What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Courage and Resistance
By Vince Emanuele
02 February, 2013
An Interview with Norman Finkelstein
(Emanuele) Let's begin by talking about your interest in Gandhi. What was the impetus for writing this book?
(Finkelstein) I was trying to figure out how a nonviolent strategy would work in Palestine. So an obvious place to start was with Gandhi. Specifically, how Gandhi sought to eject, or evict the British from India. And since everybody makes reference to Gandhi, it occurred to me that with all the references to Gandhi no one had made an explicit exposition of Gandhi's conception of nonviolence. A lot of this is because Gandhi never put together a handbook or synthesis of his doctrine. Really, you have to piece together what he meant, with all his internal contradictions, by going through his collected works. This led me to sit down and go through half of his collected works--about 45 volumes of material, stretching from 1930-1947. So I looked through this material and tried to make some sense of it.
In Chapter One, "Inner Voice," you mention some of Gandhi's contradictions, but you also mention that Gandhi routinely failed to provide explications for his actions, such as suspending the Salt March. Can you talk about Gandhi's often contradictory vision of nonviolence, or Satyagraha?
Well, first of all, as a practical matter, anybody's political outlook or ideology is going to be filled with contradictions because reality is not amenable to a simple, consistent explanation. You're always going to have exceptions. Some people try and taper over the exceptions and try to pretend their doctrine is completely coherent, and internally consistent. I don't think this is ever the case. I think it's an intellectual game. You create a system, and then you allow for exceptions. So, by the time you finish, there's usually more contradictions than there are rules left. I don't particularly begrudge Gandhi because of his inconsistencies. You know, life is very difficult to encapsulate in a coherent and internally consistent theory. That having been said, there are certain aspects of Gandhi's doctrine that are particularly troubling. And one of them is his reliance on what he calls his inner voice . The problem with relying on your inner voice is that it's not subject to correction, or objection. How do you argue with an inner voice ? If you don't even propose a rational argument, then your dissenter doesn't have a basis for disagreeing with you. This basically means that the way Gandhi expressed himself, or justified and rationalized his arguments, was that either you agree with him, or you can go your own way. There's no way to actually argue and debate with him. If you don't agree with his inner voice , then you can leave. To me, there is a significant authoritarian streak to Gandhi. Many of his arguments are framed this way. Either you accept his argument, and it's his way, or it's the highway.
Further along in Chapter One, you also write, "Gandhi could also be superficial, flippant and downright arrogant." Can you talk to us about Gandhi's superficiality and arrogance?
Well there are many instances with Gandhi where he's rendering opinions on everything from birth control to even things like the origins of earthquakes, where he freely admits he knows nothing on the topic. But, nonetheless is very authoritative in the opinions that he renders. Let's be clear, there are areas where he gives his opinion and has actually spent time to research the topic. For example, he came up with a lot of home medical cures. He actually tests a lot of these theories and practices. You may not agree with the decisions he makes, but he does test them. There's a famous situation where his son is dying, and he refuses to provide his son with medicine. In fact, in the end his son lives. So he takes this as vindication of his aversion to medicine. But, you know, in this case, he does sort of speak of the trial and error of science: the living laboratory work. There are other areas where he has an opinion on everything. Frankly, quite frequently, these opinions are not based on anything.
Moving along, in Chapter Two, "Death Pillow," you note, "Because love is at its core, Satyagraha eschews violence." Can you talk about Gandhi's perception of the human condition? In addition, can you illuminate some of Gandhi's naive views on World War II and Hitler?
Some of Gandhi's insights and doctrine seem sensible to me. So, he says that human history is overwhelming about love, not hate, killing or war. He says that the problem is that history chronicles exceptions to the rules, wars, instead of the long periods of peace and the rather harmonious existence human beings experience during their time on Earth. For example, it's the same thing as this psychopathic murderer who walked into a school and murdered 20 kids: History is going to chronicle that episode, but won't recall the fact that for several years at a time kids are peacefully going to classes and more or less getting along with each other. So Gandhi says that as history is chronicled, we'll miss the fact that love and human harmony are the dominant principles to human existence. In addition, he makes the point that if love, hate and war were the dominant principles throughout human history, we would have disappeared a very long time ago. I thought that was a useful insight. He really takes issue with this Western notion that because one sentient being is "higher" than the other on the hierarchy of human evolution, that we have a right to dominate those below them. So, he didn't like the idea that human beings thought they could control and dominate other beings. And Gandhi thinks that if you're at the top of the totem pole, or hierarchy, then you have the greatest responsibly to preserve life for those living below you. The fact that you're the most evolved of all sentient beings doesn't give you license to control, instead it gives you the responsibility to care for those less fortunate. Some of this might sound trite, but I think many of these observations are worthy of reflection and quite useful.
Then, to speak of Gandhi's naiveté, I don't really think Gandhi was naive with regard to World War II. The test was never made. Gandhi's view was that if a sufficient number of people would have been willing to sacrifice themselves, basically in droves, then the German military machine and soldiers wouldn't have been capable of systematically and methodically, over a sustained period, exterminating masses of civilians. This theory was never put to the test, except for the concentration camps, but I'd rather leave that for another conversation. You have to consider two contexts for the Nazi extermination plans: One context is that it was basically concealed; it wasn't openly done, because the assumption was that if it was openly done the German people would not have accepted it. And, number two, it was conducted during the course of a war. In wars, people are more amenable to committing crimes than they are in times of peace. The Germans were suffering major defeats, and they were propagandized into believing it was a Judaic-Bolshevik conspiracy that was responsible for the defeats being inflicted on them. Therefore, their tolerance of massacres, then ending up in extermination, was more accepted amongst German society. In any event, Gandhi's view is that most human beings are incapable of the massive death and destruction the Nazi's were inclined to commit. I think he was wrong when he mentioned that in order to defeat Hitlerism, one would have to resort to super-Hitlerism. That means the Allied powers would have had to commit even grosser atrocities in order to defeat Hitler. Therefore, he thought, those seeking to defeat Hitler by using violence would only surpass Hitler's murderous reign by outdoing him in violent acts. Well, it's true that massive violence was needed to defeat Hitler. But at the end of the day I think it's clear that the world that emerged from World War II was not super-Hitlerite, as Gandhi predicted.
Now, later in "Death Pillow" you write, "The authentic spirit of nonviolence, and the warrior spirit, Gandhi paradoxically suggested, both spring from the identical source of fearlessness." Moreover, you include two pages of rather lengthy quotes from Gandhi expressing his preference of violence over cowardice. Interestingly, to me, and as you mention, Gandhi was quite fond of military lingo and phrases. In some ways, Gandhi reminds me of my former military commanders, who at times devalued human life in order to cope with battles and warfare. Do you think this is a reasonable comparison?
First of all, I think the biggest misunderstanding about Gandhi is that nonviolence was his ultimate value. It certainly was up there, but it was not his ultimate value. Gandhi's ultimate value was courage. There was nothing that Gandhi found more revolting than cowardice. And there was nothing more revolting to Gandhi than cowardice that masks itself as nonviolence. In Gandhi's view, nothing required more courage than nonviolence. If you didn't have the capacity to be nonviolent, then he said you sure as heck better choose violence in order to defend your honor, or to defend your dignity. To Gandhi, there was nothing more wretched and reprehensible than those who fled violence, and when asked to justify their flight from violence said, "It's because we're nonviolent." Well, Gandhi said, "No, you're not fleeing violence because your courageous or nonviolent, it's because you're a coward." And Gandhi was very tough on cowards. He said cowards didn't deserve to live. Actually he reserves his most violent language, in his collected works, not for those who engage in violence, he reserves his most scathing language for those whom he considers cowards. For example, he admired the warrior spirit because the spirit of Sparta, or the Spartans, was to show courage in battle. Gandhi thought this was deserving of praise. You have to understand Gandhi's meaning of nonviolence in order to appreciate his distinctions.
So, let's say your on a battlefield, you have a weapon, your opposite on the other side of the battlefield, he has a weapon, now, in the course of the exchange of fire there's a 50% chance you'll end up alive or dead. For Gandhi, what nonviolence meant was that your opposite on the battlefield has a weapon, you have no weapon, and what you're supposed to do, according to Gandhi, is to march smilingly and cheerfully into the line of fire and get yourself blown to bits. So, by Gandhi's standard, under nonviolence you have a zero chance of survival. Under violence, you have a 50% chance of survival. Accordingly, from Gandhi's reckoning, and to me this seems accurate, nonviolence requires much more courage than violence does. So, with regard to Gandhi's devaluation of life, I think it largely comes from something you said, which is the recognition that if India was going to achieve independence, it was going to be very costly in human life. That's the only way it was going to happen. In many ways, Gandhi was seeking to soften the reality that if the Indian people were determined to eject British rule, many people were going to perish in the process of struggle. This is no different from any other culture, really. In our own American history we're told "Give me liberty, or give me Death." Or we're told "I regret I have but one life, to live for my country." So every country in its struggle for independence is going to put the sacrifice of life as one of its ultimate values, operating with the understanding that this is the only way to achieve victory.
Now, in Chapter Three, "Quickened Conscious," you explain how Satyagraha works. In this context, you note "If fasting stood at one pole of Satyagraha, at the other extreme is what Gandhi called 'non-cooperation,' such as a general strike, which he in principle supported although it obstructed society's functioning." You also write about forms of resistance operating in-between these two extremes. Can you talk about the practical aims of Satyagraha?
Well, the thing about Gandhi, and here he's completely inconsistent, but I don't blame him as I think any theory which seeks to be completely consistent is utterly disingenuous, is that he claims his doctrine is not only nonviolent, but he also claims that it's non-coercive. That is to say, it doesn't use any kind of force, whether emotional or psychological, as well as physical force--it uses the uplifting of love. When one reads Gandhi's works, one finds this is plainly not true: Gandhi is advocating general strikes, massive civil-disobedience, and these are all forms of coercion. They're not violent, but they're coercive. They're using a form of force, you could say it's economic force, but they're using a force not based on love. If workers go out on strike, the Capitalist does not give in because he suddenly discovers his love for workers, he gives in because he's paying a price. It's about exacting a cost. It's not from causing the welling up of love in him. Gandhi was pretty clear, in his more honest moments, that people like Winston Churchill aren't going to abandon India because of love, they're going to abandon India because continuing the occupation of India was going to exact too much of a cost on the British Empire. So he says towards the end of his life, "The only language the British Imperialists understand is open insurrection." And open insurrection is obviously not love, and obviously coercive. So there I think Gandhi wasn't being very honest about his doctrine. It's true that it's nonviolent, but it's also true that it's clearly coercive. It's not relying on the potency of love; it's relying on the potency of the calculation of costs.
Norman G. Finkelstein received his doctorate in 1988 from the Department of Politics at Princeton University. For many years he taught political theory and the Israel-Palestine conflict. He currently writes and lectures. Finkelstein is the author of eight books that have been translated into 50 foreign editions. His latest book is entitled What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Courage and Resistance.
Vince Emanuele is the host of the Veterans Unplugged Radio program, which airs every Sunday, from 5-7pm(Central) in Michigan City, Indiana on 1420AM "WIMS Radio: Your Talk of the South Shore." ( www.veteransunplugged.com ) Vince is also a member of Veterans for Peace, and serves on the board of directors for Iraq Veterans Against the War.
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