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Book Review: Norman G. Finkelstein's "What Gandhi says about Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage"

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Norman G. Finkelstein's What Gandhi says about Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage is a short readable book filled with thoughtful observations and dedicated to the "Occupy" movement for all the right reasons. Is it possible to use Gandhi's methods of resistance without oneself being a sort of a Gandhi? Finkelstein sincerely doubts that. An honest academic and a serious activist, Finkelstein has few illusions about Gandhi or Gandhism. What Finkelstein looks at is Gandhi the person and Gandhi the social and political activist along with the problems associated with Gandhian methods of protest. He notes " that much of Gandhi's doctrine was inseparable from his person and personality" (24).

In fact as a son of Holocaust survivors and owing to his involvement with Palestinian resistance and other marginal groups Finkelstein is in the unique position of being able to raise theoretical and practical questions with regard to the issue of violence in Gandhi. He is far from carried away by the popular image of Gandhi's "saintliness" that we tend to see among the Mahatma's admirers. In the popular imagination, Gandhi is an idea, an idea associated with a lot of things, nonviolence being the most prominent of them. The idea however is not always the person and this is what Finkelstein's book seeks to painstakingly examine. As he says, "Like everyone else, Gandhi no doubt succumbed to self-deception, but unlike almost anyone else, and corny as it might sound and dubious as it might appear, he probably never consciously lied" (20).

Any book that discusses Gandhi's relationship to violence inevitably must throw light on Gandhi's complex motives in making some of the decisions that make it impossible to separate one from the other. The basic premise of Finkelstein's book is that " The real Gandhi did loathe violence but he loathed cowardice more than violence" (12).While admitting that his work is not "an academic exercise" (13), Finkelstein approaches Gandhi's views on nonviolence with a certain caution. The book attempts to see why Gandhi did what he did in specific situations and if it is possible or even necessary to replicate some of those strategies in other situations. More importantly, is the Gandhian approach an innocent one as portrayed through the sparkling eyes of Ben Kingsley in Attenborough's film, or the approach of a man who knew his ability to calculate the extent to which he could push his opponents to submit to his will? This is the question Finkelstein grapples with rather well.

Does nonviolence work in all situations in the way Gandhi espoused it? The answer is an obvious "no" to Finkelstein. Since God played such an important role in Gandhi's pronouncements, Finkelstein notes with deliberate irony that, "Put simply, to doubt Gandhi was to doubt God" (23). Having said that, the real Gandhi would be more willing to accept violence that emanates from courage instead of nonviolence that stems from cowardice. "Gandhi did not just extenuate violence on circumstantial grounds. He also positively advocated it if, in the face of an injustice, the only other options were abject surrender or retreat" (34). Gandhi's view would undoubtedly have been that suicide bombers and terrorists are cowards because they are not openly defying death.   They court death in a surreptitious manner almost without having to experience any kind of prolonged pain that might be worse than death in many ways.  

Thus Gandhian notions of nonviolence are obsessively attached to the idea of pain and death and the latter is meant to be plain evidence as to the success of the nonviolent. Thus, while Finkelstein says "Gandhi fostered a death cult" (40), he further observes:

Isn't it the fact that a person who stands poised to make the supreme sacrifice for an ideal also and concurrently clings to life and, if not absolutely dreading death, still loves life--and not just loves life because it enables one to sacrifice it, which is how Gandhi conceived life--isn't it that fact that causes the rest of humanity to honor martyrs and moves our consciences at their untimely and unjust passing?

Gandhi so devalues life that life and death truly become indistinguishable, and seeking to preserve life, let alone at the ultimate price of self-immolation, becomes a contradiction in terms. Why sacrifice one's own life for the sake of others if it is, or should be, a matter of indifference whether they are dead or alive? (43)

Even to those who admire Gandhi it is difficult to accept his devaluation of life because ultimately it is love of life that guides men and women to fight injustice. The personal sacrifices that revolutionary activism demands, comes from a deep sense of anguish that the majority of humanity is deprived of the joys of life. It is a small group of people who exploit the earth's limited resources and other men and women so that they can have the best of everything. The meaningfulness of the sacrifice is in resisting what these small groups of people are doing to humanity in general. Therefore, Gandhi's " cavalier indifference to life and morbid embrace of death are the most unappealing and incoherent facets of his doctrine" (40).

Finkelstein accepts however that Gandhi was no simpleton or dreamer and that he " harbored few illusions that the antagonistic relationship and consequent British resort to force sprang from brutal exploitation, while the British decision whether to stay or leave would ultimately be decided, not by winning their trust, but by their cold calculation of the bottom line" (45).

On the question of personal suffering being able to move one's opponents, Finkelstein couldn't be more right when he says: "The spectacle of martyrdom might induce some degree of pity but, in and of itself, it won't induce those profiting from a system and convinced of its justice to make major concessions" (53). It is hard to accept Gandhi's view that human nature is ultimately just and amicable. Human nature can be cruel, treacherous and criminally self-centered. Men cannot be trusted with power and effective restraints have to be placed to prevent the strong from preying on the weak. I sincerely do not think that rich and powerful men have any good intentions because they wouldn't choose ill-begotten wealth and brute power to preserve the wealth in the first place. Therefore to appeal to their conscience and expect them to change is in other words prolonging the sufferings of the downtrodden. Those who have power need to be afraid of the consequences of the abuse of power. Corrupt and conscienceless men understand fear because that is what they intend to inspire in their victims. Finkelstein asks:

Did millions of innocent Jews being led to the crematoria "like lambs to the slaughter-house" prick the Nazi conscience? It might be said that they did not go smilingly and cheerfully--theirs was the "nonviolence of the weak"--but if the Nazis could morally rationalize the extermination of one million Jewish children--whose innocence of means and ends could be purer?--it is probable that they would also have rationalized the non-vindictive and voluntary self-immolation of the Jews. (54)

It is hard to disagree with Finkelstein on this point though however he grants that " The only Gandhian strategies possibly effective against a Hitler would be noncooperation on a mass scale, and mobilizing sympathetic public opinion through self-suffering, in order, not to tug at his heartstrings, but to politically defeat him" (56). I see no reason why the Jews under the Nazis should have tolerated such inhuman treatment for exactly the same reason why Palestinian Arabs should be humiliated and denied their basic rights by the state of Israel. Nonviolence by the Palestinians could ultimately provoke the average Israeli to denounce what his or her government is doing to the Arabs. However, a powerful state such as Israel backed by an imperial power such as the United States needs to be politically and militarily defeated in order to be reminded that acts of aggression will not be taken lightly.

Despite seeing the limitations in Gandhi's arguments favoring self-suffering, Finkelstein is far from dismissive of Gandhi the person.

Self-suffering might move a loved one to mend his ways. It might also awaken the conscience of a public otherwise passive in the face of injustice. But as a rule it will not deter persons driven by righteous fury and defending perceived interests. Only a Gandhi could possess such over powering spiritual force; it lived and died with his person. This was his great personal triumph, but also his great political failure. The tactic has no generalized value. (57)

The book ends on a couple of realistic notes, a lot different from the Gandhi of the movie and popular literature. One is that: " It was not the power of love but the juggernaut of power that cleared the path to India's independence" (78). Another is that: "If a criticism is to be leveled against Gandhi's nonviolence, it is that he sets the bar of courage too high for most mortals to vault" (81). Personally I'm convinced that ultimately the most sustainable of all changes is one that emerges from a spirit of nonviolence. If you asked me what is the best solution for Israel and its Arab neighbors to live in peace and harmony, I've no doubt that the Gandhian spirit of nonviolence is the only way to overcome the fear and accumulated hatred for suffering both real and imagined on either side by victims of aggression. To forgive is to forgive the unforgivable as Derrida notes. That's exactly how Gandhi would've seen it. Without collective forgiveness feelings of revenge take the place of justice and day to day life becomes unbearable for the person on the street. Gandhism's strength will undoubtedly be a reminder in the direction that civilizations and cultures flourish where men and women are generally speaking nonviolent. No creativity that offers a commentary on human nature is possible where people are bound to meaningless hatred that devours the body and the soul.

Another striking feature of Gandhi's philosophy is the practical side to believing in human goodness which is that it frees individuals of the morbid suspicion to constantly look at another person as potential enemy or aggressor. Being singularly free of the poison of hatred, Gandhi spoke in the same vein to both followers and opponents alike, a quality that the black writer James Baldwin sees in Martin Luther King, Jr. What King said to the blacks was exactly the same thing he told the whites. This lack of contradiction in public behavior gives both Gandhi and King a consistency in tune with their inner character. It makes them more credible as leaders and politicians unlike the rogues that fill the political galleries of our times.

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Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently working as an Associate Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.
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