Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolent civil resistance

The essence of love is empathy, the ability to put oneself in place of the other. Love requires courage, as Gandhi put it, to go smiling into gun fire. But love should not be an excuse to allow evil, even if we do not have the courage to be slaughter with a smile on the face. We must take action and strike back when we must.

the following is taken from

Resolving the Israel-Palestine Conflict: What we can learn from Gandhi
Tans Lecture, Maastricht University (13 November 2008)

Before sketching Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolent civil resistance or satyagraha I must enter several caveats. Gandhi’s collected works come to some 90 volumes, each of which runs to 500 pages. Due to time constraints I was able to peruse only 23 of these volumes, as well as a raft of anthologies, biographies and scholarly studies. Accordingly my remarks will be partial in a single and perhaps double sense. They won’t encompass the full scope of his reflections. My reading intentionally focused on the period 1933-1942 when Gandhi’s doctrine was put to the severest tests. It is also arguable that because of this circumscribed reading I will have missed crucial transitions and ruptures in his thought, presenting a snapshot of a mind at work rather than the moving picture. Here, it seems I am on firmer ground, however. Gandhi lived a long, rich life, and one relentlessly subjected to self-scrutiny. Nonetheless he remained remarkably consistent in his bedrock beliefs. He acknowledges local errors and reversals of judgment but there are no “Gods that Failed” recantations or “Second Thoughts” revelations. His one systematic philosophical exposition is a modest, seemingly eccentric volume titled Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule) which he quickly penned in 1909. Rereading this book 30 years later, Gandhi expressed full satisfaction with it.

To be sure, Gandhi’s concrete application of his doctrine appears replete with contradictions. Asserting that “my nonviolence cannot deviate from what is practical,” Gandhi could sanction “calling in the army and having a handful of men shot” to stop inter-communal rioting. The world’s most famous exponent of nonviolence recruited an ambulance corps for the British side in the Boer War and Zulu War, again offered to raise an ambulance corps to serve the British army during World War I, and then recruited Indians to take up arms and fight in the war. Throughout his life he averred that such active wartime partisanship did not contradict his commitment to nonviolence. It must be said that on this point (and many others), the defenses he adduced for his practical activity did not carry conviction. Although trained as a barrister, Gandhi was not a persuasive arguer. Interrogated by a shrewd critic, he seldom had a compelling repartee and more often than not lapsed into mumbo-jumbo, although, humble as he indubitably was, Gandhi seemed always to believe that he had bested his interlocutors. He was also given to render sweeping verdicts on competing philosophies such as socialism although conceding that “I have read no books on the subject.”

Gandhi liked to quote Emerson, “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Regrettably for the little minds endeavoring to interpret his work, Gandhi was a consistent exponent of this quip. He can maintain that “in any examination of moral conduct, the intention is the chief ingredient,” and simultaneously maintain it is right that “we normally look at the action and not at the intention.” He can deplore as a species of violence “a living wall of pickets in order to prevent the entry of persons into picketed places,” yet at the same time suggest to an Indian correspondent whose seat at the cinema was grabbed by a British soldier to “deliberately so to stand as to obstruct the view of the usurper.” He can state in one breath that even in “the classical instance of the defenseless sister or mother who is threatened with molestation by an evil-minded ruffian,” use of violence would not be permissible, yet in the next breath state that he would “defend” use of violence “against the whole world if I found myself in a corner when I could not save a helpless girl from violation.” He can avow that his “sympathies are wholly with the Allies” during World War II because “this war is resolving itself into one between such democracy as the West has evolved and totalitarianism as it is typified in Hitler,” and that “There is a fundamental difference between Fascism and even this imperialism which I am fighting,” yet simultaneously avow that “Hitlerism and Churchillism are in fact the same thing,” and that “I must fight Nazism and Fascism equally with the enslaving British imperialism.” He can praise the decision of French statesmen not to resist Nazi aggression because “the cause of liberty becomes a mockery if the price to be paid is wholesale destruction of those who are to enjoy liberty,” yet also assert that “no greater evil can befall a country than that it should lose its independence,” and that nations occupied by the Nazis, as well as German Jews, should elect annihilation rather than cooperate with the occupiers.

To his credit it must nonetheless be said that Gandhi never shied away from giving critics of his pronouncements and policy a fair hearing. In conveying an intellectual or political dispute, he did not rig its terms to favor him or create straw men. It should perhaps also be noted in his defense that Gandhi conceived himself “essentially a man of action and a reformer,” a “practical reformer,” and that “no one is able to act upon a great principle, like that of nonviolence, in its entirety.” Logical consistency no doubt figured as a low priority compared to getting things done.

Gandhi’s nonviolent doctrine is not altogether amenable to rational analysis for other reasons as well. He never produced a programmatic or systematic guide on satyagraha. One has to piece together its theory and practice from scattered, often contradictory, confusing and obscure fragments. He indifferently conflated categories and collapsed distinctions. Moreover, Gandhi’s doctrine was steeped in religious faith. “It is faith that sustains me, and it is faith that must sustain the other satyagrahis.” Although eager to recruit satyagrahis for the struggle, Gandhi was emphatic that communists and other nonbelievers need not apply. When he decided to embark on civil disobedience or a fast, it was not after a secular reckoning of the “balance of forces,” but after an “inner urge,” “inner voice,” or “gift from God” prompted him. Gandhi denoted nonviolence a “science,” and conceived satyagraha not as a closed system but ceaseless experimentation in a perpetual and always incomplete search for truth. But his was a science not susceptible to external proof or refutation; its power drew from the “efficacy of the incalculable force of inscrutable divinity.” If it failed to produce the desired outcome, this demonstrated not an inadequacy of the theory but an impurity lurking in the soul of its human agents. He might be right, but it is hard to figure how one could prove him wrong, just as one is rendered impotent before his ex cathedra pronouncements and saccharine homilies such as nonviolence, buoyed by the assistance of God, being the most potent of forces in the world. Gandhi asserted proprietary right over this science as “the author of satyagraha and general in satyagraha action,” the “sole authority on satyagraha” and the “most experienced satyagrahi.” He was uniquely privy to the mysteries of satyagraha; one could not argue with him about it—“I am confident that God has made me the instrument of showing the better way”; one could only march lock step—or elect not to—behind him. Gandhi eschewed all sectarian “isms,” including “Gandhism”—“I love to hear the words: ‘Down with Gandhism.’ An ‘ism’ deserves to be destroyed.” But the not altogether satisfying substitute he offered was a doctrine that often had the feel of autocratic whimsy. He had an (as it were) party line not just on sexual abstinence but on “idle jokes” (opposed), “innocent pleasantries” (perhaps), and reading in the toilet (opposed). He sometimes sounds like Stalin pronouncing on linguistics, although deviationists might be banished from his Ashram but not deported to the Gulag.

It further warrants notice that the better known aspects of Gandhi’s nonviolent doctrine such as civil disobedience and non-cooperation, which I will focus on in this lecture,
were for him the least significant. He situated satyagraha in a matrix of practical, diurnal activities, what he called the “constructive program,” that formed the “foundation for civil disobedience.” Its constituents embraced ridding Hinduism of the “blot” of untouchability, fostering Hindu-Muslim unity, and promoting use on a mass scale of the spinning wheel (tcharka) and handspun cloth (khadi). On this (as it were) material basis, he believed, Indians could forge unbreakable bonds of unbounded love that transcended religious sect and class, thereby rendering political confrontation with Great Britain superfluous; complete independence (purna swaraj) would thence like a ripe fruit drop into India’s lap, and the nonviolent future of India would be safeguarded. “If we learn to love one another, if the gulf between Hindu and Muslim, caste and outcaste, and rich and poor is obliterated,” Gandhi predicted, “a handful of English would not dare to continue their rule over us.”

All of which is to say, Gandhi would almost certainly fault my exercise in today’s lecture for denaturing his doctrine: a rational core of satyagraha cannot be extracted from the religious content coursing through it and the religious renaissance presupposing and ensuing from it. “It is impossible that a thing essentially of the soul,” he intoned, “can be imparted through the intellect.” Nonetheless, speaking as a resolute nonbeliever and rationalist, I am convinced that he has something useful to say on the subject of nonviolent resistance. It will be for you to decide whether I am right.

What is satyagraha?
The “votary” of nonviolent civil resistance, according to Gandhi, “must not be violent in thought, word or deed,” in fact, must be “incapable of feeling or harboring anger.” The animating impulse of Gandhi’s doctrine is not however a negative “non”-principle but the affirmative or “active” principle of “unadulterated love—fellow-feeling,” which in turn springs from “faith in the inherent goodness of human nature,” and the belief that “what holds good in respect of yourself holds good equally in respect of the whole universe. All mankind are alike.” Love, he professed, was the dominant factor in human existence—“Had violence, i.e., hate, ruled us, we should have become extinct long ago” —whereas the apparent omnipresence of violence is an optical illusion— “History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul.” Just as “families and even clans” manage to resolve conflicts nonviolently due to the binding powers of love, so can “humankind” which is “one big family.” Gandhi’s faith in the essential goodness of humankind stretched credulity to its limits. During World War II he wrote a “Dear Friend” letter to Hitler in which he averred not “to believe that you are the monster described by your opponents,” albeit acknowledging that “many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity.”

Because love informs it, satyagraha excludes violence. It also eschews inflicting indirect, non-physical forms of coercion such as fear and “embarrassment.” Rather it should rely exclusively on the “self-purification” that comes of self-suffering—“the more innocent and pure the suffering the more potent it will be in its effect” —to arouse from its slumber the conscience of wrongdoers in order “to convert, not to coerce” them. In another iteration, he invests in the transforming powers not of self-suffering per se but the “upwelling of love and pity towards the wrongdoer.”

Gandhi deplored resort to violence on both personal/moral and political/pragmatic grounds. It corrupts the individual who is degraded to the level of a beast—“That which distinguishes man from all other animals is his capacity to be nonviolent” —but it also corrupts the goal of enlightened political action. However just the cause, because means and ends are ineluctably intertwined—“The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree” —the use of violence as a political weapon cannot but bring forth a power configuration in which the “strong and mighty” dominate and the “blind, the halt and the maimed” remain disenfranchised: “violence may destroy one or more bad rulers, but…others will pop up in their places.” Even—or especially—in the face of Axis aggression, the use of armed force was to be opposed because the Allies could inflict a defeat on the Axis only by becoming “stronger than they are, and therefore worse and more ruthless”; “that would mean no deliverance from Nazism,” but “superior Nazism.” Victor will have become vanquished, while “such a victory must mean another preparation for a war more inhuman than the present, as this one had proved more inhuman than the last.” On both practical and theoretical levels, Gandhi’s argument is wanting. While hardly ideal, the Allied states emerging from World War II did not exactly mirror let alone surpass in brutality Nazi Germany. In addition, Gandhi postulates that nonviolent resistance could not produce inferior results to violent resistance: “either the enemy comes to terms with you, then you win without blood; or the enemy annihilates you. This last solution is not worse than what a violent war in any case brings about.” He willfully ignores the real possibility that nonviolence will have failed to stop the Nazis, whereas violence, however costly, will have succeeded short of the Allies’ total annihilation. It is more difficult to counter Gandhi’s assertion that, once having imitated Nazi methods, a cause “cannot be called just” —except to eke out exiguous distinctions between Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

Gandhi did not, however, unqualifiedly repudiate violence. Until and unless he converted others to his beliefs, Gandhi accepted the validity of current norms. Thus, while personally unable to condone it, he did acknowledge the legitimacy of resorting to violence in a righteous cause; “self-defense is everybody’s birthright.” In the face of personal insult, and “if you feel humiliated, you will be justified in slapping the bully in the face or taking whatever action you might deem necessary to vindicate your self-respect.” And although “not defending the Arab excesses” during the 1936-39 Arab Revolt in Palestine, and although “wishing they had chosen the way of nonviolence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country,” Gandhi nonetheless maintained that “according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.”

However much he deplored violence, Gandhi did deem it much preferable to inaction in the face of injustice. Should one be incapable of nonviolently resisting an outrage, the only honorable option would be to resist violently, whereas flight would be wholly shameful. For, if there was one thing Gandhi detested more than violence, it was “mute submissiveness” —and what was yet worse, such submissiveness masquerading as nonviolent resistance. He regarded not violence but pusillanimity and effeminateness as the most contemptible of personal failings while he prized the virtues—which a true satyagrahi perforce nurtured—of courage and manliness: “The fundamental thing to be borne in mind is that people should, under no circumstances, be cowardly or impotent”; “it is unmanly to run away from danger.” Gandhi tersely defined the “aim of the satyagraha struggle” he led in South Africa as being “to infuse manliness in cowards.” In a scalding denunciation of ersatz nonviolence, and in a passage that might easily have been cribbed from Nietzsche, Gandhi lectured:

Nonviolence cannot be taught to a person who fears to die and has no power of resistance. A helpless mouse is not nonviolent because he is always eaten by pussy. He would gladly eat the murderess if he could, but he ever tries to flee from her. We do not call him a coward, because he is made by nature to behave no better than he does. But a man who, when faced by danger, behaves like a mouse, is rightly called a coward. He harbors violence and hatred in his heart and would kill his enemy if he could without being hurt himself. He is a stranger to nonviolence. All sermonizing on it will be lost on him. Bravery is foreign to his nature. Before he can understand nonviolence he has to be taught to stand his ground and even suffer death in the attempt to defend himself against the aggressor who bids fair to overwhelm him. To do otherwise would be to confirm his cowardice and take him further away from nonviolence. Whilst I may not actually help anyone to retaliate, I must not let a coward seek shelter behind nonviolence so called. Not knowing the stuff of which nonviolence is made many have honestly believed that running away from danger every time was a virtue compared to offering resistance, especially when it is fraught with danger to one’s life. As a teacher of nonviolence I must, so far as it is possible for me, guard against such an unmanly belief….Self-defense…is the only honorable course where there is unreadiness for self-immolation.

And again, in another Nietzschean flourish:

Hence I ask you, is our nonviolence the nonviolence of the coward, the weak, the helpless, the timid? In that case, it is of no value. A weakling is a born saint. A weak person is obliged to become a saint. But we are soldiers of nonviolence, who, if the occasion demands, will lay down their lives for it. Our nonviolence is not a mere policy of the coward. But I doubt this. I am afraid that the nonviolence we boast of might really be only a policy. It is true that, to some extent, nonviolence works even in the hands of the weak. And, in this manner, this weapon has been useful to us. But, if one makes use of nonviolence in order to disguise one’s weakness…, it makes a coward of one. Such a person is defeated on both fronts. Such a one cannot live like a man and the Devil he surely cannot become. It is a thousand times better that we die trying to acquire the strength of arm[s]. Using physical force with courage is far superior to cowardice. At least we would have attempted to act like men.

Gandhi heaped praise on the “reckless courage” that soldiers displayed in battle and wanted “to learn…the art of throwing away my life for a noble cause” ; on the “example of Sparta,” because “though they were an armed people and also few, they laid down their lives but would not leave their places”; and on the typical “Pathan [Pashtun] boy” because he is “fearless. If there is bloodshed he does not hide himself in his house. He finds pleasure in fighting. He does not stop to think that he might be injured or even killed. He is never afraid of being hurt. I have seen one standing unmoved in the midst of blood gushing from his many wounds.” On the other hand, Gandhi (mistakenly) criticized the German Jews for pretending to nonviolence yet nourishing violent revenge on the Nazis (“There is no nonviolence in their hearts. Their nonviolence, if it may be so called, is of the helpless and the weak”), and the cowardice of his disciples who elected milder to evade severer sanctions (“The nonviolence of the person who went to jail to avoid a worse fate harmed him and disgraced the cause which he used as a shelter to escape death”). But he also freely conceded in poignant detail his own failure to rise to the heroic standard he set.

In addition, Gandhi rejected nonviolence borne of weakness as being politically ineffectual. If the votaries of nonviolence abjure force only from dread of violent retaliation, then the wrongdoer has every right to dread what might ensue should they attain power and acquire its instruments. In order to convince the wrongdoer that one’s nonviolence was not born of weakness, one needed manifest a willingness to forego violence even when no prospect of violent retaliation impended, say, where the votaries of nonviolence outnumbered and outgunned the wrongdoer. The nonviolence of “India as a nation…is that of the weak,” Gandhi lamented. “If she were nonviolent in the consciousness of her strength, Englishmen would lose their role of distrustful conquerors….If we, as Indians, could but for a moment visualize ourselves as a strong people disdaining to strike, we should cease to fear Englishmen whether as soldiers, traders or administrators, and they to distrust us.” And again: “The moment Englishmen feel that although they are in India in a hopeless minority, their lives are protected against harm not because of the matchless weapons of destruction which are at their disposal, but because Indians refuse to take the lives even of those whom they may consider to be utterly in the wrong, that moment will see a transformation in the English nation in its relation to India.” Yet, it would appear that practical realities—think of inmates in a concentration camp—would often preclude such a demonstration of strength. It will also be noticed Gandhi’s naïve premise that the fundamental barrier dividing British and Indians was psychological (“fear”) and not a material clash of interests.

In any event, on both personal/moral and political/pragmatic grounds, Gandhi insisted that true nonviolent resistance had to be yet more brave and strong than violent resistance: only such nonviolence could redeem its votary and convert the wrongdoer. “An army of nonviolence exposes itself to all the risks that an army of violence does,” he declared. “Only the latter expects to retaliate even when it is not the aggressor. An army of nonviolence runs risks without the wish to retaliate”; “I believe that a man is the strongest soldier for daring to die unarmed with his breast bare before the enemy.” Such an “army” had to accept—indeed embrace—the prospect of mutely subjecting itself to mass slaughter. Into the valley of death it must headlong march, unarmed yet “smilingly” and “cheerfully”; “if we are to train ourselves to receive the bullet wounds or bayonet charges in our bare chests, we must accustom ourselves to standing unmoved in the face of cavalry or baton charges.” “Wherein is courage required,” he rhetorically asked, “in blowing others to pieces from behind a cannon or with a smiling face to approach a cannon and to be blown to pieces? Who is the true warrior—he who keeps death always as a bosom-friend or he who controls the death of others?” “What I shall expect of you,” he lectured the “officers” of his army, “is that even if someone subjects you to the most inhuman tortures, you will joyfully face the ordeal and make the supreme sacrifice with God’s name on your lips and without a trace of fear or anger or thoughts of revenge in your hearts.” And in a macabre peroration, he avowed, “That nation is great which rests its head upon death as its pillow.” It might be said of Gandhi that he created a cult of the dead. “Whilst therefore I tender my sympathy to the parents of the two brave lads who lost their lives,” he said following the murder of these disciples,

my inmost desire is to congratulate them for the finished sacrifices of their sons, if they would accept my congratulations. A warrior’s death is never a matter of sorrow, still less that of a satyagrahi warrior. One of the lessons that a nation yearning for freedom needs to learn is to shed several fears of losing title, wealth, position, fear of imprisonment, of bodily injury and lastly of death.

How satyagraha works

Although he asserted that satyagraha was not just nonviolent but also non-coercive, the means Gandhi deployed in his civil resistance campaigns actually ranged on a continuum alloying coercion and abnegation. At one pole was what he called “non-cooperation” that rendered society ungovernable for political elites and enterprises insolvent for economic elites. Insofar as the satyagrahi faced the loss of a paycheck, punitive sanctions, even internment and death, non-cooperation also entailed varying degrees of self-suffering. At the opposite extreme was a tactic such as fasting which plainly contained a large component of self-suffering but which was also coercive, however vehemently Gandhi might deny this. Occupying the middle ground between these poles were various forms of civil disobedience, which contained equal parts coerciveness (breaking the law) and self-suffering (going to jail, paying fines). In the ensuing remarks I put to one side a very powerful if latent form of violence lurking in all of Gandhi’s activities, which he was fully aware of and which he fully exploited: if the British didn’t acquiesce in his nonviolence, they would have to cope with wholesale violent resistance: “I have claimed in private correspondence with English friends that it is because of my incessant preaching of the gospel of nonviolence and my having successfully demonstrated its practical utility that so far the forces of violence, which are undoubtedly in existence…, have remained under complete control.”

The coercive potency of non-cooperation such as a general strike for getting the lords of the land to see the light requires little elucidation. Gandhi stressed that even non-cooperation “must have its roots in love. Its object should not be to punish the opponent or to inflict injury upon him….we must make him feel that in us he has a friend and we should try to reach his heart.” And again: “We do want to paralyze the Government considered as a system—not, however, by intimidation, but by the irresistible pressure of our innocence.” He did allow that as a “practical” matter even if non-cooperation sprang from the “nonviolence of the weak”—i.e., not from love but from fear of violent retribution—it could still be efficacious “if a sufficient number of people practice it.” But Gandhi adamantly refused to concede that, however much “love” and “innocence” might assuage the abrasiveness of a conflict, it remains that the operative factor at play in non-cooperation is coercive.

The focus of Gandhi’s creed, however, was the transformative power of pristine self-suffering, and here yet more problems arise. He believed that such suffering would put on public display the “human dignity” of the victim and thereby “quicken the conscience,” strike a “sympathetic chord,” and “evoke by his truth and love expressed through his suffering” the “inherent goodness of human nature”; “the world is touched by sacrifice,” “it can tame the wildest beast, certainly the wildest man.” The satyagrahi will then be well-placed to “mobilize public opinion against the evil which he is out to eradicate, by means of a wide and intensive agitation”; “success is the certain result of suffering of the extremist character, voluntarily undergone.”

It is not clear however why suffering in and of itself—or, for that matter, allied with “love”—would convert the alleged wrongdoer. Were the “pro-life” half of the American population to engage in civil disobedience or even a fast unto the death, the “pro-choice” half would hardly be converted by such a spectacle. For, it is not suffering alone that touches but suffering in the pursuit of a legitimate goal. The recognition of the legitimacy of such a goal presumes however a preexisting consensus according to which what the victim seeks he justly deserves. Gandhi accordingly referred to the victim’s “innocence.” It is innocence in a double sense: of means—the victim’s suffering results from unilateral violence inflicted by others—and of ends—the victim seeks a right that cannot in good conscience be denied because it jibes with the “normal moral sense of the world”; the more incontrovertible the ends, the more self-suffering as a means will resonate with “enlightened public opinion.” In this light it is to be doubted the efficacy of self-suffering before wrongdoers who are convinced, either due to an inimical interest or inimical ideology or—what’s often the case—both, that the demands of the victim lack justice. Gandhi himself acknowledges that his adversary might be as convinced in the rightness of his opinions as Gandhi is of his own (“I realize what may appear to me prejudice may be enlightenment to others”); that he must be open to the possibility that his interlocutor might be right and he wrong (“The royal road of nonviolence consists of…willingness to understand another’s point of view with an unprejudiced mind”); and that in any event a sincerely-held opinion cannot easily be dislodged (“It is difficult to combat an honest belief, however erroneous it may be”). But then why should one suppose that the alleged wrongdoer will be converted by the suffering of those in pursuit of an admittedly doubtful goal? On its own, self-suffering might induce some degree of pity but it surely won’t induce fundamental concessions. Gandhi makes the commendable point that if the goal turns out to be mistaken, one’s suffering will have done no harm to the alleged wrongdoer: “He does not make others suffer for his mistakes.” But it does not alter the fact that hardened self-interest or ideology will almost certainly stifle the voice, inner or outer, of justice. The point I want to make here finds vivid illustration in this passage from Gandhi: “Our triumph consists in thousands being led to the prisons like lambs to the slaughter-house. If the lambs of the world had been willingly led, they would have long ago saved themselves from the butcher’s knife. Our triumph consists again in being imprisoned for no wrong whatsoever. The greater our innocence, the greater our strength and the swifter our victory.” If the injustice is morally assimilable, then innocence can, and likely will, prick the conscience. But did millions of innocent Jews being led to the crematoria “like lambs to the slaughter-house” prick the Nazi conscience? It might be said that they did not go voluntarily—theirs was “nonviolence of the weak” (under the circumstances how could it be otherwise?)—but if the Nazis could morally rationalize the extermination of one million Jewish children—whose innocence of means and ends could be purer?—it is probable that they would also have rationalized self-immolation.

I will now illustrate these propositions on consensus, interest and ideology with Gandhi’s key political interventions during the period I have concentrated on for this lecture:

Discrimination and immorality. Gandhi expressly launched his satyagraha campaigns for social reform in the knowledge that a majority—however latent—supported his agenda. The point of the campaign was not to create ex nihilo a constituency, but through self-suffering to “quicken the conscience” of an already existent broad consensus, “cultivating and ascertaining the opinion” of this natural constituency, and thereby bringing to bear the “force of public opinion.” Thus, in undertaking to remove the “blot” of untouchability by opening the doors of Hindu temples to the Harijans (“children of God”), Gandhi presumed that a majority of Hindus supported such a reform but needed the stimulus of satyagraha—fasting, picketing, prayers—to act finally on their consciences: “The whole idea of my fast is based on the belief that a large section of the people favor temple-entry, but they do not voice it.” (To be sure, the campaign against untouchability turned brutal and bloody, Gandhi meanwhile declaring, “Loss even of a few hundred lives will not be too great a price to pay for the freedom of the ‘untouchables.’ Only the martyrs must die clean.”) Likewise, in his campaign to rid India of the scourge of alcoholic consumption, Gandhi banked on the belief that “public opinion” could be consolidated around such a reform. When challenged why he did not also wage campaigns to rid India of other morally debasing indulgences such as gambling and the cinema, Gandhi candidly responded, “The drink evil has been recognized as such by the people of this land. But the other evils are more or less fashionable.” And again: “These vices were fashionable and therefore were not capable of being dealt with like prohibition. I claim to be a practical reformer. I know almost instinctively what vices are ripe for being publicly dealt with.” Put otherwise, absent a prior consensus no amount of self-suffering would move public opinion to do the right thing. Gandhi did also profess that self-suffering would “finally break the wall of prejudice” of those violently opposed to his social reforms—“the hardest heart and the grossest ignorance,” “the stoniest heart of the stoniest fanatic” —and “melt the hearts” of those profiting from vice. Yet, the thrust of his campaigns was clearly to energize a latently sympathetic public via self-suffering, and utilize this “force of public opprobrium” in order to democratically overrule or socially isolate or force the capitulation of or reach a principled compromise with the diehards.

Economic inequality. Gandhi cast himself as the voice of India’s impoverished “dumb millions”: “I unhesitatingly say that I am a people’s man. Every moment of my life I feel for the starving millions. I live and am prepared to lay down my life to relieve their sufferings and mitigate their miseries.” He conceived swaraj as not just political independence (“mere transfer of power”), but “complete deliverance of the toiling yet starving millions from the dreadful evil of economic serfdom” and “independence of the poorest and the lowliest in the land”; “unless poverty and unemployment are wiped out from India, I would not agree that we have attained freedom.” He also adopted a stringent, austere code of what constituted just deserts in a well-ordered society: “A thing not originally stolen must nevertheless be classified as stolen property if we possess it without needing it”; “each man shall have the wherewithal to supply all his natural needs and no more”; “all amassing or hoarding of wealth, above and beyond one’s legitimate requirements, was theft.” Eliminating “the cruel inequality that obtains today” constituted a prerequisite for eliminating societal violence: “A nonviolent system of government is clearly an impossibility so long as the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions persists.”

However, as against the demand of Indian socialists and communists to expropriate large property-holders and nationalize the means of production, Gandhi championed the “theory of trusteeship,” according to which large property holders would be persuaded through nonviolent civil resistance to use their “excess” wealth for the betterment of society; “I do not believe that the capitalists and landlords are all exploiters by an inherent necessity or that there is a basic or irreconcilable antagonism between their interests and those of the masses.” I will not here argue the merits of Gandhi’s alternative, but rather the practicability of the means he proposes for realizing it. Occasionally Gandhi invests in the power of the laborers’ self-abnegation to convert property-owners from ruthless exploiters to enlightened guardians. The property-owners will come to realize after “kind” gestures that they should not “squander [their] gains in luxurious or extravagant living, but must use them” for the poor: “If we treat these rich people with decency, they would fulfill the expectations we have of them”; “If we win their confidence and put them at their ease we will find that they are not averse to progressively sharing their riches with the masses”; “We should struggle against them in the same way and for the same reason, as lovingly and reluctantly and with as much respect and politeness as we do against our blood-relations.” Moreover, he makes out that the irrational “fear and distrust” of the rich are the sole barriers to reconciliation with the poor. But when pressed hard Gandhi conceded that no precedent exists for his trusteeship proposal and that it was based on a giant leap of faith. Indeed, aren’t capitalists convinced—and, for all anyone knows, rightly—that the system is fair, rewarding the enterprising few and penalizing the slothful many? However, Gandhi also instructs workers to organize and mobilize—that is, to realize their latent power—in order to get property-owners to equitably distribute their ill-gotten gains: “What is necessary is that laborers or workers should know their rights and should also know how to assert them”; “When the workers are better organized and more self-sacrificing, their power would grow. You are not conscious of your strength and therefore you are oppressed”; “As soon as laborers are properly educated and organized and they realize their strength, no amount of capital can subdue them. Organized and enlightened labor can dictate its own terms.” If the “rich” cannot be persuaded “to become guardians of the poor in the true sense of the term and the latter are more and more crushed and die of hunger,” then Gandhi advocated “nonviolent non-cooperation and civil disobedience as the right and infallible means”: “The rich cannot accumulate wealth without the cooperation of the poor in society.” What Gandhi refused to acknowledge, however, is that although he abjured “so-called class-conflict,” counseling instead that “landlords and capitalists” be “persuaded and converted,” his practical prescription ultimately relied not on the beneficence of self-suffering but on the coercion of raw (if nonviolent) power.

Aggression and occupation. In order to combat Axis aggression during World War II Gandhi advised conquered nations to lay down their arms and simply refuse to cooperate with the occupiers. Once the Axis powers realized that they could not make profitable use of the annexed territories without the enslaved population’s acquiescence they would withdraw: in the face of “quiet, dignified and nonviolent defiance,” the “tyrant will not find it worth his while to go on with his terrorism,” and “he would certainly have been obliged to retire.” Here was a tactic that made ultimate appeal not to the consciences or hearts of the occupiers but their balance-sheets, i.e., rational self-interest. Where achievement of Axis goals required not the cooperation but removal of the occupied populations, or their outright extermination, Gandhi alternatively professed that self-suffering could “melt” even Hitler’s heart, because “human nature in its essence is one and therefore unfailingly responds to the advances of love.” Yet, if Hitler was genuinely persuaded of the necessity of lebensraum and the lethal iniquity of the Jews, why should suffering allied to love convert him? Gandhi himself was apparently less than fully convinced of the efficacy of his tactic—at any rate in the here and now—for he also counseled Jews to go if need be mutely to their deaths, and believed that such a dignified demise would be their ultimate salvation: “If the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre [of Jews by Hitler]…could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For the God-fearing, death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.” Perhaps so, but if the goal was to melt Hitler’s heart in the promise of earthly deliverance, then self-suffering must be reckoned a colossal failure. Of course, it might be argued that whatever recourse European Jewry made its fate was sealed while nonviolent resistance would have been most redemptive. But that is a matter apart from whether self-suffering is a viable tactic against ideological fanatics.

In this context it merits recalling that Gandhi’s nemesis in the epic struggle for Indian independence, Winston Churchill, was hardly persuaded by Indian suffering to dismantle the British Empire. Between interest-cum-ideology on the one side, and the suffering of the Indian masses on the other, the former proved decisive. “The English Ministers are pursuing what they believe to be an honest policy,” Gandhi acknowledged. “It is their honest belief that British rule in India has been, on the whole, for her good. They honestly believe that under it India has advanced.” Should it then surprise that—contrary to Gandhi’s expectations—the self-suffering of Indians manifestly failed to touch British imperialists or that it failed to get “British commerce with India…purified of greed” and put on “terms of mutual help and…equally suited to both”? To be sure, although Gandhi spoke of wanting to “convert the administrators of the system,” he nonetheless qualified, “the conversion may or may not be willing.” And again: “to convert them or, if you will, even to drive them out of the country.” In fact, he conceived the struggle against British imperialism in terms of making India ungovernable through a combination of nonviolence, which neutralized British bayonets by rendering use of them an embarrassment, and non-cooperation, which nullified British authority by flouting it: “Whether we convert them or not, we are determined to make their rule impossible by nonviolent non-cooperation”; “If, notwithstanding their desire to the contrary, they saw that their guns and everything they had created for the consolidation of their authority were useless because of our non-use of them, they could not do otherwise than bow to the inevitable and either retire from the scene, or remain on our terms, i.e., as friends to co-operate with us, not as rulers to impose their will upon us.” However much he professed otherwise, Gandhi did not endeavor to “quicken the conscience” of British imperialists but rather to coerce them, albeit nonviolently, into submission through “force of will.” But it is also true that he held out the hope of the “conversion” of the British “nation”—i.e., “public opinion”—through self-suffering: “I have deliberately used the word conversion. For my ambition is no less than to convert the British people through nonviolence, and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India” (emphasis in original). The imperialists might have to be driven out, but the conscience of the people might yet be pricked. Indeed, British public opinion could serve as a critical weapon for coercing dyed-in-the-wool British imperialists to leave India.

III. What can supporters of a just peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict learn from Gandhi?

Before answering this question, a few preliminary remarks are in order. Neither I nor anyone else has the right to tell Palestinians that they must renounce violent means to end the occupation. As already noted, during the Arab Revolt in the 1930s Gandhi asserted that “according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.” I cannot see grounds for revising this judgment, except to note that the “accepted canons” today would mean the current laws of war (e.g., the inadmissibility of targeting civilians). In fact, if they cannot find the moral reserves to practice nonviolence, according to Gandhi, then it is not only the right but the duty of Palestinians to hit back, and hit back hard, those who have wrecked their lives and violated their persons. Palestinians are not obliged to acquiesce in assaults on their human dignity; quite the contrary, they have a responsibility to defend their dignity against such assaults, nonviolently if they can, violently if they must. It might also be recalled that for Gandhi “no greater evil can befall a country than that it should lose its independence.” If I propose that Palestinians adopt Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolent civil resistance, it is not because they should be held—or hold themselves—accountable to a higher ethical standard, but rather because of a compelling pragmatic insight of his. There is nothing violence can accomplish, Gandhi maintained, that nonviolence cannot accomplish—and with lesser loss of life. As a general proposition, it is obviously impossible to prove. Could the Allies have defeated Hitler had they resorted to nonviolent civil resistance, and with fewer than 60 million dead? We will never know. On the other hand, Palestinians suffered some 5,000 dead (1,000 minors) during the second intifada, and the Israelis 1,000 dead (160 minors). Apart from the dubious blessing of Israel’s redeployment in Gaza, Palestinians have little to show for the violent resistance; indeed, nearly all the reckonings after eight years of bloodletting fall squarely in the debit column. It is at least arguable that the balance-sheet would have been better had Palestinians en masse adopted nonviolent civil resistance.

But didn’t Palestinians embrace this strategy during the first intifada, and didn’t it fail? True, the first intifada was overwhelmingly nonviolent, although Israel hardly responded in kind. However, it is fundamentally mistaken to reckon the uprising a failure. The surpassing courage, integrity, humanity, solidarity and sheer cleverness of the Palestinian people during those years—which I had the unforgettable honor of personally witnessing—threw the Israeli occupation army into professional, morale and moral disarray from which it has never fully recovered, while Israel’s brutal methods of repression caused it to suffer a public relations disaster of the first magnitude. If the Palestinian leadership under Yasir Arafat had not subverted the first intifada, stifling its élan and subordinating it to a dead-end diplomatic game, the outcome might have been different. As it was, Israel entered into negotiations with the PLO and subsequently signed the Oslo Accord because the intifada had rendered the occupation untenable except through the conscription of Palestinian collaborators.

We have already seen that a crucial prerequisite for the successful prosecution of nonviolent resistance is a preexisting public consensus on the legitimacy of its goals. We have also seen that such a consensus has crystallized in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The international community has enjoined Israel’s full withdrawal from the territories it occupied in June 1967 and a resolution of the refugee question based on the right of return and compensation. The challenge now—in Gandhi’s words—is to “cultivate” and “quicken” the conscience of this public. In practical terms, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories would have to rivet international public opinion on the brutality of the occupation by resorting to nonviolent civil resistance; in the meantime their supporters abroad must publicize the factual record showing that international opinion—whether registered in its most representative bodies such as the United Nations General Assembly, or its most enlightened bodies such as the International Court of Justice and respected human rights organizations—agrees on how to resolve the conflict, and that the only obstacles to its settlement are Israel and the United States.

It must be said here that significant lessons can be learned from the history of Zionism. The Zionist movement made sure that each of the documents that conferred—or appeared to confer—international legitimacy became a veritable household reference. Its leaders grasped how critical such legitimacy was in winning over public opinion and thereby achieving their goal. Were it not for the concerted and sustained campaign of Zionist publicists, it is inconceivable that a one-sentence declaration uttered 90 years ago by a nondescript British foreign minister named Arthur Balfour, or a United Nations General Assembly resolution passed 60 years ago recommending the partition of Palestine, would still command near-universal recognition. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban famously said of the Partition Resolution that it was Israel’s “birth certificate.” He did not exaggerate. It ascertained that the State of Israel was not a bastard child of the international system but rather its legitimate and—at any rate, morally—irrevocable offspring. It might also be noticed that the Zionist movement never rested on its laurels. Just as it required discipline and organization to extract each of its certificates of legitimacy, so it also required tenacity to preserve these gains. Neither the Balfour Declaration nor the Partition Resolution came easy, and renewed battles ensued after both victories against powerful forces that wanted to rescind them. The contrast with the Palestinian independence struggle could not be starker. Each year the United Nations General Assembly issues the Palestinian people yet another birth certificate. The General Assembly is far more representative of humankind today than it was in 1947, and the vote favoring a Palestinian state is consistently lopsided whereas the Partition Resolution just barely passed. In addition, on nearly all the critical issues—borders, East Jerusalem, settlements—the Palestinians won a resounding victory and Israel suffered a resounding defeat in the 2004 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice. Considered as a certificate of legitimacy the near-unanimous ICJ opinion manifestly carried far greater weight than the unilateral declaration of a British government. Yet—and herein lies the great tragedy—how many people even know of the annual General Assembly votes and the ICJ opinion? These landmark victories, achieved largely due to the inhuman suffering and superhuman steadfastness of the Palestinian people, have been criminally squandered one after another.

A massive mobilization of Palestinians building on the non-cooperation tactics of the first intifada (commercial and tax strikes, popular committees) could again make the Israeli occupation ungovernable. Is it so far-fetched to imagine an “army” of Palestinian satyagrahis converging on the Wall, their sole “weapons” a pick in one hand and a copy of the ICJ opinion in the other? The ICJ stated that the Wall was illegal and must be dismantled. The Palestinians would only be doing what the world should already have done a long time ago. Who could fault them for enforcing the law? No doubt Israel would fire on Palestinians and many would be killed. But if their supporters in North America and Europe publicized the ICJ opinion, and if Palestinians found the inner wherewithal to persevere nonviolently, it seems probable that far, far fewer than 5,000 Palestinians would be killed before Israel were forced to desist. No one writing abroad from the comfort and safety of his study can in good conscience urge such a strategy that entails so much death. But Gandhi’s point nonetheless stands: if Palestinians have repeatedly shown a willingness to pay the ultimate price, doesn’t it make sense for them to pursue a strategy that has a better likelihood of success at a smaller human price?

A high profile publicity campaign in the West complementing nonviolent Palestinian civil resistance in the Occupied Territories would enhance the prospects of its success. If the campaign targeted Israeli intransigence as the sole obstacle to a settlement, it would pave the way for making of Israel a pariah state, and then the implementation of sanctions against it. The tenability of such a sanctions campaign depends, however, on international public opinion being first (or simultaneously) primed with knowledge of both the consensus for resolving the conflict and Israel’s refusal to abide it. Such a campaign also cannot possibly succeed if Palestinian goals do not command international legitimacy, such as the occasional calls for eliminating the “Zionist entity” and embracing a “one-state” solution, which enjoy exactly zero international support. Again, innocence of means does not suffice; innocence of ends is also requisite. One might want to counter that the consensus is not the solution but part of the problem, and must be changed. Perhaps so, but then Palestinians suffering under occupation should be informed that they will have to endure it for many more generations to come. For, it is no small task to reconfigure enlightened public opinion where legitimacy is largely built on precedent. Every call for a Palestinian state (including the 1988 Palestinian declaration of independence) has referred back to the unfinished business of the Partition Resolution. Where is the legal or moral precedent for dismantling the “Zionist entity”—the birth certificate of which was signed by the United Nations—or a “one-state” solution—which the Partition Resolution superseded? It required 70 years of Zionist colonization and organizational will, the Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations mandate, the Nazi holocaust, and the decline of the British Empire to create a global mandate for the Partition Resolution. It would take a comparable summoning of human and material resources, and fortuitous constellation and alignment of historical circumstances, to undo it.

A nonviolent civil disobedience campaign in the Occupied Territories garnering visible international support will almost certainly open up fissures in Israeli society. To be sure, the Palestinians will perforce be practicing a “nonviolence of the weak.” If they (again) resort to nonviolence, it will not be because they “love” their Israeli oppressors, but because violent resistance failed. It must be conceded that herein lies a drawback of Palestinian nonviolence. For, Israelis will not be convinced that Palestinians, once acquiring the machinery of a state and the accouterments of power, won’t use them against Israel. From the outset they will know that Palestinian nonviolence is not an axiom but—to quote Gandhi—“mere policy.” Nonetheless, Gandhi acknowledged that, although Indians themselves had practiced a “nonviolence of the weak,” the tactic was still able to produce positive (if somewhat limited) results. Those sectors of Israeli society cultivating a liberal self-image will perforce be shamed by the “force of public opprobrium” in the West. Many other Israelis will simply calculate on grounds of self-interest: if anarchy reigns in the Occupied Territories, if the occupation army gets bogged down in an intractable war of nerves with peaceful demonstrators, if, like South Africa and South Africans during the Apartheid era, Israel and Israelis are reviled abroad, then the occupation is no longer worth the price. No doubt the diehards in Israeli society won’t budge. The self-suffering of Palestinians will no more “melt” the hearts of the ideological settlers and the generals than the self-suffering of Indians melted Churchill’s heart or the self-suffering of Jews would have melted Hitler’s heart. But a critical mass favoring a full Israeli withdrawal presumably would bring forth an Israeli leader ready and able to pull out, just as in France during the Algerian war.

Gandhi translated satyagraha as “hold on to the truth.” Herewith is our challenge: to hold on to the truth that what Israel has done to the Palestinians is wrong; to hold on to the truth that Israel’s refusal, backed by the U.S., to respect international law and the considered opinion of humankind is the sole obstacle to putting an end, finally, to their suffering. We can win if we hold on to the truth, and if, as the Negro spiritual put it with cognate wisdom, we “keep our eyes on the prize, and hold on.” That is, if we keep remembering what the struggle—the prize—is all about: not theoretical fad or intellectual provocation, not holier-than-thou radical posturing, but—however humdrum, however prosaic, by comparison—freeing the Palestinian people from their bondage. And then to hold on, to be ready for sacrifice and for the long haul—do I dare mention the example of Hezbollah’s heroic resistance?—but also, and especially, to be humble in the knowledge that for those of us living in North America and Europe, the burdens pale next to those borne daily by the people of Palestine. Whenever I harbor doubts about holding on, whenever I contemplate moving on in life, I see in my mind’s eye a dear friend and comrade who lives in Hebron where he is the field representative for an Israeli-based human rights organization, and hear his words in my head. My friend Musa, who grew up in a refugee camp, told me once, “The past 38 years should have been the best in my life. But I honestly cannot remember a single happy day.” To forsake those trapped in abject distress would be yet more wrong. Where was the world during the Nazi holocaust?, we still ask. Where is the world now? Has the Palestinian struggle gone on too long? Has it become boring and passé? Has the time come to move on? But the Palestinian people continue to be ground under, the merciless Israeli juggernaut keeps pressing on, confiscating yet more land, demolishing yet more homes, destroying yet more lives. The time now is not to move on—but to hold on!

The Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire once wrote, “There’s room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory.” Late in life, when his political horizons broadened out, Edward Said would often quote this line. We should make it our credo as well. We want to nurture a movement, not hatch a cult. The victory to which we aspire is inclusive, not exclusive; it is not at anyone’s expense. It is to be victorious without vanquishing. No one is a loser, and we all are gainers if together we stand by truth and justice. “I am not anti-English; I am not anti-British; I am not anti-any government,” Gandhi insisted, “but I am anti-untruth—anti-humbug, and anti-injustice.” Shouldn’t we also say that we are not anti-Jewish, anti-Israel or, for that matter, anti-Zionist? The prize on which our eyes should be riveted is human rights, human dignity, human equality. What, really, is the point of ideological litmus tests such as, Are you now or have you ever been a Zionist? Indeed, it is Israel’s apologists who thrive on and cling to them, bogging down interlocutors in distracting and endless intellectual sideshows—What is a Jew? Are the Jews a nation? Don’t Jews have a right to national liberation? Shouldn’t we use a vocabulary that registers and resonates with the public conscience and the Jewish conscience, winning over the decent many while isolating the diehard few? Shouldn’t we instead be asking, Are you for or against ethnic cleansing, for or against torture, for or against house demolitions, for or against Jews-only roads and Jews-only settlements, for or against discriminatory laws? And if the answer comes, against, against and against, shouldn’t we then say, Keep your ideology, whatever it might be—there’s room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory?

May we all, seekers of truth, fighters for justice, yet live to join the people of Palestine at the rendezvous of victory.

Thank you.

Norman G. Finkelstein
New York City
November 2008

About arnulfo

veterano del ciberespacio
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