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Mahatma Gandhi and the Revival of Nonviolent Politics in the Late 20th Century




By Richard Falk


I. What is the Gandhian Legacy?
Gandhi's successful challenge to British colonialism is viewed as a heroic anomaly in a world still generally interpreted by way of a 'realist' prism that regards violence and hard power relations as the main causative agents of history, while at the same time deliberately excluding moral and legal considerations as distractions from a rational decision process.

Although the memory of Gandhi is revered everywhere, the life and ways of Gandhi have not been treated as influential in relation to subsequent patterns of political practice, either within states or at a global level. Instead, there has been a widespread belief that what Gandhi achieved was unique to his time, place, and person. In this sense, the persisting importance of Gandhi, outside of the efforts of academic programs devoted to peace studies and scattered activists and visionaries, has been historical in two senses: as preoccupied with the extraordinary role played by Gandhi in liberating India from the British Empire without reliance on guns and violence; and as a method for dealing with a specific set of events in the past that became almost a closed book as far as political life is concerned as soon as Gandhi himself passed from the scene.

True, there were definite reverberations of the Gandhian heritage in the American civil rights movement under the leadership of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., but this struggle against racial discrimination was devoted to the implementation of the United States Constitutional and a process of reform that never questioned the legitimacy of the established order. Besides, the thought of Gandhi seemed exotic, irrelevant, and too extreme for most of King's followers. Here and there, political initiatives have been directly inspired and their tactics shaped by Gandhiís approach and life of dedication, especially those undertaken by individual and groups with strong religious convictions.

In some cases, their own struggles against militarism and war, particularly in the United States, have been guided by a principled adherence to the unconditional nonviolence so vividly articulated by Gandhi's words and deeds. In this connection, I think of the writings and lifetime commitments of the Berrigan brothers (Daniel and Philip) and James Douglass. Douglass, together with his wife Shelley, founded Ground Zero (a community of religiously inclined activists determined to obstruct the deployment of Trident Submarines at a naval base near to Seattle, Washington), invoked the examples of Gandhi and Jesus to explain their course of militant action. Part of their seriousness was to meditate upon and study the lives of these exceptional individuals.

But unlike Gandhi's own experience, including that in South Africa, this more radical peace movement activity never managed to mobilize a mass challenge to war and militarism. Their achievement, which should not be minimized, as it indirectly influenced many in the mainstream especially young people during the long decade of the Vietnam War and in relation to the nuclear arms race that was at the core of the cold war, involved a largely symbolic witness. It was widely admired, but never coalesced into a general challenge of the sort that Gandhi organized to overturn an entire structure of power.

I think that part of the distinctiveness of the Gandhian phenomenon lies in its embrace of an unconditional reliance on nonviolence to challenge, dismantle, and transform an entire structure of power and authority, and to do so on an uncompromising basis of mass mobilization on the part of unarmed people, many of whom were trained to endure severe violence without striking back. Indeed, in this respect, Gandhiís core achievement in India has never been duplicated elsewhere. Even in India the sustainability of a nonviolent ethos was put in doubt while Gandhi was still alive by the outbreak of Muslim/Hindu violence, by the Hindu nationalism of Gandhi's assassin, and by Nehru's blatant and abrupt departures from the Gandhian path almost immediately after he became head of an independent India.

In effect, Nehru was willing to proceed down the nonviolent path that Gandhi cleared to confront entrenched and superior British police and military power, but when on his own, soon insisted upon, and deployed, the instruments of violence as a practical necessity once India achieved its independence. By so proceeding, Nehru 'normalized' the behavior of India as a state among states in light of the violent character of international political life. Gandhi's own views were that a commitment by India to a nonviolent statecraft would have a transformative impact upon the character of international relations generally.


A new turn to nonviolence?
But recently the question of Gandhian relevance is being posed anew, yet not directly or explicitly, by a series of political movements that have emerged under quite diverse conditions, that suggest a major turn toward nonviolent forms of struggle by those advocating transformative change. This turn seems complex and contradictory, and it may not be sustained. Aside from its adherence to nonviolent practice, its general political line is essentially tactical, seeking to turn weakness into strength by engaging the enemy in a manner that minimizes the advantages of the militarily stronger side and maximizes its vulnerability to moral/spiritual challenges. Its relevance has been most evident in the struggles of civic movements of resistance against various forms of oppressive rule that rely on arbitrary and brutal violence and on its control over the mechanisms of violence.

An important aspect of the current historical setting is the almost total abandonment of Marxism/Leninism/Maoism as an active revolutionary ideology positing as a tenet of belief, the unavoidable necessity of armed struggle. This abandonment is the result of several connected developments, a process that has been especially accelerated by the Soviet collapse and the Chinese shift of attention to the dynamics of modernization in a highly marketized world economy.

A further factor is the social learning experience of activists and radicals that has understood potency of nonviolent struggle is an array of settings coupled with the dismal disappointments of sustained armed struggle leading in the end to despair, or at least to a compromise that might have been achieved far earlier in the course of a struggle if misguidedly romantic views about the prospects of revolutionary violence had not been accepted. Governments, too, have learned that their reliance on violence, even if in a setting of onesidedness, drives their adversary often in the direction of more and more desperate violence, and does not result in the restoration of stability and that an imposed peace can be elusive and temporary.

Another aspect of these circumstances that seems to be deideologizing revolutionary practice arises from the effects of economic globalization, especially its tendency to give priority to abstract targets of market shares and economic growth that can only rarely (arguably in the Gulf War, 1991) be directly achieved on a field of battle. This partial obsolescence of war is being reinforced by the astonishingly rapid growth of media/cyberworld influence, coupled with the confidence that soft power modalities of struggle tend to be decisive under contemporary world conditions, especially given the importance being attached in various symbolic battles being waged on the terrain of political legitimacy.

Such revolutionary challenges posed by the Zapatistas in Mexico and the Tupac Amaru in Peru have tellingly disclosed their preoccupation with the harmful impacts of globalization on the poor and vulnerable in their particular countries, and although not invoking nonviolence as an approach to their political struggle, these groups manifest a strong interest in finding new and less destructive ways to pursue their revolutionary goals, even relying on imaginative recourse to the global media and the internet. Their main intention is to gain sympathy in the world for the legitimacy of their demands.

From these perspectives the last quarter of a century has exhibited an extraordinary range of militant political movements that have to varying degrees endorsed and practiced nonviolence. These movements have not been self-consciously Gandhian, but have pursued a political course that appears guided by an opportunistic assessment of relative strengths and weaknesses in particular contexts of struggle. The precariousness of their commitment to nonviolence is disclosed, to some extent, by the adoption of violent methods once the movement has succeeded in achieving control over the apparatus of state power and shifts roles from that of being in a posture of resistance to that of being in charge.

Proceeding on the basis of a Gandhian ethos of nonviolence, how is the recent experience to be evaluated? There are two broad possibilities, with many variations in between. The first view would take an optimistic line, regarding these occasions of tactical reliance on nonviolent approaches to be exhibiting a trend away from a blind assumption about the efficacy of violence. Gandhi was himself a realist who viewed his own life as a series of explorations relating to truth-bearing (ahimsa) and courage, as well as an appreciation that where choices are so difficult that reliance on a degree of violence can be understood, and even affirmed. Gandhi's lifelong connection with the Bhagavadgita, and its complex view of war and duty, suggests the degree to which Gandhi understood the difficulty of taking a pure stand on violence, despite his own evolution in that direction. Gandhi's own approach stressed active engagement on behalf of justice, scorning passivity as being often a greater evil than violence.

The second possibility is to view tactical nonviolence with skepticism, as a kind of impurity of means that is bound to taint the ends being pursued. In this regard the lack of an unconditional commitment to nonviolence is likely to mean that violence will be relied upon as soon as the tactical realities are reversed, and to this extent the process that discredited Marxist/Leninist approaches to change will be reproduced with innovative rationalizations, but no less bloody results.

With this background in mind, a few recent instances of tactical nonviolence will be set forth to provide some ground for making a choice between an optimistic and a skeptical interpretation of recent history from the perspective of a Gandhian ethos.



II. A Few Recent Instances of Tactical Nonviolence
There are a large number of examples that could be chosen as illustrative cases. Those presented here are selected because they appear to bear directly on the theme of inquiry relating to the Gandhi legacy.

(1) The Iranian Revolution
In the mid-1970s a movement of opposition to the Shah's regime in Iran took shape, with its principal leadership being provided by an Islamic orientation articulated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from his places of exile, especially Paris. This movement based its challenge upon a mass mobilization in the cities, especially Tehran, and was subject from its outset to brutal forms of oppression that included the repeated shooting of unarmed demonstrators, and even attacks on hospitals and doctors who were trying to treat the wounds incurred in these public events. Khomeini resisted calls in the streets for weapons ('Leaders, leaders, give us guns!) made by participants who were being subjected to an array of violent intimidations by the Shah's heavily armed forces, culminating in a massacre in a public square in which demonstrators were trapped by soldiers firing machine guns from the available escape routes. Instead, the Islamic leadership, with impressive results, urged demonstrators to put flowers in the barrels of guns, and chant 'Do not shoot, we are your brothers and sisters.'

No theoretical grounding was offered in public, and after Khomeini returned to Iran in early 1979, the revolution that he led quickly moved in a violent direction, many prior supporters alleging that the scale and forms of its repressive violence exceeded that of the Shah. Khomeni may have opposed the most vengeful tendencies of the new clerical elite in Iran, but there were many executions and reports of torture relating to the disposition of enemies, old and new. No longer was the political rhetoric couched in nonviolent language, but on the contrary, the emphasis was on austerity and the punishment of evil deeds and disloyal acts.

By the late 1990s the Islamic zeal has somewhat moderated, but there is no indication whatsoever that Iran intends to pursue its goals at home or abroad in a nonviolent manner. It has been reliably reported to lend a large measure of support to international terrorism and to be seeking to acquire the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Arguably, from 1979 onwards, the hostility of Iraq and the United States to the Iranian Revolution, created real and serious threats to Iran's political independence. But Iran's response led to a series of moves against imagined and real enemies that were based on extreme violence, ranging from the summary execution of critics to the deployment of young children on battlefields during the Iraq/Iran War to detect minefields. There was a total abandonment of the approach taken in the struggle against the Shah, and no effort made to minimize violence much less to avoid it.

In this context, then, the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath can be understood as having shown how effective nonviolent tactics can be in certain contexts, but also how fragile is the principled underpinning of such an approach if it rests on exclusively tactical considerations.


(2) People Power in the Philippines
Here a powerful movement took shape to drive the Marcos regime from power in 1986, reacting in part to the assassination of a social democratic opponent, Benigno Aquino, and in part to electoral fraud that seemed to epitomize the corruption of a brutal and venal leadership. There was great exhilaration in the Philippines, and important elements in the army backed the popular movement, with the United States standing aloof to avoid a repetition of its experience in Iran where it found itself cast in the role of geopolitical villain. People Power eschewed all forms of violence, and its ascent to power was an exhilarating victory for democratic forces in a strongly authoritarian atmosphere.

But the victory was only partial. In Iran the old order was dismantled and its elite sent into hiding or death; the transformation occurred as the Islamic leadership promised, although it assumed a brutal form. In the Philippines, the energy of the victors was devoted to reconciliation and reassurance, with the positive result that recriminatory violence was avoided. But neither was social justice achieved, or the corruption of the old order effectively challenged. As with Iran, disillusionment followed, but the new path was relatively moderate, enticing many former armed revolutionaries to play a peaceful role in Filipino society.

The result has been a definite moderation of violence in the country, but an acquiescence in the overall structures of inequity that has produced massive poverty and growing income disparities between rich and poor. Land reform has been stymied by traditional elites, and the military has remained a strong force in the internal politics of the country. Thus, the victories of People Power did not lead to an abandonment of nonviolence, but rather the vision of a just society in the Philippines that motivated the movement was easily coopted. Nonviolence that is not directed toward social transformation forgets that the rationale for struggle and action is to overcome injustice; it cannot retain its true nonviolent identity if it indulges structural violence.


(3) Eastern Europe, especially Poland and Czechoslovakia
In Eastern Europe tactical nonviolence was an explicit response to the failures of violent resistance in the 1950s, particularly the experience with the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and the events in East Germany and Poland in 1958 and subsequently. It was impressively theorized in the work of such intellectuals as George Konrad, Adam Michnik, and Vaclev Havel.* With the change in the Soviet Union brought about by Gorbachev, and the vitality of mass movements, the elite structures in East Europe crumbled from their own dead weight. When the puppeteer no longer pulled the strings, the puppet slumped lifelessly; only in Rumania, the country heralded in the West for its degree of independence from Moscow was the entrenched elite willing to fight for its survival against its own citizenry.

What can be said is that movements such as Solidarity in Poland and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, isolated governments long accustomed to ruling by force and intimidation. Nonviolent opposition, taking many imaginative forms, and encouraged by external forces, especially by important links with peace and human rights movements in Western Europe, definitely put the regimes in power in a manner that earlier violent modes of opposition had been unable to do. And whereas the West could support claims advanced on behalf of human rights, it was inhibited from intervening on behalf of movements seeking to forcibly wrest power from the rulers and their Soviet handlers for fear of provoking World War III.

But again the victories of tactical nonviolence are partial at best. The rush of the new elites to establish free markets overnight has produced a wave of criminality, outrageous inequalities, and great suffering for large portions of the population. Ironically, in the face of these disappointments, citizens have been inclined in some instances to vote the hated Communists back into power, an astonishing reversal of the atmosphere of 1989. In other settings, the Catholic Church has substituted its authoritarianism for that of the former regimes, producing real setbacks for women and minorities. What can be said is that the tactical nonviolence as practiced in East Europe was too exclusively preoccupied with the transfer of power, and cannot reach a sustainable outcome unless it is also concerned with justice.


(4) The intifada of the Occupied Territories
Here the movement by the Palestinians in the late 1980s arose out of a determined attempt to find a way to oppose the violence of Israel. The intifada was principled despite not adhering to a nonviolent approach. By unarmed Palestinians, including many who were young, taunting and throwing stones at heavily armed Israeli occupiers, the brutality of the occupation was exposed as never before. It created splits in Israel itself as to the wisdom and acceptability of the occupation and encouraged larger segments of world public opinion to comprehend, at long last, the Palestinian anguish and the justice of their call for self-determination.
A 'peace process' of sorts ensued, with a Palestinian Authority exercising its own power over limits portions of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza. There was no Palestinian discourse that suggested a nonviolent orientation even toward dissident Palestinians engaging in peaceful activities. The glories of the intifada were replaced by the bureaucratic corruptions of the PLO leadership. In this instance, those that were experimenting with new forms of oppositional politics were never allowed to exercise power, and their movement was accepted by the PLO as 'useful' in relation to their own quite conventional ambitions, but to be discarded as soon as those ambitions were realized even in fragmentary form.


(5) Pro-Democracy Movements in China and Burma
In these movements of the late 1980s there seemed to be a definite principled commitment to nonviolent methods of political struggle and to a democratic form of governance thereafter. Unfortunately, the failure of these movements to achieve their main goals has meant that the sincerity of these commitments has never been tested. Until power is held, adherence to nonviolence is not a good predictor of what will occur subsequently. Nevertheless, it seems clear that in Burma, at least, the convictions of the movement as articulated by Aung San Suu Kyi are indeed of a principled character resting on philosophical grounds that would not likely be discarded if the movement found itself forming a new government.



III. Are We Approaching a Gandhian Stage of Human History?
At the very least, the ambiguous political instances discussed in the prior section, along with a large number of others, suggests that for the first time since Gandhi's death fifty years ago we can ask broader questions about whether or not an emergent Gandhiism is in the early stages of unfolding throughout the world.

True, the concrete results are mixed, and overall not encouraging. Twenty-five wars of varying magnitudes are raging as these pages are written. There are numerous daily reports of brutality and recurrent eruptions of ethnic, state, and religious violence being perpetrated against women and children, against all that is innocent. The neoliberal ideology that accompanies economic globalization is unconcerned about the persistence of mass poverty and large-scale unemployment, while regarding incredible disparities in income as the mere byproduct of efficiency in the use of resources. The end result being that economic policy is capital-driven rather than people-driven.

And yet, the political trends observed contain seeds of hope that may yet produce a bright future for humanity. There is to begin with, the growing realization that war is useless or worse as an instrument of policy, and more broadly, that violence rarely succeeds either as a strategy for transformative change or as a means to sustain control. Further, the deepening of the democratic spirit is leading courageous people throughout the world to experiment to different degrees with varying forms of nonviolence.

As well, there is also present a complex process of globalization-from-below in which transnational social forces are organizing in response to globalization-from-above under the aegis of global market forces. These populist energies being unleashed are pushing hard in many different societal settings to support human rights, to help women in their quests for liberation, to bolster campaigns of environmental protection, and to take on locally many other challenges that are being shaped globally. In particular, there exists for this evolving global civil society an ever-expanding and changing agenda of peace and development goals ranging from nuclear disarmament to opposing adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and the IMF on the poor.

But should these various positive tendencies, which remain at the margins of social and political reality, be associated with a kind of neo-Gandhian quest for peace and justice through the active commitment of women and men throughout the world? I think such an association, as one line of interpretation, is valid and suggestive of a potential future unity of direction for what otherwise might appear to be chaotic, futile, and random gestures of resistance against the overwhelming momentum being generated by globalization-from-above with its enthusiasm for consumerism, its indifference to suffering, and its reluctance to take steps to protect the global commons from destructive forms of overuse.

The Gandhian heritage provides a coherent body of thought and practice that was evolved by Gandhi in the crucible of action. It was powerful normatively, and yet encouraged creative responses to particular realities, but always with an awareness that reliance on violence poisons means and ends, and that its renunciation is quite consistent with maintaining and advancing struggles for justice however great the cost may be. For Gandhi himself that cost was the loss of his life through violence, a paradoxical slap in the face, and yet also an expression of the depth of his commitment.

Great changes in the pattern of human behavior normally occur when objective conditions, including prevailing ideas, change. War and violence, while remaining disturbingly prevalent are still gradually losing their charm as the dominant features of politics and history. Democratic initiatives premised on nonviolent militancy and an affirmation of human rights are helping to build global civil society on solid normative foundations. For these various reasons, then, it seems illuminating to connect this process with a Gandhian rebirth.


© Richard Falk, 1998


Richard Falk is professor at Princeton University and TFF adviser












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