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Orwell's 5 greatest essays: No. 2, 'Reflections on Gandhi'

November 07, 2013|By Michael Hiltzik
  • Celebration of the 144th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birth.
Celebration of the 144th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birth. (Raminder Pal Singh / European…)

Gandhi's towering moral reputation tends to blind us today to the role he played in the minds of is contemporaries in the British Empire -- that of a political activist. 

This raised issues Orwell grappled with in this penetrating examination of Gandhi's career, published in the Partisan Review in January 1949, a year after Gandhi's assassination.

Orwell struggles to balance his natural skepticism of those held up as saints ("Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent") with his admiration for Gandhi the man, leavening it all with recognition that Gandhi's principles and activities sometimes served the interests of his adversaries.

The British governors of India made use of Gandhi, he wrote, "or thought they were making use of him.... Since in every crisis he would exert himself to prevent violence — which, from the British point of view, meant preventing any effective action whatever -- he could be regarded as 'our man.' ...The attitude of the Indian millionaires was similar. Gandhi called upon them to repent, and naturally they preferred him to the Socialists and Communists who, given the chance, would actually have taken their money away."

One finds here some of Orwell's most fascinating musings on political action in all its forms, especially nonviolence. Orwell is often portrayed as a critic of Gandhi, and there certainly is criticism in this essay, but the author's ultimate judgment is the one that should stay with us, even more so for being pronounced at a time when memories of Gandhi the man and the politician were still very much alive:

"His character was an extraordinarily mixed one, but there was almost nothing in it that you can put your finger on and call bad, and I believe that even Gandhi's worst enemies would admit that he was an interesting and unusual man who enriched the world simply by being alive."

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email.


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