Gandhi’s Strategy: (1) Noncooperation & (2) Constructive Program

Gandhi during the Salt March, March-April 1930. (Wikimedia Commons/Walter Bosshard)

In the mid-1930s, Gandhi began revealing a rather significant shift in his emphasis and thinking. He had been significantly influenced by reading Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894) in which Tolstoy wrote of the power of disassociation from the state altogether in numerous self-reliant communities. In fact, Gandhi’s life and work became overwhelmingly dominated by his strategies of reconstruction from below (a full-time task for sure), lessening his emphasis on noncooperation and satyagraha, though the latter was never to be abandoned when necessary. But the thrust became withdrawing support from the political state while building economically self-reliant communities from below. The spinning wheel was both a symbol and a literal appropriate technology promising to liberate the people from dependence upon British textiles through creation of their own local industries.

Today, the symbol for us westerners might be seeds, a hoe, or a bicycle.

In 1933, Gandhi founded the weekly newspaper, Harijan, to concentrate on social and economic issues, directly addressing and empowering the impoverished (untouchables). Growing his contempt for the pattern of tyrannical state power, he resigned from the Indian Congress in September 1934, in effect retiring from such active involvement in state politics in order to serve better the poor, to transform society from below, and to develop village industries and crafts. In 1935 he inaugurated the All-India Village Industries Assoc. In 1936 he created the Sevagram Ashram as a model village of service. He increasingly talked about the “constructive program” in addition to satyagraha (noncooperation and civil disobedience to unjust laws).

It was not political struggle that any longer dominated his efforts, but more important was what he called the constructive work or program to transform society from below. This transformation was built around reviving the economic strength of self-reliant, self-contained village cultures, actually hundreds of thousands of them in a decentralized federation.

To Gandhi, noncooperation was the nonviolent counterpart of guerrilla war while the constructive program was the counterpart of a parallel society from below similar to parallel hierarchies important in the Mexican, Chinese, and Viet Nam revolutions. He increasingly believed that noncooperation and withdrawal of consent, taken by themselves, were woefully ineffective, sometimes using the term useless, since they do not feed the hungry or permanently relieve the oppressed. Positive action was imperative to actually pursue social betterment and justice in every village.

Nonetheless, he strongly believed that satyagraha was always available as necessary, and kept in mind its goal of conversion and moral transformation, not retribution. He rejected western materialist values and industrialism. But to achieve political independence, a fundamental and moral reconstruction of society from below was required which, to repeat, was centered on economic renewal of autonomous village life and sardovaya (social uplift for everyone).

The constructive program was as effective, or perhaps more powerful, a path to political decentralized power as noncooperation. Noncooperation drained power away from the oppressor while the constructive program generated power in the hands of the resisters. In effect, rebuilding self-reliance from below served both to undermine support for the state while empowering local people to become autonomous. Today, we might talk of re-constructing local self-reliant, food and simple tool sufficient communities in watersheds or bioregions.

Historically withdrawal of support from vertical power was a major factor in the collapse of the Mayan civilization @ 900 AD, as workers simply abandoned their increasingly enslaved conditions as the Mayan rulers became more greedy and demanding. They literally fled to the mountains where they lived on a mix of farming and foraging. [see Beyond Civilization: Humanities Next Great Adventureby Daniel Quinn (NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999), pp. 41, 82, 91, 95, 98, 99; andThe World Without US by Alan Weisman (NY: St. Martins Press, 2007), pp. 227-229].

There are hundreds of resources relating to nonviolence and Gandhi. My emphasis is to reveal Gandhi’s shift to the more important, as he saw it in the 1930s, building the constructive program from below. Here are some selected, relevant resources:

*DVD Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh documentary by Helena Norbert Hodge, Green Planet Films, Corte Madera, CA, about the Ladakh people in the Himalayas who lived peacefully for centuries and graphically reveals what happens to their culture in just one generation of “development.”

*DVD Why Kerala, Grampa? documentary by Tom Chamberlin, Portland, OR, about the amazing development of thousands of relatively self-reliant communities communicating with each other in the state of Kerala, one of the 28 states of India.

*DVD The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil documentary by Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, Yellow Springs, OH

*“Gandhi’s Three Pillars of Freedom Are the Key To Our Survival,” interview of Vandana Shiva by David Barsamian, YES Magazine, Summer 2009. Note: The three pillars: (1) Swadeshi – self-making, local-reliance, decentralization; (2)Swaraj – self-rule, self-organizing, local responsibility; (3) Satyagraha – civil disobedience, noncooperation, withdrawal of consent. System change doesn’t happen at the system level; it happens by enough people wherever they are making changes that they want to see.

*“Gandhi’s Constructive Program – And Ours”, by Joanne Sheehan, Peacework, Issue 368, Sept 2006 (

It’s Meaning and Place by M. K. Gandhi (

*The Kingdom of God Is Within You by Leo Tolstoy (1894; Lincoln, NE: Univ of Nebraska Press, 1984).

*The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People by Jonathan Schell (NY: Metropolitan Books, 2003), Chapter 4, “Satyagraha”, pp. 103-142.

*Gandhi by Peter Ruhe (NY: Phaidon Press, 2001), “Introduction”, pp. 6-11.

*The Politics of Obedience: A Discourse of Voluntary Servitude by Etienne De La Boettie (@1552 or 1553, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1997).

*Gandhi Today: The Story of Mahatma Gandhi’s Successors by Mark Shepard (Wash., DC: Seven Locks Press, 1987), pp. 5-8, 13-14, 42-43.

*Gandhi: All Men Are Brothers, Autobiographical Reflections, ED Krishna Kripalani (NY: Continuum, 1984), p. 183.

*Gandhi: A Memoir by William Shirer (NY: Washington Square Press, 1979), p. 213.

*For Pacifists by M.K. Gandhi (Ahmedabad-14: Navajivan Press, 1949), pp. 124-128.