Can Gandhi and Mao ever meet? | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Can Gandhi and Mao ever meet?

Hindustan Times | ByBaburam Bhattarai
Oct 01, 2020 06:26 PM IST

Gandhi, an apostle of non violence, and Mao, an unapologetic votary of armed revolution or people’s war. Gandhi, an ascetic who renunciated all state power, and Mao, the Great Helmsman, who exercised all power for 26 years.

It is widely predicted that the 21st century will be the Asian century. China and India will occupy the centre stage of this new theatre of global dynamics. Ideas, and key leaders associated with those ideas, play a leading role in such epochal changes. It is in this context that Mahatma Gandhi and Mao Tse-tung, the two key thinkers of Asia in the 20th century, need to be read and understood better by the whole world.

Gandhi, 1940s; Revolutionary Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung, 1949(national gandhi museum)
Gandhi, 1940s; Revolutionary Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung, 1949(national gandhi museum)

At face value, it may sound a bit anachronistic and sacrilegious to pit the two great men of seemingly opposite dispositions together. Gandhi, an apostle of non violence, and Mao, an unapologetic votary of armed revolution or people’s war. Gandhi, an ascetic who renunciated all state power, and Mao, the Great Helmsman, who exercised all power for 26 years.

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But at the core, both were outstanding original thinkers, unparalleled mass mobilisers and both successfully liberated their huge countries and tens of millions of people from the yoke of foreign domination and slavery. Two different paths but a common goal. One can see both convergences and divergences in their thinking and actions.

Also Read: A lesson in swaraj from informal women workers


As happens in the case of every great personality in history, both Gandhi and Mao were products of great historical convulsions sweeping the world in the first half of the 20th century. The anti-colonial and democratic movements during the First and Second World Wars had given birth to leaders like Gandhi and Mao. A strong sense of pride and love towards their respective countries and people, and a commitment to restore their past glory, is a major area of convergence seen in these two great leaders.

Immense faith in the oppressed masses, especially the rural peasants, as the vanguards of national liberation and democratic movements is another point of convergence. Both were master craftsmen to connect with the masses and organise and lead massive protest marches and rallies. Gandhi’s innumerable satyagrahas, including the famous Dandi march in 1930, are now history.

Mao’s 9,000 kilometres Long March over a year in 1934-35 is a legend. This was a new innovation of great importance in the hitherto existing revolutionary strategy,
which sought to rely on only urban workers and intellectuals.

Gandhi and Mao critiqued the Western or capitalistic model of development. Gandhi rejected the path of modern industrial development, and offered the alternative path of the self-sufficient village community. Mao, too, was sceptical about the economy dominated by big and heavy industries, and sought to maintain a judicious balance between agriculture and industry and between big and small industries, but did not reject the modernist path as such. For both, the ultimate goal of development was not only to fulfil material needs but to create a morally high new human being.


In the realm of world outlook and philosophy, Gandhi was an avowed idealist and theist. His approach to life was metaphysical. His spiritual life was basically guided by the Hindu texts, the Gita and Ramayana, though he did not practice casteism and was tolerant towards other faiths. He proudly acknowledged his intellectual debt to Tolstoy, Ruskin, Thoreau, Emerson and other anti-modernist thinkers of the West.

The cumulative result of all these was the distillation of his original idea of swaraj expounded in his seminal work Hind Swaraj (1909). Thus, his guiding principle was germinated: “Inner change within the individual ought to be the starting point of outer changes in society.” From therein followed his lifelong path of satyagraha and sarvodaya.

Mao, on the other hand, was a known materialist and atheist. His lifelong philosophical pursuit was materialist dialectics, which he constantly endeavoured to enrich through practice and the Western and Eastern epistemological sources, including the concept of Yin and Yang in ancient Chinese philosophy. Mao was an ardent follower of Marx and Lenin, but he constantly advocated for the adaptation of Marxism to the concrete condition of China and elsewhere.

As a Marxist, the class question was key for Mao. And following from this, for him as against Gandhi, transformation of the individual came only after the transformation of class relations in society. This great philosophical divergence is at the core of different paths pursued by Gandhi and Mao for the ultimate common objective of emancipation
of mankind.

For Gandhi, non violence was not only a means to an end but an end in itself or a means to self-emancipation. He proclaimed: “Passive resistance is a method of securing rights by personal suffering; it is the reverse of resistance by arms.” Writing to a sceptical colleague, Gandhi reasserted: “Emancipate your own self. Nobility of soul consists in realising that you are yourself India. In your emancipation is the emancipation of India.”

Also Read: Learning from the Mahatma

Mao’s diametrically opposite position on the issue is well expressed in his famous quotations: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” and “Everything is an illusion except political power”. His policy of tit for tat on the question of war and peace is also
well known.

Another key issue of divergence is the model of organisation of society and path of economic development. In Hind Swaraj and later works, Gandhi identified industrial civilisation as the cause of all ills and advocated a return to the self-sufficient rural economy of the past. In essence, he was completely opposed to the modernist path of development. He was against a centralised state and his concept of swaraj was a collection of horizontal village communities.

Mao, on the other hand, belonged to the modernist school of thought, characterised by industrialisation, mechanisation, urbanisation, centralised state system and so on. However, in the later stage, he criticised the Stalinist bureaucratic system and pleaded for mass democracy and more decentralised political and economic system.


Even though both Gandhi and Mao were momentarily sidelined by their successors after their death, the current rise of India and China owes much of it to the strong foundation laid by their founding fathers. Some of the views of Gandhi and Mao may be anachronistic and irrelevant today. Some may be more relevant with the changing context and level of development of society and consciousness of the people.

As a former Maoist revolutionary currently engaged in synthesising a new model of socialism suited to the concrete condition of the 21st century, I venture to share some stray thoughts. There are both positive and negative sides of Gandhi and Mao. We should dare to discard the negatives and accept the positives. We need to weave the positives into a new set of ideas.

Firstly, in the realm of philosophy, materialist dialectics needs to be further developed in the light of latest discoveries in physics and supplemented by certain relevant concepts in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and other branches of Eastern philosophy. Based on it, a new ideology of scientific humanism may be synthesised in lieu of old liberalism and communism.

Secondly, for the post-capitalist restructuring of society into an enriched socialism based on inclusive, proportional and participatory democracy, the mode of people’s struggle/movement may be envisioned as chains of massive satyagrahas.

Thirdly, the system of economic development and organisation may be termed as critical modernism and worked out based on four pillars of rapid growth, judicious distribution, environmental sustainability and human happiness with appropriate role for the market, community and the state.

As Nepal is appropriately located and has friendly relations with both India and China, will Gandhi and Mao meet soon in Nepal?

(Baburam Bhattarai is a former Prime Minister of Nepal, and a key architect of the Maoist revolution in Nepal. He is now chairman of the Federal Council, Socialist Party. The views expressed are personal.)
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