Friday, February 26, 2010

Second-guessing Gandhi the flinty-eyed idealist

We who hold that nonviolence is a better way to manage conflict than is violence are often labeled touchingly naive, dewy-eyed idealists who don't understand how power works. Get real, is the curt dismissal.


So, how's that violence workin' out for ya?

Our economy is in shambles after pouring such enormous amounts of money into that model. We seem unable to counter the power of the lobby we've both given in to and grown by increasing spending on war.

Our ecology is trashed daily by the war machine in multiple ways, not the least of which is global climate change. The single largest consumer of fossil fuel on Earth is the Pentagon. The single largest source of Superfund sites is the Pentagon and its contractors. The single largest consumer of many strategic metals and other valuable nonrenewable resources is the war machine.

Violence is literally and figuratively a dead-end. It wins few friends and produces millions of enemies.

Chernus (2004) writes about the alternative in the US: "Since the 1960s, scarcely a day has gone by in which a nonviolence movement did not play a significant role" (p. x). Gandhi's method looks more and more like the new realism. Did he make mistakes? Lots of them. Did his method take a long while? Yes. Did it produce a virtual nirvana for the people of India once they were an independent nation? Not at all.

And yet, in balance, and by asking the counterfactual and comparing to other struggles, we can see his method offers humankind a practical alternative to violence.

One of Gandhi's greatest discoveries was hartal, the cessation of work. When this is done on a mass scale, with commitment, it is even more effective than a strike, since it actively courts the opponent toward friendship and good faith rather than making an effort to crush him. He gave it up just when it was working because some of his people were starting to use violence. This was an error. Gandhi was pure, yet expecting that purity from millions across a diverse land suffering under oppressive and exploitive occupation was his flirtation with dysfunctional unrealistic demands.

As a nonviolent leader, Gandhi should have condemned the violence and declared the perpetrators as independent actors and not as allies or fellow liberation fighters. Then he should have redoubled his call for hartal across the land, and he should have done that with an attitude of great optimism. Had he done that, India would likely have achieved independence more than 20 years before it actually did.

That was easy. Second-guessing 90 years later is exceedingly easy. But it's also helpful in several ways.

One, it suggests that Gandhi was so effective with hartal that it had more power than we now credit it.

Two, it follows Gandhi's call for a review of his experiments, much easier to do at our great remove.

Three, it says that Gandhi was realistic and almost succeeded. His method won many smaller and more local campaigns and would have likely won India's independence by the mid-1920s had he continued it and also developed other prongs to his campaign.

Four, it gives us a tool and some lessons about it now. We can use it to greater effect if we understand how it succeeded and failed in the past.

Back in the day it was thought best by Quakers to be nice, to be nonviolent, and to not fight back. The Dukobars, the various other Anabaptists, some strains of Islam, some sects of Buddhism and some pockets of philosophical pacifists just took it, suffered for their ahimsa, and presumably prepared for heavenly reward later. Then Gandhi put teeth into pacifism and muscle into nonviolence. It has taken us 100 years or so, but we now begin to see that it is the force of the future. Reviewing Gandhi and others and trying to learn how to do it better in the days to come will make the method more and more effective. Second-guessing Gandhi is now a part of Security Studies almost as much as it is Peace Studies. Good. A dose of Gandhi realpolitik is what those dewy-eyed naive violent warriors need. Soon.

Chernus, I. (2004). American nonviolence: The history of an idea. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

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