Interview with Mahatma

Editor’s Preface: Charles Petrasch was a French journalist working for the French newspaper Le Monde, and in the 1930s was their London correspondent. This interview was conducted in English on 29 October 1931, while Gandhi was in London to attend the Round Table Conference, being held by the British government to discuss constitutional reforms in India. Gandhi wanted self-rule or swaraj. To put pressure on the British government he had organized in India a boycott of British goods, especially cotton and cloth products from the northern English Lancashire mill towns. Gandhi’s sympathies were with labor, and while in England he visited the Lancashire mills to express solidarity, and was warmly received by the unions and workers. It was in this context that the interview took place. Petrasch wrote at the time: “My Indian friends and I had drawn up a list of questions which we wished to put to Gandhi before his departure from London, and we wrote down his replies as the interview went on.” Petrasch’s Indian friends were Marxists, and the interview appeared in Labour Monthly, a Marxist magazine founded and edited by Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) theoretician Rajani Palme Dutt (1896-1974). There was an ongoing dialogue between Gandhi and the Indian and European Marxists, some of it rancorous, as might be surmised by the asides in this interview. We have posted several other articles about Gandhi and Marxism, accessible through our search function. See the note at the end for further textual information regarding publications and dates. JG

Charles Petrasch: In your opinion, what is the method by which the Indian princes, landowners, industrialists and bankers acquire their wealth?

Mohandas K. Gandhi: At present by exploiting the masses.

Petrasch: Can these people enrich themselves without exploiting the Indian workers and peasants?

Gandhi: Up to a certain point, yes.

Petrasch: Have the rich any social right to live better than the simple worker or peasant who perform the labour from which they draw their wealth?

Gandhi: (Gandhi was silent for a moment before answering.) No right whatsoever. My social theory is that, although we are all born equal, that is to say, that we have a right to equal opportunities, nevertheless we have not all the same abilities. By the nature of things it is impossible that we should all be of equal stature, that we should all have the same colour of skin, the same degree of intelligence. Consequently it is natural that some of us should be more fitted than others to acquire material gain. Those who are capable wish to acquire more, and they bend their abilities to this end. If they use their abilities in the best spirit they will be working to the benefit of the people. These people will be trustees and nothing more.

I should allow a man of intelligence to gain more and I should not hinder him from making use of his abilities. But the surplus of his gains ought to return to the people, just as the earnings of the children who work go to the common family fund. They are the trustees of their gains, and nothing else. I may be sadly disappointed in this, but that is the ideal I uphold, and that is what is understood in the declaration of fundamental rights.

Petrasch: Would you demand a higher reward for intellectual work?

Gandhi: In an ideal state no one can demand a higher reward for his intelligence. He who acquires more ought to use it for social ends.

(We asked Gandhi if he did not believe that one of the principal causes of the poverty of the Indian peasants and workers lay in the appropriation of the fruit of their labour by the landlords and capitalists, since only a minute portion of the profits of the latter class go to the Government. Gandhi agreed.)

Petrasch: Don’t you think that the Indian peasants and workers are right in throwing themselves into a class struggle in order to secure their social and economic freedom and to rid themselves once and for all of the burden of supporting the parasite classes?

Gandhi: No. I don’t think so. I myself am making the revolution for them without violence.

Petrasch: What would be your attitude in face of a revolution of the peasants and workers against the princes, landlords, capitalists and their ally, the British Government? And also, what would be your attitude if such a revolution occurred in an independent India, in an India under a Protectorate, in an India with Dominion status, or in an India in no matter what kind of circumstances?

Gandhi: My attitude would be to convert the better-off classes into trustees of what they already possessed. That is to say, they would keep the money, but they would have to work for the benefit of the people who procured them their wealth. And for doing this they would receive a commission.

A Nonviolent Revolutionary

Petrasch: How do you plan on organising this trusteeship, through persuasion?

Gandhi: Not solely by verbal persuasion. I have been called the greatest revolutionary of my time. That is perhaps not correct, but I do believe that I am a revolutionary, a nonviolent revolutionary. My weapon is non-cooperation. No one can thrive without the collaboration, willing or forced, of the people.

Petrasch: Would you support a General Strike?

Gandhi: A General Strike is a form of non-cooperation. It is not necessarily violent. I should head such a movement if it were peaceful and justified from every point of view. Far from discouraging it I should even encourage it.

Petrasch: You spoke of operating a system of “trustees”, but we do not understand why these trustees would be entitled to a commission, as you said?

Gandhi: They have the right to a commission because the money is in their possession. No one compels them to be trustees. I invite them to act as trustees. I ask all owners of wealth to act as trustees, that is to say, not as wealth-owners by right but as owners mandated by those whom they have exploited. I do not fix a figure for this commission, but I ask them only to demand what they consider they are entitled to. For example, I shall ask the person who has a hundred rupees to keep fifty rupees and give the other fifty to the workers; but in the case of a person who has ten million rupees I shall ask him to retain, say, one per cent. So you see that my commission would not be a fixed figure because that would result in grave injustices.

(We grasped Gandhi’s meaning but we could not help thinking that this was the delusion of an idealist who still believes in “justice”. We were, besides, somewhat astounded by these ideas, expressed with such conviction, and we paused a few moments before resuming the interview.)

Petrasch: The Maharajahs and the landlords have allied themselves with the English, and you wish to make them “trustees”? But your best followers are among the masses, and they consider the Maharajahs and landlords as enemies. What attitude would you take if the masses, coming to power, decided to put an end to these classes?

It is necessary to destroy the system and not the individual.

Gandhi: The masses at the present time do not regard the landlords and princes as enemies. But it is necessary to make them aware of the wrong being done to them. I do not teach the masses to regard the capitalists as enemies, but I teach them that the latter are doing themselves harm. My followers have never told the people that the English or that General Dyer are bad, but that they are the victims of a system and that it is necessary to destroy the system and not the individual. That is why British officials can live with impunity among the people, although the latter are so inflamed by their desire for liberty.

(In the opinion of my Indian companions, who belong to the working class, and knew intimately the conditions of life in India, Gandhi’s answer was entirely inaccurate.)

Petrasch: If you wish to attack the system, there is no difference between a British capitalist and an Indian capitalist. Why, then, do you not apply your system of non-payment of taxes to those which are demanded from you by your own landed proprietors (Zemindars)?

Gandhi: A landed proprietor is only an instrument of the system. It is not at all necessary to undertake a movement against them at the same time as against the English system. It is quite possible to distinguish between the two. We have told the people not to pay the Zemindars because it is with this money that they pay the Government. But we are on good terms with the Zemindars.

(We might have joined with Gandhi in pitying the fate of the poor Zemindars, but then it would have been necessary to pity also the poor English, but towards the latter Gandhi’s sentiment of justice does not seem to exist. According to his theories, can one only love the capitalists of one’s own country?)

Against the Machine

Petrasch: According to Tagore, Bernard Shaw and others, the suppression of the landlords, capitalists and financiers in Russia, and the establishment of the Soviets as the system of government has led in a very short time to a considerable betterment in the social, economic and cultural conditions of the people. Now, it is to be noted that Russia, at the time of the Revolution essentially an agricultural country, presented the same condition from a religious and cultural point of view as does India today. What is your opinion on this matter?

Gandhi: In the first place I do not care about basing my opinions on those of others. That is why I am unable to form an appreciation of the condition of Russia. Moreover, believing, as the Soviet leaders themselves say, that the Soviet system is founded on the employment of force, I have strong doubts of its final success.

Petrasch: What is your concrete programme for giving to the peasants and workers the absolute power of deciding their own destiny?

Gandhi: My programme is a programme which I am having elaborated by the Congress Party. I am certain that it is resulting in the position of the peasants and workers being infinitely superior to what they have ever been able to have within human memory. I do not allude to their material condition. I mean the extraordinary awakening which has affected them and their capacity for resisting injustice and exploitation.

Petrasch: (We knew that Gandhi is an enemy of machines. That is why we put the following question to him.) Can you tell us what you mean by “machine”? Is not the primitive plough (charka) a machine? Is exploitation inherent in certain kinds of machines, or do you think it is the manner of using machines, which makes them an instrument of exploitation?

Gandhi: The charka and similar instruments are clearly machines, and from this you can gather my definition of machines. I am willing to admit that it is largely the abuse of the machine system, which is responsible for the exploitation of the working class in the world.

Petrasch: You speak of stopping the exploitation of the masses, which implies the abolition of capitalism. Do you intend to suppress capitalism, and if so, are you ready to deprive the capitalist of his surplus wealth so as to prevent him from restarting a new capitalism?

Gandhi: If I come to power I shall certainly abolish capitalism, but I shall not abolish capital, and it follows that I shall not abolish the capitalists. I am convinced that the coordination of capital and labour is perfectly possible. I have seen it realised with success in certain cases, and what is true in one case can become true for all. I do not consider capital in itself as an evil, no more than I consider the machine system in itself as an evil.

Compromise, the Essence of Life

(We went on to speak about religious matters and asked Gandhi if he thought that there existed a Hindu-Moslem problem. His reply was definitely in the affirmative. We then asked him if this problem was of major importance for the masses, and in that case if he thought that it could be remedied by the application of political measures, or by a compromise.)

Gandhi: I do not think this problem exists among the masses, or at least, not to a very great degree. It is not possible to solve it by political measures, but it can be done by a compromise, for compromise is the essence of life, inasmuch as it does not touch the roots of the principles of life.

Petrasch: In a Federal India, with the Princes as autonomous rulers, if their subjects demanded elementary political rights . . . and had recourse to civil disobedience, with a popular uprising to enforce their demands, would the federal forces be called to help the Princes in suppressing the uprising? And what would your attitude be in that case?

Gandhi: If I had the power I should never use it, or allow it to be used, for suppressing civil disobedience, no matter how or where it arose, for I hold civil disobedience to be a permanent law of our being, entirely replacing violence, which is the law of the beast.

Petrasch: Is it true that you withdrew your support from those popular movements. which arose in the native states, movements with the object of demanding from the Princes the same rights which you demand from the British in British India?

(Gandhi looked at us in surprise and gave the lie to this report. We asked him what, in his opinion, the difference was between “independence” and “equality of collaboration” in Empire matters.)

Gandhi: There is, and there is not, a difference between the two. That is to say, two independent states in an Empire can perfectly well be partners, collaborating in an imperial association. But obviously India is not in such a situation. Consequently, an association of India with Britain in the same Empire is a state, or rather a condition, which cannot be likened to independence, for a comparison can only take place between two things of the same kind. In this case the things are not of the same kind. Hence, if there is to be an association on an equal footing between Britain and India, the Empire must cease to exist.

(At this, we retorted that the Lahore Congress made no mention of an association of equality within the limits of the Empire. Gandhi replied that it was no use mentioning this in the Congress Party, but the question had been touched upon in speeches at the Congress.)

Petrasch: Does this equality of association envisage the withdrawal of the Viceroy?

Gandhi: The idea of “empire” must disappear entirely. But it is impossible for me to say definitely whether the idea of royalty must also be abolished. I am quite unable to say at present that the king of Great Britain will cease to be the king of India.

Petrasch: Are you taking account of the fact that, since the time of the Lahore Congress, when the declaration of Independence displaced the compromise resolution adopted at Calcutta, the youth of India has believed that it was fighting for an independent India, in which there would no longer be a king? Is it not bad politics to tell the youth of India now that royalty will remain?

(Gandhi, quite unruffled, replied that there was no question of bad faith. If the question had been put to him at Karachi, he would have given the same reply.)

Petrasch: Do you regard King George and his predecessors as usurpers in India?

Gandhi: I own that Great Britain and King George are usurpers of India.

Why Gandhi Gave Way

(We now asked him whether he thought it possible that a country which fought against exploitation could remain part of an Empire based on the exploitation of weaker races.)

Gandhi: It is impossible. I would lend my heartiest support to the abolition of the British system of government, as well as to the abolition of the capitalist system, but not to the abolition of capital and capitalists. If the British Empire does not stop exploiting the weaker races, we shall refuse to collaborate with it. Imperialist exploitation must disappear; collaboration will have to be free, and India at liberty, if she pleases, to sever the association.

Petrasch: What were the reasons which led you to conclude a truce with Lord Irwin? Was it because, as we were told, the Congress movement was only fighting on one wing, and if a truce were not arranged, it would be in grave danger of being strangled? And does that mean that you and the Congress were afraid that you would be crushed by the violence of the British Government? Would it not have been preferable, for the principle of nonviolence, that those of you who believed in the principle, should continue the fight and refuse to surrender to the violence of the British Government? Even if the movement thereby suffered a setback, the reverse itself would have been its victory!

Gandhi: The suggestion of the impending collapse of our movement is entirely false. The movement was showing no signs of slackening. It is possible, and even probable, that in certain cases, it may have wavered, but I did not know of it, since I was in prison. But it would be going absolutely against the rules of Satyagraha (non-cooperation) to come to an agreement at the moment when the Satyagrahis (followers of non-cooperation) were showing any lukewarmness. It is at that moment that they refuse to come to an agreement.

I had no fear whatsoever that the movement was weakening, nor was such a thought in my head when I put forward the idea of a truce. The idea of a truce was accepted on its own merits, and it is contrary to the principles of Satyagraha not to come to an agreement when suitable terms are offered.

Your opinion would have been right had it been through fear of suffering that we accepted the truce, but a Satyagrahi would betray his ideal if he exposed his companions without reason to suffering. You would be perfectly right if we had accepted the truce from base or selfish motives.

(Thus, in the matter of the truce, Gandhi confessed that a certain weakening was beginning to reveal itself in the nationalist movement, but he said that he was unaware of this because he was in prison. Nevertheless, some months ago, when I was in Vienna, Vithalbhai Patel, one of the foremost Indian leaders, co-founder of the Swaraj Party, and collaborator of Gandhi, told me that he did not at all understand the latter’s attitude: that is, the Mahatma, the soul of the movement for Indian independence and the greatest opponent of Anglo-Indian collaboration, suddenly beginning to preach to the people the cessation of the boycott of British goods and the payment of taxes.)

Petrasch: Why did you not see that Garhwali soldiers in northern India, who had refused to fire on an unarmed crowd, were included in the truce? How do you reconcile that with your doctrine of nonviolence, since these men were punished for having refused to be party to an act of violence?

Gandhi: A soldier who disobeys an order to fire breaks the oath which he has taken and renders himself guilty of criminal disobedience. I cannot ask officials and soldiers to disobey, for when I am in power I shall in all likelihood make use of those same officials and those same soldiers. If I taught them to disobey I should be afraid that they might do the same when I am in power! But if they cannot conscientiously carry out the orders which are given to them they can always hand in their resignation.

(By these words Gandhi confesses that one day it will perhaps fall to him to give orders against which the conscience of his soldiers will revolt. This last reply not only disillusioned us but also alarmed us. Those who read this interview will be able to form for themselves an idea of the part Gandhi plays in the politics of India. In any case, for us the interview marked the end of a legend.)