The Effectiveness of Non-Violent Struggle

by Bart de Ligt

We would do well to situate in an historical context not only this far-ranging essay by the Dutch anarcho-pacifist Bart de Ligt (1883-1938) but Gandhi’s writings as well. It is easy to lose sight of the international foment at the time of Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns in South Africa and India, and to disregard the intensity of the contemporary discourse on peace and war in Europe and the United States. By the mid 1930s when de Ligt published this essay in his book The Conquest of Violence, a devastating World War I had ended only a few years before; the rise of Nazism alarmingly threatened the outbreak of another. The debate over militarism versus Gandhian nonviolence has here the air of a struggle for survival and informs de Ligt’s essay with a sense of passion and urgency. It goes a long way to explain why he is so comprehensive in mentioning the views of thinkers whose philosophies were compatible with aspects of nonviolent resistance. The nonviolent boycott and labor strike were well-established methods that might be used in the service of peace. De Ligt knew that Gandhi did not conceive of Satyagraha in a vacuum, nor was it ever isolated on some higher plane from contemporary life. Satyagraha was ever at the heart of historical engagement, a life force that might be marshaled against the force of war.

Pluto Press edition; illustration by Ingrid van Peski-de Ligt; courtesy of J. E. de Ligt.

Concerning his Satyagraha campaign in South Africa, Mohandas Gandhi wrote,  “Non-violence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of physical might. The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law—to the strength of the spirit.”

How much more noble non-violent methods of struggle are than violent, and how much more effective, when they are well prepared!

Despite the justice of its cause, the religious fanaticism of its people, its famous marksmen, and a strategic geographical position the Transvaal was unable to hold out against the brutality of British imperialism. In the Transvaal in the early 1900s there lived a group of Hindu immigrants subject to harsh and special laws, which shackled them socially and economically and were profoundly offensive to their human dignity. Indian coolies were employed in the mines of Natal and elsewhere in South Africa, and they were tied to their work by five-year contracts. As a rule, they were very industrious. A great number of Indians, once their contracts had expired, stayed behind in the country as small farmers or tradesmen. By 1900 there were 12,500 Indians in the Transvaal.  Although they had occupied the country by violence, the white people began to look on these peaceable rivals as undesirable intruders.

In 1906 Indians were placed on the same footing as criminals: they now had to report regularly to the police to have their fingerprints taken. On the advice of Gandhi, a Hindu lawyer in Pretoria, thousands of Indians decided to ignore with dignity the new regulation and bear the penalties incurred by this infraction. Meanwhile they continued to look on those who were treating them with mistrust and cruelty as fellow men, and continued to appeal to their humanity. They did not wish to overcome through violence, but by satyagraha, or sacrifice and moral force, that is, by employing the tactics and strategies of non-violent civil disobedience.

The Government countered this entirely non-violent rebellion with harsh prison sentences. The non-violent protesters were threatened economically. But enthusiasm was high and solidarity strong, the more so as the movement was based on the ancient Hindu and Buddhist traditions of ahimsa, the religious belief in nonviolence.

Gandhi, having been just released from jail, went to London in 1910 to make a personal appeal to the British Government. But it would not yield. In 1912, all marriages performed according to Hindu law were declared illegal, with the result that all offspring of these marriages were considered illegitimate and therefore unable to inherit. Further, an extraordinary tax was imposed on every Indian living in South Africa. Up until then, only farmers and tradesmen had carried on the struggle. Now Gandhi called on all Indian workers, especially the coolies working in the mines, to protest. Indian women demonstrated in the mining districts and urged their countrymen everywhere to stop work until the wicked measures of the British Government were abolished. And so it was that the strike was added to non-cooperation. The Government promised to do away with the poll tax, but the Indians insisted it be done immediately and demanded full recognition of their rights. They organized a huge demonstration, which spread all over the Transvaal.

Large detachments of police were mobilized. Gandhi was arrested again. But his non-violent army kept on without a leader. When Gandhi was released and rejoined his comrades he found that large numbers of demonstrators had been seized, packed into trains and shipped back to India. But they had attained an important objective; public opinion was shifting in their favor. Gandhi was sentenced, for the third time, to fifteen months, when the Government gave in. In 1913, the poll tax was abolished, the legitimacy of Hindu marriages was recognized and Indian immigrants obtained the same rights as other South African citizens. The one-time Boer general, Smuts, who had declared in 1906 that he would never abolish the special laws had to acknowledge moral defeat.

One thing is indisputable, and that is, that if this little handful of men had opposed the violence of the British with armed resistance, they would have been crushed more brutally than the Boers who were more numerous, better armed, and better placed strategically than the Indian immigrants.

Non-Violence in India

Indeed non-violent protest was no novelty to Indians. When the British Government introduced an extremely unjust tax in 1912, the population of Benares retaliated by practicing non-cooperation and paralyzed the life of the community by simply refusing to work for their rulers. The protesters obeyed their freely chosen leaders; the British Government was forced to give way and the tax was abolished.

Indians had historically used similar methods in their struggle against tyranny. In 1830, in the State of Mysore, the entire population refused to work in the fields or to pay their taxes, leaving their villages and retiring to the forests as a protest against their intolerable exploitation by a native despot. They remained orderly, as the official British Government report stated. Not one person resorted to arms. “The natives understand very well the use of such measures to defend themselves against the abuse of authority. The method most in use, and that which gives the best results, is complete non-cooperation in all that concerns the Government, the administration and public life generally.”

How much more effective non-violence can be than violence, especially when it is against heavily armed powers, is shown by what happened at the beginning of the century in Bengal. There again, under the leadership of Aurobindo Ghose, an energetic non-cooperation movement sprang up to combat the scandalous measures of the British Government. The protesters systematically ignored the entire administration by ceasing to cooperate with any governmental department whatsoever. At the same time, they boycotted all British goods. The Nobel Prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore, by his passionate songs inspired his countrymen to sacrifice possessions and life itself for the liberation of their country. Woven materials and merchandise, indeed anything English, were thrown on vast piles and burnt. Ghose too wished his people to be independent and supply their own material and spiritual needs without paying tribute to foreign governments.

As the British Government refused to give way, the Bengalese turned against the colonial regime. Ghose called on his compatriots not only to ignore the officials but above all also to care for themselves in order that they might thereby demonstrate their fitness for political and economic independence: they must improve hygiene, build schools and roads, develop agriculture, etc. But the masses had become impatient. Swayed by fanatical leaders they fell back on violence. The British Government wanted nothing better. They seized the opportunity and pitilessly crushed Ghose’s movement, which had made such a promising beginning.

In 1917 as well, the peasants of Champaran resorted once more to non-violence. They had been forced by an unjust law to plant indigo on three-twentieths of their land, which would be the property of the local rulers. Gandhi, who had recently returned to India, set out on a fact-finding tour to assess the rural plight. Much disturbed, the local rulers demanded that the authorities expel Gandhi from the region, and Gandhi was actually ordered to leave the district immediately. To which Gandhi replied that he had come out of a sense of duty, had done nothing but state certain facts calmly, and would remain in the district to finish his task, being at the same time ready to undergo any punishment incurred by his disobedience to any law. By refusing to be intimidated, Gandhi and his followers continued their campaign. But thenceforward, police officials were present and took notes of all that went on. Gandhi and his collaborators organized their work in such a way that in case a leader was imprisoned or banished, two of them were able to carry on the inquiry, and if these were imprisoned in turn, two others would replace them, and so on.

Gandhi was summoned to appear in court. He confessed he was guilty in the eyes of the law and declared that there was a conflict of duty in him. Should he obey the law, or his own conscience and serve the truly humane purpose for which he was touring the countryside? It was up to the British administration to take responsibility for banishing him. The authorities deferred judgment and before it was pronounced the Lieutenant Governor gave orders that Gandhi should be set free to pursue his fact-finding mission. The Governor, having himself had a discussion with Gandhi, set up a Governmental Commission of Inquiry, of which Gandhi was a member. This Commission was not long in recognizing that the law about indigo and the demands of the local rulers were unjust. The law in question was abolished and the peasants had won their cause without the use of violence.

In 1918, the peasants of Kaira, wishing to oppose some very oppressive taxes, also consulted Gandhi. He suggested that they should pay nothing at all, and bear with dignity whatever punishment ensued. Hundreds of peasants were imprisoned, but the population persevered until the taxes were abolished.

In similar fashion, the population of a Kolgarth village in the Himalayas succeeded in 1921 in freeing themselves from the harsh labors called bugar, a system by which any representative of the British Government, or European for that matter, was entitled to demand all kinds of services from the natives, such as carrying luggage, bearing messages, etc., and for however long suited these gentlemen.

In 1924, under Gandhi’s leadership, the Untouchables of the Vykom village in the Tamil Nadu region of South India carried on a struggle against Brahmans who, for reasons of caste, had forbidden them the use of certain paths and roads important for trade. At that time, Gandhi was lying ill a hundred kilometers from Vykom. The village leaders had come to get his advice on their campaign plan, and had kept in touch with him by letter and telegraph. These leaders, accompanied by some of the Untouchables, proceeded along the forbidden routes towards the Brahman quarters. They were cruelly beaten; one of them was seriously wounded, but refrained from offering any violence in return. A number of the leaders were arrested for having incited the Untouchables to break the law. They were sentenced to penalties of up to one year in prison. But immediately, and from all parts of the country, volunteers surged onto the restricted roads to take their place. The Government made no further arrests but instructed the police to prevent any of the “reformers” from using the road. At the instigation of Gandhi, the “reformers” placed themselves before the police cordon in an attitude of prayer. In six-hour shifts, they kept up the struggle for months, in order to soften the hearts of the Brahmans. More than once these non-violent combatants found themselves plunged up to their necks in water after a downpour, while the police maintained their cordon in boats. At such times the Untouchables would relieve each other every three hours.

This action, seemingly so naive, had nevertheless the effect of making this vexed question discussed throughout India. At last, in the autumn of 1925, after a six-month struggle, the Brahmans gave way, perceiving that they could not hold out against such moral force. The Untouchables were allowed to use the road, to pass the temple, and to cross the Brahman quarters. This was the first of a whole series of reforms with regard to the caste system.

Again, in 1928, 90,000 peasants of Bardoli Taluca, Bombay province, used non-violent methods to oppose an agrarian tax which was swallowing up as much as 60 per cent of their revenues. The Government ignored their protests. Under the direction of Vallabbhai Patel and the inspiration of Gandhi, the peasants refused to pay their taxes although government representatives confiscated their goods and sold their lands. Insults, threats, even terrorization on the part of the Government did nothing but strengthen the moral fighting spirit of the peasants who proceeded to boycott everything official. The local newspapers could speak of nothing but this enterprise, and sympathy was aroused across India. The matter was not only debated in the British administration in India, but also back in the London Parliament. After six months of non-violent struggle, the unjust taxes were abolished.

In like manner, we have often seen forming in India with remarkable success what has been called the “Diamond Front”. This was notably the case in the struggle of the Virangan and the Ahmedabad workers to better their economic conditions.

In 1921 India gave us, under Gandhi’s guidance, its first great example of national civil disobedience. The character of such an undertaking is now clear to us: a social group, a class, a people, acts as if the Government did not exist and ignores it systematically in the whole of economic and social life. The schools stand empty, the laws are not carried out, taxes remain uncollected, etc. Above all, obedience is refused to certain decrees or laws the abolition of which is the primary aim. Very often, such a full stop or pause in the life of the community is accomplished by strikes, as well as by a refusal to buy or sell those goods the sale of which profit the opponent. In India, for instance, this was salt, alcohol, and English woven materials. And so, linked to non-cooperation, we have the boycott, a method of struggle, which is of the greatest efficacy, as China has been showing for the past 3,000 years. Drawing their inspiration from age-old religious and moral concepts, the Indian non-cooperators bear resignedly even the cruelest attacks of police and army, and the punishments laid down for breaking the law, prepared as they are to suffer for the triumph of their cause. One can persecute them, ill-treat them, throw them into prison, they only hold faster to the moral and spiritual forces by which they are ruled, rising above the base violence their enemies use, although they still appeal to them as their fellow men.

Even more remarkable than the abstention from any kind of violence in the unarmed combatants is the absence of fear before the aggressor and the absence of hatred against the opponent, going so far as to express confidence in the good intentions of those against whom they are struggling.

The world knows full well how much moral and spiritual force was shown by the awakened India in these struggles, and how, in the course of non-violent demonstrations and pickets in front of shops, alcohol stalls, etc., men, and especially women, young and the old, vied with each other in heroism. The British Empire had to give way: India had won its first great moral victory. This country, which did not possess a single military means of defense, would never have won such a victory by violent methods over the hyper-modern violence of the adversary.

“However, Indians are still far from being free!” We hear this refrain recounted in the press and public squares.

Some Examples of Non-Violent Methods

Why are non-violent struggles judged differently from homicidal? Even in wars the first victory is seldom the decisive one. Whether violent or not, as a rule a struggle goes on for years, made up of good and bad luck, of victories and defeats. Only in the more favored cases does it end in a decisive victory for one side or the other.

In spite of temporary successes, how remote a hope of success the Netherlands seemed to have in their sixteenth century War of Independence with Spain. It took eighty years (1568-1648) to achieve the goal, a partial success since they lost the southern part of the country. The Indian struggle for independence will certainly take less time. What is indisputable is that by employing non-violent methods, they are assured of a success that otherwise they would never have had. India did not possess “the material or the training for organized violence ” (1), and if they had made war on the British Empire from 1921 onwards, India would be utterly smashed by now. After fifteen years of non-violent struggle, it is still impossible for the British Lion, armed to the teeth, to keep the Indian Government “a subordinate department of Whitehall,” as Lord Curzon would have it.(2)  In 1932, by simply threatening a hunger strike, Gandhi managed to add the Indian constitutional question to the agenda in his negotiations with England. After the provisional settling of serious disputes, the new Constitution of 1937 may function for a time. Nevertheless difficulties will continue, and it is certain that England, in order to avoid a breakup of its empire, will be obliged to grant many of India’s demands; India is sure she has the strength to persist in the fight. Again Gandhi and non-violence dominate the scene. “He represents a flame which, having smoldered several months, may at any moment break out and inflame the whole of India.” (3)

“But Gandhi is a Hindu!” you will object. “He follows a religious tradition that is thousands of years old. He is a saint, an ascetic. How does his example have any bearing on us? In India, non-violence is a traditional form of religion, while our Christianity is impregnated with violence through and through.”

We can reply that those Indians who do not reject violence in principle and follow utterly different religious and moral traditions from those of Gandhi, have been so impressed by the efficacy of his active nonviolent methods that they have adopted them. As is known, the British Army of Occupation in India recruits chiefly from among the Sikhs. These people, whose religion actually forbids them to lay down their sabers, had a serious quarrel with the Government during 1922 and 1924 over the control of certain properties belonging to some temples. Unable to solve the matter by violence, they decided to try direct, non-violent action. Proud and immovable, the sword at their side but their arms crossed, they put up with the most brutal behavior on the part of the British police and army without offering the slightest physical resistance, until they had obtained what they wanted.

This shows that non-violent methods of struggle are not dependent on any individual, Gandhi in particular, or on any particular religion. This can be demonstrated by what happened with the Pathans, in Northern India. These tribes are well known for their fierceness in battle and their passion for revenge. Very touchy, intolerant of the slightest offence, the Pathans were accustomed to respond immediately with violence. That is, until 1930, when Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Muslim leader of the Khudai Khitmatgars (Servants of God) managed to convince the Pathans of the efficacy of unarmed, non-violent resistance. The British Government tried in vain to suppress the “Red Shirt” movement, as they came to be called because of the color of their dress. In April 1930 the movement had 500 members, three months later 40,000 and, by the end of the year 300,000! (4) Persecution, imprisonment, executions without trial, did nothing to shake their courage.

In August 1934, several Red Shirt leaders were released after two years of prison, among them Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the “The Frontier Gandhi” as he was now being called. But the government would not allow him to return to the Punjab or the north-west frontier. In December 1934, the papers announced that Abdul Ghaffar Khan, “that fine man and true, beloved of millions,had again been sentenced to two years imprisonment, on account of a speech he had made in Bombay, where he remarked that the part played by the British police was not to protect the Indian population but to persecute them and make false charges against them. He had further stated that in the northern provinces, some Hindu soldiers had refused to fire on a quiet and unarmed crowd, and that some British troops had then opened fire, killing more than 200 people in a few minutes.

According to Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Red Shirt movement is “non-violent, and based on freedom, love and truth.” The movement carries on the struggle although officially it has been banned.

Subhas Bose has raised serious objections to the “opportunism” of Gandhi and deplores the fact that a leader so devoutly obeyed should so often have seen fit to delay the national struggle from “personal motives.” Bose, who insists on “objective and scientific revolutionary tactics,”,sees Gandhi’s chief fault as his repeated attempts to reach a premature compromise with the British Government. That is why Bose thinks that the Mahatma, instead of renouncing or suspending the non-violent struggle as he has done on various occasions, ought to have pursued it with redoubled energy. Although Bose in no way rejects the principle of armed conflict, he admits that in some cases Gandhi could have obtained far greater, and indeed unprecedented, results. This is a criticism not of non-violent methods but of the way in which Gandhi has used them. He was at fault again, according to Bose, in systematically neglecting to win over enemy soldiers, even though there were Indians among them. He reproaches him also with having deliberately refrained from showing his solidarity with the mutineers of the Garwhali regiment, who were so severely punished by the British authorities for having refused to fire on their countrymen. All of which goes to demonstrate Gandhi’s almost instinctive tendency to respect the political authority of the British Government as much as possible, as well as his dislike of purely revolutionary methods. But these remarks in no way reflect on the efficacy of the tactics in question.

The founder of the Radical Communist Party of India, Saumyendranath Tagore had begun his intellectual life as a Gandhian and recently published a study of Gandhi, which is quite an indictment. A staunch Bolshevist, S. Tagore quite rightly declares that from the economic, social, moral and religious points of view, there are all sorts of conservative and reactionary tendencies in Gandhi. Tagore reproaches him for being a thinker as naive as he is mediocre, understanding nothing of sexual life or of revolutionary universalism. As for his attitude towards the British Empire, the Mahatma’s opportunism is harmful to the struggle for Indian independence, not to mention Gandhi’s instinctive dislike of the modern working-class movement. The criticisms of Saumyendranath Tagore are so bitter that the reader will be astonished to find Tagore admitting in the last pages of the book that Gandhi has some “eminent qualities”; great personal charm; an extraordinary capacity for work; indomitable courage; utter absence of self-interest; a rigid self-control and an almost miraculous gift for divining popular feeling, honed by years of contact with the masses. How odd the praise, when from the very first page, the reader gets the impression that this damned Gandhi is nothing but a cunning intriguer in the service of the Indian and British ruling class!

Saumyendranath Tagore has in fact done nothing to explain the complicated and even contradictory character of Gandhi, nor the important part he has played in the history of Indian emancipation, or the universal significance of his experiences in the conduct of the non-violent struggle. Tagore goes so far as to say that “the bourgeoisie has recognized Gandhi as its prophet,” and that it is Gandhi who “has furnished the ruling classes of the world with their weapon of pacifist ideology”. Which is just silly. Everybody knows, in any case, that the prophet of the bourgeoisie today is more likely Hitler or Mussolini or Franco. In the eyes of the ruling classes in the “democratic” countries as well as in those of the Fascist dictatorships, nothing is more detestable than the doctrine and especially the practice of complete pacifism. Everywhere, those who oppose violence, whether horizontal or vertical, are vigorously persecuted. And if Gandhi has been able more or less to gain the confidence of a certain section of the English bourgeoisie, it is just because, at certain critical moments, he renounced his pacifism in order to take part in the colonial and national wars of the British Empire.

How much better founded is the judgment of Jawaharal Nehru, the best qualified man to speak in this case, when he says in his book India and the World that the Mahatma has been able through nation-wide protest to mould the millions and change them “from a demoralized, timid and hopeless mass, bullied and crushed by every dominant interest, and incapable of resistance, into a people with self-respect and self-reliance, resisting tyranny, and capable of united action and sacrifice for a larger cause. He made them think of political and economic issues, and every village and every bazaar hummed with argument and debate on the new ideas and hopes that filled the people. That was an amazing psychological change. The only practical solution of the problem came from Gandhi. Whether that was a final solution or not remains to be seen, but it did combine the Sermon on the Mount with effective action . . . In spite of the abundance of “non” in his movement (non-violence, non-cooperation, etc.), it was not a negative, passive affair. It was an active, dynamic, energizing drive . . . Of course there were lapses and bitterness and hatred, but the surprising thing is that they were so few and that within a short term of years he could have worked this astounding change.” (5)

The first to try to understand the social effectiveness and significance of the Gandhian non-violent methods used in Africa and India was the American professor Clarence Marsh Case. In 1923 he published a remarkable study entitled Non-violent Coercion, in which he deals with the historical and social psychological aspects of non-violent resistance, especially as the methods are actually practiced, chiefly in India.

In 1934, another very remarkable book was published by Richard B. Gregg, an American lawyer who had collaborated in 1923 with the committee chairman of the Federation of Railway Shop Employees in a huge strike, which spread over the whole of the United States. During the strike, at a moment of high tension, an article on Gandhi fell into Gregg’s hands. A few quotes by the Mahatma made such an impression on him that he began to study everything about Gandhi that he could find. After a few years, having thoroughly digested the subject and becoming well versed also in agrarian questions, he went to India. There, he met Gandhi and his chief collaborators, and studied the economic, political and social conditions of the country. Back in the States, in 1928, he published various interesting articles on India, and in 1935, The Power of Non-Violence, where he tries to lay the psychological and moral foundations of non-violent strategy. According to him, violence has been tried out for thousands of years without settling anything. “Why not try non-violence, in the search for social truth?” (6) Gregg’s book is indispensable for all those who are interested in this subject. In addition to the text there is an ample appendix with psychological and sociological information.

One thing is certain, and that is that since World War I, the self-respect and the fighting-spirit of the Indians has increased enormously, and they are in the enviable position of being able to refuse the considerable concessions the British Empire has had to grant them.

International and Historical Examples of Non-Violent Methods

Non-violent tactics of struggle are not bound up with any one person, or one particular race, nor with any separate country, or one sole concept of life or the universe. At the Anti-Imperialist Conference in Brussels in 1927, we heard the Zulu, Goumed declare that the blacks, in their fight for liberty, could not do better than follow the example of India. How could they ever rival the modern armaments of the whites, armaments closely connected with a whole social and technical organization and structure absolutely foreign to them?

And at the Conference of Non-Europeans in Port Elizabeth South Africa, April 1934, a resolution was passed asking the whole non-European population to boycott all goods manufactured or sold by stores refusing to employ native workers. (7)

Gandhi himself admits that he has come round to his tactics not only through the influence of certain Hindu religious traditions, but also through the Jewish legend of Daniel and his friends; through the Sermon on the Mount; through the social ideas of Ruskin; through the teachings of Tolstoy, and through the words and actions of Thoreau.

Let us note that the technical term “civil disobedience”, which Gandhi likes to apply to his fighting methods, has been consciously borrowed by him from the immortal speech Thoreau made in 1849, in which he gave a classic exposé of his ideas concerning individual and collective refusal of military service, and, in certain circumstances, of all social service and payment of taxes.

According to Thoreau, every responsible citizen should ignore the public authorities, laws and institutions, when they are deemed unjust, and so prevent his Government from committing crimes in critical moments. Thoreau’s theory might be summed up as follows: cooperation among individuals, and institutions, for the common good; non-cooperation the minute there is a question of promoting the bad. Thoreau certainly put it into practice. The few hundred people who knew him during his lifetime saw him as a cranky idealist and pleasant enough simpleton, but one with whom practical dealings were impossible. Today in Asia, millions have put his non-cooperation into practice with surprising results.

Like his friend Emerson, whose speech On War in 1838 should at least be mentioned here,  Thoreau was familiar with the doctrine of that gifted young Frenchman, Etienne de la Boétie (1530-63) to whom Emerson dedicated one of his greatest poems, the 1833 Etienne de la Boéce. In his essay On Voluntary Servitude la Boétie attempts to describe the nature of society and social relationships. He sets out to demonstrate that a ruler only has power in as much as the people allow him to have it. The power of the ruling class lasts only as long as those subject to it recognize it in principle and in fact, that is, as long as the governed consent to be governed.

Official authority, the power some hold legally over others, is more moral and ethical than physical. It rests less on violence than on respect, that is, on the belief in the right to govern of those in power. The day the masses learn to free themselves of their veneration for those who hold them down, the authority of the ruling classes, when no longer recognized, will vanish at once, and rulers will lose their power to rule immediately.

No despotism, tyranny, dictatorship or public authority of any kind exists except thanks to the submission of the masses. As soon as the people realize that the public authorities are essentially parasitic in nature and take from them the power, which formerly they had granted, the whole social pyramid topples. The one advantage, declares la Boétie, that the ruling class has over the subjugated masses is the right these masses have conceded them to hold them in slavery. Where do the police, the spies, and the soldiers come from? From the people, who, putting themselves at the service of all branches of official authority, fight amongst and destroy themselves. When, with their heavy tread, the soldiers go forward over fields and towns, it is the people crushing the people at the behest of the established powers, Boétie declares once again. Domela Nieuwenhuis, a Dutch anti-militarist, was to say, several centuries later, “A people in uniform is its own tyrant!”

Another thinker to be deeply impressed by la Boétie’s essay was Tolstoy, who quotes a striking passage from it in The Law of Violence and the Law of Love. Tolstoy’s Letter to a Hindu bears witness also to a strong influence from de la Boétie. The German Socialist and lover of freedom, Gustav Landauer, whose tomb was one of the first to be violated by the Nazis, made a stirring summary in “On Voluntary Servitude “, which became the pivot of his classical essay, Die Revolution.

Let us pass over the impressive history of the direct non-violent action of Christianity in the first centuries and that of religious sects, both mediaeval and modern, as well as the remarkable contemporary anti-war movement which is being led by an ever increasing number of Protestant clergymen in Europe and America, reaching a figure of thousands at the present time, a history which we have dealt with at length in another book. (8) Because, if we were to quote these, the Western workers would immediately reply: “That has nothing to do with us, it’s religion.”

Well then, let us leave out the Christians, whether modern, mediaeval or primitive, and go back to pagan Rome. In 494 B.C. even Rome gave us an unforgettable example of non-cooperation. The small peasants (plebians), although free, were excluded from political power, and were suffering terribly from iniquitous laws. The great landowners (patricians), who also occupied the State offices, had all the rights; they possessed enormous fortunes. The peasants were for the most part very poor, and shut out of all positions and public duties. The patricians had seized all lands previously communally owned, and drew vast profits from them. They continued to force the people to equip themselves at their own expense for war. These poor people had to borrow more and more to maintain their families, and so got mired deeper and deeper in debt. Crushed beneath the weight of these debts, they were subjected to a cruel system of imprisonment. But aware that in society, the wealth and the victory of the upper strata only exist thanks to continual support of the lower classes, they decided at a certain moment to withhold their support from this iniquitous social system. Driven to the end of their tether, they left Rome to found an independent community on Mons Sacra, sine ullo duce, without a leader. (9) They had no use for Führers! They declared that they would not return until they were granted positions in the government and a share of the communal lands. Livy describes how this exodus took place in an ordlerly fashion and how these peasant-soldiers organized a camp on Mount Aventine. Such a secessio in montem would have been repeated more than once. (10) The patricians were forced to comply with the demands of the plebs because they needed them to wage war. In the fourth century B.C., therefore, the plebs acquired considerable economic and political concessions. Clarence Mark Case affirms that this “boycott”, the first effective action by the proletariat, took place without any disorder or violence. (11)

The expression “proletariat” must, however, be taken in wider sense than it is usually used. Max Beer states, rightly, that the distinction between patricians and plebians, or proletarii, did not constitute a distinction of class, and that the plebeians did not propose to set up a new economic and social order.” It was not a different conception of the world, which they defended against the patricians. Their conception rested like the others, on slavery and the exploitation of foreigners.” It was a question of a certain stratum of a warlike society, which, not being able to conquer those above them through violence resorted to non-violent methods to bring about, not a revolution, but a simple social reform. Still, non-violent methods of struggle did prove their efficacy. (12)

H. G. Wells considers the Roman plebs to have been the inventors of the general strike; but it is really a question here of a kind of non-cooperation or civil disobedience. (13)

In Livy, too, we find a description of how, in 375 B.C. the people of Tusculum “averted the vengeance of Rome by an obstinate peace, which they could never have done by means of arms.” (14) Just see what different forms of Gandhian non-violence appeared even in pagan Rome! We must admit that the non-violent methods of struggle are not at all foreign to a Western conscience. Did not Mirabeau declare at the Assembly of the States of Provence, “Take care; do not despise these people who produce everything, this people who, to be formidable, have only to stand still,” thus giving a powerful and striking description of the principle of the general strike. (15)

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the French revolutionary Anselme Bellegarrigue, as a consequence of his social and political experiences in the United States and in France, lost all confidence in Governments whose very nature is violent, and in revolutions from the moment they allow themselves to be involved in bloodshed: with both, everything rests on oppression and murder, and once caught in that trap there is no way of getting out. In his view, those who wish to rule raise the barricades against those who rule. Let us do away with all forms of Government and govern ourselves in reasonable fashion, and henceforward all barricades will be superfluous forever.

In the end,” Bellegarrigue goes on, “there are no tyrants, only slaves.” The Socialist movement has only arisen from the profound thirst of humanity for freedom. The exercise of power, even in the name of Socialism, can only kill it. A people is always too much governed.

That is why Bellegarrigue spread his idea of refusal of assistance, much like non-cooperation and civil disobedience. He developed a whole “theory of calm” which opens up possibilities of overcoming even the most powerful regime “by abstention and inertia”. Everything must bow to the power of abstention: social privileges, unjust taxes, surveillance, military hierarchy, all must give way when the masses withdraw their support from violent regimes and exercise their moral force.

Bellegarrigue, returned from America to France in February 1848. Soon after, he remarked that the tragic thing about revolutions is that they are always robbed of their fruits by the governments they set up. While in America there was a minimum of government, in France power was growing more and more centralized in the hands of the State. In his brochure Au Fait, au Fait (1848) he described how bureaucracy ate up everything a person earned. It is the modern Minotaur, who sucks the blood of the masses and swallows up billions! Nothing is actually changed when Socialist Governments replace the bourgeois, all statism being in flagrant contradiction of self-government, which is the essence of all true revolution.

Non-violent struggle is not bound either to a particular religion or to a special race or people, but is valued as much by European and American lovers of freedom as by Hindu mystics, rebellious Zulus and warlike Sikhs. The general strike is practiced as much by English, Russian and Scandinavian Socialists as by French, Italian, Spanish and South American anarchists and syndicalists, and is regarded since the beginning of the century as a typically proletarian means of struggle, and a form of action foreign to traditional violent methods. No doubt, the propaganda of the general strike, as made in the revolutionary centers of Europe and America, did not envisage complete non-violence. Many adherents declared summarily that strikes were unthinkable without a certain amount of violence. However, the General Strike brochure, distributed in great numbers in 1901 by the Group of Propaganda by Pamphlet, Song and Poster in Liège, stated that general strikes are the best weapon in the fight for working-class emancipation; it renders all bloodshed by the workers unnecessary and does away with all risk of defeat. The time for barricades is over and it would be absurd to continue the mistakes of the past since the working-class now has a far more effective means of combat. General strikes were discussed at the Workers Congress of Bordeaux (1888), at Tours and Marseilles (1892), Nantes (1894), Rennes (1898) and Paris (1900); they became the rallying cry of the working-class forces. The strike must be carried over into the very barracks to paralyze the army. During the last strike at Greusot, the soldiers refused to march and at Dunkerque, a sergeant appealed to his men not to commit any hostile act against the workers. “Before triumphing, we must fight, and in order to fight we need brains which are free of all prejudice and sophism; we need conscious individuals who will not be towed along by just anyone. The General Strike is the grandest gesture of revolt of the modern masses, it offers to all the “pariahs” of the factory and the workshop the opportunity of enforcing their claims.”

In this same year of 1901, the Committee of Propaganda for General Strikes, elected by the syndicalist Congress of Lyons, concluded its manifesto by this appeal: “Comrades! It is indispensable that we should leave the field of theory, in which we are stuck, and enter resolutely into that of action. The general strike, a pacifist weapon, will be the only effective way to oppose our class enemies.” People were singing the song of the General Strike everywhere, in the homes, at meetings, in the workshops:

You, who are bowed to the earth
Your forehead pale with suffering;
Rise, proud worker,
The future appears brighter.
Not by the roar of guns
Will you overcome Capital,
No, for to win the battle
You have only to cross your arms.


For the downfall
Of the exploiting tyrants,
The General Strike
Will give us the victory.

The best weapons to smash
The capitalists—
Those parasites—
Is for all to stop work.  (16)

In adopting similar tactics in the social struggle, the most militant section of the Western proletariat showed itself to a certain extent Gandhian before Gandhi himself!

Let us not forget, by the way, that concerning non-violence Gandhi is no absolutist or dogmatist, nor are most European revolutionaries for that matter. According to him, it is better in certain circumstances, when one is unable to defend a righteous cause non-violently, to defend it with arms sooner than abandon it through cowardice. Gandhi has already taken part three times in the imperialist wars of the British Empire and, in August 1914, he renounced nationalism in favor of the holy Union, like most of the supporters of the Second International. In 1918, he had become so to speak a recruiter for the British Army in India. (17)

Radical Thinkers and Traits of Non-Violent Theory

The revolutionary syndicalist Georges Sorel, a well-known atheist, whose doctrine is anything but a plea for non-violence, has clearly defined the difference between “bourgeois force” and “proletarian violence.” Perhaps we might better say: bourgeois violence and proletarian strength. Sorel sees the general strike as a sublimation of war, a method of fighting fundamentally in keeping with the dignity of the proletariat. To fight against the terror of the bourgeoisie, which rears its system on the ruin of its enemies and whose political inquisition claims more victims than the old Holy Inquisition ever did, there is no need for the proletariat to institute a counter-terror. It must also oppose all wars of conquest, a crime typical of bourgeois rapacity. The proletariat has a very different task to perform than aping the bourgeois fighting methods, a thing which Sorel reproaches Marx for having too easily forgotten: “Too often, Marx follows inspirations of the past: in his writings, he even includes a good deal of old rubbish.” (18)

That egoist Max Stirner, a well-known atheist who in no way adhered to the school of absolute non-violence, did nevertheless recognize that the greatest power the workers had lay in the possibility of their withdrawing work from the bourgeois and feudal powers. (19) According to him, the State rests on the enslavement of labor. The instant labor frees itself the State is lost. That is why he urges the necessity of general strikes. (20) And in many popular meetings in the West they recited this verse of Herwegh:

Working Man, awake!
Learn your own power,
All the wheels are still
If your strong arm so wishes it. (21)

The German libertarian of Scottish origin, John Henry Mackay, a supporter of extreme individualism based on Stirner, also regarded passive resistance as the only means the masses had to defend themselves effectively against aggressive violence. (22)

Mackay was deeply influenced by Benjamin Tucker, who, while he admitted the right of each man to defend himself by violence, had come by way of purely utilitarian considerations to the conclusion that passive resistance was the best means of defense for the oppressed masses. He considers it to be the only way of breaking political bureaucracy and military discipline. Violent revolt is easily crushed by the brutality of the Government. But there is no army capable of overcoming peaceable men who do not run out on the streets but who, for instance, simply abstain from voting in the elections, refuse to do their military service, or pay their taxes.

The Irish Question

First of all, Tucker examined the method of non-payment of rents and taxes during the struggle of the Irish Land League for Home Rule. Michael Davitt founded the League in 1879 as an agrarian, secessionist movement. Henry George describes in Irish Land Questions (1881) how the Irish Catholic peasants refused to pay their rent to the landlords, usually very rich Englishmen. While one section of the movement, led by C. S. Parnell, went in for the lowering of the rents and the creation of small Irish properties, the other members of the League, under the direction of Davitt, insisted that the land should go to the people. The Government mobilized 15,000 police and 40,000 soldiers, but the Irish Land League got the upper hand by boycotting the peasants and tradesmen who had taken sides with the Government. Doubtless, there would have been a certain amount of violence, for the Irish people have never been educated in unarmed or non-violent struggle, but in principle and in practice, the methods used were far above the usual level of the masses in revolt. The British Government took extraordinary measures to imprison all who seemed “suspect”, but each offensive act of the police or army the population countered with passive resistance. Just like the Indians under Gandhi, the Irish were ready to let themselves be imprisoned en masse, and replace their imprisoned countrymen in the struggle.

This great battle fired the whole of Ireland and was strongly supported by the Irish in America. On both sides of the Atlantic, the Catholic clergy threw themselves enthusiastically into the movement. Bishop Nulty of Meath even sent a communication to the priests in which he declared that “the land of each country is a gift from God to the people of that country, a patrimony offered by their common Father.” Consequently, the land of each country is the common property of the people of that country.”

One would have said that the old communist conceptions of the Early Fathers were being reborn, so gravely did this view displease the ecclesiastical authorities. The slogan, “The land for the people”, soon began to be looked on as a Gospel, to be preached in all its purity not only in Ireland, but in England, Scotland, America, and everywhere.

Some American Catholics financially supported the Irish movement to the best of their ability. By 1882 the victory of the I.L.L. seemed near, but the goals of the movement had not been made clear enough to the masses. The views of their chief leader Parnell, and his followers, were too moderate. When time came to negotiate with the enemy the leaders withdrew the “No-Rent Manifesto”, and the movement ended in a vulgar compromise, actually a defeat. Parnell accepted the Home Rule Bill of Gladstone in 1886.

In an article entitled “Passive Resistance”, Tucker had described the Irish Land League as one of the most instructive movements in the whole of history; although it was wrecked by the unscrupulous politics of Parnell, followed blindly by the masses, the collective resistance of the Irish peasantry went far enough to show that the British Government is helpless when confronted with such a protest: had it continued, by now there would not have been one single landed property in Ireland.

On taxes, Tucker thinks that it is easier and more effective in America to refuse State taxes than ground-rents. For this reason, he encourages all countries placed in similar circumstances collectively to resist taxes. “If one-fifth of the people were to resist taxation, it would cost more to collect their taxes, or try to collect them, than the other four-fifths would consent to pay into the treasury . . .” Ferdinand Lassalle wrote,  “Passive resistance is the resistance which does not resist.” Never was there a bigger mistake! It is the only resistance, in these days of military discipline, which resists with any result. There is not a tyrant in the civilized world today who would not rather do anything in his power to trigger a bloody revolution rather than see himself confronted by any large fraction of his subjects determined not to obey. “For nothing is easier for modern Governments than to crush revolutionary violence. Neither the ballot nor the bayonet is to play any great part in the coming struggle; passive resistance is the instrument by which the revolutionary force is destined to secure in the last great conflict the people’s rights forever.” (23)

We must admit that the Irish have always shown a marked taste for violence. For several centuries they fought against the cruel domination of the British through the most brutal and treacherous means, even trying their own boycott, of course sufficiently violent. The very word “boycott” is of Irish origin, although it describes a method in use for thousands of years in China, and of which the efficacy has been proved many times by the United States, England and Japan.

Why is it that in critical moments it is always left to the leaders to make the final decision? Let us not give ourselves up blindly to any leader. Let his work be supervised, his arguments examined, and then, when decisions have to be made, let each man trust only in himself.

“But the masses are as fallible as anyone else!”

Do not place a blind confidence in the masses any more than in the leaders or in yourselves. In this world, no one is infallible. But the important thing is, that in critical moments you should not put your fate and your future in the hands of other people. And all the more so when these people, by their political and social functions, are beholden to the regime against which they protest or are ready to defend. How often the Second International has betrayed the Socialist masses! How many times the Bolshevist dictators have confessed themselves to have been mistaken, at the expense of millions! The great merit of the anarchist movement is that in 1914 it did not follow leaders like Kropotkin, Cornelissen and Malato, when they betrayed internationalism but sided instead with Domela Nieuwenhuis, Malatesta, Emma Goldman, Rudolf Rocker, etc., who refused point blank to join in any kind of national truce. A truly revolutionary movement exists only in so far as its participants work together in a responsible manner, each in harmony with the others; the masses constantly control the leaders, and the leaders the masses; there is a continual process of collective self-control; in times of crisis, each is prepared to rely on himself alone for the conduct of his affairs.

Gandhi and Tolstoy

We have already seen how Gandhi admits that he owes a great many of his ideas to Tolstoy. If we do not linger over Tolstoy’s theories of non-violent direct action, both individual and collective, and the international influence they have had, it is because we assume they are already well-known enough to the reader. What is not generally known is that the great Russian general strike of 1905, the only one of three which was successful, was absolutely peaceable and of the sort Tolstoy had been urging for years.

In the first strike, “workmen, clerks, professional men, even Government employees and dvorniks (janitors converted into spies and informers) simply dropped their tools, briefcases, and documents. They refused to carry on the activities of industrial and political life. The result, on the Government’s side, was panic. A constitution was granted; a whole series of reforms—on paper—followed. The second strike was called when the circumstances were unfavorable, and the causes distinctly doubtful in the opinion of the majority of the Government’s enemies. It failed, and the subsequent bitterness and fear led to a third strike, with an appeal to arms at Moscow. That appeal was most unfortunate; the revolutionary elements had overestimated their strength, and greatly under-estimated that of the autocratic-bureaucratic machine. The army was loyal, and the revolution was crushed. Of course, human nature is human nature; it is useless and unfair to blame the distracted and exasperated Russian radicals for the turn events took. The fact remains that, had the policy of strictly passive resistance been continued, and had not the strike and boycott been too recklessly used, the cause of freedom and progress in Russia would today rejoice in much brighter prospects. That is the conclusion reached by Tucker with regard to the events in St. Petersburg in 1905-6, set down in his American paper Liberty. (24) In Liberty he shared, à propos of the non-violent methods of struggle of the working-classes, the same point of view as Tom Mooney used in his habeas corpus writ, filed in San Francisco, August 18th, 1936: “Violence is the weapon used by the employers . . . Violence wins no strike, only education and organization.” (25)

Shelly, Ruskin, English, and Continental Contributions

Did not Gandhi carry on his struggle against the British Empire motivated by the same sentiments and ideals that the great poet Shelly had described in his immortal poem “The Mask of Anarchy”? Shelly was inspired by the massacre of the Peterloo workers in 1819, where a rally of thousands of workers was attacked by the King’s troops, hundreds killed, and countless wounded, and  wrote with admirable moral passion:

Stand ye calm and resolute
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war,
On those who first should violate
Such sacred heralds in their state
Rest the blood that must ensue,
And it will not rest on you.

And if then the tyrants dare
Let them ride among you there,
Slash and stab and maim and hew—
What they like, that let them do.
With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away.

Then they will return with shame
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek.
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—

Ye are many—they are few.

Which means that in England too, for a long time past, loftier spirits have been able to raise themselves above the age-old warlike traditions of the West, to prepare the way for a new social and political order.

John Ruskin did not in principle believe in non-violence. This anarchistic spirit sometimes showed his imperialist nationalist streak. But he stressed that we take responsibility for the work we do and refuse work that is harmful. (26) During the Franco-Prussian war, while English industry was reaping huge profits from munitions, Ruskin urged the British workers not to take part in this shameful business, nor to do any work beneath our human dignity.

In his “Seventh Letter to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, July 1871”, Ruskin wrote,  “The first reason for all wars, and for the necessity of national defenses, is that the majority of persons, high and low, in all European nations, are Thieves, and, in their hearts, greedy of their neighbors’ goods, land and fame. But besides being Thieves, they are also Fools . . . And the guilty Thieves of Europe, the real sources of all deadly war in it, are the Capitalists. The Real war in Europe is between them and the workers . . . You are to do good work, whether you live or die. It may be that you will have to die; well, men have died for their country often, yet doing her no good; be ready to die for her in doing her assured good: her, and all other countries with her. Mind your own business with absolute heart and soul; but see that it is a good business first. That it is corn and sweet peas you are producing—not gunpowder and arsenic. And be sure of this, literally: you must simply die rather than make any destroying mechanism or compound. There is no physical crime, at this day, so far beyond pardon—so without parallel in its untempted guilt, as the making of war-machinery, and invention of mischievous substances. Two nations may go mad, and fight like harlots—God have mercy on them; you, who hand them carving-knives off the table, for leave to pick up a dropped sixpence, what mercy is there for you?”

By a happy chance, a Dutch translation of these words fell beneath the eye of the author of this book while he was still adolescent, and they have been an inspiration to him throughout his whole life.

Ruskin is one of the rare Europeans who is against all forms of vengeance and retribution (an eye for an eye). Although he did not reject certain kinds of punishment, he pleaded for non-retaliation, just as Gandhi did. In the letter to the British Workers that we quoted, Ruskin wisely urges them never to take revenge for injuries. (27)

In his book Time and Tide (1867), a series of twenty-five letters to the Sunderland workers, Ruskin deals in the last two letters with the task of the soldier and urges the transformation of military warfare into social and cultural works: “Our whole system of work must be based on the nobleness of soldiership.” (28) A real precursor of the civil service, he tries to awaken a love of risk among the workers with a view to all kinds of daring enterprises to make unhealthy countries healthy, to fight famine, infectious diseases, etc., so that in all parts of the earth, the vision of Isaiah may come true: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah ii. 4.)

That gifted craftsman, William Morris, both poet and thinker and profoundly influenced by Karl Marx and Peter Kropotkin, condemned horizontal violence, whether foreign wars or colonial, and accepted only class struggle, and viewed violence used by the oppressed masses as needless. In his Utopian story, News from Nowhere (1890) he describes how, during the social revolution, the workers used a weapon which they thought stronger than street fighting, the general strike, against which the ruling class, however well-armed, could not even use its troops, and which led to a glorious moral victory.

Morris also establishes a clear distinction between useful work and useless toil, in his essay Useful Work versus Useless Toil. He attacks as a vulgar lie the idea generally adopted by the ruling class that work is useful in itself, especially if it is the work of the exploited class. For if there is useful work there is also work which is not only useless but harmful. “The first has hope in it, the other has not. It is manly to do the one kind of work and manly also to refuse to do the other.” (29) This first has a creative and emancipating significance, the second is only the shameful work of a slave. As for war work, Morris declares in his essay How We Live and How We Might Live: “I won’t submit to be dressed up in red and marched off to shoot at my French, German, or Arab friend in a quarrel that I don’t understand. I will rebel sooner than do that.” (30)

Morris was one of those in England who held that “British Socialism is not a purely materialistic criticism of economic theory, but behind it there is a basis of ethical criticism and theory.” (31)

This view was also held by Bruce Glasier; and by Keir Hardie one of the founders of the Independent Labour Party. During the World War, the I.L.P. upheld internationalism, together with the Russian, Italian and American Socialist Party, the essentials of which may be summed up in one word: humanism.

In their struggle against English capitalism, they were in fact valiantly defending human dignity. And in 1902, during the Boer war, they took part wholeheartedly in the “Stop the War” campaign. For them, anti-militarism was an integral part of true social struggle. Without condemning national sentiment, in so far as it agreed with the justifiable social aspirations of mankind, they encouraged harmony in international interests and international co-operation between nations whose only rivalry should lay in bettering their societies. According to them, a real Internationale must refuse to take part in any war whatsoever, Socialism being in the first place a universal effort to bring about world peace.

At the International Socialist Congress in Copenhagen (1910) the I.L.P. proposed an amendment to an anti-war resolution demanding extra-Parliamentary methods, especially general strikes in industries supplying war materials as one of the methods of preventing war; and Keir Hardie declared that labor had not only to be anti-war but anti-military, because militarism and freedom could not coexist. Keir Hardie did not expect that the workers were ready to go on strike against war; but they never would be ready to do so unless their duty was pointed out to them; they were educated.  He declared, “The Nation that has the courage to be the first to throw away its arms will win for itself one of the greatest names in history.” (32)

Likewise, the English writer M. P. Willcocks was inspired by the ideas of Tolstoy and Maria Montessori. In her remarkable book Towards New Horizons Willcocks states that the great mistake of Germans and Anglo-Saxons equally has been to believe that the only force by which one can maintain political and social order is violence, while really there exists another force, more secret but fatally neglected; that is, self-determination. If, from childhood, we develop in each individual the power of cooperation with our fellowmen, all external authority will soon prove superfluous. It is for women, above all those who are now entering onto the stage of world history, to prove the truth of the old Russian proverb, that powerlessness is really God power, and it is for women to prepare the way for an epoch in which, according to the old words,  “the meek shall inherit the earth”. The more men emancipate themselves, the less they will be able to tolerate the yoke of the State, even of the best organized State, and the less they will resort to violence. For “self-determination means ultimately no State structure at all, but liberty for every man to follow the bent of his will as decided by nothing but the authority of the God within . . . . Love, free and sovereign, shall become the world’s religion.” (33)

In Holland, the late Dr Clara Meijer-Wichmann, an eminent sociologist of German origin inspired by Marx, Hegel, Tolstoy, Sorel and the French syndicalists, propounded the thesis that there was an essential harmony between the goal to be reached and the means to be used pursuing revolution. The maxim that the end justifies the means can only be allowed in one sense: a sacred goal demands sacred means. Since Socialism coincides perfectly with human feeling its methods must never be at variance with, nor offend against, our humanity. For this reason, revolution ought to bring to the human race the noblest of moral qualities, that of solidarity. A real revolutionary can never be an enemy to his enemies nor a criminal to criminals, the more so as criminals are in the first place victims of society. The revolution demands not only the renunciation of all violence among nations and classes, but also between individuals. Complete anti-militarism transforms itself in this way into a new individual and social education which, combining with modern psychological knowledge and psychotherapy at last renders the barracks as unnecessary as the prisons.

It is not by accident that Clara Meijer-Wichmann took the initiative in creating a Committee of Action against the traditional ideas on crime and punishment. She was not only the head of the Judicial Department in the Statistics Bureau in the Hague, but she was also married to Jo Meijer, one of the bravest of conscientious objectors and repeatedly imprisoned. The question of the treatment of prisoners was debated in Holland as in England, including the imprisonment of large numbers of principled men and women who had refused to take part in the War. What was to be the fate of criminals, especially as they themselves were just that? In England A. Fenner Brockway, after undergoing severe punishment during the World War, simply because he remained faithful to International Socialism, became the champion of this cause. (34)

Meijer-Wichmann also declared that in the history of civilization, criminal law has stayed centuries behind other social advances and transformation. While modern psychologists and pedagogues have recognized the inefficacy and the injustice of all kinds of retaliation and intimidation, justice is still a kind of social vengeance whose aim is to intimidate and to put out of harm’s way. The widespread criminality that we meet with nowadays has always been a symptom of the times, the degree of criminality being more or less determined by the relative order or disorder of the society. A great number of those filling the prisons come from unfavorable surroundings where alcoholism, scrofula and syphilis flourish. These criminals are first and foremost victims of hereditary and social blemishes, and they should be treated as victims to be rescued and helped, and no longer be isolated from their fellow men or treated as scapegoats. The fight for a wholesale revision of the treatment accorded to criminals must be supplemented by the struggle for social justice and for physical, moral and mental hygiene. (35)

And here are some remarkable conclusions reached by Henrietta Roland Holst, one of the best-known theorists of modern Socialism, after a long life of revolutionary activity. A friend of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht, she belonged, even before the war, to that group of neo-Marxists who worked out a new kind of tactic against modern imperialism. Madame Holst, after the experiences of the 1905 Russian revolution, became a firm believer in direct action on the part of the masses and the efficacy of non-cooperation for national defense. During the Great War, she joined the Zimmerwald movement with Lenin, and when the Russian revolution broke out, she was extremely enthusiastic. At one time, she even maintained that to ensure the success of the Revolution the end justifies the means, and that, in case of failure, the revolutionary must give up even the highest demands of his conscience. This was all the more remarkable because, some years ago, Madame Roland Holst had published a long historical and sociological study on the revolutionary action of the masses, in which she had laid great stress on the importance of the moral factor in the battle for a new society. (36) There was a classic debate between Clara Meijer-Wichmann and Henrietta Roland Holst on social revolution and violence. (37) But the way the Russian revolution went, its militarization, its bureaucratization, the violent injustices it perpetrated in the name of revolutionary justice finally made Roland Holst break with Moscow.

Under the title of Sterft gij oude vormen en gedachten, which is a line taken from the Dutch version of the Internationale meaning, “Let us raze the past to the ground”, she published a pamphlet on the occasion of the defeat of the Austrian Socialists in their attack against Fascism in February 1934. After honoring the courage of the Social Democrats, who had been defeated weapons in hand, she warns her readers against the halo of romantic heroism around this tragic episode. According to Madame Holst, Austrian Socialism had fallen into decline by using obsolete political and strategic methods, and through the traditional faith it put in collective violence. One thing, she says, must be noted; in modern Socialism there are two contradictory tendencies, one having confidence in all things human and humanitarian, the other accepting war, dictatorship, and terror. The first, which at the beginning seemed prevalent, has been more and more neglected while the second has grown at its expense. The masses in Austria, as elsewhere, were conditioned by education to accept armed struggle, beside which general strikes, non-cooperation and other forms of non-violent struggle were of secondary importance. “But unfortunately there is the law that the energy used in one kind of fight is energy lost in another. The Austrian workers who resorted to arms remained enslaved by the techniques of modern warfare . . . Modern armaments have reduced the armed revolts of the masses to absurdity, and they are doomed to become a vulgar copy of the system they are attacking.” And Roland Holst also contends that the humanitarian aims of revolutionary Socialism can never be realized by armed struggle. Even if victory is gained through violence, it can only be maintained by dictatorship, terror, etc. The tragedy of the modern Socialist movement is that when it comes up against Fascist violence, it lacks training in the effective application of non-violent resistance. The sacrifice and bloodshed of courageous men and women in Austria will only be justified if the international working class movement draws the inevitable conclusions concerning the consequences of the use of violence. (38)

In 1937, Holst expressed her satisfaction that non-violent action had taken on the new form of the sit-down strike, the first in October 1934 by 1200 coal miners in the Hungarian town of Pecs. During a wage conflict, these miners refused to leave the mine and said that unless their economic conditions were improved they would starve themselves to death. (39) In 1936, millions of French factory workers used the same methods. “No blood was shed, and hundreds of thousands of workers thus took a step towards a higher humanity.” And they did this solely by their own moral strength. In the United States, a sit-down strike at General Motors lasted for weeks without violence. It had great moral repercussions throughout the country. Thanks to the sit-down strike, American syndicalism is being recognized by the heads of giant corporations, who have hitherto ignored it. The most favorable conditions for a social, and revolutionary struggle are achieved through a certain quietness of mind and self-control, Holst concludes. (40)

There is a surprising agreement between the latest conclusions of Henrietta Roland Holst and those of the Russian revolutionary Isaac Steinberg, one time People’s Commissar for Justice in the first Bolshevist Government. Steinberg had accepted his commission in the hopes of steering the Russian Revolution towards humane methods. Against his will, he found himself dragged into terror. In his book on revolutionary violence and terror, he describes how certain measures weigh on those who use them to the point where they completely lose their way. The means contradict the proposed aim. The revolution is bound to perish when, for purely utilitarian reasons, it neglects morality, or acts according to the childish maxim “since the others are doing it, we can too.” According to Steinberg, every kind of terror should be banished from revolutionary struggle, and violence can only play a minor role. A revision of the whole revolutionary tactic is called for. (41)

It was the Swiss Socialist and conscientious objector Charles Naine, who declared on September 24th, 1903 before the Military Tribunal of Fribourg that: “an awakened proletariat would never hand a man a gun nor one penny for the army.” The only war to be waged was the social war, an infinitely more peaceful one than that between nations. (42) A revolution must be essentially pacifist; the social struggle has nothing in common with that “hideous war in which, without even knowing him, one man rips open another’s belly with a bayonet.” The social struggle is a war with words and ideas, and still more with new organizations and institutions. Since capitalist governments cannot disarm we must refuse to give them the money to continue their arming, we must “establish an agreement between nations and, the day that Governments want to start slitting throats, they must proclaim a general strike.”

As for the social revolution, Naine first of all praises “the pacifist means because they are more normal than the violent and because they are more consistent with the goal . . . Violence, not to mention the counter-reaction, develops in those who use it qualities which are the opposite of those needed in a Communist regime.” (43)

Nothing is more superficial and more false than the statement of Edouard Berth: “Yes, war between States or war between Classes— the question is put and the dilemma insoluble: and revolutionaries are only pacifist when it comes to war between States: they consider that war between States has had its day and must give way to the Class war: a complete pacifist would be a man who denies both and supports an international and social peace: but such a man could only be a Buddhist ascetic, a Christian, or a Tolstoyan. A man of this sort renounces the world, withdraws into his cell or the desert, and, fundamentally, cuts himself off from life; for life is battle: is not only resistance, but also attack, aggrandizement, and triumph. Life is essentially expansion, conquest, imperialism, annexation, and if possible, victory. It is surely great hypocrisy or great ignorance, or weakness or cowardice, for a revolutionary to call himself a pacifist; bourgeois pacifism is a great hypocrisy, but working-class pacifism not less so.” (44)

We mean something entirely different: a revolutionary anti-militarism, a continual social struggle in which aggression is sublimated on a higher level clearing the way for victories and triumphs that the working-class movement would never obtain by any kind of homicidal “class-war”.

Berth’s great mistake was to think of war as “the absence of peace”, a conception against which Erasmus once took his stand. (45) Emmanuel Mounier is right in maintaining that true peace is the expansion of human potential: “Peace, true peace, is not a feeble state in which Man surrenders. Neither is it indifferent to good and evil alike. It is strength.” As Henri de Montherlant says, “Bring about a peace which shall have the same spiritual grandeur as war. Bring to peace the war virtues. Peace is not declared, it comes from within . . . It is on the way to this peace that you will find the battalion of pacifists.” (46) To negative pacifism which would renounce the world and life itself, and which has nothing in common with Tolstoy’s revolutionary pacifism, we would propose a pacifist struggle using methods both new and truly worthy of men, methods that would create a harmonious commonwealth over and above frontiers.

As is known, in the North West provinces of India, there are turbulent frontier tribesmen, proud yet thievish, whose enormous country is too barren to be cultivated to any purpose. This scattered population is extremely impoverished, and frequently they are driven by want to invade the prosperous valleys of the Indus. In vain the English Government organized a number of military expeditions against them between 1848 and 1900, in fact sixty-four since 1879, the year when the British Empire officially annexed the territory. In April 1937, the English Government felt obliged to send tens of thousands of soldiers into the Frontier and let loose the horrors of modern warfare on them.

It has recently been said that such troubles are provoked, or at least encouraged, by Moscow, and that they are symptomatic of the traditional imperialist tension between Russia and the British Empire. This is entirely probable. At a meeting held in London, on February 4th, 1936, under the auspices of the Indian Conciliation Group, Nehru was asked: “What alternative method would you use for dealing with the situation on the North-West Frontier?” he replied that these endless, bloody skirmishes could at once be stopped if the English Government would only have the courage to try conciliation plus some kind of effort to deal with endemic poverty, because fundamentally the problem of the frontier population is scarcity. These people live in a hard country and they come down in search of food and loot. Even the Tsarist Government, who in the nineteenth century had similar frontier problems to solve, had the sense to take steps to alleviate poverty and the difficulties they were having with the tribes people were much improved. But the British Government pursued a policy, which obliges it to organize every year or every other year, a military expedition with slaughter and bombing and all the other horrors of war, without producing any results. The only possible way to solve this difficulty would be to give the local population some chance of leading a normal life under better conditions, to adopt a friendly approach unlike the recent repressive Italian policy in Abyssinia. Repression would never work because like most mountain people these frontier tribes are brave and cherish their freedom.

Another solution is most likely possible, especially in view of the fact that Gandhi himself has been asked by these tribes to go and consult with them; his name is very popular among them. Gandhi wanted to go there, but the British authorities let him know that they would not look favorably on his going.

There is another man who might be able to deal with the question in a way as effective and as humane as Gandhi, and this is Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the great Muslim leader, who unfortunately seems condemned by the authorities to spend his life in prison. Instead of laying the foundations of stability and applying economic remedies, the British Government continues to squander blood and money, and that for over a century. (47)

In fact, modern imperialist violence is the least effective and the most inhumane. To address social and political problems non-violently is to assure satisfactory results, and at the same time to gratify the innate desire of people to grow and prosper. But instead of doing this at our neighbor’s expense, we are helping ourself as much as others by acting in accordance with our profound psychological need for human communication. This is the true source of human community and the essential condition for the sane settlement of political and social questions.


(1) Jawaharal Nehru, India and the World, London: George Allen, 1936; p. 33.

(2) C. F. Andrews, “The New Indian Constitution”, Reconciliation, May 1937, p. 120.

(3) Paul F. Hegi, in Tribune de Genève, April 29th, 1937.

(4) Nehru, op. cit.; p. 76.

(5) Ibid; pp. 173 and 223-4.

(6) Richard B. Gregg, The Power of Non-Violence, Philadelphia: Lippincott,  1934; p. 112.

(7) “In the same way as Gandhi,” Lu, May 11, 1934.

(8) See La Paix créatrice, II. For what concerns America see: Walter W. Van Kirk, Religion Renounces War, Chicago: Willett, Clark & Co., 1934. The official organ of the Fellowship of Reconciliation is the monthly review Reconciliation. It is affiliated to Peace, 17 Red Lion Square, London, W.C.1, which gives a regular account of peace work in the churches.

(9) Livy, II, p. 32.

(10) G. de Sanctis, in Propyläen-Weltgeschichte, Berlin: Propyläen Verlag, 1931; Vol. II, pp. 260-1.

(11) Clarence Marsh Case, Non-Violent Coercion, New York: Century, 1923; p. 303.

(12) Max Beer, Histoire générale du socialisme et des luttes sociales, Paris: Les Revues, 1931; Vol. I, pp. 130-42.

(13) H. G. Wells, Outline of History, London: Newnes, 1919; p. 225.

(14) Livy, VI, pp. 25-6. See also La Paix Créatrice,Vol.  I, p. 43.

(15) Jean Jaurès, Histoire Socialiste,Paris: Jules Rouff (no date); Vol.  I, “La Constituante”; pp. 58-9.

O toi, qui penches vers la terre
Ton front pali par la douleur,
Redresse-toi, fier prolétaire,
L’avenir apparait meilleur!
Ce n’est pas a coup de mitraille
Que le capital tu vaincras.
Non, car pour gagner la bataille,
Tu n’auras qu’a croiser les bras!

Pour la chute fatale
Des exploiteurs tyrans,
La greve générale
Nous fera triomphants!

La meilleure arme pour abattre
Les détenteurs du Capital,
Cette affreuse engeance marâtre,
C’est le chômage general . . .

(17) See my correspondence with Gandhi, of which a French translation appeared in Evolution, Paris 1928, 1929 and 1930.

(18) Georges Sorel, Réflexion  sur la Violence, Paris: Librairie de Page Libre, 1908; p. 266.

(19) Cf. Victor Basch, L’individualisme anarchiste, Paris: Félix Alcan, 1904.

(20) Max Stirner, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum, Berlin: Rothgiesse & Possekel, 1924; p. 148.

Mann der Arbeit aufgewacht
Und erkenne deine Macht!
Alle Räder stehen still
Wenn dein starker Arm es will.

(22) See John Henry Mackay’s novel, The Anarchists, Boston: Benjamin Tucker, 1891.

(23) Benjamin R. Tucker, Individual Liberty, New York: Vanguard Press, 1926; pp. 78 & 244-247.

(24) Ibid: pp. 79-80.

(25) Tom Mooney Molders’ Defense Committee, Press Service, August 26th, 1936.

(26) See: Bertrand Russell, Freedom and Organization, London: Allen & Unwin, 1934; p. 461.

(27) John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, Orpington (Kent, England): George Allen, 1871; Vol. II, pp. 15-20.

(28) John Ruskin, Time and Tide, London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1867; Letter XXV.

(29) William Morris, Centenary Edition, Bloomsbury & London: Nonesuch Press, 1934; p. 604.

(30) Ibid; p. 581.

(31) Bruce Glasier, William Morris, London: Longmans Green, 1921; p. vii.

(32) William Stewart, Keir Hardie, London: Cassell & Co., 1921; pp. 298-302.

(33) Mary Patricia Willcocks, Towards New Horizons. London: John Lane/The Bodley Head, 1919.

(34) See Fenner Brockway, A New Way with Crime, London: Williams & Norgate, 1928.

(35) Meijer-Wichmann, Misdaad, straf en maatschappij. Utrecht: Bijleveld, 1930.

(36) Roland Holst,  Revoultionaire massa-aktie. Rotterdam: W. L. & J. Brusse, 1918.

(37) See: Franz Kobler, Gewalt und Gewaltlosigkeit,  Zurich: Rotapfel Verlag, 1928.

(38) Henriette Roland Holst, Sterft, oude vormen en gedachten! Utrecht: Uitgeverij Bevrijding, 1928.

(39) Gregg, op. cit.; pp. 15-17.

(40) Henriette Roland Holst, in Vrienden van India, April 20th, 1937.

(41) Isaac Steinberg,  Gewalt und Terror in der Revolution. Berlin: Rowohlt, 1931.

(42) Charles Naine, Plaidoirie, La Locle (France): La Révolution Pacifique, 1931, p. 14-15.

(43) Charles Naine, Journalists, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Imprimérie Cooperative ,1928; Vol. I, pp. 37, 99, 79.

(44) Edouard Berth, Guerre des états ou guerre des classes, Paris : Marcel Rivière, 1924; p. 80-1.

(45) “Mainly it must be said, that the first and most important step towards peace is sincerely to desire it. They who once love peace in their hearts will eagerly seize every opportunity of establishing or recovering it.” Erasmus, Querela Pacis.

(46) Emmanuel Mounier, Révolution personnaliste et communautaire, Paris: Fernand Aubier, 1935; pp. 247-8.

(47) Nehru, op. cit.; pp. 238-9.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This essay is Chapter VI of The Conquest of Violence, “The Effectiveness of Non-Violent Struggle.” But the bibliographic history of this book is complicated:

  • As basis for this posting we have scanned and revised the most recent edition of The Conquest of Violence, London: Pluto Press, 1989.
  • The Pluto Press edition is a scan of the first English edition, London: George Routledge & Sons, 1937.
  • The Routledge edition is a translation by Honor Tracy of the first French edition, Pour vaincre sans violenceréflexions sur la guerre et la révolution. Paris, 1935, and written in French by De Ligt.
  • However, some essays in the first French edition were previously published in Dutch in various radical journals, and these de Ligt translated himself into French. He not only revised the Dutch essays for the French edition, but he also (in English) revised and expanded the French version for the first English edition.

The English translation by Honor Tracy (1913-1989) did not serve de Ligt well, and it is unfortunate that it is the only English version available.  Tracy was a well-known English novelist, essayist, and journalist. Her Wikipedia page gives reliable details. She was familiar with the left wing politics of the day and wrote about it for the Observer, but her translation is highly problematic, and hardly grammatical in places. Awkward phrases such as “by a happy chance”; “the bureaucracy ate up the whole of a people’s living”; unwieldly grammatical constructions and outright mistakes such as calling the German thinker Max Stirner an egotist, rather than egoist, as Stirner’s book The Ego and His Own makes clear, permeate nearly very paragraph.

We have revised Tracy’s translation, and have also corrected a few mistakes in de Ligt’s original such as incorrect first names and the like. De Ligt repeats sentences in different parts of the text, and the repetitions are deleted. He also mentions Shelly in two places, with some repetition and these references are consolidated. Likewise, his discussion of the Irish question we consolidated into one connected section, rather than the two widely separated ones. De Ligt gives us a run-down of authors, whose views are consistent with Gandhi, but he rarely states first names and we have supplied these. We have also added all the section headings to make the text easier to follow.

“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