War Tax Resister Joanne Sheehan on Gandhi’s Program for Transformation

The latest NWTRCC newsletter includes the keynote speech given by War Resisters International chair Joanne Sheehan at the New England War Tax Resistance Conference : Gandhi’s Three Elements of Nonviolent Social Transformation (excerpts):

Gandhi outlined three elements for social transformation and saw them as intertwined. Social change will not come about by just doing one of them. The three elements are personal transformation, political action, and constructive program.

Personal Transformation: Gandhi saw this as a beginning, because even if each of us becomes “peaceful,” we still need to do more.… In addition, personal transformation includes understanding the choices that we make. In my own work with high school students, it is apparent that young people need to know about choices — how we live our lives, lifestyles choices, how we relate to others. This can be the most important part of a workshop with young people, but it is something each and every one of us must explore. War tax resistance is certainly an aspect of personal transformation, as we make decisions about what we do with our money, what we choose to support or refuse to support.

Political Action: When asked what is nonviolent action, in the U.S. we often think of civil disobedience or particular actions. I do an exercise in nonviolence trainings where I ask small groups to list 10 wars. They do this quite quickly, but then they struggle to come up with 10 nonviolent campaigns.… And usually they list tactics and movements rather than campaigns, not understanding the difference. In contrast, when I’ve been in India, people describe nonviolent action as what they are doing in the villages, the constructive work they are doing.

Effective nonviolence is strategic. Too often we see a problem but only think of single actions in response. We don’t think strategically about a longer term response. In her excellent speech at the opening of the World Social Forum in , Arundhati Roy said that even though the international anti-war outpouring on , was wonderful, it was a weekend, and, “Holiday protests don’t stop wars.”

In Gandhian campaigns of nonviolent action against specific evils, noncooperation is a key. Gandhi’s Salt March initially involved only 80 people, but the act of picking up the salt from the sea and making their own salt in defiance of British taxed salt was revolutionary. The power of the Salt March was that it became a massive campaign — there was something everyone could do. Some packaged the salt, some sold it, all could refuse to buy the taxed salt and buy the alternative. The people of India were saying no to the Empire and that became the turning point in their struggle for independence. We say no as WTRs. People in the military are saying no. We need to explore more in our culture how we say no, how we noncooperate, and acknowledge that there is a network that exists that helps this happen. Military resisters are not alone by and large. These days Cindy Sheehan has helped galvanize the network and make it more connected.

To be effective political action, noncooperation needs to be one aspect of a strategic nonviolent campaign that might include other tactics such as protest, public pressure from boycotts, etc.

War tax resisters tend to be very experienced with the two elements above. It is the third of Gandhi’s elements that we need to study and add to our efforts as we work for social transformation.

Constructive Program: We are quick to identify and protest the things we don’t like in our society, but we are often asked “so what are you for?” As revolutionaries we need to start building a new society in the shell of the old. Gandhi said we should not wait for one to crumble before starting the other. Constructive program brings people together to do the kind of community work that is empowering, bringing them to a point of self reliance and being ready to develop a new society. To outline a nonviolent campaign involving all these elements, we need to begin to identify where the change is needed.…

When we talk about the “shell of the old” in the U.S., we can see with Hurricane Katrina that we are one hurricane away from being a third world country. The structure is not working for people. It is a façade that is only working for the people at the top. The poverty, classism, and racism of our society was exposed by the winds and floods of Katrina. Gandhi was working with a huge society of very poor people. As we look at our nation of very poor and very rich people, the things that we identify as underlying our constructive program will be much different. There is also the issues of who defines what the elements of a constructive program would look like in this society? I think it is a continuous group process that needs to include those most in need of a new society, and those most interested in building one. That is our challenge.