George Orwell’s essay “Reflections on Gandhi” examines Gandhi’s principal of non-violence, or Satyagraha ("holding on to the truth"), as a political tool. Orwell attempts to evaluate non-violence as a method of political leverage outside of the unique circumstances in which Gandhi successfully deployed his method. Orwell discusses the particular context that gave Satyagraha political force: the struggle for national self-determination in colonial India. He compares this to other political circumstances where, he says, Satyagraha would not have had the same effect—for example, under a totalitarian regime where it would not have had the publicity it needed to galvanize the populations of England and India. Satyagraha needed a free press in orderto be an effective political tool. It thus wouldn’t work as a resistance to a totalitarian force where free speech is suppressed and dissidents detained. Nonetheless, Orwell does not dismiss Gandhi’s method. Published during rising nuclear tensions of the early Cold War, Orwell looks to Gandhi’s method as a reference for what he feels is a necessary discussion of alternative methods of political resistance.
Gandhi's towering moral reputation tends to blind us today to the role he played in the minds of is contemporaries in the British Empire -- that of a political activist.
This raised issues Orwell grappled with in this penetrating examination of Gandhi's career, published in the Partisan Review in January 1949, a year after Gandhi's assassination.
Orwell struggles to balance his natural skepticism of those held up as saints ("Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent") with his admiration for Gandhi the man, leavening it all with recognition that Gandhi's principles and activities sometimes served the interests of his adversaries.
The British governors of India made use of Gandhi, he wrote, "or thought they were making use of him.... Since in every crisis he would exert himself to prevent violence — which, from the British point of view, meant preventing any effective action whatever -- he could be regarded as 'our man.' ...The attitude of the Indian millionaires was similar. Gandhi called upon them to repent, and naturally they preferred him to the Socialists and Communists who, given the chance, would actually have taken their money away."