The coffee house and the ashram revisited

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Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd I. Rudolph

Gandhi and Civil Society

What does Habermas’ coffee house have to do with Gandhi’s ashram? In the essay that follows we explain the question and attempt an answer.

Twenty-four hours before his death on January 30, 1948 at the hands of the assassin, Nathuram Godse, Gandhi proposed in his “last will and testament” that the Indian National Congress be dissolved and be replaced by a Lok Sevak Sangh, a people’s service organization. For 62 years, since its founding in 1885, the INC or Congress as it is known even today had been the vehicle of the nationalist movement. It was about to become the ruling party of a new Indian nation-state. As such its leaders would seek, use and desire power. Gandhi foresaw members of a Lok Sevak Sangh serving others in organizations like those Gandhi had launched in the 1920s and 1930s to transform village India, the All India Spinners Association, which promoted the production of khadi [hand spun and

woven cloth] at the village level; the All India Village Industries Association, devoted to promoting village level craft production and the technology appropriate to it; the Hindustani Talimi Sangh, for promoting literacy in Hindustani, Gandhi’s preferred national language; the Harijan Sevak Sangh, designed to promote the material and social betterment of “untouchables”; the Go Seva Sangh, a cow welfare society.i

From his early days in South Africa Gandhi was a tireless creator of civil society. Wherever he went, what ever he did, he created voluntary self-help organizations and journals of opinion. A year after his arrival in South Africa Gandhi founded the Natal Indian Congress to give dis-enfranchised and discriminated against Indian immigrants a voice and a means for collective action. In 1904 he took over the publication of Indian Opinion, a weekly journal of news and opinion.

His ashrams were energizing centers for associational life and for civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha campaigns.ii In December 1904, half way though his South African years [1893 - 1914], he established what, in retrospect, can be regarded as his first ashram. After reading Ruskin’s Unto This Last on an overnight train from Johannesburg to Durban, he resolved the next morning “to change my life in accordance with the ideals of this book.”iii He changed his life by establishing an agriculture settlement on 100 acres 14 miles from Durban, Natal’s largest city and its principal port. The settlement became known as the Phoenix. As Martin Green suggests, Phoenix “marked an important stage in Gandhi’s progressive self-disentanglement from city life and from the ordinary circumstances of secular life.”iv

In 1910, Gandhi founded Tolstoy Farm, an ashram in the first instance for satyagrahis. Located in the Transvaal 21 miles from Johannesburg near Lawley, its 1100 lush acres were donated by Herman Kallenbach. Like Henry Polak, who helped Gandhi found Phoenix Settlement by asking him to read Ruskin’s Unto This Last, Kallenbach was a young Jewish intellectual who had immigrated from an oppressive European country. Polak had come from England, Kallenbach from Germany. Both began a new life on the South African “frontier.” Still in their twenties when they met, the three young men quickly became intimate friends. Although rarely remarked in accounts of Gandhi, the influence of Jewish immigrant intellectuals like Polak and Kallenbach, kibbutzim before their time, on the thinking and action of Gandhi’s formative South African years may have been as great as that of the non-conformist Protestant clergymen such as Joseph Doke who are frequently credited with deeply influencing Gandhi’s early thinking and practice.v

We move from Gandhi in his 20s to Gandhi in his 70s, from the beginning of his public life to near its end, in order to raise the question, why did Gandhi urge Jawaharlal Nehru, his chosen political heir, and other Congress leaders to disband the Congress as a political party and reconstitute it as a Lok Sevak Sangh? He seems to have foreseen that, like political parties elsewhere in the world, Congress’ leaders would pursue, exercise and desire power. From an opponent of the colonial state in India it would, in Gandhi’s view, become its advocate.

As early as 1909 in his earliest text, the seminal Hind Swaraj [Home Rule], Gandhi had warned against this possiibility. Speaking as “Editor” in Hind Swarj’s dialogue format, Gandhi asks his interlocutor, “Reader,” “Supposing we get self-government similar to what the Canadians and the South Africans have. Will that be good enough?” “Reader” replies: “when we have the same powers, we shall hoist our flag. As in Japan [which had destroyed the Russian Tsar’s fleet in 1905], so must India. We must have our own navy, our army, and we must have our own splendour, and then India’s voice will ring in the world.” Editor replies: “You have well drawn the picture. In effect it means this: that we want English rule without the Englishmen. You want the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger ....This is not the Swaraj [self-rule] I want.” vi

At a more mundane level, Gandhi as a person of civil society sees the statist face of party. In 1920 Gandhi had transformed the Congress from a talking shop for the English speaking elite into an instrument capable of resisting, then ending British rule. Now it had done so. What kind of a creature should it be in independent India?

Parties can be viewed as amphibious creatures; sometimes they can be found in the sea of civil society, sometimes on the high ground of state dominion. Oppositions parties resemble the associations of civil society who operate outside of and in opposition to the state. At the same time, their role as “shadow governments,” governments in waiting, and as recognized participants in the arena of state power, positions opposition parties to share the state’s habitat. But when opposition parties gain power and command the state’s apparatus and symbols, they shed their affinities with civil society and become state-like creatures. Why did Gandhi attempt to prevent Congress from becoming the governing political party in a newly independent India?

Gandhi’s proposal that Congress become a people’s service organization follows from his view of political and individual swaraj, swaraj as self-government and swaraj as self-mastery. At the individual level, the desire for power, like other forms of desire, is a passion that removes the possibility of self-mastery by enslaving those in its grip. Political power in the public arena was ephemeral and mercurial because its existence depends on the willing cooperation of the people. Without the people’s cooperation state power loses potency and legitimacy, as Gandhi showed of the British raj in India in 1920 -1922 during his first non-cooperation campaign and again in April 1930 during the civil disobedience of the great salt march. Gandhi’s view of power as based on willing cooperation and powerlessness on the withdrawal of cooperation or obedience anticipates Hannah Arendt’s view of power.

Both start by distinguishing power from coercion, the first based on willing action, the second based on fear of violence. Arendt tells us that “Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” If humans find themselves oppressed, it is because they have allowed themselves to become so; they are complicit in their own oppression. Gandhi asks in Chapter VII of Hind Swaraj, “Why was India lost?” He answers, “The English have not taken India; we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength, but because we keep them.”vii Hannah Arendt tell us that “When we say of somebody that he is ‘in power’ we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name. The moment the group, from which the power originated to begin with disappears, [potestas in populo, without a people or group there is no power] ‘his power’ also vanishes.”viii

Gandhi associated centralization with coercion, decentralization with power. Power was located in the voluntary associations of civil society and in the political communities of local governments,ix coercion in the modern state and industrial enterprise. Gandhi would not have agreed with Max Weber that the “concentration of the means of management” was inevitable.x .His concept of swaraj read as self-rule and as self-government provided an alternative to the modernist view of the objectified, dis-empowered individual and bureaucratized state and economy. In the contest between structure and agency, Gandhi showed in action that moral agency can change the world. “Independence must begin at the bottom,” he said. “My idea of village swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independent of its neighbors for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent for many others for which dependence is a necessity...”xi

Having made the case for Gandhi as a person of civil society and of moral agency, we return to our opening question: What light do the ashram and satyagraha shed on the meaning that Jurgen Habermas’ has given to civil society and the public sphere? To what extent do time, place and context matter? As John Keane remarks, “reflexive, self-organizing non-governmental organizations that some call civil society can and do live by other names in other linguistic and cultural milieux.”xii How did Gandhi’s “Indian” variant accord with, modify or challenge the Habermasian concepts of civil society and the public sphere?

Civil Society and Public Sphere as Bourgeois Rationality

The discourse and practice of civil society have had a lively career both before and after Habermas launched his version into academic discourse in 1962.xiii Civil society, Charles Taylor tells us, refers to a space that exists "over against the state, in partial independence from it. It includes those dimensions of social life which cannot be confounded with or swallowed up in the state."xiv Taylor stresses the obstreperous, challenging aspect of civil society, the aspect that showed its face in Medha Patkar’s Narmada Bachao Andolan resisting the building of big dams on the Narmada river in India; in the global protests against the policies and actions of the WTO manifest in Seattle, Genoa and Washington; in the movements for democracy and against corruption in South Korea; and in world-wide efforts to protect the environment, not least of which is the Gandhian inspired non-violent efforts by the Chipko movement to save the Himalayan forests of the Garhwal. But there are other ways to read it.xv

An intimation of civil society’s early history can be found in its Oxford English Dictionary etymology. In the 17th century, civil society has a more gentle, friendly tone, stressing civil society’s mutuality and douceur:: “having a proper social order,” keeping

“a certayn civile iustice and friendly love to one another” [Hooker, 1600], or “reformed, civill, full of good” [Shakespeare, 1591, in Two Gentlemen of Verona].”xvi The OED sounds rather like a text for Robert Putnam’s or James Coleman’s idea of social capital– the capacity to trust and habits of collaboration.xvii It is a view of civil society that finds expression in Rotary and soccer clubs, Parent Teacher Associations, Lok Sevak Sanghs, humnitarian and charitable associations to help the illiterate, the poor and the homeless.

Our late colleague, Edward Shils, took a more conservative view of civil society by choosing to read civility into the modifying adjective “civil”. Manners and mores were what mattered, not popular participation or policy activism. Civility for Shils referred inter alia to “a solicitude for the interest of the whole society, a concern for the common good,” and underlined obligations to rather than claims against the state, individual conduct rather than brotherly solidarity.

Transplanting concepts such as civil society and public sphere, born and used in Anglo-American liberal contexts, requires re-calibrating the concept for use in the context of other histories and social structures. When talking about India, we have the excuse that so much of the liberal tradition was transplanted in the course of 19th century nationalist discourse and practice, as also in the constitution of 1950, that the concept of civil society can claim a comfortable home. But definitions of political categories are often captive to their point of first use in a European historical context.xviii As the concept of civil society travels out of its quintessential 18th century European origin point to new temporal locations in the twentieth century and to new cultural locations outside the West, it expresses itself through different cultural forms and takes on different meanings. Indeed it was one of Gandhi's unique talents to give new shape to institutional forms and meanings associated with liberal and democratic spheres.

The version of civil society advanced in Jurgen Habermas’ earliest ideas about a public sphere will serve as the theoretical grounding for our examination of why and how Gandhi re-configured western conceptions of civil society, associational life and the public sphere.xix In his early work Habermas appears as a defender of the enlightenment project of modernity against the critics of the modern. No doubt unknown to Habermas, Gandhi’s 1909 work, Hind Swaraj, was an early example. Habermas’ version of civil society and the public sphere creates and employs categories and representations that we find highlight the contrast between Gandhian and European variant of civil society.

Habermas bases his conceptualization of civil society and the public sphere on an examination of political life in 18th century England, France and Germany. He finds a public sphere embedded in the activities of coffee houses, literary and cultural societies, political clubs, and literary journals and journals of opinion.xx

There sprang from the midst of the private sphere a relatively dense network of public communication. The growing number of readers...was complemented by a considerable expansion in the production of books, journal and papers...The societies for enlightenment, cultural associations, secret freemasonry lodges and orders of illuminati were associations constituted by the free, that is, private decisions of their founding members, based on voluntary membership and characterized internally by egalitarian practices of sociability, free discussion, decision by majority etc.”xxi
In these locations and through these activities educated urban persons who previously led separate lives in private spaces become a public, transcending private preoccupations and addressing common purposes. The communicative process directed at common questions creates shared discourses. Communicating with each other through conversation and print, they came to share information, ideas and attitudes, rationality, disinterestedness, the irrelevance of inherited identities. As Anil Seal showed in his path-breaking book about modern forms of associational life in late 19th century India, The Emergence of Indian Nationalism,xxii one can find an Indian bourgeoisie, the English educated urban middle classes, forming and populating the kinds of organizations Habermas posits in Poona, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. An array of canonical nationalist names - Gokhale, Ranade, Tilak, Aurobindo, Surendra Nath Bannerjee - is associated with the formation of literary clubs and journals, scholarly societies, and reform and service organizations.

Habermas, whose volume imagined history on a downward sliding trajectory, indicates that associational life productive of a public sphere was limited to the places and times he had investigated. In this he articulates a pessimism of the 1960s common to conservative American sociologists and to those identified with the “critical theory” of the Frankfurt School. Both expected to be overwhelmed by the deluge of mass culture, commodity fetishism, and the vulgar tastes of rampant consumerism.

Habermas’ rationalist proclivity causes him to draw a sharp line between different sorts of opinion in terms of how it is formed, received and habitual on the one hand, considered and reflective on the other. Opinion which has always been there differs from “public” opinion which is the product of deliberation.

Whereas mere opinions (things taken for granted as part of a culture, normative convictions, collective prejudices and judgments) seem to persist unchanged in their quasi-natural structure as a kind of sediment of history, public opinion, in terms of its very idea, can be formed only if a public that engages in rational discourse exists.xxiii

There is much in Habermas’ discourse that implies the public interest can only be arrived at through acts of reasoning that conform to formal notions of rationality. He imagines public intellectuals engaged in deliberation with each other. As Eley suggests:“ The faculty of publicness begins with reading, thought, and discussion , with reasonable exchange among equals, and it is this ideal which really focuses Habermas’ interest”xxiv. Habermas’ faith in the power of communicative action makes him a descendant of that German tradition, leading back to Hegel, which imagined that the philosopher could, by words and thought, speech acts and reason, break out of the objectification of human consciousness wrought by social forces.

Naturalizing the historical stages characteristic of theories of modernity, Habermas assigns the condition conducive of the formation of public spheres to a specific historical moment:

they [public spheres] developed only in a specific phase of bourgeois society, and only by virtue of a specific constellation of interests could they be incorporated in the order of the bourgeois constitutional state.xxv

Human scale associations marked by "convivial social intercourse and by a relatively high standard of education" engage in rational consideration of public issues only for a brief, transitional 18th century moment. Then begins the decline. The public sphere is superceded when the bourgeoisie loses its short-lived monopoly of opinion and begins to be pressed by a widening democratization of the public. Habermas speaks of a "weakening of the public sphere;" of the public sphere becoming "a field for competition among interests in the cruder form of forcible confrontations .... Laws that have obviously originated under the ‘pressure of the streets’ can scarcely continue to be understood in terms of a consensus achieved by private persons in public discussion." xxvi

Habermas's narrative of when and why the politics of the public sphere succumbed to democratization is governed by his privileging of the "rational" over the democratic. The rationality of a proper "public sphere" will be crowded out by the non-rationalities and ir-rationalities of democratic mobilization. Deliberation conducive to formulations of the common good will be subverted by the clamor of the media and of the parochial, self-interested and well-heeled voices of organized pressure groups. There is now a propensity among theorists to recognize that part of the problem with Habermas’s conception of the public good is that it is too narrowly rationalist and too exclusively bourgeois. Habermas was troubled by the idea of a plebeian public sphere and ultimately rejected the possibility just as he had rejected the clash of interests even when it was dressed up as the “market place of ideas.” A sympathetic critic, Geoff Eley, counters with the view that “The liberal desideratum of reasoned exchange also became available for non-bourgeois, subaltern groups, whether the radical intelligentsia of Jacobinism and its successors or wide sections of social classes like the peasantry or the working class.” “In particular,” he continues, “Habermas’ oppositions of ‘educated /uneducated’ and ‘literate /illiterate’ simply don’t work because ...the liberal public sphere was faced at the very moment of its appearance by...a radical [public] that was combative and highly literate.”xxvii

Eley’s friendly modification may not go far enough, yielding as it does to the literacy-centrism of elite conceptions of the public sphere. The print media, the bookshop, the coffee houses do not suffice to locate where publics may be found. In the era of mass media, communicative action takes different forms and creates different publics. ”The virtue of publicness could materialize other than by the intellectual transactions of a polite and literate bourgeois milieu.”xxviii Ben Lee suggests an alternative conceptualization: “In many contemporary societies the political public is coextensive with the mass media audience which may be mostly illiterate.”xxix In societies of the South, levels of literacy and forms of social organization need not deter but may reshape the forms that civil society takes.

Habermas’”ideal” version of civil society envisions a unified process by which the public’s deliberations via communicative actions produce a common conception of a general He does not imagine a variety of differently constituted associations each with its own discursive formations rallying behind different visions of the public interest. Presumably a multiplicity of publics is a sign of the articulation and assertion of private interest. Habermas names this a process of re-feudalization, invoking the negative valuation that enlightenment thought imprinted on the feudal.xxxi It is a process that leaves behind the Habermas’s model of the public sphere, a model manifest in the political life of 18th century Germany, France, and England.

Challenging Habermas’s theory of the decline and subversion of the public sphere is Ben Lee’s more historically and culturally insightful contextualization of the public sphere. “Instead of the degradation of a preexisting bourgeois public sphere...what we see is the coeval emergence of different publics, public spheres, and public spaces, each with their own form of communicative organization.xxxii John Keane goes further:

The ideal of a unified public sphere and its corresponding vision of a territorially bounded republic of citizens striving to live up to their definition of the public good are obsolete. In their place...public life is today subject to ‘refeudalization’, not in the sense in which Habermas’ Strukturwandel der Offentlichkeit used the term, but in the different sense of modularization, of the development of a complex mosaic of differently sized, overlapping and interconnected public spheres...xxxiii

To summarize, the civil society associations instanced in Structural Transformations have a number of attributes which will anchor our discussion of Gandhi’s variants of civil society and public sphere. They are voluntary, not coerced; they are located in public spaces–the “coffee house”-- that are explicitly separated from the (private) sphere of house and home; they are marked by an opposition between private and public that impugns the private as the realm of personal interests, disruptive to the public interest; they are skewed toward the literate intelligentsia, not non-literate plebeians; they are grounded in rationalist forms of deliberation which implicitly exclude the effects of emotion [only “minds” in the duo, “hearts and minds”]; and they are unmarked by identities – ethnicity, religion, language, place -- which are seen to live in the arena of divisive and debilitating private interest.xxxiv

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