Economic Progress and Real Progress M. K. Gandhi

Editor’s Preface: This is the text of a speech, which Gandhi delivered in 1916. It is increasingly being cited as a key statement of his economic philosophy, most recently by Anthony J. Parel in his influential study, Gandhi’s Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 81). It continues our series of making available important documents by Gandhi that we see increasingly cited in the literature. Please click on Gandhi’s byline above for easy access to our other postings, and please also see the Endnotes, and the note on the text, for acknowledgments and further information. JG

‘Does economic progress clash with real progress?’ When I accepted Mr. Kapildeva Malaviya’s invitation to speak to you upon the subject of this evening, I was painfully conscious of my limitations. (1) You are an economic society. You have chosen distinguished specialists for the subjects included in your syllabus for this year and the next. I seem to be the only speaker ill fitted for the task set before him.

Frankly and truly, I know very little of economics, as you naturally understand them. Only the other day, sitting at an evening meal, a civilian friend deluged me with a series of questions on my crankisms. As he proceeded in his cross-examination, I being a willing victim, he found no difficulty in discovering my gross ignorance of the matter. I appeared to him to be handling with a cocksureness worthy only of a man who knows not that he knows not. To his horror and even indignation, I suppose, he found that I had not even read books on economics by such well-known authorities as Mill, Marshall, Adam Smith and a host of such other authors. (1) In despair, he ended by advising me to read these works before experimenting in matters economic at the expense of the public. He little knew that I was a sinner past redemption. My experiments continue at the expense of trusting friends. For, there come to us moments in life when about some things we need no proof from without. A little voice within us tells us, ‘You are on the right track, move neither to your left nor right, but keep to the straight and narrow way.’ With such help we march forward slowly indeed, but surely and steadily. That is my position.

It may be satisfactory enough for me, but it can in no way answer the requirements of a society such as yours. Still it was no use my struggling against Mr. Kapildeva Malaviya. I knew that he was intent upon having me to engage your attention for one of your evenings. Perhaps you will treat my intrusion as a welcome diversion from the trodden path. An occasional fast after a series of sumptuous feasts is often a necessity. And as with the body, so, I imagine, is the case with the reason. And if your reason this evening is found fasting instead of feasting, I am sure it will enjoy with the greater avidity the feast that Rao Bahadur Pandit Chandrika Prasad has in store for you for the 12th of January. (3)

Before I take you to the field of my experiences and experiments, it is perhaps best to have a mutual understanding about the title of this evening’s address: Does economic progress clash with real progress? By economic progress, I take it, we mean material advancement without limit and by real progress we mean moral progress, which again is the same thing as progress of the permanent element in us. The subject may therefore be stated thus: ‘Does not moral progress increase in the same proportion as material progress?’ I know that this is a wider proposition than the one before us. But I venture to think that we always mean the larger one even when we lay down the smaller. For we know enough of science to realise that there is no such thing as perfect rest or repose in this visible universe of ours. If therefore material progress does not clash with moral progress, it must necessarily advance the latter. Nor can we be satisfied with the clumsy way in which sometimes those who cannot defend the larger proposition put their case. They seem to be obsessed with the concrete case of the thirty millions of India stated by the late Sir William Wilson Hunter to be living on one meal a day. (4) They say that before we can think or talk of their moral welfare, we must satisfy their daily wants. With these, they say, material progress spells moral progress. And then is taken a sudden jump: what is true of thirty millions is true of the universe. They forget that hard cases make bad law. I need hardly say to you how ludicrously absurd this deduction would be. No one has ever suggested that grinding pauperism can lead to anything else than moral degradation. Every human being has a right to live and therefore to find the wherewithal to feed himself and where necessary to clothe and house himself. But, for this very simple performance, we need no assistance from economists or their laws.

‘Take no thought for the morrow,’ [Matthew 6: 34] is an injunction, which finds an echo in almost all the religious scriptures of the world. In a well-ordered society, the securing of one’s livelihood should be, and is found to be, the easiest thing in the world. Indeed, the test of orderliness in a country is not the number of millionaires it owns, but the absence of starvation among its masses. The only statement that has to be examined is whether it can be laid down as a law of universal application that material advancement means moral progress.

Now let us take a few illustrations. Rome suffered a moral fall when it attained high material affluence. So did Egypt and so perhaps most countries of which we have any historic record. The descendants, kinsmen of the royal and divine Krishna, too, fell when they were rolling in riches. We do not deny to the Rockefellers and the Carnegies possession of an ordinary measure of morality but we gladly judge them indulgently. I mean that we do not even expect them to satisfy the highest standard of morality. With them material gain has not necessarily meant moral gain. In South Africa, where I had the privilege of associating with thousands of our countrymen on most intimate terms, I observed almost invariably that the greater the possession of riches, the greater was their moral turpitude. Our rich men, to say the least, did not advance the moral struggle of passive resistance, as did the poor. The rich men’s sense of self-respect was not so much injured as that of the poorest. If I were not afraid of treading on dangerous ground, I would even come nearer home and show you that possession of riches has been a hindrance to real growth. I venture to think that the scriptures of the world are far safer and sounder treatises on laws of economics than many of the modern textbooks. The question we are asking ourselves this evening is not a new one. It was addressed to Jesus two thousand years ago.

The Gospel of Saint Mark [Mark 10: 17-31] has vividly described the scene. Jesus is in his solemn mood; he is earnest. He talks of eternity. He knows the world about him. He is himself the greatest economist of his time. He succeeded in economising time and space—he transcended them. It is to him at his best that one comes running, kneels down, and asks:

‘Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him: “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is God. Thou knowest the commandments. Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother.” And he answered and said unto him: “Master, all these have I observed from my youth.” Then Jesus beholding him loved him and said unto him: “One thing thou lackest. Go thy way, sell whatever thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven—come take up the cross and follow me.” And he was sad at that saying and went away grieved—for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked round about and said unto his disciples: “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God.” And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again and saith unto them: “Children, how hard it is for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God!”’

Here you have an eternal rule of life stated in the noblest words the English language is capable of producing. But the disciples nodded unbelief as we do even to this day. To him they said as we say today:

‘But look how the law fails in practice. If we sell all and have nothing, we shall have nothing to eat. We must have money or we cannot even be reasonably moral . . . And they were astonished out of measure saying among themselves: “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus looking upon them saith: “With men it is impossible but not with God, for with God all things are possible.” Then Peter began to say unto him: “Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee.” And Jesus answered and said: “Verily I say unto you there is no man that has left house or brethren or sisters; or father or mother, or wife or children or lands for my sake and the Gospels, but he shall receive one hundred fold, now in this time houses and brethren and sisters and mothers and children and lands with persecutions and in the world to come eternal life. But many that are first shall be last and the last first.”’

You have here the result or reward, if you prefer the term, of following the law.  And I have not taken the trouble of copying similar passages from the other non Hindu scriptures and I will not insult you by quoting in support of the law stated by Jesus passages from the writings and sayings of our own sages, passages even stronger if possible than the Biblical extracts I have drawn your attention to.

Perhaps the strongest of all the testimonies in favour of the affirmative answer to the question before us are the lives of the greatest teachers of the world. Jesus, Mahomed, Buddha, Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya, Shankara, Dayanand, Ramakrishna were men who exercised an immense influence over and moulded the character of thousands of men. (5) The world is the richer for their having lived in it. And they were all men who deliberately embraced poverty as their lot. I should not have laboured my point as I have done, if I did not believe that, in so far as we have made the modern materialistic craze our goal, in so far are we going downhill in the path of progress.

I hold that economic progress in the sense I have put it is antagonistic to real progress. Hence the ancient ideal has been the limitation of activities promoting wealth. This does not put an end to all material ambition. We should still have, as we have always had, in our midst people who make the pursuit of wealth their aim in life. But we have always recognised that it is a fall from the ideal. It is a beautiful thing to know that the wealthiest among us have often felt that to have remained voluntarily poor would have been a higher state for them.

That you cannot serve God and Mammon is an economic truth of the highest value.
We have to make our choice.

That you cannot serve God and Mammon is an economic truth of the highest value. We have to make our choice. Western nations today are groaning under the heel of the monster-god of materialism. Their moral growth has become stunted. They measure their progress in pounds, shillings, and pence. American wealth has become the standard, and is the envy of the other nations. I have heard many of our countrymen say that we will gain American wealth but avoid its methods. I venture to suggest that such an attempt if it were made is foredoomed to failure. We cannot be ‘wise, temperate and furious’ in a moment. [‘Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious,/Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man.’ Macbeth, II, iii.] I would have our leaders teach us to be morally supreme in the world. This land of ours was once, we are told, the abode of the gods. It is not possible to conceive gods inhabiting a land which is made hideous by the smoke and the din of dull chimneys and factories and whose roadways are traversed by rushing engines dragging numerous cars crowded with men mostly who know not what they are after, who are often absent-minded, and whose tempers do not improve by being uncomfortably packed like sardines in boxes and finding themselves in the midst of utter strangers who would oust them if they could and whom they would in their turn oust similarly. I refer to these things because they are held to be symbolic of material progress. But they add not an atom to our happiness. This is what Wallace, the great scientist, has said as his deliberate Judgement.

In the earliest records which have come down to us from the past, we find ample indications that general ethical considerations and conceptions, the accepted standard of morality, and the conduct resulting from these were in no degree inferior to those which prevail today. In a series of chapters, Wallace proceeds to examine the position of the English nation under the advance in wealth it has made. He says: ‘This rapid growth of wealth and increase of our power over nature put too great a strain upon our crude civilization, on our superficial Christianity, and it was accompanied by various forms of social immorality almost as amazing and unprecedented.’

He then shows how factories have risen on the corpses of men, women and children, how as the country has rapidly advanced in riches, it has gone down in morality. He shows this by dealing with insanitation, life-destroying trades, adulteration, bribery and gambling. He shows how, with the advance of wealth, justice has become immoral, deaths from alcoholism and suicide have increased; the average of premature births and congenital defects has increased, and prostitution has become an institution. He concludes his examination by these pregnant remarks: ‘The proceedings of the divorce courts show other aspects of the result of wealth and leisure, while a friend who had been a good deal in London society assured me that both in country houses and in London various kinds of orgies were occasionally to be met with which would hardly have been surpassed in the period of the most dissolute emperors.’

Of war, too, I need say nothing. It has always been more or less chronic since the rise of the Roman Empire; but there is now undoubtedly a disinclination for war among all civilized peoples. Yet the vast burden of armaments, taken together with the most pious declarations in favour of peace, must be held to show an almost total absence of morality as a guiding principle among the governing classes. Under the British aegis, we have learnt much, but it is my firm belief that there is little to gain from Britain in intrinsic morality, and that, if we are not careful, we shall introduce all the vices that she has been a prey to, owing to the disease of materialism. We can profit by that connection only if we keep our civilization, and our morals, straight, that is, if instead of boasting of the glorious past, we express the ancient moral glory in our own lives and let our lives bear witness to our past. Then we shall benefit her and ourselves. If we copy her because she provides us with rulers, both they and we shall suffer degradation.

We need not be afraid of ideals or of reducing them to practice even to the uttermost. Ours will only then be a truly spiritual nation when we shall show more truth than gold, greater fearlessness than pomp of power and wealth, greater charity than love of self. If we will but clean town houses, our palaces, and our temples of the attributes of wealth, and show in them the attributes of morality, we can offer battle to any combination of hostile forces without having to carry the burden of a heavy militia. Let us seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and the irrevocable promise is that everything will be added to us. These are real economics. May you and I treasure them and enforce them in our daily life.

Endnotes: (JG)

(1) Kapildeva Malaviya taught at Muir Central College in Allahabad. Soon after Gandhi had delivered his speech to its Economic Institute the college was merged c. 1922 with Allahabad University.

(2) Gandhi is referring here to the well-known economists John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Adam Smith (1723-1790), and to the lesser-known Alfred Marshall (1842-1924), whose textbook Principles of Economics was the main economics textbook used in Britain.

(3) Little information is available about “Rao Bahadur Pandit Chandrika Prasad” although one Google reference suggests that he was an instructor in mathematics and economic modelling at Muir College.

(4) William Wilson Hunter (1840-1900) was an historian, statistician and member of the British Civil Service in India. He wrote several books about India, but Gandhi is almost certainly referring to data from the 26 volume Imperial Gazeteer of India which began to appear in 1881 and was much cited at the time.

(5) Some of those in Gandhi’s list (Jesus, Mahomed, Buddha, Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya, Shankara, Dayanand, Ramakrishna) will not be known. Mahomed was a common spelling of the time. Guru Nanak (1469-1539) was the founder of Sikhism and often called “The First of the Ten” Sikh gurus. The 15th century Indian mystic poet Kabir is one of the most popular of all the Indian mystic poets, because of his unorthodox humor. He has seen a revival in the last twenty years with many new translations appearing. Those by Linda Hess and Shukdeo Singh can be especially recommended. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu  (1486-1534) was a Bengali spiritual teacher who founded Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and about whom there is extensive information available in the web.  Adi Shankara was a great influence on Gandhi, perhaps as much as anyone some have argued. He was an 8th century philosopher and theologian who systematized the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta, or non-dualism. Dayanand Saraswati was a 19th century religious leader and founder of the Hindu reform movement Arya Samaj.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: Gandhi delivered this speech at Muir College Economic Society, Allahabad, December 22, 1916. The text we consulted had many spelling errors, perhaps the result of scanning, which we have attempted to correct. We have also added Endnotes to identify some of Gandhi’s more obscure references. Gandhi spoke a curious sort of English, using words such as “crankism” which we have, of course, left intact. The text is from Volume 13 of Gandhi’s Collected Works, and made available with thanks to our Creative Commons partner