Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Sacrifice and protection

When Mohandas Gandhi conducted his first nonviolent civil resistance in India, in Champaran, in 1918, he conducted it from a standpoint of expertise and novelty. He gained expertise in the matters of British exploitation of the farmers in the region--who were literally starving from being forced to grow cash crops for which they were paid almost no cash--from his thorough assessment. He moved there, setting up an ashram and conducting interviews, visiting villages, organizing self-help sanitation projects and immersing himself in elevating the quality of the lives of the locals insofar as was possible. This gave him some of his seeds for his progressive rejection of British clothing and even the British-manufactured clothing that was supposed to mark a more successful Indian. In this photo from that 1918 campaign period, Gandhi's clothing is Indian but far more manufactured than it would be just a few years later. He meant to erode the colonial exploitation of Indians by all nonviolent means at his disposal, from mass nonviolent resistance to elimination of the use of British cloth to living so simply that his life didn't support the British economy.

These are lessons we appear to have largely forgotten as we contemplate how we might change our nuclear-armed, climate-changing, warring society. We can act on our problems as Gandhi showed us, from many angles, not just politics, not just education, not just lifestyle--all of it.

Gandhi sacrificed himself first--another conveniently forgotten characteristic of a leader. In Champaran the British arrested him when he disregarded their order to him personally to leave Champaran. Gandhi told his trial judge to bring it on. He said, effectively, sentence me to the max. The judge ordered him to post bail, which Gandhi then refused to do, the judge said that, fine, he would impose sentence after an investigative recess, and the case was dropped--a victory for nonviolent civil resistance the first time it was attempted in India. Gandhi said, "What I did was a very ordinary thing. I declared that the British could not order me around in my own country" (Fischer, 1954, p. 59).

Here is where Gandhi balanced the concept of sacrifice--he offered himself first, unlike the generals and politicians we see nowadays, who conduct struggle from the rear, in safety and comfort--and protection of the most vulnerable. This was not easy for him, as the key to success for nonviolent resistance is indeed the willingness of massive numbers of people to risk it all--freedom, physical safety, homes, and jobs. And that is part of the stickiness of leading a nonviolent campaign that each leader and each movement must work out for itself.

Should Jews have marched on Berlin in 1943, during the most furious time of the so-called Final Solution, when genocide was in full roar? Obviously, no sane leader would ask that. What about five years earlier, following the egregious November Kristallnacht, when 91 Jews were murdered, at least 25,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps, thousands of Jewish homes and businesses were ransacked and 267 synagogues were destroyed?

Again, with such mindless brutality so evident across Germany, nonviolent resistance by Jews alone against the terrorist majority would have been suicidal. Indeed, the very core of that historical example is precisely the opposite of what Gandhi faced in the sense that he was of the majority, the majority were denied basic rights, and the minority ruled. In Germany the majority of the citizens were directly active in oppressing the minority. How could mass action by a minority ever prevail against a demonstrably evil majority acting in bloody brutality against a defenseless minority? When the violence across Germany was conducted by state-supported Hitler Youth alongside the Gestapo and the SS troops and was so widespread, what appeal would nonviolent civil resistance have and how could a leader in good conscience and of sound mind ask the people to show open resistance?

Strategic nonviolent theorists ask these questions and generally acknowledge that acts of conscience in such circumstances are pointless and destined to loss. Ackerman and Kruegler (1994) stress that a particularly vulnerable point is when a wise leader withdraws the people to protect them.

These are endlessly complex questions, of course. "Pointless" sacrifices, driven by conscience, can also galvanize people and help them decide, for once, to act in concert to nonviolently confront the problem. And seemingly hopeless situations can seemingly miraculously transform into victory. It is never possible to be utterly certain when to press ahead and when to temporarily withdraw in order to avoid meaningless sacrifice.

There is only one fairly certain concept: violence will produce a violent response. Indeed, the horrors and terrors of Kristallnacht are a case in point. They were triggered " by the assassination in Paris of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a German-born Polish Jew" (Wikipedia). Clearly, the German population was just waiting for such a triggering event, since the distraught 17-year-old Jewish boy, who had escaped Germany, and whose family was being deported by the Nazis, blindly lashed out only the night before at the German embassy in Paris. As Gandhi knew years before, violence against the oppressor is a poor idea and only provides them with the excuse for massive violence against innocent people who have been tarred with the brush of violence. Where people have failed to learn that lesson, we see the brutal oppression continue, as in Palestine. It is only possible to protect the people when nonviolent discipline holds and is so credible that even the violence of provocateurs is discounted for what it is.

Does this mean that nonviolence is impossible under some circumstances? Sure, just as is violence. Struggling must be done with a strategic set of calculations to defer direct confrontation at times in order to protect the people, and when sacrifice is going to achieve something, the nonviolent leaders offer it first. How many ways does this distinguish nonviolence from violence? Several, obviously. So, while nonviolent leadership needs to think with at least as much strategic depth as do military leaders, they also need to think differently. Simplistic assertions that nonviolent struggle is the same as violent warfare miss a few crucial points, as we see. Acting with nonviolence does require a fresh approach, a mix of conscience and strategic planning and maneuvering. Our first lessons continue to come from Mohandas Gandhi, and then we can refine from that great leader's learnings.

Ackerman, Peter, and Kruegler, Christopher,
Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century. Westport CT: Praeger Publishers, 1994.

Fischer, L. (1954).
The life of Mahatma Gandhi: His life and message for the world. New York: Harper & Row (original 1950).

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