Book Excerpt: What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Courage and Resistance – by Norman G. Finkelstein
A wave of popular revolts is now sweeping the planet.
In many instances, it was an act of nonviolent civil resistance that either sparked the local uprising or marked its turning-point.
In Tunisia, it was the self-immolation of a street vendor. In Cairo, it was the assault by goons on camelback against nonviolent protesters in Tahrir Square. In New York City, it was the voluntary mass arrest of demonstrators on the Brooklyn Bridge.
These actions “quickened” the public conscience. People who had stood by indifferently and passively for decades suddenly came to life.
The acts of nonviolent resistance resonated with a broad public because of an already existing consensus that the system was unjust.
In spirit and form, the epic events of the past year appear like a page out of Gandhi’s life.
But it is also easy to see the limitations of Gandhi’s teachings.
Neither Ben-Ali of Tunisia nor Mubarak of Egypt was “melted” by the people’s self-suffering. They had to be forced from power. Neither the liberal mayor of Oakland nor the liberal mayor of New York let their bleeding hearts prevent them from brutally clearing out the “Occupy” movement.
Self-suffering might sting the conscience of the 99 percent and get them to act. But only the concerted and courageous power of the overwhelming majority will get the 1 percent to budge and be gone.
The only language that the 1 percent understand, as Gandhi conceded in his more candid moments, is “open rebellion.”
Still, Gandhi had a point. However costly the price in lives of nonviolent resistance, it is probably still less than the price of violent rebellion, while a nonviolent struggle augurs better for the future than an armed struggle.
Once armed foreign forces entered Libya in “support” of the popular revolt, the number of deaths skyrocketed. The probable order of magnitude is ten fold greater than the total deaths in any of the other revolts convulsing the Arab world. The result of the armed victory in Libya is a power once again in thrall to external forces and likely to make most Libyans soon yearn for a return to the days of Qaddafi.
“Violence may destroy one or more bad rulers, but,” Gandhi warned, “others will pop up in their places.”
The unspoken prejudice against nonviolence is that it is cowardly and unmanly. But nonviolence as Gandhi conceived it can hardly be dismissed on these counts. It takes an awful lot of bravery to march unarmed into the line of fire “smilingly” and “cheerfully,” and get oneself blown to pieces.
In his last days and amidst inter-communal slaughter, Gandhi insisted on opening his prayer services in Hindu temples with a verse from the Koran. It enraged Hindu fanatics to the point that one of them finally murdered him.
Who would be so bold as to deny that Gandhi’s was a heroic death?
If a criticism is to be leveled against Gandhi’s nonviolence, it is that he sets the bar of courage too high for most mortals to vault.
It is a central conceit of Gandhi’s doctrine that nonviolent resistance in the face of evil is not only more ethical than violence but could also achieve the same results.
The jury is still out on this.
It is certainly doubtful, as Arundhati Roy has pointed out, that nonviolent resistance can achieve any results against a ferocious enemy acting outside the glare of public scrutiny.
But what can be said with confidence is that the results of violent resistance have been at best mixed.
The day after, bloody revolutions seem always to disappoint, and in the scramble to the top, those with the most blood on their hands seem always to get there first.
The challenge for the younger generation as it embarks on the struggle to remake the world is to see how far it can advance without having to use violence.
The further along it gets nonviolently, the more likely it is that the new world will also be a better one.
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. Prof. 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.