“We need no more marchers. We need more mayors,” argues Mark Lilla in his recently published pamphlet The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. In the short book, Lilla insists that movement politics (and identity politics) has not served American liberals well over the last years since it relegated the first order of political business in a representative democracy: winning elections in order to govern.
“The role of social movements in American history, while important, has been seriously inflated by left-leaning activities and historians,” Lilla writes. “[I]t is an iron law in democracies that anything achieved through movement politics can be undone through institutional politics,” he adds. Movements such as those led by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. can change peoples’ hearts and minds, but “over the long term they are incapable of achieving the concrete political ends of their own.” For that, political operatives and party politicians working through the institutions are needed.
In other words, just as Martin Luther King Jr. needed “the machine politician Lyndon Johnson, a seasoned congressional deal maker willing to sign any pact with the devil to get the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed,” as Lilla put it, Gandhi required Jawaharlal Nehru, his political heir and successor, to institutionalize and codify some of his visions. It goes without saying that this observation is in no way meant to downplay the political genius of Gandhi and the revolutionary character of his non-violent resistance to British authorities. Nevertheless, Lilla’s thesis provides an interesting new perspective to evaluate the effectiveness of Gandhi and his movement.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Perhaps the two most effective political campaigns in Mohandas Gandhi’s political career were the 24-day Salt March in 1930 from his Sabarmati Ashram near Ahmedabad to the village of Dandi on the Arabian Seaside, and his four-day fast in September 1947 to stop communal violence in Calcutta amidst the horrors of intercommunal slaughter during the partitioning of India.
The former established Gandhi’s international fame. Among other things, he was named Time Magazine Man of the Year of 1930. The Time’s article even compared Gandhi’s march “to defy Britain’s salt tax as some New Englanders once defied a British tea tax.” It also signified the high-water mark of his political strategy of non-violent civil disobedience—dubbed Satyagraha—in his confrontation with the British Raj. It mobilized hundreds of thousands in India and, alerted millions in the world to India’s quest for independence, and, in the short term, led to a number of concessions by the British Viceroy to the Indian National Congress, setting a precedent for further negotiations as equals.
The latter showed Gandhi’s powerful political and spiritual influence at its peak. He singlehandedly prevented the outbreak of violence in Calcutta—a city that had already seen massive bloodshed in the year before—by threatening to fast himself to death in September 1947. Gandhi only ended his four-day fast, after all communal leaders, fearing the Mahatma’s death, had signed a declaration to abstain from violence—and they held their word. Amidst the mass killings that occurred in many parts of the country, Calcutta remained calm for many months subsequently. “In the Punjab we have 55,000 soldiers and large-scale rioting on our hands. In Bengal our forces consist of one man, and there is no rioting,” the last Viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, wrote at the time in admiration for the Mahatma.
The two events cited above perhaps best illustrate Gandhi’s two favorite tools in forcing political change: carefully choreographed mass rallies preceded by a pamphleteering campaign heavily covered by the press, and his threat to starve himself to death through fasting. With these two tools, he confronted with varying degrees of success both communal divisions on the subcontinent as well as the political and military might of the the world’s largest empire.
However, Gandhi’s tools proved less useful in enacting lasting change within political institutions. For that as it turned out, a politician already embedded in political institutions and a political party (the Indian National Congress) was needed. Indeed, one could make the argument that devoid of hard-nosed party politicians, Gandhi’s movement and its legacy would likely not have endured as the Mahatma repeatedly found himself out of his depth in his later years by sticking to impractical visions when it came to the political future of the subcontinent.
For example, in an attempt to ward off partition, Gandhi repeatedly suggested that Muhammad Ali Jinnah should form an Indian government entirely composed of Muslims. Indeed, it was the rejection of this proposal of an exclusive Islamic cabinet that made Gandhi officially withdraw from formal negotiations over the transfer of power in the months leading up to independence. Nehru was adamant that any such a proposal–including the codicil that in the event of Jinnah declining the offer (which he surely did) the Indian Congress Party should be allowed to form a Hindu-dominates government—would not work.
Indeed, Nehru grew increasingly frustrated with Gandhi’s impractical proposals and his movement politics as the British withdrawal was approaching. Gandhi, Nehru said, is “going round with ointment trying to heal one sore spot after another on the body of India, instead of diagnosing the cause of this eruption of sores and participating in the treatment of the body as a whole.” Lilla would likely endorse this assessment as evidence of the natural limits of movement politics. In a democracy it is often easy to fall for the uncompromising and pure vision of a stirring protest movement rather than trying to affect change by governing through executive offices, legislatures, courts, and bureaucracies.
And while Lilla in his book repeatedly reiterates the valuable contributions that political movements have made to advance the cause of liberty and democracy in the past, he is adamant that seasoned political operators are needed to “engage in the slow patient work of campaigning for office, drawing up legislation, making trades to get it passed, and then overseeing bureaucracies” in order to institutionalize lasting political change. In other words, for every Mohandas Gandhi, participatory democracy requires a Jawaharlal Nehru. This is a point well worth considering for any political opposition hoping to transform government in the long-run.