The Empirical Basis of Gandhi’s Nonviolent Extremism

by Arne Naess

It was Gandhi’s claim that the greater the efficiency he acquired in the use of nonviolence, the greater the im­pression nonviolence made on his opponents. This claim he held to be a legacy of his experiences in South Africa. Was he right in this? Did his claim follow, ac­cording to inductive principles, as a valid conclusion from what he saw?

The railway-strike episode and others of a similar kind did, in fact, provide Gandhi with an empirical basis for the hypothesis that the more he applied, even to fanatical extremes, the principle of nonviolence, the greater was its effect, and that every increase, no matter how slight, in the purity of the application of the principle meant an increase in the chances of success. Thus we can see what was meant by Gandhi’s seemingly ex­treme claim that if one man were able to achieve an entirely perfect, nonviolent method, all the opposition in the world would vanish. Yet we must be careful to note that Gandhi explicitly stated that we are all more or less imperfect, not least himself, and that therefore we can talk only in terms of degrees of success and not per­fection.

Gandhi, then, had a satisfactory experimental basis for his claim that the consistent, or pure, forms of satyagraha (strictly, methods of holding on to truth) are more effective than the less consistent, or less pure, and that an increase in consistency, or purity, is especially favorable when a struggle is already well-advanced. He had, in other words, an argument for nonviolence over and above the purely moral one, and this argument is a strongly empirical and utilitarian one.

It may not seem so strange, then, that the versions which Gandhi’s opponents gave of the political struggle agree with his own, for where nonviolence was at once most consistent and effective, no side suffered from the struggle itself or from its outcome.

When judging Gandhi’s influence by the standards he himself set for empirical adequacy, we must subject it to the same rigorous critical scrutiny that we apply to any piece of scientific research. But we should note too the enormous complexity of Gandhi’s experiments com­pared with ordinary experiments in, say, social psychol­ogy. The number of unknown, or insufficiently known quantities is overwhelming; so much so, in fact, that no conclusions can really claim the title “scientific.” Nevertheless, not all worthwhile research need culminate in well-founded scientific conclusions, nor need the un­avoidable uncertainty of a conclusion cause us to reject it.

What, then, is our verdict to be? Judging from the material available to us, I think we may agree with Gandhi that his method in fact did work, and that the positive results of his action can to a large extent be traced to the nonviolence, which characterized his cam­paign. Looked at as a verbal hypothesis, therefore, the conclusion that nonviolence can be a vital force in re­solving conflicts appears to be a valid inference from the experiments in which Gandhi was involved, however few these “experiments” were.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This essay by Arne Naess is from the long out of print, Gandhi and the Nuclear Age, Totowa (New Jersey): Bedminster Press, 1965; Part One, Chapter 4, pp. 21-22. We are grateful to Mrs. Arne Naess for permission. Copyright © 2013 Mrs. Arne Naess/Estate of Arne Naess. We are also grateful to Alan Drengson for his assistance.

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

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi