You are here:
ONLINE BOOKS > GANDHI - His Relevance For Our Times > Violence and Power Politics
Violence And Power Politics
By Stephen King-Hall
Since the beginning of the story of the human race there have been a few Saints and many Sinners. Both Saints and Sinners recognized that differences of opinion have always existed between men and groups of men whether organized into tribes, nations or empires.
The Saints maintained that when their differences erupted into strife the correct reply to attack, to aggression, to injustice was peaceful resistance and indeed the exercise of love and charity to those who wished evil. Jesus Christ said it all in the Sermon on the Mount and the principles he expounded were implicit in Gandhi’s teachings.
Nevertheless the Sinners continued to believe and practise the doctrine of the use of violence and on the short-term view it seemed as if logic was on their side. The British who conquered India did so using superior violence and William of Normandy practised the same technique when he conquered England in 1066.
In my life-time two great world wars have stained the pages of the history of mankind. In India countless thousands were slaughtered, when Moslems and Hindus separated after the departure of the British.
For thousands of years the use of violence has been the basis and ultimate sanction of power politics. Power politics when pursued to the ultimate was called war.
This habit of war is deeply ingrained in men’s minds. Indeed it is impossible to imagine what history would have been like if (say) two thousand years ago, by some miracle, the logic and morality of pacifism had conquered men’s minds.
War, i.e. the use of physical violence against an opponent, was taken for granted as being as much a part of the whole makeup of man as sex. A world without war was unimaginable. The small company of Saints who declared that, far from being unimaginable, to eschew violence was the course of wisdom were occasionally respected and tolerated (as was the case in Britain in World War II―but not in World War I) but usually persecuted as traitors.
It was taken for granted in the exercise of power politics between nations, that the greater the capacity, actual and potential for physical violence possessed by a nation, the higher its status in the table of precedence of Great Power. If you were able to unleash a great deal of violence you were a Great Power; with less violence capacity you were a Lesser Power.
The Saints and, indeed, the more intelligent Sinners were able to point out that very often these wars settled nothing, and that after a great expenditure of blood and treasure we were sometimes back where we started.
I recall that at Dartington Hall in Devonshire, somewhere about 1932, Rabindranath Tagore startled me by saying: “You British have no right to prevent India finding her soul if need be through a blood bath.” I asked him what he thought the thousands of simple people would think about this, and whether they might not ask whether the search for the Indian soul could not proceed without the shedding of their blood.

Violence in Politics
It is common knowledge that great changes are often preceded by little indications whose significance is not recognized at the time. A few gusts of wind barely shaking the tree tops will presage a mighty storm; a laboratory experiment may be the start of an industrial revolution; an exchange of looks across a room between a man and a woman may be the beginning of a life long comradeship.
During the 1914-18 war one of these preliminary symptoms took place in the field of power politics. It was assumed throughout the war and written on parchment at Versailles in 1919 that the vanquished would pay the costs and preferably a bit more. It was discovered after years of endeavour that this was a fallacy. The defeated Germans could not be made to pay for the war even though they were lent vast sums of money to help them be good payers. This attempt to achieve what Sir Norman Angell in his book, The Great Illusion (1911), had declared would be impossible in “the next Great War” was a contributory cause to the great world slump of the 1930s, whose consequences in Germany did much to create conditions favourable to the rise to power of Hitler.

What had gone wrong?
It had become apparent by 1939 when the second Great War started that violence in power politics had become inconveniently large. This meant that in order to achieve one’s political aims through military victory it was imperative to use so much violence that the enemy was ruined, flat on his back and unable to pay reparations. This painful discovery of the limitations of the use of violence in its modern forms in the nuclear age was taken into account in World War II.
I was a member of Parliament in that War, and I never recall anyone suggesting that after we had used violence to bring about unconditional surrender (a stupid war aim) and got rid of the Nazis, there was the slightest hope of the Germans paying for the war. Indeed it was generally recognized amongst those who could see further than the end of their noses that the victorious Allies would have to pour money and aid into a defeated Germany so as to avoid a slum in the middle of Europe.
I recall that Sir Winston Churchill questioned the desirability of continuing the heavy bombing of Germany in 1945 and made the commonsense remark: “Where are we going to live when we get there?” So it is established by the beginning of 1945 that military victory could only be obtained, at any rate in a considerable conflict, if a degree of violence was used which made it impossible for the defeated nation to pay reparations. On the contrary it had now become clear that part of the price of a military victory was the need for the victors to give economic help to the vanquished.
This had the unexpected and puzzling result that since the victors by using superior violence had destroyed all the capital equipment of the vanquished, the latter naturally and inevitably replaced what had been destroyed with new capital goods. Thus within a few years the defeated nation became a dangerously efficient competitor in world markets, because the victorious nation was still having to make do with old capital equipment.
For instance after World War I the Allies seized a lot of German merchant shipping, much of which was becoming old. Within a few years the German shipping lines were equipped with new ships largely paid for by aid from the Allies. It would have been more realistic to force the defeated Germans to keep their old ships, and forbid them to build new ones.
All this can be summed up by saying that, in the decades before the arrival of the nuclear weapon, the level of violence in war between Great Powers had reached so great and destructive a degree, that it was now only possible to use it to obtain a political objective (i.e. the overthrow of the Nazi Regime) and not both a political and economic purpose. Then in August 1945 came the atom bomb and soon after the H-bomb.
The degree of nuclear violence is so enormous and indeed virtually unimaginable, that the Saints and the Sinners are now on the same platform. Morality and expediency have become Siamese twins. “It is wicked to use violence”, say the Saints. “It is mutual suicide to use it”, say the Sinners. Some of the erstwhile Sinners, such as myself, therefore argue that since nuclear violence is logically unusable, and terribly expensive, it should be abandoned. We are in a minority because most people cannot break through the thought-barrier in this problem and bring themselves to believe that violence, certainly in nuclear form, has become useless.
The reason for this is that from the point of view of the Sinners, who would perhaps prefer to be called the realists, their world in which violence seemed to them to be useful, has been turned upside down too quickly. It has all happened within the life-span of one generation.
We have seen that between World Wars I and II the realists were obliged to admit that conventional violence had become so great, that it could no longer be sensibly used to achieve political and economic objectives.
But although half the apparent usefulness of violence had gone, the other half remained. It seemed that violence could still achieve political purposes and its supporters said: “It is true that great violence was used, but we did get rid of Hitler and the Nazis.”
It is not relevant to their argument, so the realists would claim to say―as indeed I was saying in 1936-37 ―that one could have got rid of the Nazis by nonviolent methods if we had known how to use political warfare.
If there had been a third World War with conventional weapons and perhaps a 25 per cent increase of violence over World War II, then it might well have turned out that the educational process would have been completed. People might have said: “It is now clear that this idea of settling disputes by violence is obviously absurd. No one has won World War III.”
But instead of mankind taking one more step towards the goal of realizing that violence had outlived its usefulness, it has made a leap into the nuclear age. We know, and our leaders keep on telling us, that nuclear war is mutual suicide but we still cannot swallow the fact that this is the end of the long connection between power politics and violence. The situation is still further confused by the fact that in non-nuclear situations, such as China’s attack on India, violence can still appear to have a use.

What of the immediate future?
Clearly a very urgent and practical requirement is the prevention of the spread of nuclear weapons and, therefore, of violence capacity in its most deadly form. The hour is late and this objective will not be achieved unless the Americans and Russians can come to terms about this problem. It is also clear that the collaboration of the People’s Republic of China would also be indispensable.
I do not believe that we can hope to get rid of the use of violence in non-nuclear form in power politics in one great and revolutionary world-wide act of renunciation. So the next step towards the disappearance of violence must be to concentrate its existence and control in the United Nations. It should be possible in the next ten years, to make some progress towards the establishment of a United Nations police force on a permanent basis. The Italians have a saying: “He who goes slowly goes safely; he who goes safely goes a long way.”
Much as I would like to think otherwise it is only by adopting these principles that we can progress towards the ideal of the elimination of violence in international power politics.