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.

Here and there in his writing Gandhi appears to have used the term “satyagraha” in yet another sense; when, for example, he says, “Since satyagraha is one of the most powerful methods of direct action, a satyagrahi exhausts all other means before he resorts to satyagraha.” (3) A satyagrahi is one who practices satyagraha, and we may suppose Gandhi to be saying, “Try by all possible means to come to an understanding with an opponent before you use satyagraha.” Gandhi would then be using the word in a rather limited way to cover certain far-reaching or extreme forms of direct, nonviolent action in group conflicts, such as “civil disobedience.” Satyagraha in this fourth sense would thus be a subcategory of satyagraha in the third sense. But it is not the sense in which we shall be using the word in what follows.

In the fourth sense, satyagraha would refer to certain more or less characteristic procedures in group conflict, but we shall speak here only of a class of phenomena of which satyagraha is a component; that is, we shall use satyagraha as a common name for procedures in group conflict, without specifying instances. All we shall say is that common to all the procedures we are to call satyagraha is that they accord completely, or nearly so, with a specific set of principles, namely the principles constituting the general morality of nonviolence in group conflict. Our use of the word satyagraha, then, will agree most nearly with the third sense mentioned above, that is with all possible methods of action in accordance with nonviolence principles.

Every procedure has its special character. We can put it this way: procedures taken one by one are characteristic of a certain kind of group action, a type of action. The specific character of an individual instance of satyagraha procedure is colored by the type of action it exemplifies. Below will be found a short list, a ready-reference, of the kinds of action that can be adopted in satyagraha campaigns. But especially note this word “can.” If a group uses—to mention just one of the possibilities in the list below—an economic boycott, this in itself does not mean that the action satisfies the requirements for a satyagraha campaign. An economic boycott can be undertaken without following at all the principles governing the nonviolent resolution of group conflict, and in such a case would not be satyagraha in our sense. Again, any concrete action, or campaign is an instance of satyagraha if, and only if, (1) those who undertake the action follow the norms of nonviolent conflict completely or as nearly completely as possible, and (2) the action falls under one or more of the types given in any definitive list of nonviolent methods.

Because the list itself has to be regarded as part of the definition of satyagraha, the definition becomes rather long. If we wanted a shorter definition, we could try to find what is common to each feature of the list, and formulate it. We would find, however, that we would then end up with a much vaguer expression, one open to so many different interpretations that if we were to explain what we meant, we would have to resort once again to the list. What we would gain in brevity we would lose in self-sufficiency. In the long run, therefore, the longer definition, unwieldy though it may be, cannot be dispensed with.

A most important part of Gandhi’s social and political program was the constructive measures it advocated. Take for one example the development of cottage industries and weaving. Gandhi was working toward a society in which, among other things, handicraft would play an important role, a society in which everyone would be satisfactorily employed throughout the year. But home-weaving and handicraft were to function also as a symbol, a symbol, firstly, of the fact that “we Indians are able to help ourselves,” and a symbol, secondly, of the feeling against the British laws and regulations which deprived Indians of the opportunity to manufacture their own clothes, and which obliged them to make their own clothes at home or buy them from the British. Thus home-weaving gained far-reaching implications in the struggle against British supremacy. However, since no violation of the law was involved, it became, in principle at least, one feature of a purely constructive program; that is, a positive form of activity in which the revolutionary individual acted as if what he hoped for was already an accomplished fact. This constructive program, as we call it, was something Gandhi laid great store by, not simply in the context of his own campaign, but, more generally, in his efforts toward sustaining a high level of morale among his followers.

In not treating the constructive program as a form of action, let us not fail to bear in mind, however, that it was by means of the constructive program that every action was to be accomplished. Rather than being merely another instance of action, it was a necessary concomitant of every such instance. As a long-range program, it was to span those intervals of time during which outbreaks of intense conflict might be expected. Individual actions, as Gandhi saw them, were comparatively limited in their aims. The constructive program, on the other hand, was to continue as long as there were powerful tensions in society. It was to consist of a number of reforms and changes in existing social, economic, and political institutions, the aim not being merely to improve those conditions, but to lay a foundation for a new society while the old system continued to exist. These changes were to be effected for their own sake or for the sake of distant aims, such as women’s rights, adult education, respect for all religions, and so on. But they were also to have a wider effect; the changes themselves, and the steps taken to bring them about, were to strengthen the self-reliance of the people and their ability to work together toward socially desirable ends. What people take upon themselves to do voluntarily, day by day, in the way of removing social evils, gives them a moral right to take, whenever necessary, a greater part in curing other such evils and in overcoming other such obstacles to constructive reform. When men cooperate, however modestly, toward common ends, they inevitably acquire valuable training for the kind of large-scale cooperation they will require in times of active struggle. Moreover, the self-reliance gained through a constructive program’s stress on self-help, in place of dependence on foreign production and distant markets, can have an important influence on efforts to strengthen connections between different parts of a country. People who were economically self-reliant would be in a better position to form and to preserve freedom in other areas of life, such as politics and law. When the necessities of life are controlled by someone else, that someone else controls more than just the purse-strings; if people are able to satisfy their most elementary needs, to “look after themselves,” however, it is far more difficult to dominate and control them. What a constructive program should do is remove the opportunity for economic profiteering and political and economic exploitation, and thereby eliminate one main cause of international tyranny. Such a program would foster those very qualities that are necessary for, and formed out of, satyagraha action, namely, the qualities of self-reliance, independence, and the power of self-decision.

Any satyagraha action, is based on the satyagrahi’s  two distinct considerations in the face of what opposes him: his attitude to the evil itself and to the person who practices it. In the face of evil itself, the satyagrahi, having first tried to cleanse himself of it, is duty-bound to show his opponent in what respects his action is evil, and then to try to convince him to mend his ways. If talking to the man gets him nowhere, the satyagrahi must persist in his appeal, must try to affect a change of heart by taking upon himself any burden of suffering or pain that may result from the conflict between himself and his opponent. Then secondly, the satyagrahi must deny all cooperation with the evil-doer and convince everyone, especially the evil-doer’s close associates, to do likewise. According to Gandhi’s view, it is the willing cooperation of underlings that makes oppression and injustice possible; a refusal to cooperate, therefore, should bring an effective end to such things. This denial of cooperation can, of course, be manifested in one or more types of action. In a particular satyagraha campaign the stress may lie on either of the satyagrahi’s two considerations, that is of dealing with evil itself and with those who perpetrate it; sometimes both may apply equally. But it is against the background of this twofold attitude, and against the background of the principles of satyagraha that one must view the different kinds of action adopted in the campaigns themselves. Seen in this perspective, the use, say, of an economic boycott, can appear in quite a different light from what would otherwise be the case.

Gandhi thought that the forms of action could be so arranged that they would become increasingly stringent and forceful as the struggle between a satyagraha group and its opponents developed: more stringent—that is, more far-reaching, or extreme—in the sense of demanding qualitatively greater sacrifice and suffering on both sides; more forceful, in the sense of generating greater power and effectiveness.

There is no reason to provide a detailed list of all the appropriate kinds of action. For that there are other sources, not least the reader’s own imagination. (4) Generally, however, it is plain enough that the kinds of action concerned, if they are to be used in satyagraha campaigns and, hence, are in agreement with the system of principles, can take on a character quite different from that of actions in ordinary struggles. We have only to think, for example, of Gandhi’s unusual demand that all documents relevant to a conflict be placed before all of the antagonists.

What follows is a classification of the kinds of action, which can be used in satyagraha campaigns, provided, of course, that they are so employed that the principles of nonviolence are upheld:


  • Negotiations
  • Arbitration
  • Agitation (without breaking the law)
  • Demonstrations of various kinds (without breaking the law)


  • (Actions in this class are also understood as not to involve breaking the law)
  • Ordinary, limited strikes, of short duration
  • General strike
  • Economic boycott
  • Social boycott


  • Fasting
  • Emigration
  • Extensive institutional non-cooperation
  • Civil disobedience (Including breaking laws, but only such as are found ethically reprehensible)
  • Systematic disobedience (Including breaking laws which individually may not be at fault, but are part of the system struggled against)
  • Parallel government
  • Total disobedience (5)

Classification along other dimensions is, of course, needed. The way of classifying action from “mild” to “extreme” was, however, often used by Gandhi himself, and it must for that reason alone, if no other, be viewed as a most important one.

To agitation in a wider sense belong the special forms of action used, for instance, by pickets during strikes. However, if the law forbids meetings and certain kinds of propaganda, this would become a more severe kind of action, which would involve breaking the law. Closely related to agitation, at least outwardly, would be demonstrations in the form of marches, banner-waving, placard-carrying; the Indian women’s march on the mines to convince the miners to go on strike, and the miners’ march into the Transvaal as a demonstration against a number of laws and restrictions, especially against economic and racial discrimination.

Simply in order to get a clear view of all these forms of action, we have made a distinction between forms that involve breaking laws and conventions, and those that do not. Demonstration and agitation are relegated to the latter. But, of course, this classification is not an entirely adequate one; we can easily find situations in which any demonstration or agitation would involve breaking laws or conventions. However, we may note that in such cases the conflict is inevitably aggravated. More restricted actions may involve greater risks, perhaps, for those who perform them, but the possibilities of success are also greater. (6)

In his The Future of Mankind, Karl Jaspers arrives at a negative conclusion regarding nonviolent action. (7) But this is at least in part due to a strange identification of power with force or compulsion. He is quite right in maintaining that no methods can succeed in politics without the use of power. But he seems to infer from this that therefore no movement can succeed without the use of force or compulsion. From the correct observation that it is impossible for nonviolence to succeed without the use of power, he infers that it cannot succeed at all!

The distinction between compulsion and conversion is important: if a fast by Gandhi leads to his opponent’s “giving in” on the grounds of the immorality of causing the death of another, but without any genuine belief in Gandhi’s proposals, then the case is one which we would properly describe as “compulsion on moral grounds.” The opponent is compelled to give in against his will, and if Gandhi makes use of the opponent’s moral convictions in order to reach his goal, then he makes use of compulsion or force.

Gandhi was, of course, against such compulsion: “I repeat what I have said before—nothing is to be done under pressure of the fast. I have observed before that things done under pressure of a fast have been undone after the fast is over. If any such thing happens it would be a tragedy of the highest degree.” (8) But if Gandhi convinces an opponent through fasting, then he has used power and not compulsion. As long as we fail to distinguish power from force and violence, the conclusions of Jaspers (and other critics) hold: that is, that Gandhi, in his morality, far from doing away with violence and compulsion, merely finds another name and place for it.

However, even if this conclusion were true, there is a vast difference between warfare, say, and moral pressure. What is achieved by moral pressure is not dependent on the maintenance of that pressure for its continuance, nor will people outside the conflict be directly injured by it. Violence, as in the use of napalm bombs on enemy towns and settlements, is something quite different from the exercise of moral pressure.

In the English language it is possible, and normal, to distinguish power from violence. The confusion of the two that we find in Jaspers, and many other German philosophers, is perhaps not unconnected with a general failure to distinguish, in the German language, between Macht and Gewalt. Jaspers says that “Politik ihrem Wesen nach” is “Umgang mit der Gewalt,” and, as long as we leave the expression “Gewalt” imprecise, this statement of his can only be misleading. (9)

An important tenet in the contemporary political philosophy of “power” or “strength” maintains that violent exertion of power is not just one of many ways of exerting power, but “power,” “violence” and “threats of violence” are near synonyms. Another current of thought, equally important, bases itself on a concept of power akin to Spinoza’s. The power (potentia) of a being (individual, state, or group) is its ability to act out of its own individuality, spontaneously, and without compulsion from another. Nevertheless, when one being acts under the influence of another, or, more generally, when it is stimulated by something outside itself, it does not thereby exhibit its impotence. If it is raining, for example, and I put up my umbrella, it would be an expression of my impotence if I did so simply because it was a generally accepted social principle that one should avoid getting wet, even though I personally enjoyed a good soaking. But if, by nature, I dislike getting wet, the use of an umbrella to ward off the rain would be an expression of my power—my ability to act from my own nature. The rain influences my action, but it does not coerce or compel me. In the same way, if an opponent appeals to a moral principle and convinces me in spite of myself of the goodness of something, I can still do as my opponent suggests without thereby expressing any impotence.

Despite his theoretical reservations, however, Jaspers holds that Gandhi pointed in the right direction in the present world crisis. This favorable opinion stems from the fact that Gandhi anchored his method in the supra-political: “Today we face the question of how to escape from physical force, and from war, lest we all perish by the atom bomb. Gandhi, in word and deed, gives the true answer: Only a supra-political force can bring political salvation.” (10)

When huge numbers of people are engaged in a nonviolent struggle, things easily degenerate into violence if they are not properly organized. Gandhi therefore wished to organize struggles through elite groups. But he found himself unable to organize on a national scale these groups, the so-called “nonviolent brigades” which were to cover all of the centers of unrest in India. The idea was that, by contributing to the common good in their immediate surroundings, these nonviolent workers would acquire the moral stature and good-will to combat warring factions and hooligans. In the event of a bloody uprising in any centers of unrest, they were to go into action and pacify those who were on the point of using arms. Furthermore, when mass action was under way, the brigades were supposed to place themselves among the crowds and step in at the moment when any disorderly factions got out of hand and started threatening their opponents. But Gandhi quickly discovered the enormous difference between, on the one hand, personally abstaining from violence and, on the other, throwing oneself into a crisis so as to hinder the use of violence by others. While thousands could conduct themselves entirely without violence in a situation in which they were being struck with clubs, or provoked in some other equally brutal manner, there were only a few who, themselves in safety, could be relied upon to move into a center of violence and actively try to prevent bloodshed.

An especially dangerous situation arose in the large cities, areas of rapidly increasing industrialization, for there the poor, out of work and generally unsettled, collected again and again to roam the streets, and to act in a more and more chaotic and disruptive way. These elements were, of course, very hard to influence. The solution that Gandhi decided upon was for satyagraha brigades to work, over a period of time, in specific districts and get to know the trouble-makers. By having men whom these troublemakers could completely trust go amongst them and thereby win their confidence, Gandhi hoped to influence them and to keep them from the kind of violence that would eventually lead to massacres.

In summary, then, we may say that Gandhi felt that his experiments with satyagraha justified the trust he put in its methods in solving group conflicts. On the one hand, we have his own particular experiences; on the other, certain of his general hypotheses, together with some of his general statements. The statements and hypotheses themselves, if acceptable, would allow us to predict quite generally the fact that satyagraha can achieve significant results. The choice of the word “significant” rather than, say, “unlimited” is made advisedly—Gandhi foresaw no unqualified success. As we said before, satyagraha here is so defined that an action which meets only approximately the principles of nonviolent action can still be designated satyagraha. If we required of a satyagraha action that it satisfy fully and exactly all of the specified conditions, such as the absence of hatred and so on, we could never accept Gandhi’s statement that he had practiced, and not merely intended, satyagraha. He himself felt that he had never achieved a completely nonviolent action and we have no reason whatever to doubt the justness of his own verdict. Nonetheless, the degree to which his actions accorded with the principles he set himself was certainly very high, and this fact is sufficient to justify our claim that Gandhi was a satyagrahi—that is, one who actually used satyagraha.

What happens, we can ask, when a satyagrahi keeps to a high level of satyagraha but his opponent does not give in, or only with the greatest difficulty is persuaded to withhold his opposition? Consistent application of the doctrine of progressive satyagraha might then lead to the adoption of severe and possibly extreme forms of action. It is interesting to note here that when non-extreme forms do not lead to positive results, the Gandhian principles require one to proceed to the establishment of a parallel government. Leo Tolstoy’s teaching of nonviolence and his morality of nonviolence, however, are allied to a less ambitious trust in man’s susceptibility to influence, and thus to a less confident belief in the forms of action adopted by Gandhi. It is characteristic also of Tolstoy and his adherents that they kept themselves as far removed from the State as possible; we can see that part of Tolstoy’s teaching was a comprehensive form of anarchism. And among Indian moralists before Gandhi a similar pessimism is also to be found. By far the greatest majority of them were not karmayogi, not men of action, but men who withheld themselves from the business and turmoil of life in order to live lives unmarked by violence.

Some people may say that optimism about the outcome of nonviolent action is not an essential part of Gandhi’s philosophy or moral teaching. But then they are surely identifying moral teaching with abstract science, just as one can, if one chooses, identify astronomy with those mathematical formulae which describe a body’s action under the force of gravity, rather than with an astronomer’s theories and descriptions of individual planets and other heavenly bodies. Taken in this way, astronomy is only a branch of mathematics. No one will doubt, however, that astronomy does include a reference to the factual universe as well as to abstract generalities. In the same way, a morality built up systematically must contain references to particular actions, real concrete possibilities for such action, and the probable results of such actions. Unless moral philosophy is thus made concrete, we would be forced to resort to an attitude which allows two widely different ethical statements to be interpreted identically when it comes to particular performances in the world, or, conversely, which would allow identical statements of moral principle to lead to diametrically opposed consequences. However, both the doctrine governing the forms of action, and the view about their effects, are genuine components of Gandhi’s moral philosophy, and hence also of his political philosophy. To pessimists he said: “Have you tried? I have, and it works.”


(1) M. K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa, p. 115.

(2) Ibid., pp. 109-10.

(3) Young India, 20 Oct. 1927.

(4) See, for example, GALTUNG, Johan and Arne NAESS, Gandhis politiske etikk, Oslo: J. G. Tanum, 1965, Norwegian, pp. 225-44; DIWAKAR, R. R. Satyagraha: Its Technique and History, Bombay: pp. 48-49.

(5) The expression “civil disobedience” was first used by the American writer and sage, Henry David Thoreau, in 1841. He wrote his essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” after he had been jailed for failure to pay his poll-tax to a state which supported slavery. Gandhi, who knew the essay, interpreted civil disobedience to mean “peaceful,” “polite,” “nonviolent disobedience,” (GANDHI, M. K., Satyagraha, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1951, pp. 3, 172 & 306), thus, as the opposite of “militant” rather than of “military” disobedience.

(6) Galtung and Naes op. cit. mention a kind of action that would be classified as “ultimatum.” For instance, someone makes a certain request of his opponent and says, for example, that if such and such reforms are not made or such and such negotiations conducted, then certain action will be taken. I think this category should be omitted. If an ultimatum is to be understood as a threat, it is incompatible with Gandhian principles. On the other hand, when an action is contemplated, something that might appear to be an ultimatum might be necessary in order to fulfill the requirement that all plans be laid before one’s opponents. If the motive is in accordance with the principles, it will be mainly a motive to make clear to the opposition what those plans are. The motive should not be: if we now make such and such threats, we will see whether or not the opposition is in a condition to give way to them.

(7) JASPERS, Karl., Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen, Munich: R. Piper and Co., 1958, English translation The Future of Mankind, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961, pp. 63ff.

(8) In Nonviolence in Peace and War, Vol. 2, p. 362. Paullin and Bondurant adhere to the definition of “coercion” as “the use of either physical or intangible force to compel action contrary to the will or reasoned judgment of the individual or group subjected to such force.” This is indeed a good formulation of one of the connotations of “coercion.” But how does nonviolence or even satyagraha involve coercion in this sense? Bondurant (Conquest of Violence, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958, p. 9) claims that, e.g., boycott involves coercion. If Indians do not buy British clothing and the merchant has to send a great many shirts back to England, is the merchant in that case compelled to do something contrary to his will or reasoned judgment? Even if he is blind and deaf to the positive side of the boycott, he is not compelled to act unreasonably. Heavy rain or strong arguments may compel me to stay at home, and stay at home I will, with good reason and not at all contrary to my will. To say that satyagraha is something which involves coercion seems to me to go too far in accommodating possibly undesirable or non-intended consequences to an action. Given a satyagraha campaign, it is an empirical question whether it actually coerces anybody and how much it does so. The matter is mainly one of terminology, one might say, but it is one not without some importance when distinguishing Gandhi’s intended approach from the ordinary non-military approaches which possess comparatively modest ethical requirements.

(9) Jaspers, op. cit, p. 63. The widespread use of the term “non-violent coercion” has lent credence to this misleading opinion of Jaspers, The use of the terms “coercion” and “compulsion” shows some differences. In certain senses, Gandhi found it justifiable for a satyagraha leader to coerce or compel, in other senses he did not. I think it leads to less misunderstanding to use the terms in such a way that Gandhi is shown to be against coercion and compulsion. In the list of usages described by H. Ofstad (see following) use (b) is such a use, (a) and (c) are not.

“A person who steals because he is a kleptomaniac may be said to be the victim of internal compulsion. To say so does not prejudge the question whether he had it in his power to resist the compulsion.

“In order to clarify somewhat the talk about inner compulsion, it seems convenient to distinguish between the five following analyses:

“(a) P’s decision was an outcome of a conflict which was not solved through the process of decision. When the decision-making started, P wanted both x and y, but could not have both. And when the decision had been made in favor of x, P still desired y.

“This is a broad sense of the term. Most of our decisions are probably compelled in this sense. In most of our decisions we have to sacrifice certain Goods in order to realize some others.

“(b) P’s decision was determined by tensions, drives, needs, motives, etc., with which he did not identify himself. According to this line of analysis, we do not talk about ‘inner compulsion’ if the tension-system representing the self won the victory, even if the tension was at a very high level. But sometimes (c) we talk about decisions as being compelled if the tension was high, even if the person identified himself with the motive in question. This distinction should be kept in mind, since a decision, which is compelled in one of these senses may nor be so in relation to the other.”  (An Inquiry into the Freedom of Derision, Oslo; Norwegian University Press, London: Allan and Unwin; New York: Humanities Press, 1961, p. 40)

(10) Jaspers, English translation op cit p. 39.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This essay by Arne Naess is from the long out of print, Gandhi and the Nuclear Age, Totowa (New Jersey): Bedminster Press, 1965; Part Two, Chapter 8, pp. 62-81. We are grateful to Mrs. Arne Naess for permission. Copyright © 2013 Mrs. Arne Naess/Estate of Arne Naess. We are also grateful to Alan Drengson for his assistance.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An extensive editor’s note is appended to our earlier Naess postings, as at the end of the “Gandhi and Group Conflict” articles. For an example click here.

“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