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Mohandas Gandhi and Malcolm X

14 Dec 2016Personal Essays

Radical political movements usually arise in the periods of political or legal crises, when strong leaders with lucid and relevant ideological agenda are needed. Those leaders, who succeed in meetings the demands, dictated by the epoch itself, establish themselves firmly and leave their deep footprints in the political history of certain nation or the entire world.

Mohandas Gandhi and Malcolm X in this sense were to great extent pioneers, as the first leader re-discovered India for the global community, whereas the latter initiated racial equality movement and managed to begin the struggle against discrimination and humiliation of the non-white population. Their political programs, however, are antipodal, due to the peculiarities of their local sociolcultural contexts: if Gandhi and X had used each other’s strategies, they would barely have achieved their goals and made so huge impact on contemporary policies in India and the United States correspondingly.

In order to understand clearly the ideological schemes, drawn by the leaders, it is important to make a brief excurse into the situations they encountered at the very beginning of their political careers. Before Gandhi’s intervention, his motherland had been completely devastated by British rule, which had regarded the country as a huge store of raw materials (Ashe, 1969) and used its resources without contributing to the population’s welfare. As Ashe writes, “The villages were kept extremely dirty and unhygienic; and alcoholism, untouchability and purdah were rampant. Now in the throes of a devastating famine, the British levied an oppressive tax which they insisted on increasing” (Ashe, 1969, p. 84).

Nevertheless, due to the specific cultural characteristics, Indian people rarely sought to resolve the situation through using radical methods (revolution, assassinations and demonstrations), as the core of their mentality belonged to peaceful religious doctrine, either Hinduism or Buddhism (Ashe, 1969; Payne, 1969) that, as one knows nowadays, tolerate no overt aggression. That’s why Gandhi’s tactics correlated with the foundation of Hinduism and Buddhism, as the primary weapons he utilized were non-cooperation and peaceful resistance. His writings clearly suggest that violence is a brute’s tool, whereas passive opposition and diplomacy are probably the most applicable strategies in the context of humankind as a community of reasonable and thinking beings (Payne, 1969).

His first step to political power was his trip around the country and communication with the village dwellers, which included both agitation and emotional support and empathy. Due to his political attractiveness and charisma, Gandhi in 1921 reorganized the Congress with a new  constitution and introduced new nonviolent political strategies: “…the swadeshi policy included the boycott of foreign-made goods” (Payne, 1969, p. 321). In addition, the activist excluded any discrimination and engaged the inpiduals of both genders and social strata into his efforts towards the re-establishment of the national culture, which began with the revival of the traditional clothing (Nanda, 1981; Payne, 1969; Ashe, 1969).

In 1927, the British government introduced a new constitutional reform, which resulted in the “boycott of the commission by Indian political parties. Gandhi pushed through a resolution at the Calcutta Congress in December 1928 calling on the British government to grant India dominion status or face a new campaign of non-violence with complete independence for the country as its goal” (Nanda, 1981, p. 257). This means, his ‘political appetite’ was quite moderate and Gandhi never required immediate results, but sought to invoke a profound and gradual transformation. He used to react to new taxes and repressions merely with the so-called satyagraha, non-commitment or peaceful disobedience (Nanda, 1981).

After the beginning of World War II, Gandhi refused to involve Indian resources into the struggle: “As the war progressed, Gandhi increased his demands for independence, drafting a resolution calling for the British to Quit India. This was Gandhi’s and the Congress Party’s most definitive revolt aimed at securing the British exit from Indian shores” (Nanda, 1981, p. 381). This means, he used any diplomatic opportunity to liberate his native country from foreign domination and seemed to approach to his goal closely between 1946 and 1948, after the formation of the new British government, which seemed  committed to India’s independence.

Nevertheless, at the sunrise of the sovereignty, the politician seemed to make a mistake, when he by compulsion joined the majority and agreed with the partition of the country, whereas he could have negotiated with the Muslim League, which was the first faction to put forward the question concerning the separation – in the earlier years of his political career he had successfully converted Indian Muslims into his allies. On the contrary, he appeared too indecisive at the time of epochal decisions and simply yielded to the pressure, made by his political associates, fearing the new civil war (Ashe, 1969).

Nevertheless, in spite of Gandhi’s critical mistake at the sunset of his career, his philosophical doctrine still enjoys tremendous popularity, as it has resulted in the rebirth if Hindu and Buddhist practices in all aspects of social life – from daily routines to environment preservation. His politics of nonviolence is nowadays widely employed and has finally led to the humanization of the contemporary world and the application of his basic notion of politics as a diplomatic and civilized competition.  

As for Malcolm X, the settings, in which he grew and maturated into a political leader, were quite different: radical ideology against racial discrimination can be primarily attributed to the black population, as the 20th century in the United States was clearly marked with the development of the so-called Self-Determination movement (Hodges, 1980), which united African immigrants all over the world and created conductive atmosphere for the progress of panafricanism. African American nationalism was initially militant in nature and based upon the principle of explicit and armed manifestation of the rights and freedoms the respective community should possess.

Malcolm X grew in the really cruel and inhumane settings, as his happy and strong family was destroyed by racism (Decaro, 1994; Hodges, 1980). That’s why he rejected the middle-class ideology, the American dream and the most widespread ‘white’ religion, and Muslim values appeared to him a valuable and consistent alternative. Conversely to Gandhi, who devoted his entire life to serving the nation, Malcolm X’s political career was quite short, but equally prominent. In 1953 he was appointed the Minister of the Nation of Islam’s Temple Number Eleven, later his entitlements were expanded to several mosques. “He was a compelling public speaker and he became known to a wider audience after a local television broadcast in New York City about the Nation of Islam, which was an obscure organization until then […] He espoused the nation’s teachings, including referring to whites as “devils” who had been created in a misguided breeding program by a black scientist” (Decaro, 1994, p. 194).

X asserted that nonviolence was inappropriate in the case of anti-discriminatory movement, as a number of comparatively peaceful efforts had extremely negative outcomes: for instance, African American students in the 1950s several times tried to achieve unity through seeking a ‘white’ school or university enrollment, but their strategic steps appeared in vain, as the time-honored tradition of white privilege was extremely strong at that time (Deck, 1980). In this sense, Malcolm X widely criticized the views, expressed by Martin Luther King and many other ‘diplomatic nationalists’, who tried to achieve the introduction of multiculturalism by demonstrating their own will to assimilate and get along with the white population (Deck, 1980).

In spite of his sharp and radical views, Malcolm X didn’t even try to organize his own civil rights movement in accordance with his revolutionary doctrine. This was probably his main mistake, as the activist and public speaker could have proved the credibility of his numerous speeches by his own example. In my opinion, there is a substantial inconsistency and incongruence between his perspectives and his factual deeds: although he widely and openly blamed whites and their governance and idealized African American population, the greatest part of his political career was in fact dedicated to the representation of Elijah Muhammad’s views.

On the other hand, X performed quite complicated work (Hodges, 1980; Deck, 1980): he changed the outlooks of contemporary African Americans and increased their self-esteem and national proud. Although his claims about the need for immediate and forceful armed intervention were not evaluated and accepted, his idea of the “black power” as opposed to the European chauvinists’ doctrine of “white power” was in fact adopted, which resulted in the activation and mobilization of civil rights movement (Hodges, 1980).

“Although dead for nearly 27 years, Malcolm’s influence in the African-American community is much greater today than during his lifetime. His most far-reaching impact was among the masses of African Americans in the ghettos of American cities. He told them, as James Baldwin observed, that they “should be proud of being black and God knows they should be””(Deck, 1980, p. 497). The 1950s and the 1960s were marked with the need for a PR-leader or a charismatic public speaker, who would provide African Americans with the idea of their own value – Malcolm X was fated to take this place and act as a peculiar enlightener. No matter which messages he tried to convey – his political figure itself was a complete message that suggested first and foremost the cognitive revolution in the minds of his target audience.  

To sum up, comparing the two personalities, Gandhi and X, it is important to note that their ideological courses could not have been applied in the different settings. For instance, if Gandhi had initiated a new violent revolt (as Malcolm X strongly recommended), it would have been oppressed very soon, as the British government at that time controlled all armed forces. In addition, the indigenous Indian population lacked vital resources, needed in any armed upheaval, including weapon, knowledge, skills and leaders with military education. Similarly, if Malcolm X had proclaimed the age of non-violence from a teletribune, his message would have been ignored, as anti-discriminatory movements of the same agenda were in blossom at that time in the United States.

Accordingly, X would have look persuasive and would have been perceived as a Martin Luther King’s political alter-ego. As one understands, the nature of their struggle was to great extent determined by the times as well as the cultural contexts, within which the activists operated: both Indians and African Americans experienced the need for a ground-breaking national idea, for a stable connection to their national identities.   

In the 21st century, both Gandhi’s and X’s notions can be viewed as extremes, so it would be useful to find a golden middle between their models of revolution. Gandhi proposes non-cooperation and peaceful resistance, whereas Malcolm X prioritizes the role of armed intervention – both models, in my opinion, are irrelevant nowadays, if used solely, but the combination of the approaches is likely to result in the desirable social change: no transformations can be accomplished without a degree of violence (allegedly peaceful demonstrations in most cases bring about a violent opposition) and a degree of diplomacy and round-table discussions.      

Works cited

  • Ashe, G. Gandhi. New York, 1969.
  • Decaro, L. Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam: Two Moments in His Religious Sojourn. New York University, NY, 1994.
  • Deck, A. I Am because We Are: Four Versions of the Common Voice in African and Afro-American Autobiography. Binghamton, NY, 1980.
  • Hodges, J. The Quest for Selfhood in the Autobiographies of W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright, and Malcolm X. University of Chicago, Chicago, 1980.  
  • Nanda, R. Mahatma Gandhi: A Biography. Oxford UP, New Delhi, 1981.
  • Payne, R. The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi. Dutton, 1969.  

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