What Is Self-Rule?

Lessons from Gandhi
  • Fred Dallmayr
Part of the Culture and Religion in International Relations book series (CRIR)


Behind the screen of flux and turbulence, our age seems to be pervaded worldwide by a dominant idea: the idea of “democracy” or at least the aspiration of “democratization.” Despite the immense diversity of social and cultural traditions, humankind today seems agreed on the superiority of democracy over any competing alternative. People of diverse political convictions—from conservative to radical—all share at least the proposition that, to be legitimate, governments need popular approval and guidance. Seen in this light, humankind seems indeed united by a common purpose or telos—whose meaning, however, appears puzzling on closer inspection. For, what is the meaning of democracy when translated as popular self-government or self-rule? How can the people govern themselves— more precisely: how can the people be both rulers and the ruled, and perform their roles legitimately without domination or oppression? In the well-known phrase of Lincoln—“government of the people, by the people, for the people”—How can the people exercise government (by the people) over themselves (of the people) and do so in way as to promote the common good (for the people)? Differently and more simply put: How can the self rule itself? How is popular self-rule—or to use the Indian term, swaraj— possible and even conceivable?


Political Freedom Popular Rule Negative Liberty Central Lesson Home Rule 
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  1. 1.
    St. Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1950), p. 35.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    M. K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj and Other Writings, ed. Anthony J. Parel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 26–28. Originally composed in Gujarati, the text was translated into English by Gandhi himself. It is one of the great merits of Parel’s edition to provide at crucial junctures a comparison of the English version with the Gujarati original.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See “Supplementary Writings” to Hind Swaraj, pp. 155, 189. Taken from The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 85, pp. 32–33, and Jawaharlal Nehru, A Bunch of Old Letters (London: Asia Publishing House, 1958), p. 512.Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    Gandhi’s flexibility in these matters is reflected in statements like the following: “I believe in the rock-bottom doctrine of Advaita and my interpretation of Advaita excludes totally any idea of superiority at any state whatsoever. I believe implicitly that all men are born equal.” And: “I am an Advaitist and yet I can support Dvaitism (dualism). The world is changing every moment, and is therefore unreal, it has no permanent existence. But though it is constantly changing, it has something about it which persists and it is therefore to that extent real.” See The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 64, p. 141; and The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, ed. Shriman Narayan (Ahmed-abad: Navajivan, 1969), vol. 6, p. 107. For an attempt to link Gandhi closely with Advaita Vedanta see the essay by the Mahatma’s grandson, Ramchandra Gandhi, “The Swaraj of India,” Indian Philosophical Quarterly 11 (October 1984): 461–471.Google Scholar
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    See M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth (London: Phoenix Press, 1949), pp. 370–371; also Hind Swaraj, p. 118. Compare also this statement: “I have come to this fundamental conclusion that if you want something really important to be done, you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also. The appeal of reason is more to the head, but the penetration of the heart comes from suffering. It opens up the inner understanding of men.” See Gandhi, India’s Case for Swaraj (Bombay: Yeshanand, 1932), p. 369. To this extent I cannot quite agree with Parel when he equates self-rule with mind-control and states: “Thus the mind emerges as the key faculty in Gandhi’s political philosophy, swaraj being the rule of the mind over itself and the passions. The possession of a disciplined mind—free from inordinate desire for property, pleasure and power-is the prerequisite for the proper practice of satyagraha.” See introduction to Hind Swaraj, p. 1. This accent is all the more curious as Parel himself reports these comments of Gandhi in 1907 on the topic of restraint and self-reliance: “We should also know what we mean by ‘reliance on our own strength.’ ‘Our strength’ means the strength of our body, our mind and our soul. From among these, on which should we depend? The answer is brief. The soul is supreme, and therefore soul-force is the foundation on which man must build. Passive resistance or satyagraha is a mode of fighting which depends on such force.” See The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 9, p. 118; cited in Hind Swaraj, p. 21, note 26. One might add that “soul,” for Gandhi, does not seem to be a metaphysical substance but a synonym for soul-force seen as agency of transformation.Google Scholar
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    Ramashray Roy, Self and Society: A Study in Gandhian Thought (New Delhi: Sage Publications India, 1984), p. 78.Google Scholar
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    See Hind Swaraj, pp. 86–87; also Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), pp. 58–59. To be sure, Parekh does not ignore the issue of moral self-transformation; but he treats it (in this text) as a distinct issue separate from the topic of swaraj. More recently, however, he has accepted a closer linkage between these aspects. See his Gandhi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 75–76: “For Gandhi swaraj referred to a state of affairs in which individuals were morally in control of themselves and ran their lives in such a way that they needed no external coercion.… For Gandhi swaraj thus presupposed self-discipline, self-restraint, a sense of mutual responsibility, the disposition neither to dominate nor be dominated by others, and a sense of dharma.” CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Roy, Self and Society, pp. 63, 189–90. The possibility of a transformative freedom was actually acknowledged by Berlin; but he confined this mode narrowly to mystical or ascetic life-styles—a confinement aptly criticized by Roy (pp. 186–187). See Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (London: Oxford University Press, 1977).Google Scholar
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    Roy, Self and Society, p. 64. Some of these dualistic dilemmas still persist in more recent, quasi-Kantian forms of ethics, for example, in Habermasian “discourse ethics.” Although ostensibly departing from Kant through a greater reliance on inter-subjective communication, Habermas fully endorses the Kantian primacy of “right” over the “good,” of justice over the good life, of duty over inclination. He frankly admits the “weak motivational force” of discourse ethics coupled with its theoretical abstractness. However, if ethical motivation is weak or non-existent, the theory seems to contribute little to self-rule or self-transformation. See Jürgen Habermas, Justification and Application: Remarks on Discourse Ethics, trans. Ciaran P. Cronin (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), especially pp. 33, 74–76. For a greater willingness to expand or supplement discourse ethics in the direction of caring self-transcendence see the essay by Habermas’s successorGoogle Scholar
  11. Axel Honneth, “The Other of Justice: Habermas and the Ethical Challenge of Postmodernism,” in Stephen K. White, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Habermas (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 289–323.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    In her eloquent language: “One of the most persistent trends in modern philosophy since Descartes and perhaps its most original contribution to philosophy has been an exclusive concern with the self, as distinguished from the soul or person or man in general, an attempt to reduce all experiences, with the world as well as with other human beings, to experiences between man and himself. … World alienation, and not self-alienation as Marx thought, has been the hallmark of the modern age.” See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition: A Study of the Central Dilemmas Facing Modern Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 230–231.Google Scholar
  13. 18.
    Arendt, “What Is Freedom,” in Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1963), pp. 148–149, 153. The essay contains a strong critique of liberal individualism. As she notes (p. 155), liberalism, “its name notwithstanding, has done its share to banish the notion of liberty from the political realm. For politics, according to the same philosophy, must be concerned almost exclusively with the maintenance of life and the safeguarding of its interests. Now, where life is at stake all action is by definition under the sway of necessity, and the proper realm to take care of life’s necessities is the gigantic and still increasing sphere of social and economic life whose administration has overshadowed the political realm ever since the beginning of the modern age.”Google Scholar
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    Charles Taylor, “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty?” in Alan Ryan, ed., The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honor of Isaiah Berlin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 193.Google Scholar
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    Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 68, 74, 77–78. The awkwardness surrounding the term “authenticity” had been noted earlier byGoogle Scholar
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  17. 21.
    Tu Weiming, Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation (Albany, NY SUNY Press, 1985), pp. 59, 76–77, 175. Compare also his comments on the Confucian “golden rule”: “It is certainly not a categorical imperative in the Kantian sense; nor is it the guiding principle for action to which one is enjoined to conform. Rather, it is a standard of inspiration and an experienced ideal made meaningful to the students through the exemplary teaching of their master” (p. 56). Regarding transformative freedom, he adds, in a passage critical of Western liberalism: “Historically, the emergence of individualism as a motivating force in Western society may have been intertwined with highly particularized political, economic, ethical, and religious traditions. It seems reasonable that one can endorse an insight into the self as a basis for equality and liberty without accepting Locke’s idea of private property, Adam Smith’s and Hobbes’s idea of private interest, John Stuart Mill’s idea of privacy, Kierkegaard’s idea of loneliness, or the early Sartre’s idea of freedom” (p. 78).Google Scholar

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© Fred R. Dallmayr 2002

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  • Fred Dallmayr

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