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Are Gandhi And Ford On The Same Road?
By Drew Pearson
If you were to search the four corners of the world, you would not find two men superficially more unlike than Mahatma Gandhi and Henry Ford. Gandhi is a small, frail man, brown-skinned and naked to the waist. He sits cross-legged on a straw mat, serene and unflustered by what goes on around him. Ford is a tall, angular dynamo of energy, who cannot sit still a minute. While talking to you, he leans back in his swivel-chair, sits forward, crosses his legs, uncrosses them. Gandhi is visionary; Ford is practical. But both men are idealists, and it is in their ideals, their desire for human welfare, that they are strangely close together.
Mahatma Gandhi lives on the cool-running Sabarmati River at a point where it drops down from the Aravalli Hills and spreads out upon the plain of Ahmedabad. Henry Ford lives beside the river Rouge, muddier perhaps than the Sabarmati, but meandering down through the hills of Michigan to the lake plain near Detroit in the same lazy fashion. A dam across the Rouge generates electricity to do Ford's cooking and grind his corn; but from up behind Gandhi's house the steady thump-thump of a wooden mallet pounding corn in a hollowed stone is evidence that nothing more than sleepy, grunting buffaloes or shadowy forms stealing down to bathe at the dusk of dawn disturbs the Sabarmati.
Ford lives at the end of a vistaed driveway in a palace that the stranger is barely allowed to glimpse before a guard challenges him. Across the street from Ford's estate is his Dearborn office, down at the mouth of the river the blast furnaces of the Rouge plant loom black against the sky, and the modern machinery at Highland Park, Detroit, covers two hundred and seventy-eight busy acres. Within a radius of four miles, one hundred and forty thousand men toil for Ford - so many that the closing of their shifts must be carefully timed lest their exodus choke the streets. Gandhi dwells within walls of mud and straw, with red-tiled roofs and stone floor. The family sleep on straw mats spread upon the floor or upon the ground outside. So I found them when first I stumbled into their compound at ten one night. I was a stranger and from a strange land, but they took me in. Gandhi's home forms the nucleus of another industrial centre. It is called the Ashram, which means a cooperative settlement, and is made up of his nephews and cousins and grandchildren and nationalist students from every corner of India, who live in whitewashed cottages and toil at plough or loom. I heard their melodious chanting of Hindu prayers at four in the morning as I lay dozing on my mat beside the Sabarmati, and I knew their day's work was about to begin. Before breakfast they bathed in the river, ground the day's corn, cleaned their cottages. At seven the Ashram began to resound with the click-clock of the shuttle and the whir-whir of the spinning wheel. No whistles, no smoke nor dust, no endless chains carrying four-cylinder motors past lines of men, each with a screw to tighten, a bolt to place. Just the zip-zip-zip of the cotton-carder from a room where a Bengali student squatted upon the floor, and outside the droning of the Indian summer.
Ford is fond of children; so is Gandhi. Ford has three grandsons in whom he is trying to arouse an interest in mechanics with every toy that money will buy. The latest is a miniature threshing-machine with an eight-horse-power steam-engine, which I saw efficiently sorting grain from chaff, to the great glee of its small owners. Gandhi's six-year-old granddaughter, lacking such elaborate toys, seized upon my tooth-paste and managed to decorate her pet dog with streaks of white from ear to tail before he could make a chagrined exit. Then, quite carried away with the novelty of exploring a gentleman's travelling-case, she pounced upon my razor and was about to slash off one dainty eyebrow when I intervened and nearly broke up our friendship.
Both Ford and Gandhi are early risers and both are abstemious. Ford is up at six and out on his farm. He seldom bothers about breakfast. Gandhi also eats but two meals, at sunrise and sunset. His diet consists chiefly of goat's milk and fruit and is limited to five kinds of food a day. If, for instance, he uses salt and pepper in his soup, he considers these two ingredients, together with the soup, as three kinds of food, and eats only two more during the remainder of the day. Gandhi is no poseur and does not mean to be a food fanatic. He adopted this ration many years ago because he felt that mankind in general ate too much. When he was a popular young lawyer, he was invited to so many banquets that he sickened of the sight of men gorging themselves and resolved that he would not eat after sunset. He uses no knife and fork, but eats in the orthodox Hindu fashion, with the thumb and the first two fingers of the right hand and without letting the left hand touch the food.
Gandhi has fought the machine age as ardently as Ford has championed it. Henry Ford is not only a railroad-owner but a speed-demon. One day he told me that he had just driven from Grand Rapids to Dearborn - one hundred and seventy miles in four hours. On this subject of locomotion, which Ford has done more than any other man to make cheap and easy, Gandhi remarks, "Nature requires man to restrict his movements as far as his hands and feet will take him." To Gandhi both speed and railroads are anathema. "Good travels at snail's pace," he says. "It can, therefore, have little to do with the railways. Those who want to do good are not in a hurry; they know that to impregnate people with good requires a long time. But evil has wings. To build a house takes time. Its destruction takes none. Furthermore, the railways have spread bubonic plague. Honest physicians will tell you that where means of electrical locomotion have increased, the health of the people has suffered."
Yet, these two men, differing so widely - for Ford's mode of life would jar the nerves of Gandhi, and Gandhi's would drive Ford crazy with inactivity - these two, though seven thousand miles apart, have concluded, by separate processes of thought, that the greatest problem confronting their countries - India and the United States - is the big city. And, while pursuing the problem, each in his own peculiar and individualistic way, they have arrived at the same solution.
The remedy, Henry Ford has figured out, while experimenting with his Dearborn farm and factories, is the removal of industry to the village, where it can be combined with farming. "The farm has its dull season," he points out, "when the farmer can come into the village factory. The factory also has its dull season. That is the time for the workmen to go out on the land to help produce food."
And Mahatma Gandhi, sitting cross-legged upon his mat in the Sabarmati Ashram, declares: "What the Indian peasant needs is not a revolution in agriculture, but a supplementary industry. India has almost seven hundred fifty thousand villages scattered over its vast area. The great majority of the people face a hand-to-mouth existence. Because of the rainy monsoon seasons and the droughts between, millions are living in enforced idleness at least four months of the year. The most natural solution is the spinning wheel, which was an essential in every home a century ago, but was driven out by deliberate economic pressure. Its restoration solves India's economic problem at one stroke. It saves millions of Indian homes from economic distress and is a most effective insurance against famine. Moreover, in weaning thousands of women away from factory life and the prostitution of the cities, the spinning wheel is also a moral instrument."
Gandhi is a doer as well as a theorizer. He has worked out his theories under a few open sheds in his Ashram. Under one of them a half-dozen carpenters with a set of clumsy hand tools are making spinning wheels. Crude and inefficient affairs they appear to be, but in a demonstration given by Gandhi's able nieces, they turned out an incredible amount of cotton thread. The spinning wheels are stacked up inside the shed and have overflowed to great piles outside, from which they are sent to every corner of the land, until the spinning wheel on a background of red, white and green has become the national emblem of India. But Gandhi has not stopped there. Across the road from the Ashram a white school building of rather imposing proportions houses a hundred students sent from the various provinces of India to learn the ancient arts of carding, spinning and weaving and then to return and spread their knowledge among the farmers.
Gandhi's logic seems sound. Raw cotton is India's chief money crop. Why should it be packed up in bales, to be shipped four thousand five hundred miles to England, turned into cotton cloth in the mills of Lancashire, packed up and sent four thousand five hundred miles back again? Let each ryot, Gandhi says, make cotton homespun on his own farm. Furthermore, let him do it during the slack season.
Ford uses similar logic. He asks why men should be herded into streetcars to hang by straps for an hour twice a day to and from the city, instead of staying in the country and having the materials shipped to them. Furthermore, what objection is there to employment of the farmer during his slack season?
When I questioned him regarding the success of his village industries, he said: "Go out and see for yourself. Have a good look around. Talk to the foremen and see how they like our experiment. Then come back and I'll talk to you."
Accordingly, I went up the river Rouge, once harnessed by a half-dozen mud and timber dams with overhead water-wheels and old-fashioned mills, which ground the grist of the countryside. Today, re-harnessed by new concrete dams, supplying power to modern turbines in clean white factories, the river Rouge is grinding out carburetor valves and generator cut-outs and magneto parts for Ford cars the world over. The first of these, located at Nankin, a metropolis of fourteen houses, employed eleven men - incidentally a substantial majority of the male population - in making a hundred and three thousand five hundred vibrator-cushion-spring-spacer-rivets per day. The Rouge at this point gave only fifteen horse-power, but a few miles further up, at Plymouth, a larger dam supplied a hundred horse-power and employed thirty-three men. Phoenix, with a hundred and fifty girls, and Northville, with three hundred and eighty men, complete Ford's village industries on the Rouge. At each, workers and foremen told the same story.
"I wouldn't go back to the city for twice my pay here," one man said, "and my wife wouldn't go back for three times as much. We've got a truck garden and a cow. Then, too, the children are outdoors all day long and only have to go round the corner to school. And say," he added, waving his hand toward the mill reservoir, which reflected in its blue depths the clean concrete of the factory and its surrounding grove of green, "who could want a more beautiful place to work?"
"How have the farmers taken to Ford's new idea?" I asked one foreman.
"Well, we've got lots of 'em working here, paying off their taxes and mortgages. Most of the boys have about twenty-five to fifty acres. It's pretty hard for a man to manage a big tract after working eight hours at a machine. During low water, we've been working only four days a week, and most of the boys are tickled to death to get an extra day in the fields."
The foremen all agreed on another point, equally important: cost of production, since they moved to the country, had been cut at Phoenix eighteen per cent, at Plymouth thirty-three per cent, at Nankin and Northville fifty per cent. Why?
I put the astounding cost reduction to Ford when I returned to his Dearborn office.
"Labour turnover was cut down," he explained. "In a big city, labour is performed by transients, usually single men. They come and go, and it costs a lot to break them in. Out in the country we can employ married men, who own their own homes and are with us the year round. They become skilled workmen.
"In our Highland Park plant we first cut down the cost of production by taking the work on an endless chain to the man. Now we go one step further. Instead of having the man come to the city, we take the work out to him. Certain heavy industries, of course, must be centralised, but small parts can be made just as easily forty miles from the assembling-plant.
"Industry is going to decentralize. When it does, the modern city is doomed. In a small community where a man can have his own garden and the strain of living is not so tense, there are less unrest and less violence, less poverty and less wealth. Besides, every man is better off for a period of work under the open sky. I sometimes think that the prejudice and narrowness of the present day are due to our intense specialization. We all need changes, and while we cannot afford to dawdle around summer resorts, we can escape routine and monotony by labour exchange during slack seasons."
All of this is essentially what Mahatma Gandhi has been preaching throughout the length and breadth of India. Gandhi would go at it in a different way, it is true. He hates machinery and bitterly denounces it as having brought "ruination knocking at the English gates and begun to despoil Europe." He would have the Indian farmer gain his economic emancipation through the ancient spinning wheel rather than the machine. But were Gandhi to visit the sleepy, fourteen-house village of Nankin, see its ancient grist-mill, remodeled without disturbance to the hand-hewn beams and oaken pins of the pre-nail age, and fitted with the cleanest and most modern of water-driven machinery, or had he lolled about on the green bank of the mill-pond, watching small boys catch perch, or later splashed with them in the clear water, he might have concluded that the village mill was accomplishing much the same end as the spinning wheel and that he and Henry Ford, for all their differences, were working along the same end.
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