IN 1914, after two decades of political work on behalf of Indian migrants, M. K. Gandhi left South Africa to join the emergent scene of anticolonial and nationalist politics in India. Gandhi was eager to bring satyagraha (nonviolent action), his newly discovered political weapon, “into play on large scale on the political field for the first time.” In the century that has passed since Gandhi’s momentous experiments in mass nonviolent action in India, nonviolence has become a staple of protest politics across the world. Indeed, from the Occupy movements to the Arab Spring, it seems to be entering a new phase of resurgence and revitalization, but one where exhilaration and hope for change has been accompanied by disappointment and uncertainty.
Ramin Jahanbegloo’s The Gandhian Moment addresses the (ostensibly precarious) state of nonviolent politics today and considers how it can be given more enduring shape. He argues convincingly that the first and most important step is to view nonviolent politics as more than just resistance or political tactics, and to see it instead as a positive, emancipatory politics in its own right. Jahanbegloo takes Gandhian politics to be fundamentally an ethical politics, both tethered to something beyond politics and mediated through self-transformation. Thus, the Gandhian “moment” of the book’s title refers not to Gandhi’s historical milieu but to a distinctive experience of political action: the existential moment of individual reinvention in which, the author contends, nonviolence becomes emancipatory praxis.
Jahanbegloo is most persuasive in his recovery of what Gandhi called the constructive side of nonviolent politics (constructive satyagraha). In Gandhi’s words, “construction must always keep pace with destruction.” Political action that aims to undo the legitimacy of existing institutions — such as noncooperation and civil disobedience — must also generate new practices of authority, as well as new modes of individual and collective self-rule to reconstitute and stabilize the political realm. Gandhi is well known for his aversion to the modern centralized state (“violence in a concentrated and organized form,” he called it) and, as a result, has often been treated as an extreme anarchist or even a libertarian.
Jahanbegloo rightly argues that the creative-constructive side of satyagraha may actually point to an alternative notion of sovereignty. Nonviolent dissent needn’t be equated with a critique of sovereignty — it might be more consistent with a shared or plural sovereignty. Jahanbegloo conceives of shared sovereignty as a recognition of democracy, in the Aristotelian sense: respecting the principle of ruling and being ruled in turns. He believes that shared sovereignty can improve dialogue between communities, religions, and cultures that too often claim power in more exclusive terms. His elaborations on Gandhian thinking are nuanced and engaging, and serve as important responses to the political dilemmas posed by the struggles over democracy in the Middle East today. Jahanbegloo has the Arab Spring in mind and, perhaps more centrally, the longstanding Iranian dissident movement. He sees an urgent need in our contemporary moment to think more pointedly and imaginatively about how democratic uprisings can stabilize themselves.
Jahanbegloo’s wager is that Gandhian politics offer a path to overcoming authoritarian rule while avoiding the pitfalls of revolution. Whether Gandhian politics did stabilize India’s postcolonial transition is itself a controversial question; one need only think of the brutal partition that accompanied Indian independence. Nevertheless, Jahanbegloo is right to reconsider Gandhi from this angle — he was extremely sensitive to the dilemmas of transition. Indeed, one could argue that this was at the center of his continual meditations on the nature of swaraj (true independence or self-rule).
Directing Gandhi’s thinking toward contemporary concerns in this manner is a fruitful line of inquiry, and Jahanbegloo’s considerations are insightful. The strength of his insights, however, is sometimes diluted when they are applied too broadly. In what is essentially a pamphlet-length work, Jahanbegloo moves too quickly from recovering concepts such as shared sovereignty and citizen agency to extolling Gandhian goals of spiritualizing politics, promoting dialogic and intercultural criticism, reconciling individualism and mutuality, and promoting the more general Gandhian values of responsibility, tolerance, civility, and humility. True, many of these notions may be attributed to Gandhi himself, but it is hard to see their interconnection. In the end, their importance can only be declared rather than persuasively demonstrated.
Jahanbegloo’s attempt to recover the “ethical” thrust of Gandhian politics, however, merits careful consideration. As he observes, Gandhian politics has become a genuinely global phenomenon — a diffusion at once unexpected and inevitable. From the struggles against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s to the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, to the Arab Spring more recently, nonviolence has grown in popularity as an effective tool in antiauthoritarian campaigns. Moreover, in the literature on nonviolence, this revival has spawned theoretical analyses that view nonviolent collective action as essentially democratic. (See especially Jonathan Schell’s seminal work, The Unconquerable World.) Jahanbegloo’s worry is that nonviolence’s global reach, though significant, may be only partial, or fragile because partial — hence the need to integrate the politics of dissent within something more holistic.
Gandhi himself may have come up with this line of thought when, on the eve of independence, he complained that the Indian National Congress seemed only to have embraced nonviolence in a tactical way. Countless Gandhians have since lamented the adoption of nonviolence as a strategy separated from a deeper, more philosophical commitment to nonviolence. But does the contrast between ethical politics and strategic politics make sense as a way of characterizing the nature of nonviolent politics? And does the alleged chasm between ethics and politics help explain the fragile or partial success of nonviolent politics as it has come to be practiced today?
Let’s take the example of swaraj. Gandhi deliberately disassociated swaraj from the mere transfer of power and political independence in the literal sense. Rather, as Jahanbegloo emphasizes, swaraj pointed to a deeper, self-generated change, at times amounting to a radical reanimation of self and society. One key aspect of such political praxis was the demonstration of a capability to rule — that is, the capacity of the incipient polity to discipline, reform, and organize itself. In other words, to Gandhi, the moral claim to rule was nonsensical, even reckless, without a practical demonstration of swaraj. This was one reason why Gandhi was so insistent that the independence movement make headway toward solving the most divisive political issues — such as the Hindu-Muslim question and the abolition of untouchability — before independence. Otherwise it was unclear why, for example, the Congress party could be trusted to do better afterward. Indeed, the task might become more fraught when the ruling party and community’s conceit and prejudice are buttressed by state power. Here we glimpse a prescient concern about how to generate a new, democratic polity without being undone by democratic competition for power.
What seems most urgent about this is not so much a need for more intensive ethical guidance but a need to face up more squarely to the inherent paradoxes of democratic politics. This is why I wonder whether the problem of nonviolent politics today is that it has become pure technique devoid of ethics — or, rather, that its current form relies on a theory of politics that also celebrates collective power. Gandhi was surely a natural-born democrat in his commitment to egalitarianism and his championing of the poor. But he was also deeply suspicious of mass democracy as a political system, and of traditional forms of collective action. He believed that both were premised upon the brute power of numbers. Here he was relying on thinkers he admired such as Thoreau, Emerson, Tolstoy, and Tagore. They were all concerned with the deforming effects of mass politics: the dangers of conformity and the seductive pull of collective egoism. But perhaps foremost among these lay a concern that the democratic celebration of the moral-political power of the majority serves to legitimate a new kind of power politics, a new logic of “might over right.”
This brings us back to the inherent instability of democratic revolution: if the moral claim to popular rule rests on the superiority of numbers, it risks becoming an open and brutal competition for power, one that might reinstate unitary sovereignty rather than undergird new practices of authority and legitimacy. If this moral claim to rule becomes inseparable from majoritarianism, particularly in pluralist societies, it is a fraught recipe for political conflict and minority vulnerability. Here, we might add, the problem is not one of ethical deficit, per se, but a heightened moral self-certainty.
Gandhi was concerned about a similar braiding of nonviolent action and corporate power. This was at stake, for example, in the oft-quoted remark he made to the African-American theologian Howard Thurman during their 1936 meeting, suggesting to him that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” He was intimating that only minority movements could offer a pure demonstration of nonviolence. The majoritarian ones — like the anticolonial movement in India — would always be “adulterated” in the sense that their success would be attributed to collective power rather than to nonviolence as such.
For Gandhi, mass political action came with a host of dangers. It bred collective egoism or self-expansion, a moral hubris that, in turn, could unleash a politics without limits. His challenge was to develop forms of nonviolent collective action that could temper this moral-political psychology and be effective without relying upon sheer force. Gandhi’s response was to return individualization to the dynamics of mass action. The latter could work not through the sheer force of numbers, but through the coordinated activity of disciplined individuals whose individuality would be maintained and expressed in their comportment, constraint, and detachment. This I take to be one of the key features of Gandhian nonviolence.
A striking example of individuated collective action can be found in Gandhi’s advocacy of khadi, a large-scale, decentralized system of cooperative, handspun cloth production. This mode of cooperation was collective in nature but also premised on the patient work of radically isolated individuals, where each individual would cultivate inward discipline and experience a form of self-rule in the act of spinning. Is Gandhi’s attentiveness to questions of egoism and discipline, moral hubris and power, a sign of a deeply “ethical” approach to politics? Perhaps. Yet to think of Gandhian ethics as the integral, “suprapolitical” ground of Gandhian politics — as Jahanbegloo does — risks moralizing nonviolent politics. Nonviolence thus becomes primarily a politics of moral critique and exhortation. To my mind, this would lose sight of the most innovative features of Gandhian politics: its capacity to embed ethical and political limits within the form and structure of political action. Gandhi’s most audacious claim was that this self-limitation was the reason why nonviolence had such a remarkable political efficacy.
Karuna Mantena is Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale University.