Nonviolence, Its Histories and Myths


Sometime in the early 1960s, I decided I was too scared to participate in the Freedom Rides. I have neither the moral standing nor the slightest desire to disparage the courage of those who engage in non-violence. But non-violence, so often recommended to the Palestinians, has never ‘worked’ in any politically relevant sense of the word, and there is no reason to suppose it ever will. It has never, largely on its own strength, achieved the political objectives of those who employed it.

There are supposedly three major examples of successful nonviolence: Gandhi’s independence movement, the US civil rights movement, and the South African campaign against apartheid. None of them performed as advertised.

Gandhi’s nonviolence can’t have been successful, because there was nothing he would have called a success. Gandhi’s priorities may have shifted over time: he said, that, if he changed his mind from one week to the next, it was because he had learned something in between. But it seems fair to say that he wanted independence from British rule, a united India, and nonviolence itself, an end to civil or ethnic strife on the Indian subcontinent. What he got was India 1947: partition, and one of the most horrifying outbursts of bloodshed and cruelty in the whole bloody, cruel history of the postwar world. The antagonism between Muslims and Hindus, so painful to Gandhi, still seems almost set in stone. These consequences alone would be sufficient to count his project as a tragic failure.

What of independence itself? Historians might argue about its causes, but I doubt any of them would attribute it primarily to Gandhi’s campaign. The British began contemplating–admittedly with varying degrees of sincerity–some measure of autonomy for India before Gandhi did anything, as early as 1917. A.J.P.Taylor says that after World War I, the British were beginning to find India a liability, because India was once again producing its own cotton, and buying cheap textiles from Japan. Later, India’s strategic importance, while valued by many, became questioned by some, who saw the oil of the Middle East and the Suez canal as far more important. By the end of the Second World War, Britain’s will to hold onto its empire had pretty well crumbled, for reasons having little or nothing to do with nonviolence.

But this is the least important of the reasons why Gandhi cannot be said to have won independence for India. It was not his saintliness or the disruption he caused that impressed the British. What impressed them was that the country seemed (and was) about to erupt into a slaughter. The colonial authorities could see no way to stop it. What they could see was the increasingly violent antagonism between Muslims and Hindus, both of whom detected, in the distance, the emergence of a power vacuum they rushed to fill. This violence included the “Great Calcutta Killing” of August 1946, when at least 4000 people died in three days. Another factor was the terrorism–and this need not be a term of condemnation–quite regularly employed against the British. It was not enough to do much harm, but more than enough to warn them that India was becoming more trouble than it was worth. All things considered, the well-founded fear of generalized violence had far more effect on British resolve than Gandhi ever did. He may have been a brilliant and creative political thinker, but he was not a victor.

Well, how about the US civil rights movement? It would be difficult and ungenerous to argue that it was unsuccessful, outrageous to claim that it was anything but a long and dangerous struggle. But when that is conceded, the fact remains that the Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement was practically a federal government project. Its roots may have run deep, but its impetus came from the Supreme Court decision of 1954 and from the subsequent attempts to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The students who braved a hell to accomplish this goal are well remembered. Sometimes forgotten is US government’s almost spectacular determination to see that federal law was respected. Eisenhower sent, not the FBI, not a bunch of lawyers, but one of the best and proudest units of the United States Army, the 101st Airborne, to keep order in Little Rock, and to see that the ‘federalized’ Arkansas national guard stayed on the right side of the dispute. Though there was never any hint of an impending battle between federal and state military forces, the message couldn’t have been clearer: we, the federal government, are prepared to do whatever it takes to enforce our will.

This message is an undercurrent throughout the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Though Martin Luther King still had to overcome vicious, sometimes deadly resistance, he himself remarked that surprisingly few people were killed or seriously injured in the struggle. The surprise diminishes with the recollection that there was real federal muscle behind the nonviolent campaign. For a variety of motives, both virtuous and cynical, the US government wanted the South to be integrated and to recognize black civil rights. Nonviolence achieved its ends largely because the violence of its opponents was severely constrained. In 1962, Kennedy federalized the National Guard and sent in combat troops to quell segregationist rioting in Oxford, Mississippi. Johnson did the same thing in 1965, after anti-civil rights violence in Alabama. While any political movement has allies and benefits from favorable circumstances, having the might of the US government behind you goes far beyond the ordinary advantages accompanying political activity. The nonviolence of the US civil rights movement sets an example only for those who have the overwhelming armed force of a government on their side.

As for South Africa, it is a minor miracle of wishful thinking that anyone could suppose nonviolence played a major role in the collapse of apartheid.

In the first place, the ANC was never a nonviolent movement but a movement which decided, on occasion and for practical reasons, to use nonviolent tactics. (The same can be said of the other anti-apartheid organizations.) Much like Sinn Fein and the IRA, it maintained from the 1960s on an arms-length relationship with MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe), a military/guerrilla organization. So there was never even a commitment to Gandhian nonviolence within the South African movements.

Secondly, violence was used extensively throughout the course of the anti-apartheid struggle. It can be argued that the violence was essentially defensive, but that’s not the point: nonviolence as a doctrine rejects the use of violence in self-defense. To say that blacks used violence in self-defense or as resistance to oppression is to say, I think, that they were justified. It is certainly not to say that they were non-violent.

Third, violence played a major role in causing both the boycott of South Africa and the demise of apartheid. Albert Luthuli, then president of the African National Congress, called for an economic boycott in 1959; the ANC’S nonviolent resistance began in 1952.* But the boycott only acquired some teeth starting in 1977, after the Soweto riots in 1976, and again in 1985-1986, after the township riots of 1984-1985. Though the emphasis in accounts of these riots is understandably on police repression, no one contests that black protestors committed many violent acts, including attacks on police stations.

Violence was telling in other ways. The armed forces associated with the ANC, though never very effective, worried the South African government after Angola and Mozambique ceased to function as buffer states: sooner or later, it was supposed, the black armies would become a serious problem. (This worry intensified with the strategic defeat of South African forces by Cuban units at Cuito Cuanavale, Angola, in 1988.) In addition, violence was widespread and crucial in eliminating police informers and political enemies, as well in coercing cooperation with collective actions. It included the particularly gory practice of necklacing.

Though much of the violence was conducted by gangs and mobs, it was not for that any less politically important: on the contrary, it was precisely the disorganized character of the violence that made it so hard to contain. And history of the period indicates that the South African government fell, not under the moral weight of dignified, passive suffering, but because the white rulers (and their friends in the West) felt that the situation was spiraling out of control. Economic problems caused by the boycotts and the administration of apartheid were also a factor, but the boycott and the administrative costs were themselves, in large measure, a response to violent rather than nonviolent resistance.

In short, it is a myth that nonviolence brought all the victories it is supposed to have brought. It brought, in fact, none of them.

How does this bear on the Israel-Palestine conflict? At the very least it should make one question the propriety of recommending nonviolence to the Palestinians. In their situation, success is far less likely than in the cases we have examined. Unlike Martin Luther King, they are working against a state, not with one. Their opponents are far more ruthless than the British were in the twilight of empire. Unlike the Indians and South Africans, they do not vastly outnumber their oppressors. And neither the Boers nor the English ever had anything like the moral authority Israel enjoys in the hearts and minds of Americans, much less its enormous support network. Nonviolent protest might overcome Israel’s prestige in ten or twenty years, but no one thinks the Palestinians have that long.

But the biggest myth of nonviolence isn’t its supposed efficacy: it’s the notion that, if you don’t choose non-violence, you choose violence. The Palestinians, like many others before them, find a middle ground. They choose when and whether to use violence and when to refrain from it. Many many times, they have chosen non-violent tactics, from demonstrations to strikes to negotiations, with varying but certainly not spectacular success. And their greatest act of nonviolent resistance is, as Israel Shamir points out, their stubborn determination to remain on their own lands despite repeated attacks from armed settlers, which Palestinian farmers are in no position to counter.

The Palestinians will continue to choose, sometimes violence, sometimes nonviolence. They will presumably base their choices, as they have always done, on their assessment of the political realities. It is a sort of insolent naïveté to suppose that, in their weakness, they should defy the lessons of history and cut off half their options. The notion that a people can free itself literally by allowing their captors to walk all over them is historical fantasy.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca

[*Even then, nonviolence was taken with a grain of salt. Oliver Tambo, writing as Deputy President of the ANC in 1966, said that “Mahatma [Gandhi] believed in the effectiveness of what he called the “soul force” in passive resistance. According to him, the suffering experienced in passive resistance inspired a change of heart in the rulers. The African National Congress (ANC), on the other hand, expressly rejected any concepts and methods of struggle that took the form of a self-pitying, arms-folding, and passive reaction to oppressive policies. It felt that nothing short of aggressive pressure from the masses of the people would bring about any change in the political situation in South Africa.”]


Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at mneumann@live.com

Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Elliot Murphy
Cameron’s Syrian Strategy
Gareth Porter
How Terror in Paris Calls for Revising US Syria Policy
Michael Perino
The Arc of Instability
Yves Engler
Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Mining Industry
Tom H. Hastings
ISIS and Changing the Game
John Halle
A Yale Education as a Tool of Power and Privilege
Norman Pollack
Syrian “Civil War”?: No, A Proxy War of Global Confrontation
Sheldon Richman
Let the Refugees In
Ron Jacobs
Rosa Luxembourg–From Street Organizer to Street Name
James A Haught
The Values of Jesus
Binoy Kampmark
British Austerity: Cutting One’s Own Backyard
Ed Rampell
45 Years: A Rumination on Aging
November 26, 2015
Ashley Nicole McCray – Lawrence Ware
Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving
Joseph Grosso
The Enduring Tragedy: Guatemala’s Bloody Farce
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Imperial Myths: the Enduring Lie of the US’s Origin
Ralph Nader
The Joys of Solitude: a Thanksgiving!

Joseph G. Ramsey
Something to be Thankful For: Struggles, Seeds…and Surprises
Dan Glazebrook
Turkey Shoot: the Rage of the Impotent in Syria
Andrew Stewart
The Odious President Wilson
Colin Todhunter
Corporate Parasites And Economic Plunder: We Need A Genuine Green Revolution
Rajesh Makwana
Ten Billion Reasons to Demand System Change
Joyce Nelson
Turkey Moved the Border!
Richard Baum
Hillary Clinton’s Meager Proposal to Help Holders of Student Debt
Sam Husseini
A Thanksgiving Day Prayer
November 25, 2015
Jeff Taylor
Bob Dylan and Christian Zionism
Dana E. Abizaid
Provoking Russia
Oliver Tickell
Syria’s Cauldron of Fire: a Downed Russian Jet and the Battle of Two Pipelines
Patrick Cockburn
Trigger Happy: Will Turkey’s Downing of Russian Jet Backfire on NATO?
Robert Fisk
The Soothsayers of Eternal War
Russell Mokhiber
The Coming Boycott of Nike
Ted Rall
Like Father Like Son: George W. Bush Was Bad, His Father May Have Been Worse
Matt Peppe
Bad Policy, Bad Ethics: U.S. Military Bases Abroad
Martha Rosenberg
Pfizer Too Big (and Slippery) to Fail
Yorgos Mitralias
Bernie Sanders, Mr. Voutsis and the Truth Commission on Greek Public Debt
Jorge Vilches
Too Big for Fed: Have Central Banks Lost Control?
Sam Husseini
Why Trump is Wrong About Waterboarding — It’s Probably Not What You Think
Binoy Kampmark
The Perils of Certainty: Obama and the Assad Regime
Roger Annis
State of Emergency in Crimea
Soud Sharabani
ISIS in Lebanon: An Interview with Andre Vltchek
Thomas Knapp
NATO: This Deal is a Turkey