A Reply to B. de Ligt Concerning his Correspondence with Gandhi

by Richard Gregg

Those who are familiar with Gandhi’s life will recall that up to 1919 he believed that the British Empire did more good than harm to the world and to India. He had not then evolved his program of hand spinning and weaving, nor in his South African struggles had he used the boycott or refusal to pay taxes as political weapons. He has stated that up to that time he did not have strength to resist war effectively.

Richard Gregg, c. 1930s, photographer unknown; courtesy Quakers in the World.

Therefore, I think that he did war service because up till then he did not realize the extent of violence and untruth inherent in the State; he did not fully understand the complex and subtle nature of its control over people; and had not yet devised practical methods of ending that control. Nevertheless, he knew that war is only a result, a final stage of a psychological process that begins with fear, anger and greed. In organized social life most of us support the State by paying taxes, by buying articles from people or corporations that similarly support the State, and by not effectively helping others to escape this domination. To refuse military service after taking part in all this is merely to lock the stable door after the horse is stolen. Gandhi seems to have preferred to take some part in war to see if somehow he could render good for evil. Innocent or inconsistent perhaps, but with deeper understanding than that of most.

What about Gandhi’s demand at London for Indian control of the army? I think that Gandhi wants India to make a free choice between violence and non-violence, and he believes that no such choice can be made until India has at least the complete right to maintain and control her own army. Moral character and growth can be attained not through external prohibitions, but only by free individual choices in a situation where alternatives are open. Gandhi will do his utmost to persuade India to choose non-violence, but nevertheless he wants the choice to be voluntary.

Non-violent resistance requires courage greater than the courage to fight violently. In the evolution of mankind, courage to fight comes first. Therefore, among a people who have been rendered timid by centuries of subjection, there may be many who may first have to learn the courage of violence before they can develop the higher courage of non-violence. Gandhi hopes that the process of waging a national struggle by non-violent resistance will bridge and eliminate that stage for his people and will convince the whole Indian nation that non-violent resistance is much more effective than violence.

The consistency which B. de Ligt apparently wishes for Gandhi is an affair of intellectual logic which overlooks the immense complexity of human personality and the complexity of the forces which play upon it. To ask a man always to be consistent would mean to ask him not to grow, not to engage in joint action with many people; indeed, not to be human.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This article was originally published in The World Tomorrow, March 1932; pp. 77-78. The version we are using here is from Christian Bartolf (ed.) The Breath of Life: The Correspondence of Mahatma Gandhi (India) and Bart de Ligt (Holland) on War and Peace, Berlin: Gandhi-Informations-Zentrum, 2000; pp. 70-76; courtesy of Christian Bartolf and the board of Gandhi-Informations-Zentrum.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Richard Gregg (1885-1974) is often credited with being the first American theorist of non-violent civil resistance (satyagraha).  While a student at Harvard in the early 1920s he attended a guest lecture about Gandhi and Gandhi’s non-violence theories. Upon graduating in 1925 he set sail for India, and lived for several years in various Gandhian ashrams. In 1934 he published the work he is best known for, The Power of Non-violence. The book was to have a great influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. and other of the civil rights leaders, and has remained an essential text in the study of non-violence, and the influence of non-violence on American politics. Gregg’s Wikipedia page deserves expanding, but has, nonetheless, some useful links. This Quaker website also has a brief biography.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi