Mahatma Gandhi, Baltimore, and the Myth of Nonviolence


It’s like clockwork. There’s a riot in some disenfranchised corner of America — or, more likely, there’s a peaceful protest that turns violent on its fringes. The media beams back images of burning shopfronts and crying children. A man in a uniform appears on television, appealing for calm. There’s a whole lot of hand-wringing about the futility of violence, and then somebody posts something on Facebook about “Ghandi” [sic] — usually, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” pasted onto a nice sharable photo. There’s a long, pious conversation about how nonviolent protest is the only acceptable means of resistance in a civilized society, all involving people who have never known someone like Freddie Gray, and who have never lived in the same circumstances as the average resident of a Baltimore housing project. People like, y’know, me.

It’s not for me, or people like me, to tell the people of Baltimore how they should or shouldn’t react to the fact that their city has paid out $5.7 million between 2011-2014 to victims of police brutality, or that some 23.8% of its residents live below the poverty line. I will say, however, that the vast majority of people preaching piously about the Mahatma’s principles of nonviolence do so on the basis of a misunderstanding of history that’s at best simplistic, and at worst cynically promoted by those who have something to gain by ensuring that the state has a monopoly on violence.

Because let’s not forget that, as with any other state, the power of the United States government ultimately rests in its ability to inflict violence upon its citizens. This violence, state violence, is constantly presented to us as rational, considered violence, violence that was chosen as a last resort. Whenever the state meets violence in return, that violence is presented as the work of irrational, angry, animalistic men — looters, or dissidents, or terrorists. But violence is violence, and in the case of the relationship between America and its long-oppressed African-American population, it’s more than a little bit disingenuous for the side handing out the beatings to also be chiding those who are beaten for retaliating. As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in his excellent short essay for The Atlantic yesterday, “When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse.”

The point is, that whole equation of nonviolence is skewed. Gandhi certainly appreciated this — “We alone suffer the consequences of our mistakes,” he wrote in On Nonviolent Resistance, “and the other side is wholly spared. This other method is satyagraha. One who resorts to it does not have to break another’s head; he may merely have his own head broken.” Gandhi’s principles of self-sacrifice are laudable, but the man wasn’t stupid. Nonviolence was an ideal, sure, but it was also a means to an end.

In this respect, the doctrine of nonviolence is misunderstood, often willfully so, by people in power who sponsor and encourage state violence and yet insist that peaceful protest is the only acceptable method of protesting that violence. For a start, Gandhi’s doctrine was a personal one, not an absolutist decree, and it most certainly didn’t preclude assisting or endorsing violent resistant to injustice. Consider, for instance, this quote from Young India, wherein (ironically enough) he speaks about the oppression of Muslims in India:

My business is to refrain from doing any violence myself, and to induce by persuasion and service as many of god’s creatures as I can to join me in the belief and practice. But I would be untrue to my faith, if I refused to assist in a just cause any men or measures that did not entirely coincide with the principle of non-violence. I would be promoting violence, if finding the Mussalmans to be in the right, I did not assist them by means strictly nonviolent against those who had treacherously plotted the destruction of the dignity of Islam. Even when both parties believe in violence there is often such a thing as justice on one side or the other. A robbed man has justice on his side, even though he may be accounted as a triumph of non-violence, if the injured party could be persuaded to regain his property by methods of satyagraha, i.e. love or soul-force rather than a free fight.

Even in the mind of its most famous proponent, nonviolence was an ideal, not an absolute standard. It was a spiritual goal. But it was also a practical one — in the circumstances of 1930s India. The Raj was a classic example of a relatively small number of colonizers using violence to dominate a much, much larger native population. Such systems have almost always collapsed sooner or later, and when they haven’t, it’s because the number of the subjugated has been radically reduced, either by force of arms or by the introduction of disease and hitherto unknown vices like alcohol. (See: the radical decline in the populations of Native Americans and Australians after European settlement, for instance.)

Gandhi understood that societies founded on violence and repression were fundamentally unstable:

Everywhere wars are fought and millions of people are killed. The consequence is not the progress of a nation but its decline… Pride makes a victorious nation bad-tempered. It falls into luxurious ways of living. Then for a time, it may be conceded, peace prevails. But after a short while, it comes more and more to be realized that the seeds of war have not been destroyed but have become a thousand times more nourished and mighty. No country has ever become, or will ever become, happy through victory in war.

The English, of course, understood this too — it may have been military might that led to the conquest of India, but it was economic dominance that kept the Raj’s hold secure. And the thing that people tend to forget, and are encouraged to forget, about Gandhi’s nonviolence is that it was accompanied by other, alternative forms of resistance. In the speech he gave before the Salt March, he expounded on this idea:

No one who believes in non-violence, as a creed, need… sit still… Wherever possible, civil disobedience of salt should be started. These laws can be violated in three ways. It is an offence to manufacture salt wherever there are facilities for doing so. The possession and sale of contraband salt, which includes natural salt or salt earth, is also an offence. The purchasers of such salt will be equally guilty. To carry away the natural salt deposits on the seashore is likewise violation of law. So is the hawking of such salt. In short, you may choose any one or all of these devices to break the salt monopoly. We are, however, not to be content with this alone… Much can be done in many other ways besides these. The Liquor and foreign cloth shops can be picketed. We can refuse to pay taxes if we have the requisite strength. The lawyers can give up practice. The public can boycott the law courts by refraining from litigation… Let all who are co-operating with the Government in one way or another, be it by paying taxes, keeping titles, or sending children to official schools, etc. withdraw their co-operation in all or as many [ways] as possible.

So: British India was a colonial state, founded on the repression of a vast majority by a small, privileged majority. In 1931, the year after Gandhi set out on his Salt March, India had a population of 352,837,778, of whom only 155,555 were “European British subjects.” If 99.96% of the population puts down its tools, refuses to pay taxes, and resists your rule — nonviolently or otherwise — that’s going to matter.

In this respect, the Salt March, the idea of noncompliance, and the doctrine of satyagraha were all direct blows at the way in which the British ruled India: through economic dominance. And they leveraged the fact that the English were a tiny minority to do so. Gandhi understood that a violent revolution would most likely only install some sort of maharajah as Mountbatten’s replacement. The person at the top would change; the system wouldn’t. And so nonviolence set out to change the system.

This is the rub: is such noncompliance possible under the sort of capitalism that exists in 21st-century America? Gandhi’s ideas were based on a realization to which he came during his time in South Africa: “Even the most powerful cannot exist without the cooperation of the ruled.” But methods of repression have gotten significantly more subtle and pernicious since the 1930s (and, for that matter, since the fall of apartheid in South Africa, some 80 years after Gandhi lived there).

The situations are vastly different in one important respect: African-Americans are very much a demographic minority. As per the 2010 census, 72.2% of America’s population is white. Only 12.6% is African American. What happens if 12.6% of the population, a disproportionate number of whom are unemployed or incarcerated or have minimum-wage jobs in which they’re easily replaced, try to duplicate a tactic that worked for an overpowering majority? Not a great deal, unfortunately.

So how does one resist capitalist repression nonviolently? Stop going to work? There’s always another minimum-wage worker with no labor rights to replace you, and you have kids to feed. Sit in the streets and starve? Plenty of people do that already, through no choice of their own, and no one pays the slightest attention. Occupy Zuccotti Park? Sooner or later, no matter how committed you are to nonviolence, violence seems to find you — and then, remarkably, it always somehow seems to end up with you in jail, not the policeman who beat you up.

This is what America finds so challenging about riots and looting: they refuse to play that game. They refuse to embrace noble self-sacrifice, because what good is the moral high ground when your face is in the dirt? Instead, they attack the economy. They attack private property, which is the root of capitalism. And magically, it’s when shops start burning that the National Guard comes out. It’s not exactly surprising that it’s a cynical, pious perversion of nonviolence that the state wants to promote as a method of “peaceful protest” — such protests are ephemeral and easily ignored. But it’s protests that can’t be ignored that tend to get results.