Mao and Gandhi: Comparing Two Giants

We are pleased to introduce you, readers, to this thoughtful comparison of two political and intelligent giants in the 20th century who guided formerly colonized nations to independence. Gandhi and Mao's continuing relevance lies in their prioritization of empowering the disadvantaged and pursuing social change through mobilizing the people.
January 9, 2024
Norwegian sociologist. The principal founder of the discipline of peace and conflict studies.
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Last October, we had two important anniversary messages. One came through loud and clear in the Western media: the anniversary of the triumph of the Chinese Revolution, guided by Mao, restoring China to its own people, violently, on October 1.

The other message was considerably more subdued: the anniversary of the birth of Gandhi, the Father of the Indian nation, restoring India to its own people, nonviolently, on October 2.

Of course, the West focused on China, its military parades, its display of glittering affluence after decades of growth, true to its fascination with violence and economic growth.  Of course, India is also a BRIC country–Brazil-Russia-India-China–to be taken seriously because of its high growth and “muscle”.

But this obsession with military and economic power makes the West lose the essence of the two anniversaries, the underlying cultural power and the role it played politically for the two huge countries emerging from Western imperialism almost simultaneously, 1947 for India, 1949 for China. Like the birth of the countries, death came to Gandhi and Mao almost at the same age: 78 for Gandhi, 82 for Mao.

Like Chávez and Castro, Gandhi and Mao indeed had one thing in common: anti-imperialism, with anti-colonialism as one variety.  Just imagine that the West had used the past week to reflect on that, and on the disasters brought upon the two countries in the 19th century!

But Chávez and Castro have basic discrepancies: mixed economy, democracy with general voting and Christianity (Jesus lived among the poor!) as against state ownership, dictatorship and atheism.

So was Gandhi’s Hinduism very different from Mao’s Chinese atheism; India is formally a multi-party national election democracy, China is not; and the Indian economy is privatized, the Chinese economy is mixed.

And violence-nonviolence. But there are deep similarities.

They both rooted basic social change in the common person.  Change was meaningless unless as a positive change for people at the bottom, not just a circulation of elites, maybe with change of color, keeping everything else the same, like so often under decolonization.  China has been more successful in this than India, but then China implemented Maoism, and India did not implement Gandhism.

In practice, in both countries, that meant not only improving the lot of the peasant, but that peasants were key carriers of the struggle. Had they been Western Marxists, they would have waited for an industrial proletariat to be big enough; they did not.  Had they been Western liberals, they would have gambled on the elite, those with a university degree and/or capital. They did not do that either.

Struggle presupposes solid empirical groundwork. Idealists in their hearts, they were also realists in their brains; they wanted to know exactly in which empirical reality their peoples were living.

They both shared the conditions of the underprivileged, Gandhi more than Mao, but Mao also did for long periods. Both saw that as a condition for speaking and acting in the name of the people. No doubt they both knew very well what they were talking about, as opposed to leaders with only middle and upper-class experience.

They used gentle persuasion of peasants, not force.  And the best persuasion for very pragmatic peasants was by example, Gandhi’s Sarvodaya villages and Mao practising land reform in liberated areas; not waiting for 15 August 1947 and 1 October 1949.  Gandhi’s “Be the future you want to see” applied to them both.

They both wanted active participation by the people in the struggle, as subjects, not objects used as means or only as grateful recipients. So they organized mass movements, the Congress and the Communist parties, although the “iron law of oligarchy” applied to both of them. Yet that mass basis still exists, 60+ years later.

They had images of a decentralized society; for Gandhi, they were the oceanic circles of countless autonomous sarvodaya villages, and for Mao, they were cooperatives and People’s Communes.  India later adapted language-based federalism, whereas China is a federation in the name only, not even respecting local languages.  But in China the commune is still a key unit of development, and the Indian panchayat is also alive.

They were both strong believers in not waiting for “ripe time”, but in acting now, and here, not waiting for somebody else to do so. What is right is timeless, independent of opportunity. A society should be changed from within, through endogenous action. Social change cannot be served at the tip of liberation from the outside. Reliance on one’s own forces, only they can carry out the deep revolutionary changes needed; the liberation has to be theirs. Social change from bottom up, not from top or outside down.

And that revolution should be permanent, or intermittent.  There will always be new conflicts or contradictions; struggle is not a single-shot affair.  Swaraj, self-rule, is not only for India but also for oneself, for one’s own development and self-reliance.

So we find Gandhi in opposition against his own party after Indian independence, and Mao (The Gang of Four, And Mao Makes Five!) joining the Cultural Revolution against his own party hierarchy.  China goes through massive change about every 9 years, 1949-1956-1967-1976 Mao’s death to Deng’s Reform 1980-1989-1998-2007. India is less dramatic, there is much ultra-stability, but more will come.

What can we learn from what happened only a generation ago?

That the key problem was us, US, or we, West. We stood in the way and should be grateful they do not treat us like we treated them.

And, since the liberated Orient is now coming up quickly: learn from these ways of doing politics. In favour of the excluded masses in our elitist technocracies; they are our peasants, and they are the majority.


Norwegian sociologist. The principal founder of the discipline of peace and conflict studies.
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