Gandhi’s Political Ethics. Part Six: A Program of Action

by Arne Naess

How did Gandhi set about realizing his principle: “The essence of nonviolent technique is that it seeks to liquidate antagonisms but not the antagonists”?

It has long been the custom to speak of nonviolent as contrasted to military methods and techniques. But it should be noted that the distinguishing feature of a method or technique, as such, is that it is a mere instrument; the goal or aim toward which it works is something else. It is not necessary that the method or technique should have more than an instrumental value, only that it be employed unflinchingly toward the end in question. The kind of conduct Gandhi employed in group-conflict can, to some extent, be made into an organized system, but only to some extent. If the aspect of method is overstressed, we find ourselves interpreting Gandhi’s teaching as a kind of cookbook doctrine. One forgets his maxim: “Means and ends are convertible terms in my philosophy of life.”

In any campaign, according to Gandhi, moral principles must be observed. Such principles concern a man’s purity of intention, his respect for other individuals, and the absence in him of any tendency to look upon his fellow beings as means to an end. During campaigns, therefore, virtuous actions are to be performed, in part, because it is one’s duty to perform them, not merely because of advantages one hopes to reap from performing them.

Looked at from the outside, satyagraha seems to be a set of methods; it appears to be a means to an end. And this is because it is characteristic of a bystander, as opposed to a participant, to concentrate on the efficacy of nonviolence in a conflict, and to consider the importance of integrity or purity of intention for attaining an end. Integrity, however, just cannot be objectified or even described as a technique.

It is possible, of course, during a campaign to switch from the observer’s position to the participant’s and back again. It is possible, that is, for someone to use nonviolent means. But if in using them, the element of means is what consistently motivates one’s conduct, then as a participant one loses one’s integrity—one’s purity of intention, in the terminology of Gandhi—and one’s campaign is essentially futile even if victorious in some superficial way.

At the moment when a bomb is released it clearly makes not one whit of difference what the attitude of the man who released it was. The bomb triggers a long chain of events on its own. Since it was Gandhi’s purpose not only to dispense altogether with weapons, but to put something in their place, it is only to be expected that people should look upon nonviolent standards of behavior and performance very much as they look upon weapons, as means whose effect is largely independent of the attitude of those who adopt them.

It is not difficult, however, to avoid the dangers of this analogy with weapons. It is enough to say that the principles of a nonviolent morality must remain in force at the time when nonviolent methods are being “used.” These principles themselves prescribe a standard of behavior, and a standard of behavior cannot in practice be reduced to the “use” of a “method.”

The attempt to limit and reduce the use of weapons has today, quite reasonably, a high priority in the minds of national leaders, but in the long run it seems clear that each of us must consider another and even more central problem, the problem of whether man is to survive as a man; the problem, that is, of finding and implementing principles of group struggle which do not violate fundamental moral requirements.

We can, generally speaking, divide Gandhi’s activity with respect to group-conflict, prior to his adoption of satyagraha (in its specific Gandhian form), into five stages, which are:

(1) The non-partisan analysis of a conflict and of its background;

(2) The clarification of essential and long-range interests which the conflicting groups have in common;

(3) The definition of reasonable, long-range aims which all of the contending parties might envisage and agree to;

(4) The formulation of such aims in a precise and concrete way, and an attempt to ensure that the contending parties understand them (Gandhi emphasized the importance of so describing an end as not to leave even a shadow of doubt that it is completely warranted and understood.);

(5) In the case of the persistent refusal by one party to accept the aims as so defined, an attempt at compromise by making unessential changes in the definition.

If all this failed, Gandhi then considered himself justified in setting satyagraha in motion. Once he had adopted satyagraha, he carried it through to the end, cost what it may, even life itself.

In order to ensure the invariable success of satyagraha, it must be assumed:

(1) That there can always be found some interest common to all of the contending parties;

(2) That the parties are, or might be, amenable to an “appeal to heart and mind”;

(3) That those who are in a position to start applying satyagraha are also in a position to carry it through to the end.

On the strength of his considerable experience, Gandhi was certainly justified in accepting these three assumptions as a basis for action. (Naturally, the matter will appear quite otherwise to those of us who have had no such experiences or who are considering matters only theoretically.)

We are able, upon reviewing Gandhi’s thought, to distinguish between what is essentially realpolitik and what is essentially an ethical argumentation posed by the man. The significance of the former, and the faith he had in it, rests in what he took to be the limited power of moral appeal. Romain Rolland quotes in his Indian Journals a letter by Rabindranath Tagore from 1922, referring to acts of violence committed by the masses led by Gandhi: “It is difficult to avoid violence for long when the mind is continually inoculated with thoughts that stimulate hate. A complete nonviolence (ahimsa) can only exist when hostile thoughts are rooted out. That is the truth. It cannot be attained with simple moral injunctions, even when they come from a person such as Gandhi.” (Rolland; p. 32)

According to Gandhi, to give an accurate account of a conflict, to get clear about common ends with one’s antagonist, and to have faith in one’s ability to induce his cooperation were essential steps toward rooting out hostile thoughts. The mind, when it is not continually “inoculated with thoughts that stimulate hate,” can develop a broad view of life, can develop tolerance and sympathy with an opponent’s situation, and thus an understanding of the struggle and problems he also faces.

The difficulties of conducting a campaign in accordance with Gandhi’s principles are obviously present in each of the phases of the campaign, which precede satyagraha. If those phases are not correctly understood, there can be no adequate satyagraha. Those five preliminary stages make quite unusual demands; they demand a disinterested clarification of the facts of the struggle in which one is personally involved, and they demand a sympathetic attitude toward the circumstances of one’s opponent. And there is a further demand: a rare faith in the malleability of that opponent.

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 7, pp. 57-62. 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