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Romain Rolland's Efforts for Rapprochement Between Gandhi and The Indian Communists

By Vishwanath Tandon

The writer formerly Reader and Head of the department of History at K. G. K College Moradabad, U. P was associated with the Central Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, New Delhi for a long time. He is the author of Sarvodaya after Gandhi and Selections from Vinoba.

EXCEPTING LEO TOLSTOY who lived only to see the beginning of Gandhi's experiment in nonviolence in South Africa, Romain Rolland was the most eminent of the foreign admirers of Gandhi and, amongst them, one of the earliest. It was his highly perceptive biography of Gandhi, written originally in French and later translated into several European languages, which made Gandhi known all over Europe. His regard for Gandhi was so great that he looked upon him as "another Christ." In his Introduction to the French edition of Young India, Romain Rolland said: "If Christ was the Prince of Peace, Gandhi is no less worthy of this noble title.'' However, he was the first person to call for a coordination between Gandhi and Lenin. He wrote in 1933 to Soumendranath Tagore, a scion of the Tagore family and a Marxist: "The role I have assumed in today's battles, which you in your youthful intransigence will no doubt find hard to understand, is to try to be a link between two revolutions, Gandhi's and Lenin's. So that the two may come together at this hour to overthrow the old world and found a new order.''
This desire of Rolland is found repeated several times in his letters and Diary. For example, he wrote in a letter to Subhash Chandra Bose in April 1935: "My own task during the last few years has been to try to bring together the revolutionary forces of nonviolence and violence in the common fight against the social crime, against the old order which enslaves and exploits humanity." And he further added: "Organized nonviolence and disciplined revolutionary violence must and should be allied armies, each keeping its own tactics, both coordinating their efforts in the common action against the common enemy of humanity, which is war, Fascism, industrial and military capitalism, imperialism, social iniquity, etc.''
Superficially understood, the above statement only speaks of mere coordination between the two forces on the plane of action to enhance their fighting power against the common enemy of oppression and exploitation of the weak, both national and international, but a person like Romain Rolland must have realised also the need of some synthesis between the two on the plane of ideology as well, since, without it, a mere coordination on the plane of action could have been only short-lived. When he mentioned the field of action only, it might have been due to two reasons. First, he felt an immediate need for it, and, secondly, he might have thought that such a coordination would ultimately pave the way for ideological rapprochement as well. He had observed some ideological shift in his own case. While correcting the note of his conversation with Subhash Chandra Bose which the latter had sent to him in 1933, Rolland had written: "Since the end of World War I had to revise all my social ideas, indeed the whole of my ideology. The question of nonviolence was only a fragment of this great debate.., and I have not decided against nonviolence. I have simply decided that nonviolence could not be the central pivot of all social action. It is only one of the means, one of its suggested forms, and it is still under experimentation. What must be at the centre of our concern is the establishment of a more just and humane social order, and to be established, it must be imposed, for it must first strenuously defended against all violence of the old order .... I reject no weapon, provided it is in the hands of worthy, frank, and disinterested combatants.''
The above statement making out the need for coordination is not, however, the only explanation for it. Some other factors were also influencing him in this matter. While in the 1920s he had distrusted Moscow for its unethical attempts to falsely claim support of some prominent personalities, his attitude softened with the rise of Fascism in Europe? His earlier attitude is reflected in a letter to C.F. Andrews written in 1924, wherein he said: "The Soviet Commissars and their propagandists pretend to adapt themselves to the ideas of the supporters of nonviolence so as to make use of them, then, after comprising them, when they have no further use of them, they scornfully trample on them. They have many times tried to use the names of myself and Anatole France in this way, but for my part I have always energetically kept on my guard. I certainly prefer Moscow to Washington, and Russian Marxism to American and European imperialism. But I claim to be independent of the one as I am of the other, "above the battle." The Civitas Dei, the holy city of non-violence and human fraternity must keep out of all alliances and compromises with the violent elements in any class or party.'' But later there was some modification in this attitude as mentioned in the above letter to Bose.
In this context, his letter to Miraben (Madeleine Slade), dated the New Year Day of 1932, is also significant. Therein he wrote: "I support Soviet Russia against anything threatening her in the West -including my own country.... Now the USSR represents the only force, the only new social faith in Europe (or America) which is profoundly alive and fertile.'' There was, however, no change in his personal commitment to nonviolence. All that happened was that, in the then conditions of Europe, his attitude towards violence had acquired a flexibility. This is borne out by a letter of his to a person in Switzerland written in March 1931, saying that "please don't believe that I approve of violence! that I never shall. But there are many things in the universe which I am forced to accept without approving them--starting perhaps with life itself, since destiny forces us to live by killing other forms of life.''
Another reason which impelled Romain Rolland to plead for a flexible attitude towards Marxian violence was his understanding of the Indian situation that no matter whatsoever happened, Marxism, in a form appropriate to India, was bound to play an important role in the social development of this country.
With such views, Rolland made earnest efforts for a rapprochement between Gandhi and the Communists by attempting to bring about change in their respective attitude towards each other He had talks with Gandhi for four days when the latter visited him at Villeneuve in Switzerland, on his way to India after attending the Round Table Conference in London in 1931. He tried then to make Gandhi look at things as he himself perceived them and to adopt a flexible attitude towards violence and Communism. He told him that the recipe of non-violence might work in India where people are religious-minded but the atmosphere was different in Europe and the problem of Fascism and Nazism did not brook any delay. He had also then said to him that he "would not be able to apply it [non-violence] if there were not to be found in India an environment to receive it, that of the religious people used to Ahimsa for centuries.'' He admitted that though Europe was not devoid of religious feelings, it was of a fighting nature, of "church militant." And, above that, the spirit of the "West was practical, shortsighted and directed to short-lived aims.''1 He also tried to explain to Gandhi the violence o the Communists in Russia by telling him that they had to resort to it due to the armed intervention of great powers. He also refused to label Russian ideology as materialist, since it had given rise to the most heroic of sacrifices, even though it did not imply nonviolence.
As far as the Communists were concerned, he wrote to Soumendranath Tagore: "You have been too long away from your country, and now some of your judgments on Gandhi are seven years behind tile evolution of Gandhi's mind." Telling him further of Gandhi's stay with him, he wrote: "I had a long conversation with him, and I am able to appreciate not only the absolute integrity of his character but also of his shrewdness in political and social action, and, above all, the living sincerity of a mind which is ever seeking to come closer to truth by direct and scrupulous experimentation and which never ceases to evolve.'' He also wrote to a person in Russia in 1935: "Gandhi is one of the highest moral characters, one of the purest and most disinterested I know in the world--and I know him well. I have followed his life and activities closely over forty years." And he further added: "Now since his deepest sympathies lie with the labouring people, with the millions of disinherited and oppressed, I am more or less certain that if he lives for more years, he will put himself at the head of the whole movement supporting their claims in India against native capitalism and the bourgeoisie.' Romain Rolland had also been able to understand the rationality of Gandhi's advocacy of village industries in the particular conditions of India. He wrote to Stefan Zweig in 1931: "Gandhi... today Gandhi... in no way condemns machinery or industrial techniques, in so far as they bring help and relief to humanity; his quarrel is merely with their murderous excesses and the morbid myth of economic overproduction. When you look at India, you find a very special situation.''
However, Romain Rolland failed with both... Gandhi and the Communists. This was inevitable. Communists had a closed mind altogether, while Gandhi had made it his life mission to experiment with nonviolence for the solution of all of India's ills and this presupposed his unfailing adherence to nonviolence. His attitude towards Communism had been made crystal clear by him when he said in 1928 to the students of Gujarat Vidyapith: "From what I know of the Bolshevism, it not only does not preclude the use of force but freely sanctions it for the expropriation of private property and for maintaining the collective state ownership of the same. And if that is so, I have no hesitation in saying that the Bolshevik regime in its present form cannot last for long. For, it is my firm conviction that nothing enduring can be built on violence. But be that as it may, there is no questioning the fact that the Bolshevik ideal had behind it the purest sacrifice of countless men and women who have given up their all for its sake, and an ideal sanctified by the sacrifices of such master spirits as Lenin cannot go in vain; the noble example of their renunciation will be emblazoned for everyone and quicken and purify the ideal as time passes. ''
Finding Gandhi's mind closed on the issue of violence during his talks with him at Villeneuve, Romain Rolland had dropped the topic altogether, but he seems to have been sorely disappointed. He later attributed the failure to Gandhi's "prejudices and preoccupations based more on sentiments than on reason," and to his social thought with a basis in a religious creed, pure and lofty but not broad enough to embrace a humanity on the march towards new horizons." He had, however, hopes that Gandhi would give up his outmoded position and act up with the vanguard.
It may be mentioned here that had there been Vinoba instead of Gandhi, the experience of Romain Rolland would not have been different. For Vinoba, despite his high regard for Marx both as a great thinker and as one who had compassion for the poor and the oppressed, felt that the Marxist love for the underdog had gone astray like the doting love of a short-sighted mother and that Marxism did not deserve any philosophical examination. Moreover, Vinoba's view of Satyagraha was not very favourable to the resisting form of Satyagraha, which had some attraction as a strategy for those who believed in class struggle. However, Vinoba did hold the view that there could be a great deal of cooperation between the Sarvodayites and the Indian Communists on many matters. He even sought their cooperation in the Gramdan movement, but, on the whole, the experience showed that ideological differences serve as insurmountable obstacles in the way of genuine cooperation.
However, despite Romain Rolland's failure with Gandhi, some synthesis between the two ideologies lay in the process of history. Rolland's efforts were before a time when Communism was at the height of its rigidity and the Communists had caused distress in all others, including Rolland himself. He had also failed to read the situation correctly when he felt that the conditions in Europe did not favour acceptance of nonviolence. Studies show that by 1967 there had been 83 cases of resort to nonviolence from the days of Early Christianity's reaction to Roman persecution. They were of all kinds, namely, against minority oppression, exploitation, economic grievances, communal disorders, religious issues, particular injustices and administrative excesses, war and war preparations, long established undemocratic rule, and new attempts to impose such rules. Gene Sharp who made a special study of nonviolent actions, observes: "Nonviolent action has long history, much of which has unfortunately been lost through the preoccupations of historians with wars and kings. It has been practised to a significant degree in most, if not all, parts of the world in a variety of political, criminal, and historical conditions.'' Then after dealing with Gandhi's contribution in this field, he says further: "In more recent years there emerged in countries under totalitarian rule--in Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Russian prison camps, Norway, Denmark and elsewhere--other types of nonviolent action. Sometimes it occurred side by side with violence, and sometimes it was tinged with violence. But it was nevertheless basically dependent upon the power of mass solidarity and unarmed defence.''
While it may be conceded that compared to Europe the religious condition of India and its traditions were possibly more propitious to the acceptance of nonviolence under the leadership of Gandhi, it was more due to the realisation that violence would not probably lead to their independence. And it is this increasing faith in the futility and inappropriateness of violence which has been operating elsewhere as well in recent times. Gandhi's success in India has inspired others to follow similar paths with modifications suiting their own conditions. Gandhi had prescience of it and that was probably why he did not change his stand despite all pleas of Romain Rolland.
Yet there has been in the world a trend towards a synthesis of Gandhi and Lenin, so much longed for by Romain Rolland. It has sometimes been a conscious and deliberate process and, at other times, due to the compulsion of the situation in which the use of violence has been perceived as doomed to failure. In India one finds both kinds of these developments. After the failure of adventurism in Telengana, the Communist Party of India veered round both to the acceptance of parliamentarianism and to the use of "Gandhian" tactics in its movements. The Indian Communists claim to have added two new weapons to the Gandhian armoury in the forms of bandh and gherao, though their nonviolent character is highly dubious. The former stands for a generalised form of stoppage of work in which, besides the threat of violence, even some violence is used to enforce it. The latter signifies a ring or a cordon thrown around some office or factory to force the acceptance of some demand or demands, by putting those who are inside to all sorts of inconveniences.
Theoretically too, there is now less stress on violence. According to Hiren Mukherjee, while making their generalisation that "force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one," Marx and Engels did not lay down any iron-clad dogma. This development has been in line with present thinking in most of the Communist minded countries and parties.
However, for a whole-hearted and thorough efforts towards synthesis between Gandhi and Lenin, or, better still, between Marx and Gandhi, one has to go to Indian Socialists who, besides being Marxists, had accepted Gandhi's leadership of the Indian National Movement and thus had come, more or less, under his influence. Gandhi's impact on them had been far greater after the attainment of Indian independence and his death than it was before, and in the post-Independence period one finds them attempting for a synthesis both in the field of ideas and in the movements initiated by them. The most prominent among these is the attempt of Jayaprakash Narayan in the last decade of his life. The others to do it varyingly are Narendra Deva, Rammanohar Lohia, Asoka Mehta, Madhu Dandavate, and Madhu Limaye. Of these, Narendra Deva was a Buddhist Marxist, Lohia had his own brand of aggressive socialism with his own interpretation of Gandhi, Mehta was a Democratic Socialist influenced by Gandhi and conditions in India and Asia, Dandavate is a physicist and his ideas show its traces while Limaye in spite of Lohia's influence on him is devoid of his aggressiveness and prejudices.
Jayaprakash Narayan, who maintained his Marxist leanings throughout the Gandhian age, came over to Sarvodaya after Gandhi's death and in the last decade of his life busied himself in bringing about a synthesis between Lenin and Gandhi. He once said: "I have learnt both from Gandhi and Lenin to work among the people. In my ideas there is a synthesis of both the great revolutionarists.'' However, it would be more correct to say, as pointed out by Bimal Prasad, that he presents a synthesis of all the three Marxism, Gandhism, and Democracy.

Source: Gandhi Marg, October-December 2002, Vol. 24, No. 3