How successful was/is Gandhian peaceful civil disobedience?

by Philip Ferguson

Last week, we looked at key myths around ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi (see here).  The article recorded how Indian independence was the result of the combination of mass waves of militant struggles by the Indian working class and peasantry on the one hand and the munted state of Britain at the end of WW2 on the other, not of Gandhi and his peaceful civil disobedience. Today, let’s look closer at the claims that are often made for Gandhian-style civil disobedience, including in relation to Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s and the civil rights movement in the north of Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I’ll look first at Gandhi’s own arguments for satyagraha (spirit-force) as a means of challenging and changing unjust political set-ups and how satyagraha didn’t really work in India, repeating some points made yesterday about how the struggle in India really unfolded.  Then I’ll look at the influence of Gandhi on Martin Luther King and how King actually somewhat amended Gandhi’s views.  I’ll also look at how King’s attempt to adapt and apply satyagraha in the United States didn’t really work either, despite King being somewhat to the left of Gandhi politically and, in his final years, being well to the left of the ‘Mahatma’.  I’ll examine how and why the Jim Crow laws in the southern states were abolished and how little their abolition had to do with Gandhian tactics, although I think anyone serious about radical social change should have some respect for King.

Gandhi’s satyagraha

In 1920 Gandhi defined satyagraha thus: “as the doctrine of satyagraha developed, the expression ‘passive resistance’ ceases even to be synonymous, as passive resistance has admitted of violence as in the case of suffragettes and has been universally acknowledged to be a weapon of the weak. Moreover, passive resistance does not necessarily involve complete adherence to truth under every circumstance. Therefore it is different from satyagraha in three essentials: Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatsoever; and it ever insists upon truth. I think I have now made the distinction perfectly clear.”

He also linked truth and masochism: “In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself”.

In practising such masochism, “The Satyagrahi’s object is to convert, not to coerce, the wrong-doer” he wrote in 1939.  What this meant in practise could be horrendous.  For instance, just the year before he had dealt with the situation of Jews in Germany, stating:

The holocaust: in 1938 Gandhi suggested a potential annihilation of German Jewry should simply be accepted, rather than resisted, by the Jews

“If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest Gentile German might, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment. And for doing this I should not wait for the fellow Jews to join me in civil resistance, but would have confidence that in the end the rest were bound to follow my example. If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now. And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy. . . the calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the God-fearing, death has no terror.”

This, simply put, is disgusting.  Yet, when criticised, he defended this position.

This is a terrible example of the uselessness of Gandhian satyagraha when faced with an opponent determined to suppress – indeed exterminate – the oppressed.  The only way the workers and oppressed of Germany could have prevented the fascists from taking power on behalf of the German ruling class was was to have used arms and physically defeat them.

I want to turn next to an example that is often held up as a vindication of satyagraha – the success of the mass, peaceful movement for civil rights in the United States in the late 1950s and the 1960s.

The Jim Crow system

In a decade of struggle from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, the Jim Crow system which had prevailed in the southern states since the late 1800s was broken down.  This is seen as a great achievement for the civil rights movement and, by many, for Gandhian peaceful civil disobedience as applied in US conditions by Martin Luther King.

The civil rights movement was certainly a remarkable movement, the greatest social movement of twentieth century America.  Its activists certainly faced repression by the state and death at the hands of extra-parliamentary bodies like the Ku Klux Klan, often linked to local cops and the wider local state apparatus.  They were remarkably brave and self-sacrificing.

However, an important part of understanding what happened to the Jim Crow system is understanding that the civil rights movement, however it might have seemed during any individual struggles, was not facing a national state and ruling class determined to maintain systematic discrimination of that specific type.  Indeed, the civil rights movement was pushing at a partly-open door.  The Jim Crow system was rendered obsolete by the actual development of American capitalism, even before World War 2 but especially during the long postwar economic boom.  An impoverished and segregated black peasantry in the southern states was simply no longer necessary.

The decolonisation of Africa both inspired American blacks to fight for their rights and ensured the US ruling class would shift from endorsing the Jim Crow system any longer

Moreover, the existence of this system presented problems for the American ruling class as a class in terms of its global power.  After WW2, country after country in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean became independent.  The issue then was whether these countries would gravitate towards the Soviet-led or US-led camp in the Cold War.  Which of these countries was likely to be attracted to the ‘American Way’ as long as the Jim Crow system existed?

Additionally, the Jim Crow system implicated capitalism – to many people in newly-independent countries racism and capitalism were seen as two sides of the same coin.  It’s hardly surprising therefore that in the late 1940s the US State Department, the part of the American state that deals with foreign affairs, was suggesting reform of the Jim Crow system.  It was increasingly an embarrassment as the United States sought to woo African, Asian and Caribbean countries in particular, and gain access to their natural resources and markets.

When an independent civil rights movement emerged, its grassroots nature certainly posed problems for the US establishment, which would have preferred to change things more slowly and entirely from the top.  But the US ruling class was not at all committed to defending Jim Crow.  If they had’ve been, the civil rights movement would have been about as effective as the Native American Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee village, who were massacred by the US 7th Cavalry.  One of the ways this can be seen is if we just examine a couple of cases where King and is movement came up against forces such as local state apparatuses in the south and staunch racists in the urban north which were determined not to give way to him and his movement.  These cases are simply swept under the carpet by ideologists of satyagraha today.

Let’s begin to look at satyagraha in the United States by elaborating Martin Luther King’s adaptation of it to American circumstances.

King went to India in 1959 and just before returning to the States declared “the method of non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people” and that Gandhi “embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.”

In his autobiography, King recorded, “As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. … It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking.”

He subsequently enunciated his six satyagraha principles in Stride Toward Freedom.  He saw non-violence as active rather than passive, it involved challenging oppression directly and required bravery; it sought reconciliation with the adversary, however, not defeat of that adversary; it was directed at eliminating the evil, not the person or force that was doing the evil, the aim being to convert the person or force into working together for a shared goal; it involved suffering for the cause but never inflicting suffering on others; it required a rejection of hatred or even animosity; and it required the belief that good would prevail.

Rosa Parks

King had first come to prominence as the spokesperson of the mass bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, which followed the arrest of civil rights activist Rosa Parks who had refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus, as was then required.  The boycott began in December 1955 and ran for just over a year.  Segregation on buses was declared unconstitutional in court, partly as a result of the boycott and partly because, as noted, such forms of segregation were increasingly out of sync with changes in American capitalism, such as the industrialisation of the south.  The dominant powers-that-be simply had no vested interest in maintaining laws that forced blacks to buy their tickets at the front of the bus and then get off and re-enter the bus by the back door, sit at the back and give up their seat if a white person sat anywhere in their rows of seats.  As long as King campaigned exclusively around rights that the ruling class could and would concede, satyagraha appeared to work.

But what about where resistance, even on only a local level, was much more determined?

The answer to this came fairly quickly.  In 1961, two years after his Indian sojourn and embrace of Gandhi, King went to Albany, Georgia where a local movement had developed for desegregation.  On December 16, there was a mass arrest of peaceful protesters, including King, who refused bail until the city negotiated and came to an agreement.  He was subsequently released and left town.  The local authorities then reneged on the deal.  King went back in July 1962, was arrested.  However, he only spent three days in the slammer before a top city official paid his fine to get rid of him.  Almost no progress was made, however, in desegregating the city and, confronted with the determination and shrewdness of the local racists, King called off all demonstrations and organised a miserable ‘Day of Penance’, in order to maintain the moral high ground!

Indeed, one of the lessons King seems to have drawn from the defeat in Albany was the need to be much more aggressive.  In the 1964 Birmingham campaign, tactics devised not only by King but local activists like Wyatt Tee Walker, were much more confrontational.  Protesters occupied public spaces with the deliberate intention to provoke mass arrests and create a crisis situation which would force the local authorities to negotiate the end of segregation or at least substantial steps towards it.  However, King also already knew that nationally the ruling class were moving to ban discrimination – civil rights legislation was almost passed in 1963 and did pass in 1964 – and so local racists were not part of a powerful national establishment but relatively isolated.

Martin Luther King, St Augustine, Florida: whenever his satyagraha principles didn’t work, King simply walked away

In St Augustine, Florida in 1964, the peaceful protests, in which King’s movement was instrumental, were violently attacked by racists repeatedly and the movement made little headway.  Protesters were battered and bloodied, and hundreds arrested and jailed.  Local desegregation goals were not achieved.

On March 7, 1965 a march from Selma to Montgomery was organised.  Racists and local police blockaded prevented it from taking place.  King arrived in Selma on March 9 and led marchers to a bridge that had to be crossed to go on the road to Montgomery.  But a court order forbade the marchers to cross and King dispersed them!  Many local activists were angered by his high-handed action and failure to lead the marchers across the bridge.  But this failure was a logical consequence of his commitment to satyagraha.

After the 1965 Voting Rights Act, King tried to spread his organisation’s activities to the north.  They began on the poor west side of Chicago, focusing on housing rights.  Local racists mobilised and marches were violently attacked.  Faced with such violence, King’s satyagraha once again proved unable to meet the challenge.  He cancelled an important protest and left the city, returning to the south.

King’s personal courage was certainly not an issue.  He faced death threats, was arrested on a string of occasions and on one of the marches in Chicago was hit by a brick.  But, faced with determined and violent opposition, he was left with little option but to retreat and/or appeal to the federal courts or to local authorities to negotiate.

As time went on, King became more radical.  While the US ruling class could, and did, abandon Jim Crow and formal, legal segregation, capitalism itself continuously produced and reproduced all manner of inequities.  Racism and poverty, including widespread poverty among white Americans, remained.  Moreover, in the same year that Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (1965), tens of thousands of US combat troops were being dispatched to Vietnam.  King came out against the war and also began taking up the issue of poverty.  He began building a united black and white movement, the Poor People’s Movement, and planned to take an army of the poor to Washington DC to demand an end to poverty.  He also began to identify capitalism as the problem, describe himself occasionally as a socialist and speak in positive terms of some of the changes tat had taken place in North Vietnam, such as the land reform, under Communist Party rule.  In 1968 he was assassinated while visiting Memphis to support a strike by rubbish men.

Over the following years the organisation he had built largely faded away and many young people who had participated in the civil rights movement and been ‘on the ground’ doing the hard yards organising in the south in the early 1960s moved on beyond satyagraha approaches to revolutionary politics.  Thousands of young activists joined or formed Maoist and Trotskyist groups in particular.  The ideas of Malcolm X, that the answer to being hit is to hit back, became more appealing to many civil rights activists who were sick of turning the other cheek and just getting slapped again.  Satyagraha came to be seen as a philosophy suitable for slaves rather than self-respecting people serious about freedom.

Black Panthers organised armed defence of black communities subjected to violent police harassment

One of the groups that took up Malcolm X’s ideas were the Black Panthers.  They began in Oakland, California, where they set up armed patrols to confront police who were harassing young blacks on the streets.  This played an important role in winning young working class blacks to their organisation. (Unfortunately the Panthers subsequently became infected with militarist trends and were drawn into hopeless armed confrontation with the US state, a conflict which they could never win.  However, the repressive and indeed murderous tactics used by the state could not have been held at bay by the tactics of Gandhi and King, as the state had determined that it wanted to wipe out the Panthers as a political force, whereas the establishment had felt much safer with King and even showered rewards and accolades on him until he evolved further left, opposed the Vietnam War and began focusing on poverty.)

Freedom Summer, Mississippi 1964: the civil rights movement was much more than King and his organisation

It is also important to realise that the civil rights movement, let alone King – who was, after all, only one segment of it – had to face only a fraction of the violence to which southern blacks especially had been subjected since the counter-revolution against Radical Reconstruction[1] after the Civil War.  How, for instance, would satyagraha prevent lynching?  How do you negotiate a win-win situation – an important element of satyagraha – for both the lynchers and those they are about to lynch?  Given Gandhi’s views about how German Jews should submit to mass extermination, with their reward being heaven, rather than violently resist, we can only presume that he would have counselled submission to being lynched as well.

What actually happened, however, was that over time blacks formed armed self-defence groups to protect themselves from racist violence or else they kept their heads down and adopted obsequious stances in interactions with whites.  Self-defence was certainly the only way to physically resist the violence of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and similar forces, many of whose members were actually local cops in their regular jobs.

Moreover, it wasn’t King who went and organised on the ground in the south.  It was the young, largely student, members of SNCC and CORE – both black and white.  But how many people today have heard of SNCC and CORE as compared with King?  These were the people on the front line.  They went into poor black communities, lived with the sharecroppers, and organised campaigns among them for voting rights and other basic democratic rights.  They, like the impoverished blacks among whom they organised, faced the danger of violence and death every day, unlike King (or, for that matter, Malcolm X).

To sum up, the reality of the civil rights achievements in the United States was similar to the independence struggle in India.  The old pattern of rule and discrimination was already historically obsolete (Jim Crow in the United States and British rule in India) and unsustainable (Britain was too munted after WW2 to be able to maintain rule over India and the southern upper classes were subordinate to the global interests of the US ruling class as a whole).  Moreover, the struggle against Jim Crow in the US and British rule in India took on a whole range of forms, and had done so historically, not simply satyagraha.  This was especially the case in India where all kinds of very non-satyagraha activities, including armed struggle and armed uprisings, helped push the British out.

By contrast, how useful were satyagraha principles when applied in a situation of intense discrimination which may have been historically obsolescent but where a powerful establishment remained determined to maintain it?  The obvious case here is the mass civil rights movement in late 1960s Ireland, a movement partly inspired by the American civil rights movement.

In 1920 the six-county state of “Northern Ireland” had been established against the wishes of the majority of the Irish people and incorporated within the United Kingdom.  Within these six counties, selected by the British, there was an overall majority favouring British rule, although in two of the counties the pro-British were a minority.  In order to maintain an artificial majority in this artificially-selected six county area, systematic discrimination in voting, jobs and housing was used.  The discrimination was against the Catholic and nationalist population and its aim was to make life so difficult for them that large numbers emigrated; otherwise the pro-British would have, over time, become a minority within “Northern Ireland”.

In the late 1960s a civil rights movement emerged demanding equal voting rights and equal access to jobs and housing, along with the repeal of repressive legislation.  Because the state required this discrimination in order to maintain itself and because chunks of the pro-British section of the population benefited materially from this set-up they were prepared to use violence to defend it.  The civil rights movement went ahead, however, largely oblivious of the dangers of a violent backlash from the state and the pro-British loyalists.  When the state forces and loyalist mobs invaded nationalist ghettoes, attacking and killing people and burning them out of their homes, satyagraha principles were of absolutely no use whatsoever.  The only way the nationalist ghettoes could be protected was through armed self-defence.

Bloody Sunday, Derry, 1972: peaceful protest in the face of a determined repressive power gets you. . . killed

In fact, not only were peaceful methods useless in this situation, the advocates of peaceful protest had actually ensured a situation in which there would be a powerful and armed state and the loyalist attack on nationalist areas but those areas were largely unprepared for the impending and inevitable violent backlash.  So satyagraha was worse than useless.  It ensured a violent response from the oppressors and it also ensured that they would be emboldened because they thought the only weapons the nationalists had were sitting down in the street and singing “We shall overcome”!

The nationalist ghettoes began organising their own defence, through the Citizens Defence Committees, and out this process emerged the Provisional IRA and a period of 25 years of armed conflict.

In the early stages of armed conflict the peaceful civil rights movement continued.  However, in January 1972 a massive peaceful civil rights demonstration in Derry came up against the methods the British state was prepared to use to drive the movement off the streets.  Fourteen civil rights marchers were murdered by the Parachute Regiment.  The price of peaceful protest was now very high indeed and young people flocked into the IRA.  If the state was prepared to kill you for demanding basic rights, you may as well shoot back rather than allow yourself to be gunned down in the street.

Daniel O’Connell: his wilting when faced with British repression ended in ignomy and demoralisation for the biggest mass movement in Irish history and set the stage for Irish mass suffering and lack of resistance during the Great Famine

Moreover, this was not a new lesson in Ireland.  Peaceful protest had always been met with British state violence.  Each movement was then faced with either taking up arms or simply giving up.  The classic case of this historically was the Repeal movement led by Daniel O’Connell in the 1840s.  O’Connell led a huge movement, probably the biggest peaceful protest movement in Irish history.  The Repeal movement demanded the abolition of the 1801 legislation which had made all of Ireland part of the United Kingdom.  O’Connell held monster rallies, mobilising hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of people in the early 1840s, the biggest meeting, held at Tara, drawing possibly a million participants.  The British state decided to bring an end to the Repeal movement and on October 7, 1843 they banned a huge rally called for the following day by O’Connell at Clontarf on the outskirts of Dublin.

The British said if he went ahead with the rally it would be physically repressed.  Not wanting blood to be shed, O’Connell abandoned the rally and the Repeal movement ground to a halt.  O’Connell was discredited and the Irish masses were left in a demoralised state.  Two years later the Famine struck, decimating much of the country, with a million left dead and a further million migrating.

Constance Markievicz drew the lessons of the failure of the Repeal movement and the resulting mass demoralisation; she founded and led the first Irish republican paramilitary organisation of the twentieth century, Na Fianna Eireann, and later was a co-founder and a commander of the Irish Citizen Army, described by Lenin as Europe’s first workers’ militia

The people who drew the lessons from this debacle were the republicans.  They understood that Britain would not willingly grant independence to Ireland and that a combination of peaceful and armed actions would be needed.  One of the republicans who summed up the lessons of the Repeal movement’s sorry and demoralising end was the founder of the first republican paramilitary organisation of the twentieth century, Constance Markievicz.  She noted, “a moral force movement, ie a movement that stops short of shedding blood. . . cannot be taken very seriously and must end in contempt and ridicule.”  Indeed, if Indian independence had have consisted only of Gandhi and his tactics and followers, this would have been its fate.  But the exhaustion of the British state after WW2, coupled with the massive levels of militant struggle, including armed uprisings, that existed in India following the war ensured the end of direct imperialist political rule.

The next mass movement after O’Connell’s was not about to repeat the debacle he inflicted on the movement with his doctrinaire adherence to non-violence.

Irish revolutionary workers’ leader James Connolly understood the dialectical relationship between peaceful and violent forms of struggle

In 1918, republicans had swept the polls in Ireland, winning 73 of the 105 Irish seats in the British parliament.  They boycotted Westminster, set up an Irish parliament (Dail Eireann) in Dublin and declared independence.  The British, of course, refused to accept the vote of the Irish people and suppressed the Dail and the republican organisations.  Irish demands and organising for independence were met with vicious repression by a British state determined at that time to hold onto the whole island.  The Irish faced giving up and remaining under British domination or using a variety of forms of political struggle, including armed struggle, to force the British to accede to Irish independence.  Not surprisingly, they chose the latter course and succeeded in fighting Britain to a standstill and making direct British rule over the island impossible to maintain.

The great Irish working class leader James Connolly pointed out that tactics depend on conditions.  There’s no merit in violence for its own sake and where gains can be made without it, that’s all to the good.  But where an oppressor uses violence to maintain the oppression and clearly is not going to abandon the use of such violence, it is self-defeating for the oppressed to renounce in principle the use of arms.  As Connolly wrote, “agitation to attain a political or economic end must rest upon an implied willingness and ability to use force. Without that, it is mere wind and attitudinising.”

[1] Radical Reconstruction refers to the period from the end of the civil war to the mid-1870s in which radical governments, with support among the poor (black and white) came to power across the south.  The former slave owners launched a furious assault to break the unity of poor whites and blacks and smash these governments, using terror groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.


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