Mahatma Gandhi is celebrated across the globe as an idealist who used civil disobedience to frustrate and overthrow British colonialists in India. The popularity of his nonviolent teachings – which inspired civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela – has obscured another important facet of his teachings: the proper role of business in society.
Gandhi argued that companies should act as trusteeships, valuing social responsibility alongside profits, a view recently echoed by the Business Roundtable. His views on the purpose of a company have inspired generations of Indian CEOs to build more sustainable businesses. As scholars of global business history, we believe his message should also resonate with corporate executives and entrepreneurs around the world.
Shaped by globalization
Born in British-ruled India on Oct. 2, 1869, Mohandas K. Gandhi was the product of an increasingly global age. Our research into Gandhi’s early life and writings suggests his views were radically shaped by the unprecedented opportunities that steamships, railroads and the telegraph provided. The growing ease of travel, the circulation of print media and the increase in trade routes – the hallmark of the first wave of globalization from 1840 to 1929 – impressed upon Gandhi the myriad of challenges facing society. These included vast inequality between the rich West and other parts of the world, growing disparities within societies, racial tension and the crippling effects of colonialism and imperialism. It was a world of winners and losers, and Gandhi, although born into an affluent family, dedicated his life to standing up for those without status.
The horrors of industrialization
Gandhi studied law in London, where he encountered the works of radical European and American philosophers such as Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Ruskin – transcendentalists who advocated intuition over logic. Ruskin’s moving discussion of the ecological horrors of industrialization, in particular, caught Gandhi’s attention and led him to translate Ruskin’s book “Unto This Last” into his native Gujarati.
In 1893, Gandhi took up his first job as a barrister in the British colony of South Africa. It was here, not in India, where Gandhi forged his radical political and ethical ideas about business. His first public speech ever was to a group of ethnic Indian businesspeople in Pretoria. As Gandhi recalls in his candid autobiography “The Story of My Experiments with Truth”: