In this first of three essays on Indian history in the London Review of Books, British Marxist historian Perry Anderson takes on Gandhi (one, two, three). We might as well call this a rite of passage for historians of South Asia, and Gandhi, with his voluminous writings, iconic status, and polarizing persona, lends himself to prolific reinterpretation. Anderson sees Gandhi as alternately Machiavellian and naive, and presents many of his dubious ideas and intellectual blind spots. I agreed in particular with his take on Gandhi's anti-modernism, religiosity, and attitude to caste. Anderson considers him an overrated figure who did more harm than good, especially in his infusing the Congress Party with a strong Hindu sensibility, which, suggests Anderson, laid the ground work for Muslim alienation and the partition. More contentiously, Anderson seems to discount Gandhi's moral courage too, calls Satyagraha, his non-violent struggle, much less successful than is presumed, and argues that "contrary to legend, his attitude to violence had always been — and would remain — contingent and ambivalent."
Above all though, Anderson holds forth on Gandhi with not a modicum of hauteur, posing as a clear-eyed external observer who only sees insufficiently critical scholarship, "patriotic reveries", and nationalistic hagiographies from Indian scholars. Not surprisingly, his essay has invited many critiques (see letters to the editor below the article and Anderson's response), taking some of the shine off his otherwise extraordinary account.
In orchestrating these great movements, Gandhi displayed a rare constellation of abilities in a political leader. Charismatic mobilisation of popular feeling was certainly foremost among these. In the countryside, adoring crowds treated him as semi-divine. But, however distinctive and spectacular in his case, this is largely a given in any nationalist movement. What set Gandhi apart was its combination with three other skills. He was a first-class organiser and fundraiser – diligent, efficient, meticulous – who rebuilt Congress from top to bottom, endowing it with a permanent executive at national level, vernacular units at provincial level, local bases at district level, and delegates proportionate to population, not to speak of an ample treasury. At the same time, though temperamentally in many ways an autocrat, politically he did not care about power in itself, and was an excellent mediator between different figures and groups both within Congress and among its variegated social supports. Finally, though no great orator, he was an exceptionally quick and fluent communicator, as the hundred volumes of his articles, books, letters, cables (far exceeding the output of Marx or Lenin, let alone Mao) testify. To these political gifts were added personal qualities of a ready warmth, impish wit and iron will. It is no surprise that so magnetic a force would attract such passionate admiration, at the time and since.
But Gandhi’s achievements also came at a huge cost to the cause which he served.
UPDATE (5 Sept, 2012): Having read all three essays and upon further reflection, Anderson's account has really grown on me. I now think that most of the Indian critiques that appear below his piece are defensive and weak, and Anderson's analysis cannot be easily dismissed. While not without its problems, I now see Anderson's account as a masterpiece of critical scholarship that requires engagement, and his digs at Indian historiography are remarkably perceptive. I know I'll be returning again to these essays to dwell on their amazingly sharp insights.