definitive answer, one would have to study the acts and writings of Gandhi with immense detail, because all his life was a kind of pilgrimage in which each act was significant. But this partial autobiography, which ends in the twenties, is a strong evidence in his favor, all the more so as it covers what the unregenerate part of his life would have called and remembers that within the saint, or almost holy, there was a person very cunning and capable, if he had chosen, would have been a brilliant success as a lawyer, administrator, or perhaps a businessman.

Around the time the autobiography appeared, I remember reading his first chapters on the badly printed pages of an Indian newspaper. They made a good impression, which Gandhi himself did not at the time. Things that one associated with it – home fabric, “soul forces” and vegetarianism – were unattractive, and their medieval program was obviously not viable in a backward, hungry and overpopulated country. It was also evident that the British were making use of it, or thought they were making use of it. Strictly speaking, as a nationalist, he was an enemy, but as in all crises he strove to avoid violence – which, from the British point of view, meant preventing any effective action – could be considered as “our man.” Privately this was cynically admitted at times.

The attitude of the Indian millionaires was similar. Gandhi called them to repent, and naturally they preferred it to the Socialists and Communists who, having had the opportunity, would have taken their money. The reliability of such long-term calculations is doubtful; as Gandhi himself says, “in the end deceivers deceive only themselves”; but in any case the gentleness with which he almost always managed was due in part to the feeling that it was useful. The British Conservatives were only very angry with him when, as in 1942, he was turning his non-violence into effect against a different conqueror.