GANDHI - His Relevance For Our Times
Notes on the Theory of Nonviolence
Notes On The Theory of Nonviolence
William Robert Miller
How many of the books and articles that have been published concerning pacifism and non-violence are without a very considerable degree of propagandistic, apologetic material? Author after author is concerned to provide a “basis” for pacifism or for nonviolence―and very often this is provided in something approaching a casuistical style that varies from one author to the next. A very interesting paper could be written, dealing with nothing else than the ideological (and theological) varieties themselves. Perhaps the reason is that almost the only writers in this field have a very impelling commitment to their subject which makes them tend to argue for it and erect defences against criticisms of it. The few who are not in this position are usually counter-ideologues, whose only concern is to debunk non-violence or pacifism from the standpoint of another ideology to which they likewise are committed. There is little if any objective and disinterested research, devoted to presenting the whole picture and seriously analyzing the successes or failures of historic instances of non-violence or pacifism or debating theoretical points. (Hebrews 6:1 is relevant to this matter: “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrines of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith towards God”. The context of this passage is set by the preceding verses, 5:11-14, which have to do with the unreadiness of some Christians to assume leadership: “At a time when you should be teaching others”, paraphrases J. B. Phillips, “you need teachers yourselves to repeat to you the ABC of God’s revelation to men”.) Frequently this seems to be the case with those who espouse pacifism and nonviolence; they tirelessly cover and recover the same elementary foundations in the same uncritical frame of mind. In the authors themselves there is frequently an unwillingness to engage in the necessary intellectual conflict with their co-thinkers which might clarify issues and raise important problems for solution. Consequently the issues are muddied and the problems glossed over in an attitude of charitableness that might better be reserved for the critics of pacifism and nonviolence. These latter are seldom accorded the kindly respect shown to the co-thinker, but are rudely dismissed as obstacles to the onward march of truth. But authentic maturity will be attained only as we learn to relax in the fundamental presuppositions of our faith and entertain theoretical doubts and assume the role of a devil’s advocate who is more than a straw man. It is so easy for us to discover the rationalizations and ideological and psychological and motivational distortions in our opponent’s thinking, and so hard to see these in ourselves; and it is likewise hard for us to recognize, concede and come meaningfully to grips with the solid criticisms that confront us.
In a letter published in Harijan, 7 December 1947, Gandhi says: “Europe mistook the bold and brave resistance full of wisdom by Jesus of Nazareth for passive resistance, as if it was of the weak....Has not the West paid heavily in regarding Jesus as a Passive Resister.?” Gandhi is here making a distinction between passive resistance and nonviolent resistance which, it seems to me, clouds the issue with emotion. Taking “nonviolence” or ahimsa as the generic term, I think it is possible to discern at least three types of action compatible with this attitude: (1) nonresistance; (2) passive resistance; and (3) non-violent action.
The plain meaning of the words is there if we would only take elementary care with their philological components. Resistance, in the usual sense, simply means to withstand, oppose, stand firm against something, to block it or push it back. The Latin root components are re-(back) and sistere, the causative of stare (to stand). This word includes the whole gamut of possible (and impossible) methods of resistance, which remain to be stated. Resistance can be real or false, mental or physical, pugilistic or armed, civil or military, violent or nonviolent―and this list by no means exhausts the possible qualifying adjectives that may be applied. Non-resistance is, clearly, the absence of all these―unless, as is frequently the case with negations, only a certain class of connotations is meant to be excluded. As customarily used, “non-resistance” refers to overt actions. He who practices non-resistance in this sense may very well oppose an adversary in his will and spirit, but does not present any overt obstacle to the action to which resistance would be a possible response. It might be pertinent here to ask: how does non-resistance differ from acquiescence or collaboration? The distinction lies in the connotation: the non-resister may well acquiesce in the action that is being done, but it is not a willing acquiescence. “Do not resist evil” does not mean, “Be complacent when evil is done”, though it could mean, “Keep your resistance to yourself let it remain unacted and restricted to the spiritual realm”. It cannot ethically mean to give tacit endorsement to evil. “Non-resistance” therefore is an ambiguous term which carries within itself a contradiction of meanings that must be kept in fragile balance. Part, at least, of' this ambiguity will be resolved at the linguistic level if we observe the force of the prefix “non” as contrasted with “un”. To be non-resistant implies a purposiveness that does not apply to being un-resistant. Parenthetically, we should note that different languages have different structures and the manner in which such distinctions are made will vary according to the language.1
“Passive resistance” is perhaps a better word, a less ambiguous word for what is implied by the connotative use of the word “non-resistance”. And yet because of the currency of “non-resistance”, it has acquired its own connotations. The noun is positive and denotes action of some kind. How can an action be “passive”? In a broad sense, “non-resistance” could mean running away or otherwise evading the conflict implied in resistance of any kind. (Perhaps such action could be designated “unresistance”.) Even so, this could be a form of resistance if it thereby thwarts or frustrates the action that has been presented. In fine, the distinguishing characteristic of non-resistance must be that it does not attempt to thwart the action itself. Jesus was nonresistant when he was sentenced to death, and his non-resistance is supremely evident in his “acquiescence” in the suffering he endured on the cross. He did not seek to avoid the consequences of the evil actions of his persecutors, and indeed entered death with forgiveness for them, which says something profound about the nature of a non-resistance which is not an end in itself but a corollary to agapaic love. That is, a further connotation is here introduced―we might speak of “redemptive non-resistance” or “loving non-resistance” or “Christian non-resistance”. There is a similar, though not identical, implication in the Hindu concept of ahimsa, or non-harm, considered in all its aspects but with particular emphasis on the spiritual. To speak of “embittered non-resistance” or “hateful non-resistance” is to suggest the absurdity of omitting the spiritual connotations derived from the Gospel and from the Hindu doctrines. At the same time, let us not be too quick to suppose that it is impossible for non-resistance to be corrupted by unredemptive, unloving or un-Christian attitudes. There is no type of social or personal relation which cannot be emptied of spiritual content and rendered demoniac. Even the best of them can be perverted through divorcement from the divine spirit that breathes life into them. Gene Sharp has attempted a typology of non-violence which is in many ways useful if somewhat speculative.2 He lists nine separate types of “generic non-violence”, in order of “increasing activity”, beginning with non-resistance and ending with “non-violent revolution”. Unfortunately, the nature of activity is unspecified―the term itself is perhaps too broad―but what is neglected most crucially, it seems to me, is the dimension of depth. In certain situations, non-resistance, embraced in spirit and in truth, may count for more, both in principle and in a strategic sense, than a sweeping non-violent revolution that may be shallow and demoniac. To the extent that his categories are themselves valid, they beg for a more than unilinear treatment and need to be seen in the light of each of several other factors: stability, tactical adaptability, spiritual depth, social velocity, chances of organic growth, and relevance a given existential situation.
What, then, is “passive resistance”? Surely it must be a form action which is not overt in the way it opposes. It seeks to block the action in some way short of actively opposing it. Paradoxically, it may be a form of running away from the conflict which does not let the initial action continue unchanged. If non-resistance means remaining in the situation and yielding to its demands, passive resistance must mean thwarting these demands by altering the situation in some way, either within it or by withdrawal.
Passive resistance is likely to be defensive in both its tactics and its strategy, and to involve forms of non-cooperation that embarrass rather than coerce. It means directly altering one’s own behaviour but not directly impeding that of the opponent. If non-resistance “goes along with” the opponent, absorbing the latter’s aggression and offering no counteraction, passive resistance is a way that refuses to go along with the opponent but chooses routes of action which tactically disengage the resister from the direct point of conflict. It may overtly acquiesce in the opponent’s terms, but its strategic effect is so to change the terms of the conflict that the opponent, for his own reasons and not because of any overt impediment, is led to initiate change. The boycott or withdrawal of patronage, the walk-out aspect of a strike―these are types of passive resistance. In these actions, the resister simply removes himself from engagement with his opponent at the point where the opponent relies upon the resister’s reciprocal action to complete his own action. A factory cannot produce goods without the action of its workers. If they cease their productive action, the management of the factory is deprived of an indispensable element in the process of production. If bus riders passively refuse to ride buses, the buses will go empty and the bus company’s revenues will be curtailed in proportion to the effectiveness of the boycott. The next step is up to the factory or the bus company, which must either come to terms with the resisters or replace them or force them to come back. But it must do something to regain control of the situation.
The Montgomery bus boycott is an example of passive resistance, and a famous one. Unfortunately it is, properly considered, an unsuccessful example, since the boycott was brought to a conclusion by a court decision which had nothing to do with the boycott itself. 3
Passive resistance is a form of resistance which is non-violent, and for this reason it is often used interchangeably with “nonviolent resistance”. But not all kinds of non-violent resistance are passive. If we said “active resistance”, we would make clear the distinction of “active” versus “passive”, but would thereby reopen the question of violence which is ruled out in the term “passive”. Therefore, “nonviolent resistance” connotes a type of conduct which is active as non-violent. In this, the resister seeks directly to thwart his opponent’s conduct by his own, and this implies offensive tactics. A tactic of nonviolent action in the Montgomery situation, for example, would have been for the Negroes to have taken seats reserved for whites on the buses. But is this really “resistance”? There is so much of a positive, assertive character in this action that it raises a question about the appropriateness of the word “resistance” in this context. This question has to do with a difference between strategy and tactics. In military affairs, offensive tactics may be employed as subordinate parts of a strategy of withdrawal, with one unit advancing against enemy positions in order to facilitate the retreat of other units. Similarly, a tactical withdrawal may be a necessary part of a strategic advance. These are matters of technique which are separate from the issues of the conflict, though they undoubtedly have their moral aspect, their interior questions of economy of means, military ethics and so forth. Likewise with nonviolence. Nonviolent “resistance” is morally a combat against evil, but it is also morally for good. Both resistance and affirmation are modes of the same kind of action in tactics and strategy, and are defined largely by the extent of opposition such action encounters. The same action may be tactically resistant and strategically affirmative or vice versa. Since “resist” implies response to a prior or present action, when such action is absent, we cannot speak of resistance―but there are certainly cases in which action can be initiated which is nonviolent and which, evoking a hostile response, will become tactically resistant.
Is Nonviolence "Christian"?
Some exponents of non-violence make the claim that it is “the way of the Cross”, while its opponents frequently point out: (a) that in the personal love-ethic of Jesus, as demonstrated in his teachings (especially the Sermon on the Mount), the standard is not resistance of any kind but self-sacrificing non-resistance; and (b) that this love-ethic is inapplicable to society, so that types of coercion must be responsibly used by Christians to whom are entrusted the welfare of society. The dichotomy thus described is between absolutism, Utopianism, perfectionism, etc. on the one hand, and on the other hand, relativism, relevance, realism, etc. More specifically, the split is characterized by the former's insistence upon Christ as the norm to which all things are to be subordinated, whatever the cost and with the consolation that one’s conduct is good in the sight of God and in the “long run” of history, even when its immediate viability is the indispensable criterion of action, even if this means the deferment of efforts at Christlike conduct in society to the unforeseeable future or to “the end of history”. In between these extremes there is room, I think, for a recognition of the fact that nonviolence is a relativization or adulteration of Gospel non-resistance which is, in many instances at least, viable in the social order. That is, nonviolence is not a perfect expression of the Christian love-ethic but more closely approximates it than violence does. The Christian who absolutely rejects violence may readily avail himself of nonviolent methods of coercion and persuasion, finding in them a context in which to work for a greater expression of redemptive and reconciling love. The relativist or realist, who may be willing and ready to use violence for the same redemptive purposes (a motive too little appreciated by his critics, who often see its failure in practice), may also avail himself of nonviolence as one of several varieties of action that are open to him―and one which, other things being equal, is to be preferred for its greater compatibility with the teachings of Jesus. After all, it would be a perverse and wholly un-Christian kind of “realism” which could insist that armed force is always the preferable means for the solution of social conflict.
Nonviolence and Relevance
There is a certain interpenetration of the two approaches to nonviolence indicated above that is reflected in the interior problems of each. Here I want to consider how this affects the person who embraces non-violence from the viewpoint of a prior commitment to abstain from violence. There is a temptation to think of nonviolence as a panacea (and for the realist there is the temptation to reject it as this and nothing more) which, if applied to any situation, is sure to bring the desired solution. But it is possible (and I think important and necessary) to reject this view as wishful thinking―without necessarily therefore rejecting nonviolence as a commitment. There are two distinct questions involved here. The first is: shall I be non-violent in all circumstances? This is a question of personal commitment, and the possible answers are yes or no. The second is: is nonviolent action viable in all circumstances? The answer here has to do with results; it is not a subjective but an objective question, and the answer has to do with facts rather than will or intention. I may decide, in a given situation, to act in a certain way because of a faith or presupposition that this is the only right or honourable way to act. What constitutes effective, consequential action at that moment is another matter. The realist is also affected, if less noticeably, by this. A soldier who may have no compunctions about killing, may hold off from a certain kind of killing (e.g., torture, killing unarmed civilians) which might effect the solution to his problem but at a moral cost which transcends (or at least morally blocks) any gain that might be perceived.
Moreover, some types of action, whether violent or nonviolent, may have so little visible chance of success that they are virtually suicidal and yet are not necessarily contemptible for that reason. On the contrary, we admire the valiant man who risks certain death for the sake of his beliefs―particularly if we share those beliefs, but even if we are at enmity with him. For this very reason we despise the man who proposes a risky course of action and personally flinches from the consequences―the man who counsels heroism and martyrdom for others but seeks safety for himself. And for the same reason we lack respect for the man who so little values his life or his cause that he will vaingloriously dispose of it to no purpose either of witness or of achievement. Sometimes our attitude may be complex: we can appreciate the personal courage of the men who died in the battle of the Little Big Horn, at the Alamo or at San Juan Hill or in the charge of the Light Brigade―while reflecting that in history these were the wrong places and the wrong causes at which and for which to give one's life―all imperialist ventures. Our criteria of judgement are not unilateral unless our concern is unilaterally for nonviolence at all costs, courage at all costs, etc.
It is, after all, this elevation of a partial value to the position of absolute supremacy which is the offence called idolatry. The demands of the Christian faith are be no means fulfilled in the mere abstention from violence, even if this is taken to be a cardinal and indispensable element of it―and the same is true if one takes courage or freedom or truth or any other God-given value and sets it up as a god in itself. What kind of love is it that is unconcerned for the justice it has to fulfill and transcend? Or that affirms fellowship with the enslaved without moving to free them? Or that embraces truth in the abstract but shrinks from it in the concrete?
It is because none of these separate absolutes will suffice as faithful service to God that dilemmas arise for even the most devout Christian―and indeed can be avoided only by those whose faith is in some way defective. The Christian way is a dynamic of inner attitude and outward action. “Good works” without the energizing force of faith are “dead”―they can at best produce only an illusion of redemption. On the other hand, a perhaps more subtle question: what is the value of faithful intentions that find no means of access to the world and merely exist in the bosom of the individual? These are the intentions that wait for the propitious moment that never comes―the intentions with which the “road to hell” is paved. For the Christian life consists in the deepening of the well-springs of action, not their substitution by purely private states of mind. Yet there is sufficient ambiguity in men’s actions; and in saints like Paul of Tarsus and Francesco d’Assisi there is enough of that ambiguity to require the sustenance of God’s grace―and in our own times we can find faults in such men as Bonhoffer and Gandhi to prove that sainthood is not divinity.
It may bear repetition that the Christian who is committed to non-violence has not thereby fulfilled the demands of his faith. In a sense, these demands are so hard and so high that no Christian nor any mortal man can fulfill them. But humanly speaking, within the bounds of what you or I may do by God’s grace, there is at least a tempo we can reach, a limit of usable strength, beyond the realm of half-heartedness. Man cannot legitimately aspire to be God, but he can often extend and deepen his ways of serving Him in faithful discipleship. Violence is only one of the evils in the world, and the violence of war is only one of the forms of violence. The task of the Christian is not only to abstain from violence but to overcome it. The only Christian justification for the “realist’s” use of violence is his hope of thereby staving off and eventually overcoming another kind of violence or evil which he considers worse―and it is in this that his “relativism” consists, and on the ambiguities of which he is so frequently impaled, since it is often problematical to determine which violence is worse, that which one seeks to counter or that which one uses (and the temptation, of course, is to minimize the latter).
This much is clear, then. Nonviolence cannot be Christianly used to dodge responsibility; its God-given function is not evasive but redemptive. The exponent of nonviolence cannot just “mind his own business” and fulfill his faith merely by engaging in nonviolence when violence happens to cross his path. Like every aspect of Christian faith, preachment has to be rooted in practice and practice in the world―not just the world that impinges upon our everyday activities and not just the remote world of nations and continents, but the world as a structure of human community in all its ramifications. We do not fulfill our faith either by isolated acts of human kindness toward individuals or by “keeping informed” about international affairs, “supporting the UN”, etc., though each of these has its place. There is great merit in social action which involves the individual Christian with numbers of people in ways that ask more of him than a monetary contribution, for community is one of the dimensions of Christian faith. This, incidentally, is a characteristic of non-violent action.
But let us return to the earlier question of nonviolence as a panacea, having made it clear that nonviolence must be meshed with concern for injustice, that it must be accompanied by an affirmation of love that is not abstract but partaking of community concern. Must it then succeed in order to be valid? If it fails, must its failure invariably be attributed to unfavourable circumstances? I think there must be situations in which nonviolence is bound to fail and yet has an intrinsic value that may be socially irrelevant, but which still stands in the personal relation of a man to his comrades and to his God. Situations are bound to arise in which one’s witness is wholly lost to the world, yet it is not lost to God. In a Nazi concentration camp a man perished. He would still have perished no matter what he did, whether he bowed and scraped before his oppressors or whether he revolted in the effort to kill as he was being killed. No one knew of his action. Or if they did, perhaps they misinterpreted its intent in a dozen ways. Still, he himself knew and God knew, and in that private and holy relation he died true to his faith. Such a fate surely is not to be scorned, even if it is totally irrelevant to society, to history or to another human being, alive or dead. In the same category, though less absolute, is the man who could have helped another man only at the cost of his own faith. This is a delicate situation, and we must be careful not to prejudice it by injecting corollary suppositions. Suffice it to say that each of us can imagine some act so debasing that no situation could require it as the price of doing “good” to a fellow human being. I do not believe it is necessary to examine further hypothetical situations to establish my point, that there are grounds besides social relevance for right conduct―in this case, nonviolence―that may or may not also be potentially relevant to other human beings.
What I want to insist upon is that actions have both personal and social meanings and value and while the two may be hard to disentangle in practice, it is necessary to distinguish them for purposes of understanding and evaluation.
The word “non-violence” has both intended and possible meanings. The word is intended to represent types of conduct that are purposively lacking in violence. Within this meaning it is further desirable to distinguish between nonviolence of conduct, of attitude, of spirit, etc. There may be some inner ambiguity on these points which the word itself only potentially resolves. This interior range of meaning is a legitimate subject of debate, the a priori assumption being that nonviolence per se should (if it does not necessarily) imply the complete configuration of action, attitude, spirit, etc. But at the other extreme, the exterior boundary of meaning, it should be made clear that actions from which violence is gratuitously absent are not therefore “nonviolent”. Many people in many situations prefer and often choose responses that do not involve violence. For lack of a better term, let us call this kind of action “unviolent” rather than “nonviolent”. Sometimes in making distinctions between the two, in cases where motivation is not clear, we shall have to resort to empirical and arbitrary choice of words. But let us at least be clear beforehand that there are these two distinctly different types of action which are not violent.
Criteria Of Success
How often have the participant in a nonviolent campaign pronounced their efforts a “success” because they received favourable publicity? Sometimes the latter may consist of nothing so much as a local newspaper’s editorial defending their elementary constitutional liberties or commending their motives despite disapproval of the campaign itself. Or it may be that a passer-by smiled or gave a word of encouragement. By what criteria do these evidences of limited support or bare tolerance constitute success for the campaign? Nonviolence is based on “adherence to truth”, by which is meant not only a transcendent metaphysical concept finally, as with Gandhi, coterminous with God, but also a very down-to-earth concern for factual accuracy, open dealing with the actual even when it is unpleasant. Among other things, adherence to truth must mean the absence of any trace of falsification, whether through exaggeration, warped or prejudicial assessment or reporting, excessive modesty or simply tireless inattention to details.