To Be Violent or Nonviolent? The Movements of Gandhi & Mandela

Nelson Mandela

When we think of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi it is often in the context of nonviolent resistance. True, at one point, all of these individuals did use nonviolent resistance successfully. Thus, the common narrative portrays nonviolence alone as an effective method to enact change.

Huey P NewtonWe are told far less frequently about the Black Panthers, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. While King was at the height of nonviolent activism in the 1960s Newton and Seale adopted the same struggle, but with a different approach. First and foremost, this involved protecting minority groups from police brutality. The goals of Newton and King were the same. The tactics were not. The Black Panthers armed themselves, carrying weapons openly, and patrolled their own neighborhoods to prevent police brutality.

While we credit King for the civil rights movement, it was in fact a dual approach — mass nonviolent resistance by some and militant resistance by others — that ultimately brought about change.

Mahatma Gandhi, whose name is practically synonymous with nonviolent resistance, is similar to King in the fact that he is often given full credit for the liberation of India. The popular narrative depicts a single man, struggling peacefully and ultimately toppling the world’s greatest power. As such, the myth of Gandhi as a pacifist is projected into the public minds.

This is a myth the state would like to perpetuate. A pacifist who barks words is far easier to ignore than a militant who barks bullets. And although Gandhi did believe nonviolence was superior to violence as a form of resistance, he also explicitly supported violence as a superior alternative to inaction.

It was in 1920 that Gandhi stated:

I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour. But I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment.

In Mahatma Gandhi’s Non Violence in Peace and War, he also wrote:

It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.

Gandhi also endorsed violence in the context of self defense (from The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi):

I have been repeating over and over again that he who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honour by non-violently facing death may and ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor. He who can do neither of the two is a burden. He has no business to be the head of a family. He must either hide himself, or must rest content to live for ever in helplessness and be prepared to crawl like a worm at the bidding of a bully.

Whilst I may not actually help anyone to retaliate, I must not let a coward seek shelter behind nonviolence so-called. Not knowing the stuff of which nonviolence is made, many have honestly believed that running away from danger every time was a virtue compared to offering resistance, especially when it was fraught with danger to one’s life. As a teacher of nonviolence I must, so far as it is possible for me, guard against such an unmanly belief.

Self-defense…is the only honourable course where there is unreadiness for self-immolation.

Though violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defense or for the defense of the defenseless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission. The latter befits neither man nor woman. Under violence, there are many stages and varieties of bravery. Every man must judge this for himself. No other person can or has the right.

Gandhi First Blood

Well, not quite. But not the absolute pacifist the state narrative wants you to believe, either.

Now, this should not be taken to imply that Gandhi was a militant. He clearly was not. Mahatma Gandhi believed that nonviolence was the morally superior, more effective, more “manly” (he was a bit of a chauvinist) approach. But he did not condemn violence as a form of resistance. What he did condemn was inaction.

The story of the British Raj does not stop at Gandhi. It was not Gandhi that the British were afraid of. Gandhi was a force to be reckoned with, a populist force easy to rally around, but he did not pose a direct threat to British rule. In the late 1940s, India had reached a boiling point. Militants of all ethnic, religious and social classes — Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs — rose up. Indians in the British RAF rebelled and mutinied. Gandhi provided the popular movement for independence, but it was militants who posed an immediate threat to British rule. The combined effect, violence and nonviolence, is what achieved an independent India.

And so we arrive at Nelson Mandela and this article: Time Is Short: Nelson Mandela and the Path to Militant Resistance. Mandela, above all, is misrepresented as using nonviolence to end South African Apartheid. But it was not until after Mandela served twenty-seven years in prison, when the Apartheid system had begun to collapse, that Mandela fully embraced nonviolence. Before Mandela was imprisoned he was, without question, a proponent of strategic violence in response to the brutality of the state:

At the meeting I argued that the state had given us no alternative to violence. I said it was wrong and immoral to subject our people to armed attacks by the state without offering them some kind of alternative. I mentioned again that people on their own had taken up arms. Violence would begin whether we initiated it or not. Would it not be better to guide this violence ourselves, according to principles where we saved lives by attacking symbols of oppression, and not people? If we did not take the lead now, I said, we would soon be latecomers and followers to a movement we did not control.

Mandela himself went into hiding from the authorities and began to recruit a guerrilla army. He explicitly avoided terrorism in lieu of the sabotage of government buildings. This did not stop the South African authorities — as modern state authorities still do to those who resist with force — from branding him a “terrorist.” And when Mandela was arrested he gave no defense. He did not believe what he did was wrong:

“I must deal immediately and at some length with the question of violence. Some of the things so far told to the Court are true and some are untrue. I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the Whites.”

Today history reflects the fact that what Mandela did — including leading the Spear of the Nation and engaging in acts of violence — was not wrong.

There are many examples of successful, justified violent resistance. The Sons of Liberty, before and during the American Revolution, were dubbed the “Sons of Violence” by the Crown. Today they are hailed as patriots and heroes.

We must rethink nonviolence. The current zeitgeist in many protest movements and popular culture is that violence is never acceptable nor effective. This is simply untrue. It is not what Gandhi believed, it is not what Mandela believed, nor is it what the American patriots believed. None of these men would advocate that you stay at home, that you passively submit, or that you do not physically fight back against agents of the state who seek to do your harm.


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