Mahatma Gandhi’s two-prong program: (1) noncooperation, & (2) constructive alternative

December 29, 2014

In the mid-1930s, Gandhi (1869-1948), when in his 60s, began demonstrating a significant shift in his emphasis and thinking. He had been significantly influenced by reading Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894) in which Tolstoy wrote of the power of disassociation from the state altogether in numerous self-reliant communities. In fact, Gandhi’s life and work became increasingly dominated by his strategies of reconstruction from below (a full-time task for sure), lessening his emphasis on noncooperation and satyagraha, though the latter was never to be abandoned when determined to be strategically necessary to encourage conversion and moral transformation, but not retribution. But the thrust became withdrawing support from the political state freeing up energy and imagination for building economically self-reliant communities from below. The spinning wheel was both a symbol, and a literal appropriate technology, promising to liberate people from dependence upon British textiles, as they fulfilled their own needs with their own local basic industries. He vigorously rejected western materialist values and industrialism.

A symbol for empowerment and self-reliance for us westerners might be seeds, a hoe, or a bicycle.

In 1933, Gandhi founded the weekly newspaper, Harijan, concentrating on social and economic issues seeking empowerment of the impoverished (untouchables). Growing contempt for the historic pattern of tyrannical state power led to his resignation from the Indian Congress in September 1934. In effect, he dramatically reduced his active involvement in state politics enabling energy on empowering the poor – transforming society from below by developing village industries and crafts. This transformation sought to revive economic strength of self-reliant, self-contained village cultures, actually hundreds of thousands of them in a decentralized federation. Authentic political independence required fundamental and moral reconstruction of society from below, centered on economic renewal of autonomous village life and sardovaya (social uplift for everyone). In 1935 he created the All-India Village Industries Association. In 1936 he created the Sevagram Ashram as a model service village.

To Gandhi, noncooperation was the nonviolent counterpart of guerrilla war. But, the constructive program was counterpart to a parallel society from below so essential in the Mexican, Chinese, and Viet Nam revolutions. He concluded that noncooperation and withdrawal of consent taken by themselves were woefully ineffective, since they do not permanently relieve the oppressed. Concrete action was imperative to assure social betterment and justice for all (sardovaya).

Summary: The constructive program was a nonviolent revolutionary way to undermine vertical political power. As noncooperation drained power away from oppressors, the constructive program generated lasting power in the local people. In effect, rebuilding self-reliance from below undermined support for the state as it empowered local autonomy. Today, we envision re-constructing locally reliant, food and simple tool sufficient communities in watersheds or bioregions.

Historically withdrawal of support from vertical power was a major factor in collapse of the Mayan civilization @ 900 AD, when workers simply abandoned their increasingly enslaved conditions as the Mayan rulers became more greedy and demanding. They literally fled to the mountains where they lived on a mix of farming and foraging. As a result, the kings and their cabal starved. [Daniel Quinn, Beyond Civilization: Humanities Next Great Adventure (NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 41, 82, 91, 95, 98, 99; Alan Weisman, The World Without US (NY: St. Martins Press, 2007), 227-229].

There are hundreds of resources relating to nonviolence and Gandhi. My emphasis is to reveal Gandhi’s shift in the 1930s to the essential building of constructive programs from below. Selected resources:

* DVD Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh, documentary by Helena Norbert Hodge, Green Planet Films, Corte Madera, CA, about the Ladakh people in the Himalayas who lived peacefully for centuries and reveals what happens to their culture in just one generation of “development.”

* DVD Why Kerala, Grampa?, documentary by Tom Chamberlin, Portland, OR, describing the amazing development of thousands of relatively self-reliant communities communicating with each other in the state of Kerala, one of the 28 states of India.

* DVD The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, documentary by Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, Yellow Springs, OH.

* “Gandhi’s Three Pillars of Freedom Are the Key To Our Survival,” interview with Vandana Shiva by David Barsamian, YES Magazine, Summer 2009. Note: The three pillars: (1) Swadeshi – self-making, local-reliance, decentralization; (2) Swaraj – self-rule, self-organizing, local responsibility; (3) Satyagraha – civil disobedience, noncooperation, withdrawal of consent. System change doesn’t happen at the system level; it happens by people wherever they are making the changes that they want to see.

* “Gandhi’s Constructive Program – And Ours”, by Joanne Sheehan, Peacework, Issue 368, September 2006 (

* M.K. Gandhi, Constructive Programme:
It’s Meaning and Place (

* Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894; Lincoln, NE: Univ of Nebraska Press, 1984).

* Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (NY: Metropolitan Books, 2003), Chapter 4, “Satyagraha”, 103-142.

* Peter Ruhe, Gandhi (NY: Phaidon Press, 2001), “Introduction”, 6-11.

* Etienne De La Boettie, The Politics of Obedience: A Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (@1553, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1997).

* Mark Shepard, Gandhi Today: The Story of Mahatma Gandhi’s Successors (Washington, DC: Seven Locks Press, 1987), 5-8, 13-14, 42-43.

* Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi: All Men Are Brothers, Autobiographical Reflections (NY: Continuum, 1984), 183.

* William Shirer, Gandhi: A Memoir (NY: Washington Square Press, 1979), 213.

* M.K. Gandhi, For Pacifists (Originally published 1949 Mahatma Gandhi).


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