Book Review – What Gandhi Says about Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage by Norman Finkelstein

What Gandhi Says about Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage

Norman G Finkelstein

Norman Finkelstein at Suffolk University in Massachusetts 2005 by Miguel de Icaza

Norman Finkelstein at Suffolk University in Massachusetts 2005 by Miguel de Icaza

OR Books: New York and London 2012 pp100

$10/£6

Reviewed by Antony Copley

Thinking through how a nonviolent protest might free the West Bank from Israeli occupation led the author to take a close look at Gandhi’s own writings to see just what he did say about nonviolence. One of his complaints is that Gandhi scholars in fact rarely do take a close look at the Collected Works, though surely this is transparently unfair in the case of Anthony Parel and, indeed, our own editor, George Paxton. As one would expect of a close friend of Noam Chomsky a razor-sharp intelligence is brought to bear on those writings. Finkelstein has written extensively on the Israel-Palestine conflict and maybe predictably his major critique of Gandhi’s ideas lies in their ineffectiveness for dealing with Hitler and the Holocaust. But this is a highly sophisticated analysis and is far more ambivalent in the ways it looks at such questions as Gandhi’s consistency and at the psychology underlying these ideas, other historical conflicts, above all the freedom struggle, and this is a measured recommendation for a nonviolent approach at the time of the Arab spring and the Occupy movement.

It is easy enough for Finkelstein to expose Gandhi’s inconsistencies. Gandhi wrote of the hobgoblin of consistency and the author concedes that, for all the apparent contradictions, there were underlying core beliefs: “he probably never consciously lied. ” (p20 ). Finkelstein sees a fatal weakness in Gandhi’s reliance on intuition,his inner voice, and though I don’t wholly see the logic of his conclusion, sees this as bound to lead to authoritarianism: “to doubt Gandhi was to doubt God.” (p23) But then he corrects himself and sees Gandhi’s ideas as less abstract and incoherent and open to rational explication.

The most worrying inconsistency is the way Gandhi wavers between nonviolence and the need in certain circumstances to resort to violence. In some ways the whole play between nonviolence and violence could be recast in terms of courage versus cowardice. Gandhi surely rightly saw it as the highest form of courage to meet violence with nonviolence, even a readiness to die. Finkelstein sees Gandhi taking this to an extreme and encouraging a positive cult of death, almost revelling in the number of those who might lose their lives, say in a communal conflict with Muslims. Nothing was so shameful in his eyes than cowardice. Better to resort to violence than to be cowardly. To quote Finkelstein: “Gandhi’s Collected Works are filled with, on the one hand, scalding condemnations of ersatz nonviolence, and on the other, exhortations to violence if the only other option is craven retreat.” (p35) Gandhi is seen as almost sharing Nietzsche’s contempt for Christian passivity, its turning the other cheek.

Oddly the reason for such concern is staring us in the face. Gandhi’s was surely a response to an imperialist rhetoric which spoke of the lack of manliness, the effeminacy of Indians. The Raj here had the Bengalis in mind in contrast to the Indian martial races. Here was one way the Raj met the challenge of a nationalist movement initially inspired by the Bengalis. In many ways Gandhi had bought into the martial values of the Rajputs. Evidently the charge of effeminacy stung Gandhi and possibly he overcompensated. Of course there are more complex psychoanalytic explorations possible and Gandhi’s complex attitudes to sexuality, evidenced in brahmacharya, inevitably exposes him to such enquiry.

Finkelstein’s real concern is to test the effectiveness of nonviolence. The example he takes is the plight of European Jews in the Holocaust. Gandhi was obviously not alone in floundering before such crimes against humanity. Might he yet appeal to Hitler’s good nature ? Might mass nonviolent passive resistance by the Jews work on the conscience of the Nazis ? Finkelsteins’s argument is that the coercive power of satyagraha, its capacity to change minds, cannot work against a mind set such as the Nazi. They were impervious to such moral pressure. There is no evidence that the sight of millions of Jews being led to the crematoria ‘like lambs to the slaughter house’ had the slightest affect on the conscience of the Nazis. Noncooperation simply would not work in this case. He concludes, somewhat ambiguously, that Gandhi’s own unique moral force could prevail and “this was his great personal triumph, but also his great political failure. The tactic had no generalised value.” (p57) Gandhi himself, to quote his own words, believed “human nature in its essence is open and therefore unfailingly responds to the advances of love.” (quoted p69) Finkelstein does not share this optimism. At this juncture he chooses not to explore the alternative tactic of violent Jewish resistance, both in the camps and ghettoes, a violence of course played up today by Israel itself, gripped by a rhetoric of survival. Nor does he mention Gandhi’s Jewish friends, Polak and Kallenbach, and Kallenbach’s failure to win Gandhi over in the 1930s to a more militant stand.

But then Finkelstein proceeds, along different lines, to try and explain how in fact a coercive nonviolent strategy does work. It is of course controversial to see nonviolence as morally coercive, which Gandhi always denied, for it seems in flat contradiction to its moral nature. A Gandhian strategy will only work, it is argued, if there is some susceptibility in the opponent either to its moral case or, just as probably, to a sense of its being in its own self interest. Finkelstein puts this well: “the thrust of his campaign was clearly to energize a latently sympathetic public via selfsuffering.” (pp61-2) Gandhi might prevail in a temperance campaign, for the Indian public saw the ravages of alcohol, but not against gambling, for here the Indian public were far too committed to gambling for any campaign to work. And of course the classic campaign was the nonviolent freedom struggle itself. But here once again Finkelstein takes a controversial line. He does not believe that it was ‘love power’ that persuaded the British to leave. There was no successful appeal to their moral conscience. Gandhi himself realised that the way to get the British to leave was to make India ungovernable and hence unprofitable. It was not a case of melting British hearts: “instead he set out to coerce them, albeit non-violently, into submission.” “It was not the power of love but the juggernaut of power that cleared the path to India’s independence.” (p78) Of course this is to overlook metropolitan British moral disquiet at the Amritsar massacre and the Christian conscience of the Viceroy, Lord Irwin.

This short, incisive work has to be taken very seriously. In the end Finkelstein, however ambiguous his whole interpretation, seems to come down on Gandhi’s side. He looks at the world today and decides on balance a nonviolent struggle leads to less loss of life than a violent. (cf the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt compared to what happened in Libya.) But does it set the bar of courage too high ? Is it necessarily more ethical than a violent struggle ? (Obviously here he has the Second World War in mind). But he proceeds: “but what can be said with confidence is that the results of violent resistance have at best been mixed.” So just how far will a nonviolent struggle take us ? He argues: “the further along it gets nonviolently, the more likely it is that the new world will be a better one.” (pp79-81)

Finkelstein’s interpretation of the limitations of Gandhism confronting Nazism reminds me of Ernest Gellner’s critique of moral relativism. Confronted by Nazism one has no alternative but to believe in an absolute right and wrong. You cannot in anyway qualify Hitlerism. And the debateover the need for fearlessness, Gandhi’s belief that could the British overcometheir fear of loss of Empire they would happily surrender, reminds me of Aung San Suu Kyi’s belief that could the Army in Burma lose its fear of the loss of power, they would come into line with more progressive policies. It is in Burma that the Gandhian ideal is currently being put most critically to the test.

Antony Copley is Honorary Senior Research Fellow, University of Kent and Trustee of The Gandhi Foundation

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Categories: 1. News & Events, Gandhi, Middle East, Politics & Democracy, South Asia, UK & Europe

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  1. Review of Gandhi book | Norman G. Finkelstein - June 5, 2013

    […] Book Review – What Gandhi Says about Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage by Norman Finkelstein […]

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  2. OR Books — The Gandhi Foundation reviews WHAT GANDHI SAYS by Norman Finkelstein - June 7, 2013

    […] Read the full review at The Gandhi Foundation. […]

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