Our need for idols: observations on Mandela and Gandhi 25

Nelson Mandela is a life-long Communist. He even cobbled together a little book called “How To Be A Good Communist”. He co-founded and directed a terrorist organization, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). He never stopped admiring tyrannies and red dictatorships.

The Mahatma Gandhi was a rather cruel man. He deliberately kept the fifty or so poor Indian workers who labored on his South African farm – which he called “Tolstoy Farm” – on starvation rations, in pursuit of a theory that the body could learn to survive on virtually no food. He also paid them no wages, so it would not be wrong to call them slaves. He abandoned the wife and child he acquired during his years in South Africa, left them with no means of subsistence when he returned to India. In 1946 he commented on the Holocaust, “The Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife.” By his own confession he was a lecher before he conceived the theory that the body could learn to live without sex. Then to prove his ability to resist temptation, he would, as an old man, have nubile young girls sleep beside him without ever taking advantage of them. What the girls felt about the experiment has not been recorded. He was also a poseur. The image he liked to project of a man who needed nothing but a loin-cloth and a spinning wheel was belied by the colossal expense the British Foreign Office was put to in 1931 in order to meet his demand to “live among the poor” in the East End of London. They had to buy houses, repair them, guard them, furnish them comfortably while leaving the Mahatma a bare room in which to meet diplomats and the press. Had he demanded a whole floor of the Ritz Hotel it would have cost his hosts less.

Gandhi is long dead, and now it seems Nelson Mandela is dying. There will be obituaries and eulogies extravagantly praising him – if also some criticism of him for being too soft or too hard, depending on whether it comes from the left or the right. But Mandela, like Gandhi, will be made as immortal as a mortal can be made.

The human race needs its heroic saviors. It needs its Mandela, its Gandhi, as it has needed its Moses, its Jesus Christ, its Muhammad, its Buddha.

Mandela must be the hero-martyr who bought black freedom from white oppression with his own long incarceration; who set an example of forgiveness; who remained peaceable despite intense provocation to resort to violence. He must be a model of patient virtue under racist oppression; the perfect unvengeful victim who rose to be the gentle leader of a new democratic South Africa.

That picture is false, like the one of Gandhi as a good and simple man. And Gandhi no more liberated India from the British Raj with his passive resistance movement than Mandela overthrew apartheid with his revolutionary leadership exercised from a prison cell.

But the truth about Mandela and Gandhi will not matter. It will not make any difference to what they must stand for in order to satisfy a human need. Mandela the Idol is bigger far than the real man, and so is the Idol named Gandhi. In each case the myth has already replaced the man.

Good saviors these will remain in the collective esteem, the personifications of dearly held ideals. As deeply as the ideals are needed, their personifications will be adored and celebrated, and can no more be allowed to have had weaknesses and vices than the ideals themselves can be forsaken. Our idols prove to us that our highest moral aspirations are attainable; that we are beings capable of perfection. It is our vanity that will preserve them.


Jillian Becker   June 12, 2013

  • David Welch

    Jillian, I read most of your posts on Facebook and send them as tweets to my approximately 7,000 twitter followers. Keep up the good work!

    • Jillian Becker

      Big thanks, David, and I hope you keep up THAT good work!

  • David Welch

    With regard to Liz’s comment: The movement towards sub prime mortgages, which was the primary cause of the financial crisis, was given a huge boost by a young Chicago lawyer who represented plaintiffs in a suit against Citibank that opened the floodgate. Yes, the Chicago lawyer was Barack Obama!

    There is a great book called “Skullduggery” that documents this in great detail.

  • Pingback: YOUR IDOL IS NOT MY GOD…….. |()

  • Kerry

    “That picture is false, like the one of Gandhi as a good and simple man. And Gandhi no more liberated India from the British Raj with his passive resistance movement than Mandela overthrew apartheid with his revolutionary leadership exercised from a prison cell.”

    I apologize because I laughed out loud when I read this! I could not agree more. I was privileged to shake Mandela’s hand one time. I have read both “Long Walk to Freedom” and “Mandela: The Authorized Portrait.” I enjoyed both.I am the proud owner of three Mandela shirts! I have always admired so much of what was believed about Mandela by the people. I understand he was a bit of mythical figure in some ways, but then so was our George Washington. Like Washington, I think Mandela had what was needed at that time for SA. I know you are much better versed on SA then I am, but as an outsider, I believe he was able to accomplish things not possible for anyone else.

    As for Gandhi, well I agree with you. He was perhaps even more mythical. I have travelled much in India, and as always in every country, I probe the common people as well as the politicians with my usual provocative questions about taboo matters. I was never very good at accepting the common beliefs on any “saint.”

  • maidros

    At the outset, I will say my view is that of an Indian.

    While I do not pretend to know the personal life of Gandhi, his economic prescriptions were indeed Communist, except for the violence, and were disastrous to my country. However, the problem was that liberal economic policies were so tarnished by the effects they had when employed by the British empire (anyone who wants to know what it did should start reading up `Late Victorian Holocausts’ by Mike Davis) that no one could support them without being accused of being a British stooge. Consequently, socialism for forty five years.

    I would just like to comment on the idolisation of Gandhi. Gandhi was idolised in post-independence India because the ruling Congress party needed a martyr that it could display as having got India its freedom, and having died to fanatics. Consequently, he was made the martyr face of Indian freedom struggle. The other freedom fighters (and there were Indian freedom fighters of all hues, who were effective in fighting the British) were all marginalised in the Nehru-Gandhi upmanship.

    As for South Africa, (I have family there – people who emigrated there during the British Empire), the Indians, who once opposed apartheid, are now voting the old apartheid party, because they see it as the lesser of the evils. The old white racism left them a place in society, that while not exalted, was at least viable. The new ANC wants them dead and/or gone.

    • Jillian Becker

      This is a very interesting comment. Thank you for it, maidros.

      What you say about Gandhi confirms our understanding of him and his role in the last years of the Raj.

      The history of the Indians in South Africa is distressing. They contributed and continue to contribute a great deal, yet were unjustly treated in the days of white rule, and now again – as you say – under the new dispensation.

      With regard to your remarks about the British empire, would you look at this article


      and comment on it for us?

      • maidros

        I wrote a long comment on the article you suggested, commenting on parts of the article piecewise – looks like the board ate it. So, I will just summarise by saying this. The article is overly generous to Britain and greatly understates the disastrous effect of British rule. The British certainly left behind a lot of useful things in India (the economic infrastructure, the civil and military institutions, the judiciary, and the like), and they also had a role in the elimination of several socially abhorrent practices. However, the humanitarian tragedy that British economic policies did in India (by very conservative estimates, Britain killed 10 million people between 1858 and 1947 in British caused or exacerbated famines) and their role in the economic devastation of India made if impossible for anyone to support liberal economic policies (all liberal policies were equated with being British stooges). But it was not liberal trade policies that were bad. Indeed, the policies were liberal only for the British, not for the Indians, who would have benefited from the free trading arrangements, and allowed Indians to harness their natural creativity. However, it was interpreted as `liberal policies benefit the rich, and destroy the poor, just as it did in the days of the British Raj’. The Nehru-Gandhi family was always strongly socialistic, and the alliance with the erstwhile Soviet Union (in part because of natural sympathies for socialism, and in part because of external circumstances) made socialism inevitable.

        I will conclude by saying this: Britain gave us several useful institutions, but India is a free country and a liberal democracy only because the people of the country are tolerant, and accepting of other view points. That is why, sixty five years after the British left, we (alongside Israel) are still the only liberal democracies of the British colonial world in Asia and Africa, while most others are failed states and/or dictatorships.

        • Jillian Becker

          Thank you again, maidros. I’ll bear in mind what you say. I want to revisit the subject, do some more reading.

          One more answer please, if you’d be so kind: What is your opinion of “Thy Hand, Great Anarch!: India Nineteen Twenty-One to Nineteen Fifty-Two” by Nirad C. Chaudhuri?

          • maidros

            I have not read the book. Give me a few days – I will read the book and post my thoughts on the subject.

        • Kerry

          My hat is off to both of you for stating your opinions so well. I would add that in addition to the economic institutions, and civil structures, the English left India with good roads and trains, something I believe the English learned from the Romans. This cannot be unappreciated. Having spent much time on the continent of Africa, I can attest that every English colony has done much better then any of the French, Portuguese, Spanish, or Belgium colonies. Case and point: Ghana where they have had three successive elections for President where the Party in power changed, and no one died, and there were no protests. It is quite an amazing accomplishment for Africa. Even Kenya, which has done quite well could not pull off such a peaceful election their last go around. The British did leave behind good systems and people that knew how to run those systems, something the French in particular did not do.

  • Andrew

    My only exposure to the innards of apartheid South Africa come from a book I read during college, Playing the Enemy by John Carlton. It painted Mandela in precisely the “hero-martyr” way you described – gracious to his jailers and courteous to the New Zealand rugby team who squared off against the Springboks in the finals despite his deepest wish for the All Blacks to lose.

    You don’t need to convince me that Communism is a terrible economic and political philosophy, but being that you are decidedly closer to the Commonwealth than me, I am interested in hearing about what you think brought about these changes in South Africa’s apartheid system if not Mandela and how effective you think it has been. Same question goes for the end of the British Raj in India.

    • Jillian Becker

      Briefly and leaving out much of importance, immense external pressure on the minority government of South Africa – economic, but also and perhaps especially a sports boycott (!) – forced it first to compromise and then capitulate.

      Why the end of the British Raj,the hasty closing down of the Empire after the Second World War? It cost too much to keep. And the ethos of imperialism – Kipling’s “white man’s burden” sums it up – evaporated like morning dew. Of course Britain still has remnants of its empire, but most of it was transformed into the British Commonwealth.

      Terrorist activity in South Africa, and civil disobedience in India were nuisances but not deciding factors.

      The mass of the black population of South Africa is worse off now than under white rule, though no longer discriminated against by law.

      Gandhi did great harm to India. To take just one disaster: under the spell of his Tolstoyan romanticism, he believed India should have a self-reliant village-based economy of hand-worked industries (hence the symbolism of the spinning-wheel), and it was a recipe for starvation. Obviously a country with a population as large as India’s needs mass production.

      • Andrew

        Good summaries. Thanks for taking the time to contribute your observations.

        South Africa’s situation certainly make a lot of sense to me in those terms. It feels eerily similar to Rhodesia in a way: racist white minority rule transforming into a racist black democracy (for Zimbabwe I use that word lightly). I don’t like any form of racism. Vengeance is no antidote for past sufferings.

        I absolutely agree with your last paragraph. While my hunch would suggest that Israel’s kibbutzim would be far more successful communes because of that country’s vastly reduced population, I simply cannot see any way it would work in India. I’m reminded of the scene in Gandhi where he leads his followers to the Indian Ocean as a source of salt instead of the British. Any chemist would tell you that desalinization is a costly, energy-intense process – one that could not occur in a socialist India.

        Lastly, I always found it quite humorous that Gandhi met his end for not being strident enough in his religious deeds. The Pakistani frontier with India is the biggest and most destructive religious war in the making…

  • Zak Arthur Klemmer

    Which nation is freer, South Africa or the USA? Every American is a tax slave as long as he is an American citizen even if he moves of shore to never to return to our shore. You can not be legally free of US tax laws unless you renounce your American Citizenship. How oppressive is the Republic of S. Africa compared to US?

    • rogerinflorida

      Well Zak,
      To quote the great Josey Wales: dying ain’t much of a living.
      You be careful now, you hear!

    • Jillian Becker

      US tax laws are bad in many ways, and one of the ways is as you say, Zak Arthur Klemmer. But even under Obama and his ever-growing burden of regulations imposed on business, most Americans still enjoy a comparatively high standard of living. South African business is shackled with socialist labor laws stupidly believed to protect the workers, but actually causing high unemployment and abysmal poverty for the black population in particular. In theory both countries are “free”. In both, government interferes with freedom. But in which would you rather live?

  • rogerinflorida

    It is rumored that the death of Nelson Mandela will be the signal to the savages of South Africa that the final cleansing of white people from the country should take place. I do not know if this is true but it would not surprise me if it were. We may see very soon a mass murder/progrom against the remaining whites of SA, and trust me there will hardly be a shot fired, it will all be machete and axe.
    What will the black liberation socialist Barrack Obama do?
    Or for that matter the old etonian poseur David Cameron?
    As for Ghandhi; he was a very peculiar bugger in more ways than one.

    • Jillian Becker

      It is a terrifying prediction, Roger, but there are indeed ominous signs.

  • liz

    Great observations. And the very same idolization has already been applied to Obama. I don’t doubt that he will never be seen by the vast majority of morons who elected him, or their posterity, as anything less than a brave hero, an underappreciated genius who stood up to an onslaught of racism and bigotry by vile white “extremists” like the Tea Party.
    Yes, he and Nelson Mandela will be crowned with roses in the history books for all their noble achievements, along with Gandhi, and not a mention will be made of the reality he created, which was the greatest disaster in history.

    • Steinar-Norway

      You remember who was president when the financial crisis broke out?

      • Jillian Becker


      • liz

        Yes, and you remember who engineered the crisis?

        • Steinar-Norway

          Could have been that guy who was president from 2000 – 2008…..

          • Jillian Becker

            I don’t understand the relevance of your comment to this post, Steinar-Norway, and I don’t quite get your point even as an irrelevancy.

            Yes, Bush was not a very good president. He left the economy in a mess. Obama has made the mess far worse. He is a much worse president than any in recent times – even worse than Jimmy Carter. Possibly the worst ever. Nothing Bush did excuses or explains the disasters Obama has brought about both by action and inaction.