Satyagraha Embeds Safeguards That Defend Revolution

Last night I opened a collection of essays at random and fell into the middle of a discussion by American poet Karl Shapiro about Gandhi (On the Revival of Anarchism, ). This was too good a coincidence, since I’ve been chewing over Gandhi thoughts in the last couple of Picket Line entries.

Shapiro gushes over Gandhi’s contribution to political thought:

Ahimsa, nonviolence, is a total force and a way of life. It has the power of Christian humility, upon which it is partly based. It is one of the noblest ideas advanced by modern man and it is destined to spread throughout the world. It cannot be employed by governments because governments are by definition committed to violence. Nonviolence is not a prerogative of governments but of men, even of one man. One nonviolent man, like Gandhi or Christ, can change history. Governments can only keep history on the march. Ahimsa can stop history.

These superlatives and sunny predictions are a little over-the-top, but Shapiro hits on something here that I’ve neglected: Gandhian nonviolence not only can be an effective technique of political force, but it has certain built-in safeguards that make it difficult to use in the service of injustice. A Gandhian revolution seems like one that is better-protected from devolving, as so many other revolutions have, into one in which the revolutionaries become the oppressors.

Shapiro writes that “governments are by definition committed to violence,” by which I think he is referring to the common political science definition of a government as an institution that has a (perhaps local and occasionally delegated) monopoly on the use of violence.

Could nonviolence be used in the service of injustice? Sure it could. Nonviolent resistance is a force that can be applied justly or unjustly.

Some injustice, particularly state-protected injustice, masquerades as nonviolence while really having a violent nature. So long as the threat of violence is enough to subdue challenges, what looks like “peace” prevails. Nonviolent resistance can be a way of making this hidden violence explicit (and this is certainly one of its risks). Gene Sharp writes of Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns in South Africa:

The original “naked force of conquest” had been translated into the sanctity of law. When the subordinate group challanged any law, even a trivial one, this was seen as “rebellion,” and increased “force” was applied to suppress the rebellion. [Leo] Kuper points out that civil disobedience brought the violence behind the law and the domination into actual operation. “Satyagraha strips this sanctity from the laws, and compels the application of sanctions, thus converting domination again to naked force.” The nonviolent challenge had not created, but only revealed the violence. “Force is implicit in white domination: the resistance campaign made it explicit.”

Gandhi initially used the English term “passive resistance” to describe his techniques. But the phrase led to confusion. Gandhi was once introduced to an English-speaking audience by a friend who inadvertantly insulted Gandhi’s work in South Africa — saying that Gandhi’s forces “are weak and have no arms. Therefore they have taken to passive resistance which is the weapon of the weak.”

Gandhi complained that “passive resistance” was an inappropriate description: “it was supposed to be a weapon of the weak… could be characterized by hatred, and… could finally manifest itself as violence.”1 The term satyagraha (roughly “truth-force”) was coined and used instead, and Gandhi took pains to emphasize that it was a powerful tool for the strong, not a second-best tactic of the weak.

Satyagraha includes a more radical limitation than the renunciation of violence — in its purest forms it also includes the renunciation of force — except perhaps persuasive moral force — and sets much loftier political goals. It does not claim victory in the defeat or subjugation of its foes — victory comes when those foes, under no threat aside from that of their own awakened consciences, willingly and gladly change their behavior.

This restricts the choice of nonviolent techniques considerably. For instance: Would Gandhi have signed off on the lunch counter sit-ins of the American Civil Rights movement? It is possible that he would have considered them to be too coercive. Blockades and sit-ins designed to prevent people from doing business or moving about would be considered violations of satyagraha — only sit-ins like those caused when the authorities prevent people from legitimately continuing on their way would be used.2 All lawbreaking under satyagraha is to be done openly, and with the expectation and even invitation of state sanctions. Would being a necessarily secret station on the Underground Railroad have been acceptable technique for a satyagrahi?

To Gandhi, the means so shaped the nature of the ends that this justified these scrupulous distinctions. “Let us first take the argument that we are justified in gaining our end by using brute force because the English gained theirs by similar means… [B]y using similar means we can get only the same thing that they got. You will admit that we do not want that… If I want to deprive you of your watch, I shall certainly have to fight for it; if I want to buy your watch, I shall have to pay for it; and if I want a gift, I shall have to plead for it; and, according to the means I employ, the watch is stolen property, my own property, or a donation.”

Satyagraha is designed not just as a tactic or weapon that might be useful for a particular battle, but as a solvent designed to dissolve injustice in general. “This force,” Gandhi wrote, “is to violence, and, therefore, to all tyranny, all injustice, what light is to darkness.”

Violent, coercive or humiliating resistance techniques have certain pitfalls, for instance: they might be applied unwisely or against the wrong targets, thereby causing more injustice than they relieve; they might cause such anguish or resentment in their victims as to provoke additional injustice on their part; they might encourage habits of violence, coercion, or humiliation in those who use them that would lead to injustice later. The genius of satyagraha is that it is a strategy that addresses this. It is a tool that is very difficult to use to serve an unjust cause, even by the unscrupulous or unwise.

Gandhi seemed at times to be promoting something like the “conservation of energy” principle in physics — as if there were a law of nature that if you add anger or violence to a situation, even in the service of justice, you will just increase the total amount of himsa (roughly, “harm,” the opposite of ahimsa). Only through satyagraha can you be sure you’re working for the good guys and not just making a bad situation worse. The satyagrahi eagerly, even masochistically, absorbs the harm inflicted by others, without retaliation or even resentment, and thereby retires that himsa for good.

Understandably, Gandhi, though he considered satyagraha “so simple that it can be preached even to children,” was frequently troubled by campaigns that went awry due to his followers’ imprecise understanding of or uncertain faith in the technique. He had to pay a lot of attention to education and discipline, especially as his mass campaigns in India developed. The full satyagraha vows were almost monastic in tone.

Again, I should mention that in spite of all of the pixels I’ve been using this week to talk about Gandhi and his program, I’m not a satyagrahi. I’m interested in Gandhi’s theories, and I admire him for having followed them courageously and energetically to their logical extremes, but I’m not a true believer.

In an mention of Gandhi on The Picket Line I mocked him for his exceedingly idealistic opinion on how the Jews of Europe ought to respond to the emerging Holocaust (“The calculated violence of Hitler,” he wrote, “may even result in a general massacre of the Jews… But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined 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”).

I still have a hard time imagining an appropriate and effective Gandhian response to Hitler. But a few days after the attacks, I engaged in some light-hearted speculative journalism in which I tried to imagine an alternate universe where Dubya adopted a Gandhiesque defense posture:

On , the impossible — the unthinkable — became reality, world politics were turned on-end, and billions of people watched in rapt attention as their ideas of the possible turned brittle and shattered.

On , the United States put Operation Infinite Justice into effect, sealing our era off from the past even more decisively than the bombing of Hiroshima had done for the previous era.

Before this time, U.S. President George W. Bush was widely seen as an ineffective president — elected by less than the thinnest of margins, quickly losing his base of support in the Senate through misguided hubris, and thought even in Washington circles to be little more than the façade for the spokescommittee representing the real power in the executive branch.

During the initial stages of the crisis that led to Infinite Justice, there was little in President Bush’s actions or demeanor to counteract this impression. His talk about a “crusade” to “rid the world of evildoers” harmonized well with the public mood, but was interpreted by many as a madman’s call to engage in a reckless, quixotic military adventure.

Perhaps even then, though, there was a method to his madness.

In any case, on the president emerged from a spontaneously-declared day of personal retreat and Christian prayer a changed man. He took actual charge of the executive branch of which he was already the titular, legal head. He took on the responsibilities, duties, and command of the U.S. armed forces, where he before had only the title “commander-in-chief.”

He frightened the bejeezus out of his cabinet. Only a presidential pardon saved Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell from being tried for treason after it was later revealed that they consulted with heads of U.S. intelligence about how to “renormalize” the president.

Bush shocked nearly everyone when he addressed the nation on , and announced his plan to drop flower petals on Afghanistan “until it smells like potpourri from border to border.”

He was direct with his unconventional threats to Osama bin Laden, who was widely believed to have inspired or even directed the terrorist attacks that had killed thousands of people and destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City, and who had taken refuge in Afghanistan. “You have underestimated the American spirit,” Bush said. “We will find you, we will surround you with bouquets, your feet will be unable to find the ground for the rose petals. Our children will sneak up on you in the middle of the night and kiss your cheek while you sleep and wish you pleasant dreams. We will pray for your health in our churches. If you die, we will pile wreaths so high on your grave that nobody will be able to read the inscription on your tombstone. We will donate money to charity in your name. You think you can hide, but you cannot hide. Wherever you go, you will return to the safety of your bed and find that we have already changed your sheets and washed your socks and put fresh soap in the bathroom.”

It goes without saying that this plan had critics among America’s hawks, but although today you will find few people who claim to have been against Bush’s visionary policy, at the time it was overwhelmingly unpopular. Bush himself had initially started preparing a military response, and had called for Osama bin Laden to be surrendered “dead or alive.” Most Americans were caught up in a terrible blood-lust, and reacted to his new speech with frustration and anger. How many people remember that some of the national guard units called out to maintain order during the flower mobilization had to be used to put down rebellion by other units?

The mobilization itself was unprecedented. The closest comparison would be the annual Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, which was much smaller then, and in any case is orders of magnitude smaller than Operation Infinite Justice.

Refrigerator trucks loaded with ornamental flower petals stretched in huge cross-country caravans that took them to coastal bases where transport planes carried them to the skies above Kabul. Eventually, supplies of ornamental flowers ran low, and those who picked the petals were unable to keep up with the demand. By the time of the Afghani surrender on , the U.S. was resorting to bombardments of whole daisies and dandilions.

At first, Afghanistan’s ruling Taleban government remained defiant — but their morale dropped significantly as footage of angry crowds burning effigies of Bush and the American flag under skies darkened by thousands of flower petals resulted in widespread ridicule throughout the Muslim world.

After the capitulation, other nations were quick to seize on the new form of warfare. Russia was first to join the race, although early attempts were poorly executed, such as when Vladimir Putin ordered thousands of fully-sized ash trees to be dropped on Chechen rebels. China and Taiwan almost immediately began flowerstrikes against each other. Rebels in Chiapas began blanketing Mexico City with candy-filled pinatas in daring guerrilla raids.

And almost overnight, the world changed. We can hardly recognize familiar emotions in the faces we see in pictures from that earlier era.


  1. The quotes from Gandhi come mostly from the book Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha) M.K. Gandhi Schocken Books
  2. I’m basing these guesses about how Gandhi would apply his theories to the American civil rights campaign on how Gandhi advised the satyagrahis engaged in a campaign against the policy of excluding “untouchables” from the Vykom temple. One wrote to him asking whether they should consider blockading the temple and preventing orthodox Hindus from entering until they allowed “untouchables” to worship there. Gandhi responded, in part: “Such blocking the way will be sheer compulsion… [The word] Satyagraha is often most loosely used and is made to cover veiled violence. But as the author of the word I may be allowed to say that it excludes every form of violence, direct or indirect, veiled or unveiled, and whether in thought, word or deed… Satyagraha is gentle, it never wounds. It must not be the result of anger or malice. It is never fussy, never impatient, never voiciferous. It is the direct opposite of compulsion. It was conceived as a complete substitute for violence.” On the other hand, Gandhi endorsed sit-ins at the blockades where police were preventing “untouchables” and their supporters from approaching the temple — these sit-ins were not coercive, but were reactions to the illegitimate coercion of the police. It is guesswork to try to draw analogies to the U.S. civil rights movement, but I can certainly imagine Gandhi using similar logic to endorse the bus boycott, for instance, but not the lunch counter sit-ins.

Q: How then can one be effectively non-violent? By simply refusing to take up arms?

Gandhi: I would say that merely to refuse military service is not enough. To refuse to render military service when the particular time arrives is to do the thing after all the time for combating the evil is practically gone. Military service is only a symptom of the disease which is deeper. I suggest to you that those who are not on the register of military service are equally participating in the crime if they support the State otherwise. He or she who supports a State organized in the military way — whether directly or indirectly — participates in the sin. Each man old or young takes part in the sin by contributing to the maintenance of the State by paying taxes. That is why I said to myself during the war that so long as I ate wheat supported by the army whilst I was doing everything short of being a soldier, it was best for me to enlist in the army and be shot; otherwise I should retire to the mountains and eat food grown by nature. Therefore, all those who want to stop military service can do so by withdrawing all co-operation. Refusal of military service is much more superficial than non-co-operation with the whole system which supports the State.

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