Revolutionary Nonviolence

by Ira Sandperl

Jesse Jackson, Joan Baez, Ira Sandperl, Martin Luther King, 1964; courtesy

Editor’s Preface: This unpublished essay, dated “Autumn, 1978”, is another in our series of discoveries from the War Resisters’ International archive. Please see the notes at the end for archival information, acknowledgement, and an Editor’s Note on Sandperl. JG

In 1910, the American psychologist William James, wrote in an essay that we would have to discover “The Moral Equivalent of War”, [posted below under the same date] if we were to preserve the human race. Four decades and two World Wars later the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, in the admirable and important book, The Origins of Totalitarianism [New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951], stated that we must devise a political principle that will now cover every man, woman, and child on earth.

That political principle as well as “the Moral Equivalent to War” is what Mahatma Gandhi called satyagraha.

Satyagraha is a combination of two Sanskrit words: satya (truth) and graha (adherence to). At various times Gandhi translated it as “truth force”, “soul force”, or “that force which is born of truth, love or nonviolence”. The word has a beauty, clarity, and dynamic quality that is lacking in the term nonviolence. Gandhi had invented an entirely new word for an entirely new concept. It is distinguished from Western pacifism in that it presupposes collective political action rather than individual acts of moral heroism.

The social and political organization of satyagraha, or nonviolence, was created by Gandhi in South Africa in 1906. The experts said it was impossible. When India won its independence from the British Empire in 1947 Gandhi and nonviolence were scarcely given credit, though at the time the Belgian-American scholar, George Sarton, the founder of the discipline of the history of science, proclaimed it “the greatest political event in the history of man.” And Albert Einstein called Gandhi “a victorious fighter who always scorned the use of violence; a man who confronted the brutality of Europe with the dignity of a simple human being and thus at all times has risen superior.”

When Martin Luther King began the American nonviolent Civil Rights Movement by boycotting the segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama everyone said it could not be done. Yet when it was done the same critics said nonviolence was now finished. But more and more was accomplished until it stirred the whole world. When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, thirteen years after the Montgomery, Alabama boycott, the identical people who had unremittently refused to acknowledge the birth of the nonviolent movement now announced that it had died.

It makes no sense to talk of nonviolence without revolution, because nonviolence is the most complete principle and methodology of social change; and it is absurd to talk of revolution without nonviolence because all violence is reactionary, causing the exact conditions it intends to destroy. Nonviolence, as the name implies, not only eschews all manner of violence, but also seeks no victory; its endeavor is the transformation of human, political, cultural, economic, social, and national relations so that there is no longer the possibility of oppression.

Formerly the attempt at such a radical change always involved violence. But “on the eve of the advent of the atomic age,” wrote the English historian Arnold Toynbee, “the Mahatma Gandhi had demonstrated that it’s possible to make a revolutionary political change without recourse to the violence that has been customarily used for making politically revolutionary changes in the past. If the human race refrains from committing mass-suicide, it may come, in retrospect, to recognize in Gandhi one of its historic saviors. He may be remembered as the timely prophet of his generation, and the timing of his achievement has surely been providential. In human affairs, change — including revolutionary political change — cannot be arrested or eliminated . . . But the inevitable change need not be brought about by violence, even when the change in question is one of a radical kind that has usually led to bloodshed in the past. There has usually been bloodshed when a subjected people has won its freedom from foreign rule and when a subjected race has won its emancipation from a dominant race. Yet Gandhi by his revolutionary new political strategy of nonviolent non-cooperation made it possible for India and Britain to part from each other in peace and friendship and Martin Luther King was consciously applying Gandhi’s methods in his leadership of the ex-African citizens of the United States in their struggle to win equality of human rights with their ex-European fellow citizens. Here is a revolutionary breach with ingrained custom which is making, not for death and evil, but for life and good.”

In brief, we get what we do, not what we intend, not what we wish, not what we hope, but simply what we do. One would think that after six thousand years of the socially organized violence that is war, and the present state of the world, the alternative of nonviolence would be perfectly clear, but, alas, it is not.

So I repeat in different words, it can never be emphasized enough, that nothing in the world can alter the immutable fact that the end never justifies the means because, on the contrary, the means determine the end. In all of human history, this stands out clearly and intellectually indisputable, yet it has been perversely, insistently, and tragically ignored. In our universe the means, always and everywhere, without doubt and without exception, cannot, in the very nature of things, help but fashion the end.

The nonviolent revolution is an uncompromising affirmation, in every sphere, of the sanctity and dignity of human life, making sure that all human life takes precedence over any ideology of life.

Ours is a fight and a struggle against oppressive conditions and is never directed against living men and women. We must simultaneously develop ourselves and our institutions to help us care and share with all the people of the world and to resist any action, any policy, any organization that would deliberately kill, injure, humiliate, or diminish a single human being.

The nonviolent view of armed resistance to tyranny, which has been and continues to be used by good men and women everywhere because they have not known any other way, is that it is a contradiction in terms and fact. There can be no resistance to tyranny by arms or by any form of violence, for it turns out to be no resistance at all, but historically and effectually the confirmation of tyranny.

On the other hand, passivity, doing nothing, merely standing by, (like secrecy!) is one of the most widely practiced and formidable complements of violence and therefore is the antithesis of revolutionary nonviolence.

Nonviolence embraces a new approach in thought and a new strategy in action. And it seems to the writer of these lines that we must on pain of universal death or universal regimentation, translate Gandhi’s adherence to truth, love, and nonviolence, to satyagraha, into specifically fitting local and world-wide political, economic, social, and cultural programs. To do this we have to study satyagraha and practice it conscientiously. It can be done, provided that we want to do it.

Reference: IISG/WRI Archive Box 404: Folder 12. We are grateful to WRI/London and their director Christine Schweitzer for their cooperation in our WRI project.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ira Sandperl (1923-2013) was co-founder of the Resource Center for Nonviolence. He was an early mentor of Joan Baez, with whom he also co-founded the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Carmel. With his friend Roy Kepler, Sandperl demonstrated against the Vietnam War and went to jail for his beliefs. The website dedicated to his life and work is at this link. (accessed November 2015)

“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