Constructive Program as an Instructive Model
By Janet Chisholm
Constructive Program was Gandhi’s main hope for India. It meant confronting Indians’ own acceptance of their dependency, powerlessness and exploitation under British rule. Helping them envision and implement instead a just society of their own creation. Reweaving the strands of Indian culture and restoring relationships between Muslims and Hindus and the Hindu castes. In the campaign for Indian independence, these were his priorities. This was his vision. It is a historically-neglected side of Gandhi’s work, perhaps because it seems less dramatic and powerful than organized public resistance. Yet Gandhi himself considered Constructive Program far more important, more foundational, more sustaining and deserving a greater share of time and energy than resistance.
Constructive Program in India clearly benefited from Gandhi’s ability to articulate an overarching vision for cultural change that could link a variety of efforts and from his promotion of a unifying symbol and action. The spinning wheel was already a cultural symbol of creative life energy, but under Gandhi came to represent the work involved in Constructive Program: developing economic independence through meaningful local work, providing basic necessities like clothing for everyone, building solidarity with the poor, and “simple living so that all might simply live.” The mere act of spinning cotton offered a concrete way for every person, no matter the circumstances, to contribute on a daily basis and feel united with others in the struggle. It signified the reward of persistence and provided an almost spiritual, meditative discipline. As a powerful declaration of self-help and of independence already-in-the-making, spinning confronted the lie of Indian dependence with actions of Truth.
Peace scholar and activist Michael Nagler, Ken Preston from Pace e Bene, and I from the FOR have all spent time reflecting on what the lessons of Gandhi’s Constructive Program may be for us today. By nature it is preventive, designed to reintegrate into the community those who are marginalized or rejected. As a result, it helps a movement gain and sustain momentum and unity, positively influences others, contributes to the intended new social order, reduces the sense of powerlessness and increases self reliance. Near the conclusion of a resistance campaign, when the crisis is past and activists tend to fall away, Constructive Program carries on to solidify and implement changes. Nagler cautions that we should not be fooled into thinking Constructive Program is less effective than a campaign of resistance. It is a valuable complement to and preparatory training for a confrontational struggle involving resistance and direct action.
Constructive Program should not be confused with soup kitchens, shelters, prisons and other efforts that are like bandages patching up an unjust society. It is not about charity. It does not try to perpetuate the status quo. On the contrary, Constructive Program challenges systemic and structural violence by finding and applying solutions. Some of Gandhi’s projects addressed needs related to job creation, land reform, health services, sanitation, substance abuse, education, the role of women, and discrimination.
Personal transformation is required, as well as social transformation. Participants are expected to evaluate and work to correct their own weaknesses, particularly passive acceptance of exploitation. The community, too, must identify and make improvements where there is tension, disunity or injustice. Through spiritual practices and purification, personal discipline, education and training, and community building, individuals are encouraged to seize the power which they already control over their own behavior and to achieve “self-rule.” According to Gandhi, the energy of nonviolence had to fill individuals first in order to bring about positive social change.
What would Constructive Program look like today? There are many existing constructive projects that represent personal and social transformation, that present alternatives to the status quo and are likely building blocks for a new culture. Participants in FOR training have planned community bicycling, counter recruitment/job counseling, Spanish books for Spanish-speaking families, a food co-op, a nonviolence resource center, nonviolence training, and a U.S. Department of Peace. Other constructive projects include fair trade goods, joint Israeli-Palestinian youth camps, co-op housing and preschools, restorative justice, Emily’s list to elect women to Congress, desert landscaping, creating pocket parks and community playgrounds, Habitat for Humanity, organic gardening, complementary medicine, sister cities projects, independent media and bookstores, consensus decision-making and shared leadership, water and energy conservation, community arts and events, community meals, block watch, spiritual practice and meditation, peace education and training in conflict transformation.
The overarching vision for a Constructive Program that could link these projects is less obvious. Can we articulate a broad vision that incorporates our shared values and help us feel that we are all working for the same end, even if not on the same projects or in the same location? Are there symbols that might call us to common daily actions that would create a sense of solidarity? Or do we already have these and we just need to raise them up? Any suggestions?
“Gandhi was fully committed to the belief that while nonviolence had an impressive power to protest and disrupt, its real power was to create and reconstruct.” Nagler, Is There No other Way?