Arthur Herman. Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age. Bantam Books, 2008.
This is an interesting book, to say the least. Arthur Herman had an excellent idea, trace the careers of two of the giants of the 20th century from the angle of how their lives intersected with each other (even though the two only met once, when they were both quite young). So, the focus of the book, as the subtitle indicates, is on India–though other themes also make an appearance. The use of the word “destroyed” in reference to the Empire gives some indication of where Herman’s sympathies lie. Though he is an American, he seems to have much regret that the British empire fell by the wayside.
For a massive, scholarly volume by a professional historian, this book reads remarkably well. Herman has a fascinating story to tell–and tell it well he indeed does. You don’t read a book this large (600+ pages) in one sitting, and I continually found myself reluctant to put it down (in my younger days I am sure I would have continued long into the night to find out what was going to happen next). The book follows a pretty straight chronology, and even a person pretty familiar with the outline of the events will still find new information and provocative interpretive moves throughout.
Just as Herman himself clearly has a distinctive perspective that shapes how he presents this material, so readers will bring their perspectives that shape how they will respond to this book. From my perspective as one decidedly unfriendly to empires and their champions (such as Churchill), and friendly to Gandhi’s pioneering work in the philosophy and practice of nonviolence, Herman comes across as a pretty unreliable witness in the Gandhi half of this double biography. Yet, even though Herman likes Churchill much better than I do, his treatment of the man is much more objective and believable than his corresponding account of Gandhi’s career.
That is, I felt I learned enough about Churchill to be able to form my own judgment. Herman is thorough and clear in providing ample bases for seeing Churchill as a deeply problematic influence on the world of the 20th century–even as Herman himself generally views this influence as more positive. Churchill’s own father seems to have been monstrous toward his son, who to the end of his life felt he had utterly failed to live up to the father’s expectations. Churchill drank deeply of imperial grandiosity (along with other more mundane spirits) and, at the cost of untold lives, exerted every ounce of his considerable power and influence to keep the British Empire intact long after even the British people themselves believed it was time to let go. Churchill was an unrepentant racist, also with deadly consequences for India and other part of the Empire. And he was apparently the person most responsible for several terrible military disasters (most notably the infamous fiasco at Gallipoli during World War I).
To Herman’s credit, we get Churchill warts and all. In fact, after reading the book and thinking about it a few days, I am not quite sure why Herman respects Churchill so much. He certainly does not provide a persuasive case for why we should see Churchill as a great man–that seems to be Herman’s assumption, one he does not really allow the evidence he has presented here (which does not show Churchill as a great man) to challenge.
One item, not really central to the theme of the book, irritated me in relation to Herman’s treatment of Churchill and perhaps illustrates how his assumptions shape his conclusions. In its account of World War II, the book (appropriately) focuses on India. Herman is not attempting to present an account of the War in general. Nonetheless, one reading only this book would most likely conclude that Britain under Churchill’s leadership played the central role in defeating Nazi Germany–with an important assist from the United State. It seems clear historically, though, that by the major factor in Germany’s defeat was the incredible effort of the Soviet Union. By essentially ignoring the Soviets, Herman can give the impression that Churchill’s accomplishment in leading Britain (impressive in its own way, for sure) was way more significant than it actually was.
Whereas with Gandhi, it’s kind of the opposite problem. We do learn a great deal about many of the events of Gandhi’s life–but I simply don’t know how much of what Herman says about the Indian leader is to be believed. Time after time he asserts that the standard account of Gandhi’s career is wrong, but almost never presents evidence to support his assertion. If he were trustworthy on Gandhi, such assertions would be quite helpful for all who want the most accurate account of one who certainly has been the object of much hagiography. But the best I can bring myself to say about Herman’s Gandhi sections is that they raise provocative questions and challenge me to look more closely at the sources.
Throughout the book Herman combines two types of comments regarding Gandhi that seem deeply in tension–one is how just about every major campaign or other initiative Gandhi took was essentially a failure or at least of negligible significance (going back to the emergence of sayagraha in South Africa down to Gandhi’s last days of seeking for Hindu/Muslim reconciliation); the second was how powerful and highly influential Gandhi was in India and globally. The significance for Herman of Gandhi’s influence is almost always to suggest how problematic that influence was, how Gandhi bore so much responsibility when events turned bad. But how can both of these dynamics be true–Gandhi’s utter ineffectiveness and Gandhi’s powerful and regrettable influence? If Gandhi was always so ineffective, how did he come to have so much influence?
Part of the problem is that Herman makes no attempt whatsoever to account for Gandhi’s philosophy, other than occasional disparaging comments often pointing either to Gandhi’s hypocrisy or out of touch idealism. The reader of this book will learn virtually nothing about the meaning that satyagraha had for Gandhi, where it came from and how he sought to apply it. There are no reflections on Gandhi’s powerful influence on various social change efforts around the world.
Here is one quote that captures a great deal of Herman’s sensibility: “The confrontation [between Churchill and Gandhi] was between two different conceptions of life. One rested on secular and humanistic traditions that had been tested by history and centuries of human conflict. The other rested on a vision of spiritual purity in which history and material things (including Gandhi’s own body) counted for nothing. Churchill valued human liberty as the product of struggle, as man’s supreme achievement. Gandhi, by contrast, valued liberty as God’s supreme achievement. It was man’s duty to live up to that standard. Without it, Gandhi believed, life was meaningless, including his own” (page 507).
The idea that a racist and imperialist such as Churchill, who fought bitterly to keep India’s hundreds of millions of people under the dominance of Great Britain, valued “liberty” supremely seems ludicrous. And we can ask how “humanistic” any tradition is that undergirds such racism and imperialism and that so comfortably resorts to such violations of standards of restraint in warfare as seen in the Churchill-approved saturation bombing of civilian populations in cities such as Dresden and Hamburg during World War II.
The relation between Gandhi’s philosophy and practice of nonviolence and “history and material things” is a point of major debate–a debate that will be extremely difficult to resolve in part due to the incomplete evidence we have concerning where history actually is going and in part due to the importance of our assumptions in how we address such a question. However, I want to argue that in fact Gandhi’s philosophy is extraordinarily important for human history, is at its core anchored in history, and is actually our best hope for on-going human existence in history.
As I mentioned above, I did find this book highly enjoyable to read. And I think Herman deserves our gratitude for taking on such an interesting and important project. In the end, though, I don’t really think that what the world today needs is an exaltation of Churchillian imperialism combined with an attempted debunking of Gandhian satyagraha–rather, what we need is an account of this story that take the opposite tack in dealing with each of its main characters.