Nonviolent Revolution: Origins of the Concept

by Geoffrey Ostergaard

“Nonviolent revolution” is a relatively novel and, at first glance, paradoxical concept. In classifying principled nonviolence, Gene Sharp describes it as “the most recent type”, dating from about 1945, and as “still very much a direction of developing thought and action rather than a fixed ideology and program.” (1) As the term itself suggests, it is an ideological hybrid, the product of two hitherto distinct, though not unrelated traditions of thought. The first of these traditions is “pacifism”, the defining feature of which is the rejection, on principle and as a guiding rule of individual conduct, of violence, especially but not only the institutionalised violence manifested in war. The “peace testimony” of the Quakers made in 1661 typifies the pacifist stance: “All bloody principles and practices we (as to our own particular) do utterly deny, with all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretext whatsoever . . .” (2)

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Gandhi’s Political Ethics. Part Seven: Satyagraha, Forms of Nonviolent Action

by Arne Naess

“Satyagraha” is a word which connotes the typically Gandhian approach in political and social conflicts. Writing of the South African days Gandhi says that the expression ”passive resistance” was not an apt term for the action of the Indians in that country. Gandhi also rejected “pacifism.” He said that “We had to invent a new term clearly to denote the movement of the Indians in the Transvaal and to prevent its being confused with passive resistance generally so called.” (1) Satya means “truth” not in the purely theoretical sense of the way in which assertions correspond to reality, but rather in the sense in which we speak of someone as a true friend, in which we think of reality as a form of genuineness. Agraha means “grasp,” “firmness” or “fixity,” and Gandhi says, “Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or nonviolence, and gave up the use of the phrase ‘passive resistance,’ in connection with it.” (2) These and other general statements by Gandhi, of course, tell us almost nothing. They are too vague and it has become necessary, therefore, to distinguish various meanings of the new word satyagraha. According to one interpretation, satyagraha is the collective name for just those practical methods used by Gandhi in his campaigns. According to another, satyagraha designates the principles underlying Gandhi’s action; used in this sense, the word is practically a synonym for the concept of “power lying at the base of nonviolent means,” or simply for ahimsa. Thirdly, it is used as the common name for all the possible methods of action, whether exemplified by Gandhi or not, which are in agreement with the teachings of nonviolence; Gandhi’s methods, then, would be a subspecies of satyagraha—adapted to the special situations in which he worked. It is unfortunate that these three different meanings have been conflated, for considerable confusion inevitably arises in any discussion of satyagraha.

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On Nonviolence and Literature

by Lawrence Rosenwald

For most of my life, reading literature has given me some of my most intense and purest experiences.  I know from these experiences what Nabokov means when he writes, “ . . . a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm” (316-7); what Kafka means when he writes, “a book must be the axe for the frozen seas within us”; what Emily Dickinson means when she writes, “if I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry” (NA I: 2483). A society that sought to deprive readers of such experiences, that sought to keep writers from creating works in relation to which such experiences might be found, would seem to me cold and impoverished – the frozen seas would remain within us, with no axe to break them up.

More recently, I have also become intensely committed to nonviolence – to nonviolence in relation to national conflict, i.e., to pacifism, but also to nonviolence as a way of life.[1]  I am a modestly obedient citizen in most spheres of public life; in this one, I have become a deliberate and assertive lawbreaker.  For the past sixteen years, when my wife, Cynthia Schwan, and I have paid our federal income tax, we have subtracted from what we owe (though I don’t believe that “owe” is the right word for our relation to the government in this matter) the percentage of the federal budget that goes towards current military expenses, sent the subtracted percentage to progressive organizations or a progressive escrow fund, and informed the IRS of the action that we have taken.  This is, as noted, illegal, and the IRS has accordingly seized the money we have refused to pay, either from our bank accounts or from my salary at the college.  I do this annual act of civil disobedience because, just as I refuse to endorse a world without literature as I might imagine it, so I refuse, with equal intensity, to endorse the violent world I actually inhabit, the world of East Timor and Rwanda and Bosnia and the sanctions on Iraq, and in particular the violent country I inhabit, with its military budget that is by far the largest in the world, greater than the military budget of the twelve next largest military budgets combined.

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Gandhi’s Art: Using Non-Violence to Transform “Evil”

by William J. Jackson

Gandhi c. 1945; photographer unknown;
a public domain image,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


“Changing the world begins with changing yourself; you have to become the change you want to see in the world.”  M. Gandhi

 The most Gandhi-like person I know is a very patient and gentle yogi who lives in New Delhi. When I wrote to him to say that I was preparing this article, he replied, “Making an honest and sincere attempt to practice exactly what one preaches is not easy—but Gandhiji did it to near perfection; at the cost of enormous physical as well as mental hardship, he examined his life in light of his convictions with brutal honesty, and underwent enormous inner suffering whenever he found himself wanting. That can give much greater torture than giving up physical comforts voluntarily, in which he also went to an extreme.”

Why was Gandhi so scrupulous? He himself said: “You have to become the change you want to see in the world.” Gandhi said that he thought Leo Tolstoy was the embodiment of truth in the age in which they lived: “Tolstoy’s greatest contribution to life lies, in my opinion, in his even attempting to reduce to practice his professions without counting the cost.” Gandhi said that reading Tolstoy’s writing “The Kingdom of God is Within You” changed his life, turning him from a votary of violence to an exponent of non-violence.  Like Martin Luther King Jr., whom he inspired in turn, Gandhi always seemed ready to put comfort aside and to put his life on the line, without counting the cost. For example, when a leper came to his door in South Africa, Gandhi fed him, offered him shelter, dressed his wounds, and looked after him.

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Introduction to Non-violence

by Theodore Paullin

The purpose of the present study is to analyze the various positions found within the pacifist movement itself in regard to the use of non-violent techniques of bringing about social change in group-relationships. In its attempt to differentiate between them, it makes no pretense of determining which of the several pacifist positions is ethically most valid. Hence it is concerned with the application of non-violent principles in practice and their effectiveness in achieving group purposes, rather than with the philosophical and religious foundations of such principles. It is hoped that the study may help individuals to clarify their thinking within this field, but the author has no brief for one method as against the others. Each person must determine his own principles of action on the basis of his conception of the nature of the universe and his own scale of ethical values.

The examples chosen to illustrate the various positions have been taken largely from historical situations in this country and in Europe, because our traditional education has made us more familiar with the history of these areas than with that of other parts of the world. It also seemed that the possibilities of employing non-violent methods of social change would be more apparent if it was evident that they had been used in the West, and were not only applicable in Oriental societies. It is unfortunate that this deliberate choice has eliminated such valuable illustrative material as the work of Kagawa in Japan. The exception to this general rule in the case of “Satyagraha” has been made because of the widespread discussion of this movement in all parts of the world in our day.

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“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