A Virtual Debate With Gandhi About Non-Violence

[Back in December 1988 a friend of mine seemed to be leaning a bit towards Gandhian non-violence. So I wrote this up in order to help him think things through a little more deeply.]

[Sources: GONV means Gandhi on Non-Violence: A Selection from the Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, edited by Thomas Merton, (NY: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1965). The references in parentheses below are to the two-volume edition of Gandhi's Non-Violence in Peace and War, published by Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1948, which Merton used as his source.]

Non-violence implies as complete self-purification as is humanly possible. Man for man the strength of non-violence is in exact proportion to the ability, not the will, of the non-violent person to inflict violence.
The power at the disposal of a non-violent person is always greater than he would have if he were violent.
There is no such thing as defeat in non-violence.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 24. (I-111.)

The first of these principles is based on one of those repulsive religious ideas, that people are "sinful" or "dirty" and need "self-purification".

The second principle seems to make a certain amount of sense; but it should be rephrased as something like "the potential impact of the purposeful resort to non-violence is proportional to the ability of the non-violent person to use violence instead". Though Gandhi would hardly welcome this consequence, this implies that the non-violent responses of a person capable of violence, and prepared to resort to violence if necessary, carry considerably more impact than those incapable and unprepared for violence.

The third and fourth principles are ridiculous. They are views which can only be accepted on faith, a faith which flies in the face of ordinary common sense and the conclusive lessons of history. One can imagine trying to make some sense out of these principles, but it would be an absurdly strained exercise. To argue that non-violent activity has a certain cumulative moral effect, for example, has some limited plausibility. But it by no means implies that there is no such thing as defeat for non-violence. If you are engaged in a non-violent campaign against a war, for example, then you are defeated as long as the war continues. To argue otherwise is to forget your purpose, and to live in a dream world.

If love or non-violence be not the law of our being, the whole of my argument falls to pieces.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 25. (I-121.)

Indeed it isn't, and indeed it does. Usually we hear the bourgeois view that human nature is essentially evil (selfish); but here is a petty-bourgeois view, that human nature is essentially good. Actually, of course, it is neither. Human nature is a function of human society, primarily, and changes as society changes. In a rotten society, such as we live in at present, there is a lot that is rotten in many people's nature, and many people are quite capable of committing horrible deeds. It is foolish in the extreme to pretend otherwise.

Belief in non-violence is based on the assumption that human nature in its essence is one and therefore unfailingly responds to the advances of love.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 25. (I-175.)

Those who see only one side to humanity, be it either evil or good, lack dialectics. They lack an appreciation for the contradictions in humanity, many of which grow out of the contradictions in society. Failing to understand humanity and the world, they are unable to change it.

The non-violent technique does not depend for its success on the goodwill of the dictators, for a non-violent resister depends on the unfailing assistance of God which sustains him throughout difficulties which would otherwise be considered insurmountable.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 25-6. (I-175.)

Gandhi's reliance on religion and God to back him up shows another aspect to the irrational appeal to faith that lies behind his theory of non-violence. Since from a scientific materialist point of view there is no God, then likewise from a scientific point of view the faith in non-violence is seen to be irrational. Non-violence will indeed work in some situations, but up against brutal dictatorships (of individuals or of classes) it must ultimately fail. In these situations non-violent struggle is at best a prelude to violent struggle, as indeed it was in India (see below).

I do not consider Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted. He is showing an ability that is amazing and he seems to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed.
   —Gandhi, remark to Rajkumari Amri, May 1940. Quoted in The Experts Speak, by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky, (NY: Pantheon, 1984), p. 283.

This is a good example of how an incorrect philosophy (that of non-violence in this case) can warp your judgment. Being a good man himself, Gandhi found it hard to believe that others could be as bad as in fact they sometimes are.

Non-violence, which is a quality of the heart, cannot come by an appeal to the brain.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 27. (I-276.)

Quite so. One can only thank Gandhi for being so frank as to admit that the doctrine of non-violence can not be arrived at and successfully defended through rational argument.

A non-violent revolution is not a program of seizure of power. It is a program of transformation of relationships, ending in a peaceful transfer of power.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 28. (II-8.)

The utopianism here consists in the idea that class differences can be eliminated while the bourgeoisie is in power. This fails to see that it is the proletariat that wishes to remove class differences from the world, and not the ruling bourgeoisie. Of course if all you are interested in is a transfer of power from one representative of a class to a different representative, then it is not revolution you are talking about, no matter what words you may use.

The root of satyagraha [non-violent action] is in prayer. A satyagrahi [activist of non-violence] relies upon God for protection against the tyranny of brute force.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 30. (II-62.)

So if there is no God, or even if there is but he doesn't choose to help you, then you are dead out of luck. Gandhi himself, for all his piety, was murdered.

No man can stop violence. God alone can do so. Men are but instruments in His hands.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 31.

If this were true one could only despair for humanity. But actually, it does lie within "man's" power to stop violence, at least the major episodes of violence we call wars. But this can only be done through revolutionary war and rebellion which destroys the conditions that continue to lead to wars. Such is the nature of the world we live in, if you open your eyes and stop believing in salvation through supernatural saviors.

It has been suggested by American friends that the atom bomb will bring in ahimsa [the philosophy of non-violence] as nothing else can.... This is very like a man glutting himself with dainties to the point of nausea and turning away from them only to return with redoubled zeal after the effect of nausea is well over. Precisely in the same manner will the world return to violence with renewed zeal after the effect of disgust is worn out.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 32. (II-96.)

On this point I am in perfect agreement with Gandhi; a century which has gotten used to world wars and mass genocides has pretty much also gotten used to the idea of nuclear war. At any rate there is certainly no massive non-violent upsurge against nuclear war.

I regard the employment of the atom bomb for the wholesale destruction of men, women and children as the most diabolical use of science.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 32. (II-98.)

Yes it is. And those scientists who have prostituted their talents to the bourgeoisie for the purpose of arming them with this weapon deserve our total condemnation, no matter how much we may admire their scientific brilliance.

It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become non-violent. There is no such hope for the impotent.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 37. (I-240.)

This is a very interesting admission. One almost suspects that if Gandhi had not put all his faith and reliance on a (non-existent) God, he would of necessity had to recognize the need to combat the violence of those who are harming the people with the people's own violence. In any case, the point is correct: standing by impotently in this violent world is the worst possible response (if it can even be called a response). The people must arm themselves, ideologically and with weapons of violence, and put an end to the attacks directed against them.

If the capacity for non-violent self-defense is lacking, there need be no hesitation in using violent means.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 38. (I-260.)

Again, interesting. But to be really sensible, it should be rephrased: If the actual possibility for non-violent self-defense is lacking, there need be no hesitation in using violent means. And "self-defense" itself must be construed broadly here; it is not only one's personal defense which is at issue, but that of the people generally. And it is not only at moments when the enemy is actually shooting at you when this applies, but also when they are loading their weapons.

So long as one wants to retain one's sword, one has not attained complete fearlessness.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 40. (II-38.)

I see no reason why fearlessness should be equated with foolhardiness. If the enemy uses swords against the people, the people must respond in kind. To resist someone with a sword by first throwing down your own sword is not fearlessness, but stupidity.

In life it is impossible to eschew violence completely. The question arises, Where is one to draw the line? The line cannot be the same for everyone.... Meat-eating is a sin for me. Yet for another person who has always lived on meat and never seen anything wrong in it, to give it up simply to copy me will be a sin.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 41. (II-69.)

The sensible place to draw the line is not between people and animals (though see below), but at the point that non-violence ceases to adequately defend the vital interests of the people. Unfortunately, in today's world the line is reached quickly. In tomorrow's world things will be better.

To allow crops to be eaten up by animals in the name of ahimsa while there is a famine in the land is certainly a sin.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 41. (II-69.)

I am not able to accept in its entirety the doctrine of non-killing of animals. I have no feeling in me to save the life of these animals who devour or cause hurt to man. I consider it wrong to help in the increase of their progeny.... To do away with monkeys where they have become a menace to the well-being of man is pardonable.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 70. (II-67.)

No doubt in the future, when synthetic meat is better and cheaper than real meat, humanity will find it possible to stop slaughtering animals. But even then it will be true, as Gandhi implies here, that people are more important than other animals; people come first.

I know that the progress of non-violence is seemingly a terribly slow progress. But experience has taught me it is the surest way to the common goal.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 44. (I-211.)

The experience of the world says the opposite.

Western democracy, as it functions today, is diluted nazism or fascism.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 45. (I-269.)

This is true, but not because—as Gandhi thought—that Western democracy is not based on non-violence, but because it is a form of class rule by the bourgeoisie over the proletariat and (where they exist) the peasantry. Whenever that rule is seriously threatened, the capitalists will inevitably discard democracy and resort to fascism in an attempt to maintain their obscene privileges.

You are very much mistaken if you imagine that true democracy obtains either in America or England. The voice of the people may be said to be God's voice... But how can there be the voice of God where the people themselves are the exploiters as England and America are? They live on the colored races by exploiting them.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 61. (II-151.)

The "democracy" within an imperialist country, even if it were complete and genuine (which it is definitely not), is like the "democracy" on the corporate board of directors. It is pitiful and meaningless because the corporation itself is a dictatorship. Liberals worry about improving the democracy within the corporate board; revolutionaries know that the corporation must be destroyed.

Non-violent defense presupposes recklessness about one's life and property.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 46. (I-271.)

It is one thing to be careless about one's own life and property; it is another thing to tell others to follow you. If you wish to be some kind of saintly, religious martyr, then go ahead. But do not mislead the people into deadly traps by telling them that this is the best way to struggle against their oppression.

In this age of democracy it is essential that desired results are achieved by the collective effort of the people. It will no doubt be good to achieve an objective through the effort of an [sic] supremely powerful individual, but it can never make the community conscious of its corporate strength.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 47. (I-342.)

This is one of the central tenets of the Marxist theory of the mass line, elements of which have been recognized by many individuals throughout history.

There is no escape for any of us save through truth and non-violence. I know that war is wrong, is an unmitigated evil. I know too that it has got to go. I firmly believe that freedom won through bloodshed or fraud is no freedom.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 52. (I-75.)

Since it is the capitalist and imperialist system that is the main source of war in the modern age, war in general cannot be abolished unless capitalism and imperialism is destroyed through revolutionary war. (Using one kind of war to end all wars is no more absurd than using fire to create a firebreak and extinguish a forest fire.) But according to Gandhi, we are supposed to believe that even if we truly abolished all war through revolutionary warfare, that nothing worthwhile would have been accomplished! Freedom too is freedom, no matter how it is achieved, and the people have the right to use whatever means is necessary to achieve it.

Peace will never come until the great powers courageously decide to disarm themselves.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 53. (I-176.)

But the "great powers" will never agree to do this as long as they are under the control of the bourgeoisie. This is one of the main reasons why the people must overthrow the bourgeoisie. If the people do not do this, and relatively soon in historical terms, then humanity will not survive.

You cannot build non-violence on a factory civilization.... Rural economy as I have conceived it eschews exploitation altogether, and exploitation is the essence of violence. You have therefore to be rural-minded before you can be non-violent, and to be rural-minded you have to have faith in the spinning wheel.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 54. (I-243.)

Gandhi failed to see that industry is possible under social relationships other than just capitalist ones. He saw that capitalist relationships are bad, that they are exploitative, and that truly "exploitation is the essence of violence". So failing to see the possibility of real socialism and communism, he could only attempt the hopeless task of trying to turn the clock back. His "faith in the spinning wheel" is perhaps even more absurd than his faith in the protection of God.

Morality is contraband in war.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 54. (I-268.)

This may seem like a truism, but it is supremely mistaken. It fails to distinguish between just wars and unjust wars. In many wars, interimperialist wars for example, both sides are wrong. But in some wars, one side is wrong and the other side is right—morally right. Such is the case for the people in a revolutionary war against their oppressors. Morality is not contraband in a just war; it is what the war is all about. As for the bourgeoisie, their morality is always a farce and a fake, whether in war or in "peace".

You cannot successfully fight them [the Big Powers] with their own weapons. After all, you cannot go beyond the atom bomb. Unless we have a new way of fighting imperialism of all brands in place of the outworn one of violent rising, there is no hope for the oppressed races of the earth.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 56. (II-8.)

Well, first of all, it is true that the people have their own weapons and methods of struggle, which cannot be exactly the same as that of the imperialists with their reliance on advanced technology and weapons of mass destruction. However, Gandhi is completely mistaken in his assertion that violent risings of the people are now outworn and hopeless. On the contrary, it is only here that there is the possibility of success. Even in the few decades since Gandhi wrote these lines this has been proven numerous times. One need only cite the victory of the Vietnamese people over U.S. imperialism and that of the Afghani people over Soviet imperialism to see that imperialism can indeed be defeated.

One day the black races will rise like the avenging Attila against their white oppressors unless someone presents to them the weapon of satyagraha [non-violent action].
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 56. (II-12.)

The "black races" have every right to overthrow their oppressors, and it is by no means a frightening prospect to those who oppose oppression that they will someday do so. Those who try to push a philosophy of non-violence on these oppressed people—whatever their motives—are objectively aiding the racist masters. To the extent that these oppressed people renounce violent struggle at times when such struggle is appropriate and necessary, to that extent they will have thrown away opportunities to advance toward their freedom.

I do not appreciate any underground activity. Millions cannot go underground. Millions need not.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 58. (II-50.)

Millions do not need to; but in times of severe oppression the much smaller numbers of organizers of the millions may need to do so. Why should we allow the enemy to destroy the cause of the people by removing their organizers and leaders?

We are all thieves, but most of us are tolerant towards ourselves and intolerant towards those that are found out and are not of the ordinary run. What is a man if he is not a thief who openly charges as much as he can for the goods he sells?
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 60. (II-124.)

Yes such a man is a thief. But not every person is a merchant; not everyone thinks and acts like a capitalist, even in capitalist society. Poor Gandhi could not transcend his own petty-bourgeois ideas.

It is open to a war resister to judge between the combatants and wish success to the one who has justice on his side. By so judging he is more likely to bring peace between the two than by remaining a mere spectator.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 65. (I-241.)

But if it is right to wish success to the one that has justice on his side, is it not also right to aid him, to join with him in the struggle? Those who get caught up with the philosophy of non-violence inevitably become inconsistent in their opposition to injustice.

[Regarding non-violent resistance in case of a Japanese invasion of India:] Non-violent resisters would refuse them any help, even water. For it is no part of their duty to help anyone steal their country.... Suppose the Japanese compel the resisters to give them water, the resisters must die in the act of resistance.... The underlying belief in such non-violent resistance is that the aggressor will, in time, be mentally and physically tired of killing non-violent resisters. He will begin to search what this new (for him) force is which refuses cooperation without seeking to hurt, and will probably desist from further slaughter. But the resister may find that the Japanese are utterly heartless and that they do not care how many they kill. The non-violent resisters will have won the day inasmuch as they will have preferred extermination to submission.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 69. (I-397.)

The above paragraph is truly pathetic; extermination is somehow victory. If this is not a self-exposure of the absurdities of the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence, I don't know what is. The sensible person will give the invader water when ordered to do so at gun point; but will also slit the invader's throat at the first opportunity.

Indian non-violence has brought no relief to the cultured Western powers because it is still poor stuff. Why travel so far to see its inefficacy?
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 72. (I-267.)

Gandhi admitted late in life that his non-violent campaign in India had been a failure.

If I am a true teacher of ahimsa [the philosophy of non-violence], I am sure you will soon leave behind your teacher. If that does not happen, it will only mean that I was an unfit teacher. But if my teaching fructifies, there will be teachers of ahimsa in every home.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 72. (I-290.)

One may judge how well Gandhi's teachings bore fruit in India—no doubt the most fertile ground in the world—by subsequent history. There is for example the terrible civil war between the Hindus and the Moslems which led to the creation of Pakistan; the border war against China which India provoked in 1962; the Indian manufacture and testing of nuclear weapons; the Indian use of force in the Pakistani civil war which turned east Pakistan into Bangla Desh; Indian imperialist and military intervention in other countries in the region (Sri Lanka, Nepal); etc.

Non-violence is today [during the Hindu-Moslem hostilities] rightly laughed out of court as Utopian. Nevertheless, I maintain that it is the only way to keep Hinduism alive and India undivided.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 73. (II-154.)

It is easy for an outsider to see Gandhi's parochialism and national chauvinism here. What afterall is so important about keeping Hinduism alive and India undivided? But the main point is the stark failure of Gandhi's non-violent philosophy, and the desertion of most of his followers.

[At the end of his life Gandhi admitted loss of hope of attaining real non-violence in India. —Thomas Merton] The loss of hope arises from my knowledge that I have not attained sufficient detachment and control over my temper and emotions which entitle one to entertain the hope.... I must confess my bankruptcy, not that of non-violence.... India has no experience of the non-violence of the strong.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 74. (II-264-5.)

So Gandhi blamed himself instead of his philosophy. But this is really hard to swallow. If someone like Gandhi is not good enough to make non-violence work, then who among mortal men is? No, it seems clear that it is the inherent weakness and irrationality of the philosophy of non-violence itself which led to its utter failure.

I have admitted my mistake. I thought our struggle was based on non-violence, whereas in reality it was no more than passive resistance, which essentially is a weapon of the weak. It leads naturally to armed resistance whenever possible.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 75. (II-276.)

[Regarding his "fast unto death", January, 1948:] My fast should not be considered a political move in any sense of the term. It is obedience to the peremptory call of conscience and duty. It comes out of felt agony.
   —Gandhi, GONV, p. 76. (II-363.)

Gandhi did not die from his fast, but was instead murdered by one of his Hindu co-religionists. As the article on Pacifism and Nonviolent Movements in the Encyclopaedia Britannica states, the achievement of Indian independence in 1947 "was not exclusively nor even predominantly produced by nonviolent actions". [15th ed., Vol. 13, p. 850.]

—Scott H.
   12/11/88 (edited slightly on 9/4/98)

— End —

Philosophy Home Page on MASSLINE.ORG
Scott H.’s Home Page on MASSLINE.ORG