The Meaning of Nonviolence and the Establishment of a Peace Brigade

by Fred J. Blum

Logo Shanti Sena World Peace Network; courtesy

Editor’s Preface: The Peace Brigade was organized in 1981 by Narayan Desai and others in London, as an extension of the Shanti Sena, or nonviolent peace force, which Vinoba Bhave had founded in India in the 1950s. Bhave had, of course, taken his name and concept from Gandhi and more specifically from Gandhi’s Constructive Programme. This previously unpublished article makes clear that activists in the U.S. nonviolence and peace movements were already thinking of forming their own chapters as early as 1961, the date on the manuscript. The Brigade still continues in many countries under various names such as the World Peace Brigade, Peace Brigades International, Muslim Peacemaker Teams, etc.. The article is another in our series from the IISG archive in Amsterdam. For further information and references please consult the notes at the end of the article. JG

What is nonviolence? When I thought about how I wanted to start this discussion I felt a need to give some initial broad definition. The first that came to my mind was “to refuse to use violence and to substitute for it other means.” As soon as I had written it down, I felt that the term “to use violence” was very limiting, and expressed a mode of thinking so prevalent today that none of us could easily escape from it, namely a thinking in instrumental terms: of using techniques, of making “things” an instrument for our purpose, for controlling our environment, etc.

The instrumental mode of thought has in fact been a dominant feature in a good deal of Western acceptance of Gandhian nonviolence, which is wrongly conceived as a means to be used instead of violent means. In looking at nonviolence primarily as a means to be substituted for violence, we in the West have greatly misinterpreted Gandhi, who came out of a Hindu tradition. This tradition is as far removed from our instrumental modern Western culture as our present culture is removed from the medieval world of the 13th century Roman Catholic theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas. Gandhian nonviolence is not primarily a means but a way of life. And a way of life is very different from a means because every way is a synthesis of means and ends. These notes towards an essay are not the place to discuss the relationship between ways, means and ends, though this question must be discussed at some point at length to clarify the meaning of nonviolence. It is sufficient to give here a preliminary broad definition of nonviolence: Nonviolence means a refusal to be violent and a commitment to find a better way, one that expresses our highest ideals of love and justice.

Nonviolence means a refusal to be violent and a commitment to find a better way,
one that expresses our highest ideals of love and justice.

The substitution of “be violent” for “use violence” might greatly broaden the meaning of nonviolence; it has brought into the orbit of nonviolence all aspects of our existence, not only the instrumental expression of our life. Such a broadening leads quite naturally to expressing nonviolence positively as a search for a better way to be, one that expresses our highest valuing of those qualities which we want to predominate in all our relationships.

Sketched in the broadest strokes, I see this dynamic as follows: In the West, Christianity, the essential carrier of nonviolence, over the course of the 19th century became too deeply involved in an instrumental culture which denied the power of good. The result of the dominance of the instrumental was that nonviolence ceased to be a powerful social force. What Gandhi did was to bring back nonviolence, not as an idea but as an existential reality, and moreover as a way of dealing with social problems, the essential meaning of nonviolence.

In order not to be misunderstood let me emphasize that Gandhi had, of course, a philosophy of nonviolence . But this in itself was not new to the West. What was new to the West was his realization of nonviolence as a force to transform man and society. Gandhi has shown that nonviolence can be a real way of life now and not a remote ideal which could possibly be practiced by a few saintly people but is not “practical” (as we would say in an instrumental Western culture) as an important force in the human community. The meaning of nonviolence lies, therefore, in the actual realization of a new way of life and a new way of organizing the human community here and now.

Nonviolence as Means and Ends

First of all we must realize that nonviolence cannot be understood as a technique or as a means. The principle is this: There are no techniques or means which in themselves are nonviolent. Before discussing this point, let us first distinguish between techniques and means. A technique is a way of doing something irrespective of the specific use and/or the general context within which the particular method in question is used. There is a technique for learning languages, for cooking, for dealing with people, for making things, etc. All action is based on certain techniques. A technique becomes a means when it is used to achieve a certain end. To speak about a means implies, therefore, the notion of an end, of a goal, of a purpose. Means exist only in relation to ends.

But when I say that there is no technique or means that in itself is nonviolent I mean more than that. I mean that no action can be evaluated as violent or nonviolent exclusively in terms of the techniques, methods or means used. Let us take as an example a strike. A strike in which nobody is hurt may be considered an excellent example of nonviolence. Gandhi, in fact, used the strike as an important part of his struggle for independence. I am not arguing that he used a method that he should not have used. I am arguing that the method used was nonviolent, not merely because it abstained from the use of physical violence, but also because it was used for ends which could be justified ethically.

The Nazis too employed strikes. As a child in Germany, I remember one day the anti-Semitic “boycott”, when all houses where Jews lived or had their place of work were guarded by S.A. and S.S. men, effectively blocking anyone from entering. Nobody was hurt on that day, so from a strictly descriptive point of view it might have been called nonviolent. But this action, and subsequent legislation, undermined the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people and, singling out a group as it did, it could be said to have laid the foundation for the physical violence against Jews later used. This is an extreme example. But would we consider a strike in industry nonviolent if it were to destroy the economic basis of any party to the strike action? I am sure we would not. And the reason why we would not consider it as nonviolent is because the end, in view of which the strike is carried out, is not an ethically justifiable end.

From this observation an important fact follows: A nonviolent way of life and action cannot be understood by exclusive emphasis on the “proper” means. Without an awareness of the proper ends, we cannot be nonviolent.

At present, in the Western world, nonviolence is primarily defined in terms of means. This is a reaction against the Machiavellian principle that “the end justifies the means” and a false interpretation of the Gandhian postulate that good means imply good ends. For oriental thought good means literally imply good ends. The two are not separated, as they are in the rationalistic thought prevalent in Western cultures. What the West would try to make of Gandhi would be something like: “All you have to do is to use good means and the rest will take care of itself.” Hence nonviolence has been limited so far mainly to causes where the ethical nature of the end is simple and obvious.

To be against war and to be against race discrimination are goals which are beyond dispute. But in all those areas of life where ends are not simple and obvious, nonviolence as seen by the West has so far had very little to say and has done even less. If the end is to create a nonviolent society, much more complex problems arise and hence we have not thought through nonviolent social testimony. The limitation of nonviolence to “good means” without an articulate concern with the problem of “good ends” has made the nonviolent movement in the West so far mainly a movement of protest, with a great emphasis on “conflict resolution”.

To overcome these shortcomings and to enable the Peace Brigade, of which I am a supporter, to form a new type of nonviolent movement based on nonviolence as a way of life, we must broaden the central concern with means to a concern with both means and ends.

Nonviolence as a Struggle

It is not possible to understand the meaning of nonviolence by finding some definition for it, or for its ingredients. It is true that the meaning of love and justice needs a great deal of thought and also some clear definitions, but this is not necessary merely in order to have the clearest possible understanding of Truth. It is primarily and ultimately necessary to be able to realize the truth of nonviolence more fully. All realization of truth is a struggle. To be nonviolent means, therefore, essentially to engage in a struggle, in a total struggle for self-realization in a “greater” community of man and is the “greatest” community with God. A struggle rooted in an existential involvement with the human situation of today is the core of nonviolence.

Far from being a technique for resolving conflict, nonviolence is a way of life and gives struggle a central place in man and his relationship with life. Granted that the nonviolent struggle is a creative struggle not a destructive one; granted that it is an attempt to realize the best and not the worst; granted that it is a struggle to move to a higher plane of consciousness and not to relapse into the lower layers of the human psyche. It remains, nevertheless, a struggle and it will create conflicts. Indeed in an apathetic world it is a major task of a genuinely nonviolent movement to generate a creative tension rather than merely to assuage destructive conflict.

I consider this to be of the greatest significance for a Peace Brigade. There is no place for neutrality in a Peace Brigade. To be neutral means ultimately not to care who is winning in a struggle. The Peace Brigade must be a dynamic force in the present struggle over the minds of men. But to be a dynamic force it must deal with those central problems that occupy the mind of man. It must take a stand as to what these central problems are and it must offer solutions that are better than the solutions offered by contesting parties. By better solutions I mean solutions incorporating those elements of truth contained in the ways of life promoted by the existing contestants. At the same time these solutions, to be truly nonviolent in character, must go beyond the nature of the solutions now offered by the contestant parties. A nonviolent solution is always a broader synthesis. Reconciliation does not mean to find a solution halfway between the existing points of view. Reconciliation means to show a better way by lifting the struggle to a higher level where it can be creative rather than destructive. Reconciliation must, therefore, deal with means and with ends.

The distinctions between technical assistance, a second party, and a third party role for the Peace Brigade are not valid distinctions. They are based on a conception of nonviolent techniques and on possibilities of neutrality, which separate means from ends and techniques from goals. As a result an artificial separation is made between action which does aim at promoting consensual goals (technical assistance) from action where consensual goals are challenged, (with second party action) and from action where not any particular goal or solution is promoted (third party action).

To speak about technical assistance is an expression of the instrumental consciousness of the West. Like the expression “technical (or technological) unemployment” it shifts attention and responsibility from human values and social organization to technique and technology. It is, of course, possible to help a person or a community by developing certain techniques, although this should and must raise questions: Do the techniques foster human values? Which values are fostered and which are neglected? Whose values are fostered and whose values are neglected? What kind of society will it bring about? These questions underlie the use of any technique. They are not technical questions but questions as to means and ends, questions as to a way of life which we consider true and a way of life which is, or is not, in harmony with our conception of truth.

Reference: IISG/Devi Prasad Archive, Box 46, Folder 1. We are grateful to IISG for their assistance and permission.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: The manuscript of this essay, from which this transcript was made, makes it clear that it was not meant as a finished text, but rather as notes or random thoughts towards a speech or final paper. The last two paragraphs have been omitted as they were not entirely legible.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Fred J. Blum (1914-1990) was a U.S. academician, consultant to the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, and one of the organizers of the U.S. Peace Brigade. His lifelong commitment, as he stated, was  “to understand Gandhi’s approach to social, economic and spiritual issues.”

“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