Socialism regularly takes a beating in modern American politics, but the great-granddaughter of Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi argues it’s needed to keep far worse politics at bay.
University of Chicago professor Leela Gandhi sees a difference between socialist governments like the ones in Cold War Europe and “socialist utopianism” that individuals look to for ethical guidance. Gandhi was the University of Montana’s President’s Lecture Series speaker on Monday.
“Utopian socialism was anarchist,” Gandhi told an afternoon audience at the Gallagher Business Building. “It anticipated the dangers of state socialism. It was more lifestyle-based and opposed to party politics.”
The idea got its start in the late 19th century, and for a while was considered by “Principles of Communism” author Frederick Engels as one of the most dangerous challenges to communist theory, Gandhi said.
But it also was the passion of what Gandhi called vegetarians, homosexuals, dress-reformists, spiritualists and other “lifestyle-based radicals.”
“It was the idea that wearing a certain kind of sandals, or saving a bunny from vivisection, somehow helps Irish independence,” Gandhi said.
She acknowledged that while that seems unproductive at best and crazy at worst, it also might be the only way to make oppressors reform their oppressive ways. Because it also underpinned the tactics of Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent protests against British imperialism, Martin Luther King’s civil rights demonstrations and, more recently, the Occupy Wall Street courtyard campouts.
Leela Gandhi said the thing those efforts had in common was the courage to be imperfect in the face of totalitarian control. And by doing so, make the totalitarians give up some of their own power.
“Those people had no desire to capture power,” she said. “They believed their performance of self-work will achieve an end. This ethic is not interested in safety.”
And it works, in part, because it’s equally as hard to maintain perfect control as it is to risk imperfect ruin.
“You need a lot of training to be despotic,” Gandhi said. “It takes a lot of work not to see the other.”
Ironically, Gandhi’s great-grandfather displayed a contradictory example when he encouraged Indians to become soldiers in World War I, just as American pacifists were starting to tout him as a paragon of nonviolence.
“He said he could not teach Indians nonviolence until they had learned courage,” Leela Gandhi said. “He was a war veteran.”