Revolutionary Gandhi for Our Times


What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage
by Normal Finkelstein

Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action
by Dennis Dalton

Ambedkar: Towards An Enlightened India
by Gail Omveldt

Revolutionary Gandhi
by Pannalal Dasgupta

Reviewed by Matt Meyer

It’s as simple as making social change more effective. Growing global movements are looking beyond their own borders and beyond short-term reform, and the question of revolution is once again rearing its head. From Egypt, Syria, and Palestine to Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Russia, China, South Africa, and the crumbling industrial North, more and more activists and organizers are looking “back to the basics:” reviewing the tactics and texts of Giap’s people’s war and Gandhi’s satyagraha. For practitioners and principled adherents of unarmed resistance, these renewed examinations must be based in the revolutionary aspects of nonviolence, the ways past teachers dealt with the complicated realities of their times (not our mythologizing them into rigid dogmatic icons for our own times). Several recent reflections on Gandhi and his times offer help in these endeavors.

When Norman Finkelstein, famed for his staunch support for Palestinian resistance movements and critique of his American Jewish compatriots in “the Holocaust industry,” set out to put together an extended essay on “nonviolence, resistance, and courage” some wondered about his qualifications. It is, in fact, the space Finkelstein takes up between academic and activist, pondering available alternatives to the seemingly intractable problems of the Middle East in the midst of his own New York’s Occupy moment, that makes the author particularly cogent in commenting on What Gandhi Says (O/R Books, 2012). Decrying those reducing Gandhi to “a mantra” and making him into an otherworldly, saccharine, saintly eccentric, Finkelstein understands the Indian independence advocate to be “the shrewdest of political tacticians who could gauge better than any of his contemporaries the reserves and limits of his people and his adversaries.”

Most importantly, Finkelstein writes about the “real” Gandhi, who loathed cowardice and passivity much more than he loathed violence, making the irony of modern interpretations of pacifism as a form of non-resistance-oriented alternatives to conflict all the more tragic. The nonviolent resister’s responsibility is to gather massive, disciplined numbers willing to march headlong into enemy fire. If one lacked the strength to organize or engage in such revolutionary campaigns—which are fundamentally based on the connections between means and ends, and the desire to build societies radically distinct from the imperialist bastions of the late 20th Century—then acts of armed resistance might be required. Using Gandhi’s own paradigms, the opposite of nonviolence was not violence, but cowardice; Finkelstein cites Gandhi’s assertion that “unwillingness from cowardice to defend oneself or one’s neighbor is also violence,” far worse than the violence of an injurious act. Gandhi was, in his own words, mostly a “practical idealist” looking for personal as well as political transformation, who understood that his own writings and actions were at times riddled with contradictions. Finkelstein helps contemporary readers sort through those contradictions to mine valuable insights on rousing rebellion.

Dennis Dalton’s more reverential Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action (Columbia University Press, 1993, 2012), steeped in decades of careful scholarship alongside top Indian thinkers and activists, begins with Gandhi’s own organizing origins: as a human rights advocate who quickly recognized the revolutionary implications of connecting the issues, people, tactics and strategies he believed to be indelible. Dalton correctly notes that Gandhi’s demands—that we make profound changes in our collective thinking and practice about work, caste, religion, and politics, forming a new nexus of ideas which would amount to a new way of participating in a social life—were “nothing short of revolutionary.” Dalton’s echoes Nehru’s words, backing the contrast between nonviolence and cowardice, that the “essence” of Gandhi’s was fearlessness.

One of Dalton’s most fascinating critiques centers on the similarities he draws between Gandhi and Malcolm X. Dalton delights at quoting a razor-tongued attack against the “inhumanities and barbarities” perpetrated by “Satanic” Western oppressors simply “in order to maintain power.” (The quote, of course, is Gandhi not Malcolm.) He astutely demonstrates the ways in which both men committed themselves to systemic change—to “hate the sin but not the sinner.”

Questions of strategy and tactics are forcefully argued in Nonviolent Power in Action. From Dalton’s perspective, Gandhi and Malcolm saw British and American systems as thoroughly corrupt, in need of complete overhaul. Gandhi and King however, understood the tactical superiority of unarmed mass resistance within a racist, capitalist system. Herein, Dalton’s insights are fascinating, but a bit oversimplified. Like Gandhi, Malcolm and Martin were complex figures whose beliefs and practices evolved over time, during one of the fastest-paced periods of history. That there were broad areas of contrast and comparison among three figures calling for fundamental social upheaval should surprise no one. Dalton’s introduction of such intersections in a biography of Gandhi is refreshing, but barely scratches the surface of what needs to be said regarding Gandhian influence on African and Black liberation.

Contemporary Indian critiques of Gandhi, however, suggest that the “great soul’s” ability to balance his own practical and principled beliefs was less than ideal. Gail Omvedt’s indispensible, succinct biography Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India (Penguin Books India, 2004) not only spotlights the extraordinary and all-too-often forgotten contributions of the great Dalit leader (the principal spokesperson of India’s dispossessed and so-called “untouchables”), it also carefully conveys some of the blind-spots in Gandhi’s own work—particularly around issues of class and caste. Whereas B.R. Ambedkar is remembered by Dalits and others as a broad fighter against all forms of exploitation and oppression, a radical critic of narrow cultural nationalism and the assumptions of Hinduism’s Brahman upper crust, Mohandas Gandhi is seen as a romanticist of the traditional Indian village, identifying with the poor from a fairly paternalistic point of view. Gandhi’s own sometimes bitter arguments with Ambedkar centered around the role of those whom Gandhi insisted on calling “Harijans” (a Hindu-derived term translating roughly to ‘children of God’ but generally dismissed by most untouchables as being too caste identified). While Gandhi called for Hindu reformism and upper-caste service efforts, ‘Harijan’ abstinence from alcohol and meat-eating, and community-based protection of the down-trodden, Ambedkar (and later groups such as the Dalit Panthers) emphasized empowerment, self-determination, and a caste-class struggle for the Dalits.

The most significant of recently-released books on the relevance and implications of Gandhi tackles all the themes dealt with by Finkelstein, Dalton, and Omvedt was written 60 years ago in an Indian prison cell. Pannalal Dasgupta, as a Bengali and Marxist-Leninist, was disinclined to be impressed with the writings or teaching of his country’s revered father-figure, but was introduced to Gandhi’s real-world work when nonviolent socialist Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) helped provide some funds for Dasgupta’s rural development endeavors. Both men studied Maoist as well as Gandhian approaches to rural and urban transformation. Though JP has long had several vital volumes available in English, the availability of Pannalal Dasgupta’s Revolutionary Gandhi (Earthcare Books, 2011) been to non-Bengali readers is a recent development. Dasgupta himself, upon introducing his published work in the late 1990s, noted that his desire was for leftists everywhere to re-consider Gandhi, as “communists have never tried properly to understand” the man whom he believed was, with Lenin, responsible for the “most important phenomena and ideologies of our times.”

Dasgupta’s attempt to assess Gandhi from a Marxist perspective (and Marx from a Gandhian one) begins by asserting Gandhi’s non-dogmatic position on ahimsa: “He was prepared to call all legitimate fights, freedom fights and fights in self-defense, nonviolent” (or almost nonviolent). Like all revolutionaries, Gandhi recognized that absolutes were worrisome. Quoting extensively from Gandhi’s own writings, Dasgupta dispels the myth than India chiefly gained its independence using what their founding Bapu campaigned for as pure nonviolent protest. Simultaneously, Dasgupta agrees with Gandhi’s conclusion that there is no better result one can hope for in armed struggle. “The fortune of a revolution,” Dasgupta concludes, “depends more on the morale, the idealism and commitment to the cause on the part of the fighters, than on hand-to-hand fighting and physical force.”

Beyond nonviolence, Dasgupta reviews Gandhi’s thoughts on economics, religion, culture, and revolution itself. On the latter point, Dasgupta is in a unique position to critique the various anti-capitalist movements of Gandhian and post-Gandhian India, noting that a “prevalent fallacy” existed about the nature of the independence movement and the material conditions available afterwards for socialist development. The Indian communist idea that Gandhi, Nehru, and other Congress Party leaders were bourgeois traitors for not leading the country in an explicitly anti-capitalist manner is discounted by a detailed analysis of whether the people or the social structures were “ready for revolution.” Readiness, in Dasgupta’s terms, means consciousness and organization as well as leadership, none of which were coming from any progressive camp—socialist, communist, or Gandhian. That Gandhi and his key supporters did not prepare people for such possibilities are, in Dasgupta’s view, major flaws and valid criticism. But it is not true that the independence movement led people away from developed revolutionary choices.

Revolutionary movements, then and now, require strong leaders with clear politics and exciting programs. But, more than that, they require historical conditions whereby masses of people are willing to mobilize for an improvement of their conditions. Exactly when or where these conditions will be met cannot be easily predicted (though they can be anticipated and prepared for). In these new and recently-published reviews of the life and work of Mohandas Gandhi, it is clear that his preparations, while incomplete and imperfect, were far-reaching and revolutionary in their very essence. Revolutionaries of the current era would do well to use these new resources to help build for radical nonviolent constructions during the next major socio-economic upsurges. And, as Pannalal Dasgupta concluded, “Gandhians and Marxists alike have to remember that all strength derives only from an intimate contact with the masses.”

What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage
by Norman Finkelstein
OR Books, 2012, 100 pages, $10.00 paperback

Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action
by Dennis Dalton
Columbia University Press, 2012, 336 pages, $28.00 paperback

Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India
by Gail Omvedt
Penguin Books India, 2004, 167 pages, $22.28 paperback

Revolutionary Gandhi
by Pannalal Dasgupta
Earthcare Books, 2011, 490 pages, $20.00 paperback

Matt Meyer is a long-time leader of the War Resisters League and a founder of the anti-imperialist collective Resistance in Brooklyn (RnB).


Matt Meyer

Matt Meyer, New York City activist-educator, is founding Co-Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Organization and co-author (with Bill Sutherland) of Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation. A longtime member of WRL’s National Committee, he was a public draft-registration resister in the 1980s and served as WRL’s Chair. He is author, editor, or contributor to nine other books, including the 2012 WRL co-publication We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America.