By William Robert Miller
Two incidents, one from India's agony of the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1948 and the other from the current struggle in the United States for civil rights, pose a problem for nonviolence which has wide implications. The first concerns a Gandhian cadre who died bravely at the hands of rioters. It matters little whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim; he was one and his assailants were the other; he endured their death-dealing blows without any gesture of retaliation. The episode is one of several that were reported, and the point made in each case was the bravery and steadfastness of the satyagrahi. The point I wish to raise here, however, is that in the incident to which I refer there was clearly a total absence of rapport between the satyagrahi and his attackers. Apparently, indeed, an important source of this man's spiritual strength, enabling him to die unflinchingly, was a sense of his own purity, his very pride in being a nonviolent man. So focused were his thoughts on the rules of conduct that he was unable to affirm the bond of essential human unity with his assailants. His bravery was armoured with contempt which further inflamed rather than quenching his opponents' hostile feelings. In short, his conduct was moralistic rather than moral; he had fulfilled the letter of the rules but had neglected their spirit and intent.
The second incident was reported to me by a Negro civil-rights activist who was leading a nonviolent demonstration, when an undisciplined Negro mob began to form. White bystanders and police were also present, and a riot was clearly in the making. The police obviously did not know how to prevent violence, though in this case they wanted to. It quickly became evident to the nonviolent Negro leader that he must address the unruly masses, but he could not make himself heard above the tumult. Following the standard rules of nonviolent conduct―as outlined in Diwakar's Satyagraha, in my own recent Nonviolence and elsewhere ―he approached the police captain who had an electrically amplified megaphone "bullhorn", explained that he was the leader of the demonstrators and asked politely for the use of the bullhorn. The officer ignored him―how did he know if he was really the leader, or whether a police captain should delegate his authority in this way? The Negro leader became angry, shouted at the captain: "You'd better give me that bullhorn, you stupid―, or there's going to be hell to pay"―and seizing the bullhorn from the startled officer's hand began addressing the crowd, which soon quietened and dispersed.
Conscious of his breach of the accepted rules in venting his anger, the Negro leader asked my opinion as a theorist, and we discussed the episode and its meaning at some length. The nub of it came to this, that he had been in other situations in which he knew that such an angry outburst would bring a hostile response―arrest, clubbing, perhaps shooting―and he was capable of curbing the impulse. But in the situation described above, he sensed rightly that such behaviour would enable him to take charge and calm the mob. There was a risk; he took it and was vindicated by the result. His anger was not motivated by hatred but by the desire to get through to the mob. Afterwards he had thereby won the respect of the police captain, who was so relieved by the speedy solution that he tacitly forgave and forgot the insult.
This is not an episode that I would want to offer anyone as a model; it presupposes a great deal of both insight and nerve as well as the seasoning of experience. Yet one cannot rebuke the leader. The shock of anger was undeniably effective, and certainly the leader would have been remiss if he had stuck to politeness while tension mounted and burst into violence. In its way, his was very much an "experiment with truth", albeit both riskier and more fruitful than the moralistic rote application of the rules which Gandhi distilled from his own experiments. Moreover, it illustrates something that is fundamental to experimentation. There is a sense in which experiments serve merely to test and validate a hypothesis or to confirm by demonstration the process or mechanics by which it works. How many hours must a psychology student spend in replicating today the classic experiments of Pavlov, Hull, Terman and Skinner. In this sense, every cadre learns his basic nonviolence by replicating the classic patterns of satyagraha on the model of Gandhi, Patel, Luthuli, King and others.
But there is also a point at which the advancement of knowledge requires the assertion of new, previously untested hypotheses or the re-exploration of those discarded by earlier pioneers. Perhaps there are new factors that were not formerly taken into account; perhaps the conditions under which a formerly unsuccessful venture was tried were unusual in some way. So the graduate student of psychology is drawn into a further dimension of inquiry―as must be the seasoned nonviolent cadre.
Floyd Dell, associate editor of the radical American magazine The Masses, wrote prophetically in 1916: "The theory of non-resistance is the pre-scientific phase of a new kind of knowledge, the knowledge―to put it vaguely―of relationships. Here is a field as yet unexplored save by the seers and the poets. Its laws are as capable of being discovered as those of astronomy or botany; and the practical application of this knowledge is capable of effecting far greater social changes than the invention of the steam engine. At present, however, we have only rhapsodies and maxims, the biography of an Oriental god―and a few contemporary anecdotes."
In the half-century since then, we have moved a long way from alchemy and wizardry toward chemistry and science. The word "nonviolence" did not even exist, and it would be decades before it even began to enter the intellectual vocabulary. The whole history of the great Indian Swaraj movement under Gandhi had not even begun when Dell wrote. During that half-century occurred not only this and other historic events, but the first serious attempts at theory and interpretation and of research above the level of the edifying anecdote, bringing to light earlier historic episodes. The studies of Case, Ligt, Huxley, Gregg, Bondurant, Sharp, Galtung, Kuper, Naess and others in the West, of Gandhi, Diwakar, N.K. Bose, Shridharani, Bhave, Narayan and others in India―not always of the best quality, sometimes lapsing into idle fantasy, but in general building and growing―all of these have indeed lifted nonviolence from the pre-scientific phase and launched it as a matter worthy of the attention of the scientific mind. It can no longer be smirked at as the preoccupation of sentimentalists, fanatics or saints. As these lines are written, two hundred unarmed sailors of the U.S. Navy are on their way to Mississippi under orders from the President of the United States to act in the incredibly tense racial situation there. There is no telling, at this moment, what will happen next. But this much is obvious: such an action would not have been undertaken but for the examples arising from the past half-century of the maturation of nonviolence.
It is fitting, too, that Dell referred to "the knowledge of relationships", for this half-century has witnessed a parallel maturation in psychology and sociology which very recently have become closely interrelated with nonviolence. Corman, Choisy, Frankle, Bettelheim, Frank, Boulding, Lakey, Sibley are among those whose contributions have been most noteworthy, and it is precisely in this dimension that a large degree of further exploration needs to be done.
To be sure, there is a considerable field for historical research. According to Crane Brinton, a serious study of country chronicles in England could provide documentation for a historic tradition of unarmed peasant revolts and civil disobedience going back to medieval times. This is only one of many neglected and unexplored territories; another is the general history of religious non-resistance in the West, tracing its various forms and doctrinal contexts. It would be interesting to learn more, for instance, about the relationship of mysticism and humanism, orthodoxy and various heresies to nonviolence.
But even if this kind of information is brought to light, it remains to be interpreted and understood in terms of motivation and dynamics. So many of our ethical norms and valuations are rationalistic or traditional. Consider, for example, Gandhi's life long struggle within the tensions between reason and custom as he came to terms with the problem of varna. The step from untouchability to the designation of Harijan was a considerable one for a man and for a society, easier to grasp from outside the event or after it, yet the persistence of the problem and of others like it, such as race and class bias, attests to the inadequacy of our present resources to fulfill the mandate. We must at least question all the pat answers―it's just a question of bread, of education, of religious training, etc.―and acknowledge that much of what we do is done in ignorance of how or why or even to whom.
Except in the rarest cases, it is not a question of suspending or abandoning action because we don't know what we are doing. One of the prime lessons of satyagraha is the necessity of purposive action, whether to affirm or to resist or to construct. Fatalistic acquiescence is no kind of option. But as we act and commit ourselves, and as we observe the responses of others, we also need to strive towards a better understanding of the inner motives, latent possibilities, probable consequences. The chief task of the last fifty years has been to get our facts straight, to sort out the socio-historical from the merely anecdotal, to codify and classify the insights and precepts of the sages and pioneers. Other generations will have to repeat these tasks with variations, but the ground work has been done. A readier example would be hard to find than Diwakar's concise, tightly organized Satyagraha, which spares the reader the necessity of wandering endlessly through volumes of Gandhi's journalistic writings. It does not render the latter useless but provides the student with a structure or a compass. And, in turn, it makes possible the more expanded yet similarly structured study represented by Bondurant's Conquest of Violence. Each builds on the others, and the total result is extremely valuable. But of necessity it remains far from complete and some of the literature may even be misleading. As a case in point, Gregg's The Power of Nonviolence was the first book in the field which seriously attempted to provide a psychological foundation. Gregg's concept of "moral jiu-jitsu" still is largely cogent, yet in some respects it has been superseded by Maryse Choisy's post-Freudian conception of the same basic process, and many relatively minor aspects of Gregg's psychology have come to seem makeshift and obsolete in the thirty years since his book was first published. He is not in bad company; a good deal of Marx and Freud looks rather curious and quaint in retrospect, and we must remember that their wiser successors' wisdom is rooted in their heritage.
I think it is worth noting that sixteen years of development separates the two episodes mentioned at the beginning of this essay. The Negro leader had learned much that was not available to the Gandhian cadre, and indeed he had the opportunity of thinking at leisure and in broad perspective about the very situation in which the latter had to decide and act. But above all, the Negro leader knew that both he and the theoretical equipment of the movement had matured to the point at which new experimentation takes over from the preliminary replications.
Progress is not automatic, and new departures do not necessarily go forward or upward. I am making no sweeping claims here, only indicating a change which at least seems to reflect a growing concern with the content of the interpersonal encounter rather than a self-sufficient moral posture. The two men could have been both acting in 1948 or both in 1964―or in Vedic or Biblical times. But there is reason to think that their individual outlooks are symptomatic of a more widespread change. For at the same time, during the past decade or so, that important strides have been made in the study of nonviolence and in the development of existential psychology and other relevant interpretative disciplines, the worldwide nonviolent movement has been undergoing historic crises―the rise and collapse of the Committee of One Hundred in England, the defeat of the African National Congress in South Africa and the desperate turn represented by Poqo and Umkonte We Sizwe there, the impact of the China-India border clash on India's Gandhians, the turn towards fascism in Ghana, the rising voice of black particularism within the Negro community in the United States, the virtual abandonment of nonviolence by the newly emergent African republics, the apparently meteoric rise and fall of voluntaristic international Shanti Sena plans. Michael Scott, writing in a recent issue of Twentieth Century, voices the new mood as he assesses the failure of the Committee of One Hundred, which he helped to found. The mood is not one of renegacy or even of slackened commitment, but it is disillusioned in the sense that the high optimism of revolutionary romanticism has yielded to a self-critical realism. The time is past for making extravagant claims for "the method" and its efficacy. As recently as a decade ago, it was possible to think primarily of "defending" or "arguing for" the idea of nonviolence, and facts were regarded as bulwarks of evidence; whatever did not help to promote the idea tended to be shunted aside or rationalized away. There has scarcely ever been an idea under the sun that did not undergo this sort of infancy. Universal manhood suffrage, the Western working-class movement, the rights of women―each in turn has begun by proposing itself as virtually the definitive answer, the key to the good life and the Kingdom of God. And each has reached a point of equilibrium at which modesty and candour brought disillusionment and a new perspective―never, to be sure, without the danger of apostasy, when some of the most ardent devotees make a sharp about-face to repudiate "the God that failed".
There are such apostates of nonviolence today, but it is worth noting that most of them were never leaders, however intensely their emotions were committed to the cause; they have experienced an intellectual sense of betrayal, pivoted to a volatile temperament―not an existential volte-face. Michael Scott, speaking from the centre of existential commitment, thus articulates not only the crisis but also the undergirding equilibrium to which nonviolence has come. Paradoxically it is a crisis of success as well as of failure. To revert to an earlier analogy, it is possible to discuss the "crisis in physics" or the dilemma of the "two cultures" as posed by C.P. Snow without raising fundamental doubts about science as such. Nonviolence has reached such a point, and Scott and others, confident that nonviolence has proved itself feasible in history, are now putting aside yesterday's propagandistic zeal and are raising key questions about discipline, organization, tactics, the problem of freedom and order within the movement and between it and the normative society. There seems to be a growing consensus that nonviolence requires certain minimally favourable conditions. Scott, for example, sees a need for a strong impartial international power capable of augmenting the nonviolent movements for justice within or between armed states which have shown how onerous and implacable they can be. To say this is to recognize that nonviolence does not work miracles by itself. Martin Luther King does not hesitate to call upon governmental authorities to use force to restore order when nonviolent Negroes are mobbed by violent whites. This is a tacit admission of the limits of human endurance in the given situation; it is not possible to ask men to suffer perpetually or to seek victory only through sainthood.
But we would concede too much if we said only that nonviolence is coming down to earth and adjusting to irrefragable human nature, for we do not yet know too much about human nature. I do not mean the perennial moral debate about its intrinsic goodness, sinfulness, transiency or evil, but rather its inner complexities. This is what distinguishes the two cadres mentioned earlier―the one predicated on a rigid moralism, the other on a risky process of interaction. We need to know far more than we do at present about the workings of human relationships. Why did the police captain respond as he did? How much of the dynamic was in his specific personality and character structure? How far can Gandhi's classic concept of a "soul force" generated from within explain this episode? Must we try to adapt the "soul force" concept to the situation, or does this case perhaps call for an alternative hypothesis? In science there are, for example, molecular and wave theories of light. Each is useful; neither pretends to be a final, exclusive statement of absolute truth.
It is hard to say whether Floyd Dell or Gandhi or others of the earlier period would recognize or welcome the present phase of thinking and experimentation as compatible with their legacy, for in many ways the terms in which they understood the meaning of science were different from those that apply today. The beginning of wisdom, said Socrates, is the confession of our present ignorance. If a single sentence could sum up the great legacy of Gandhi and his colleagues, I think it would be this: they led us out of the darkness of conventional wisdom and showed us the falsity of the generally accepted belief in the supremacy of violence. Dazzled by the brilliance of this great deed, we were tempted to see it as magical ―as children are prone to do. Now we see where we are, at the foot of the path of enlightenment, scarcely knowing how far it may lead us, but aware that we have a long way to go.