The new issue of Prospect comes out on the 60th anniversary of the murder of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and so it’s worth remembering the reasons why he has become a moral touchstone. His genius was to develop, during his 21-year stay in South Africa from 1893-1914, the strategy of non-violent, or passive, resistance: the confrontation of authority with masses of people who refused to work, or to move, or to obey orders—but peacefully, offering no physical resistance to the police or army. It made him the model for many of the figures of resistance in the 20th century—including Martin Luther King Jr in the US and Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma; it ensured that the mass movement against the British was largely without violence; and it offered a benign alternative to the revolutions and coups with which the last century was marked. But above all, it did what it was designed to do: it shamed the British out of India, and out of empire.
As an inspiration and a symbol, Gandhi has no peer in the 20th century; as a practical politician, he was a despair to his colleagues in the Indian national movement. His insistence on non-violence grew more extreme as he aged: during the war, he recommended to the British that they should “invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions.” And in an interview given after the war, he went so far as to say that “the Jews [in Europe] should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs.” To attempt to overthrow tyranny, or even to oppose genocide, became for Gandhi an act almost as bad as tyranny or genocide itself—a view which finds an echo today in those who oppose any action of intervention to stop massacres.
Yet more than any other figure, Gandhi destroyed not just the British empire, but the very idea of empire. He did it by holding up to the British and to the world a mirror in which they could see themselves—preaching law, democracy and rights at home, while oppressing abroad. It is that vision which won out, in the latter half of the 20th century.