Trusteeship: The Basis For Economic Equality

January 11, 2016

We feature excerpts by Gandhi that lend insight into his values and personal practices.

For him there was no distinction between economics and ethics. On October of 1921 he wrote in the newspaper Young India: "Economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation are immoral and, therefore, sinful. Thus the economics that permit one country to prey upon another are immoral. It is sinful to buy and use articles made by sweated labour."

Two decades latter, on December 13, 1941 Gandhi wrote in a letter to Miraben: "I was immersed in writing work which is just finished." He was talking about no other than the Constructive Programme, writen in a train from Wardha to Bardoli. In it, and based on the faith that human nature is never beyond redemption, he listed Economic Equality (Trusteeship) as one of the most important points of the programme and described it as "the Master key for nonviolent independence".

December 09, 1941

This last [Economic Equality] is the master key to nonviolent Independence. Working for economic equality means abolishing the eternal conflict between capital and labour. It means the leveling down of the few rich in whose hands is concentrated the bulk of the nation"s wealth on the one hand, and the leveling up of the semi-starved naked millions on the other. A violent and bloody revolution is a certainty one day unless there is a voluntary abdication of riches and the power that riches give and sharing them for the common good. I adhere to my doctrine of trusteeship in spite of the ridicule that has been poured upon it. It is true that it is difficult to reach. So is nonviolence. This nonviolent experiment is still in the making. We have nothing much yet to show by way of demonstration. It is certain, however, that the method has begun to work though ever so slowly in the direction of equality. And since nonviolence is a process of conversion, the conversion, if achieved, must be permanent. A society or a nation constructed nonviolently must be able to, withstand attack upon its structure from without or within. (1)

Indeed, at the root of this doctrine of equal distribution must lie that of the trusteeship of the wealthy for superfluous wealth possessed by them. For according to the doctrine they may not possess a rupee more than their neighbours.

How is this to be brought about? Nonviolently? Or should the wealthy be dispossessed of their possessions? To do this we would naturally have to resort to violence. This violent action cannot benefit society. Society will be the poorer, for it will lose the gifts of a man who knows how to accumulate wealth. Therefore the nonviolent way is evidently superior. The rich man will be left in possession of his wealth, of which he will use what he reasonably requires for his personal needs and will act as a trustee for the remainder to be used for the society. In this argument, honesty on the part of the trustee is assumed.

As soon as a person looks upon himself as a servant of society, earns for its sake, spends for its benefit, then purity enters into his earnings and there is ahimsa in his venture. Moreover, if human's minds turn towards this way of life, there will come about a peaceful revolution in society and that without any bitterness. It may be asked whether history at any time records such a change in human nature. Such changes have certainly taken place in individuals. One may not perhaps be able to point to them in a whole society. But this only means that up till now there has never been an experiment on a large scale on nonviolence. 

Somehow or other the wrong belief has taken possession of us that ahimsa is pre-eminently a weapon for individuals and its use should, therefore, be limited to that sphere. In fact this is not the case. Ahimsa is definitely an attribute of society. To convince people of this truth is at once my effort and my experiment

In this age of wonders no one will say that a thing or idea is worthless because it is new. To say it is impossible because it is difficult is again not in consonance with the spirit of the age. Things undreamed of are daily being seen, the impossible is ever becoming possible. We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamed of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence. [...]

If, however, in spite of the utmost effort, the rich do not become guardians of the poor in the true sense of the term and the latter are more and more crushed and die of hunger, what is to be done? In trying to find out the solution of this riddle, I have lighted on nonviolent non-cooperation and civil disobedience[satyagraha] as the right and infallible means. The rich cannot accumulate wealth without the co-operation of the poor in society. (2)

Those who own money now, are asked to behave like trustees holding their riches on behalf of the poor. You may say that trusteeship is a legal fiction. But if people meditate over it constantly and try to act up to it, then life on Earth would be governed far more by love than it is at present. Absolute trusteeship is an abstraction like Euclid’s definition of a point, and is equally unattainable. But if we strive for it, we shall be able to go further in realizing state of equality on Earth than by any other method. (3)

(1) CWMG, Vol 81, p. 354, Constructive Programme, December 13, 1941.
(2) Harijan, August 8, 1940, pp. 260-261
(3) The Modern Review, October 1935, p. 412

Be The Change

This week support the local economy and practice trusteeship by seeing your material, intellectual and spiritual gifts as tools for service for our collective well-being.