notes - which will stretch over several issues of [Nonviolence Web
Upfront], and take the place of the usual "Op Ed" pieces
- are an effort to summarize the basic philosophy of nonviolence.
(They might be the basis of a pamphlet when done; revised,
condensed, etc.). We write and talk about nonviolence as if it
were simply a technique. I believe it is much more, that it is a
"one-edged philosphy" which cannot easily be used to
defend or advance injustice, and which is of value only if tested
in the real world.
When I came into the pacifist movement in 1948 the concept of
nonviolence as a method of change was new to the United States,
the direct result of Gandhi's teachings and actions in
India. Historically nonviolence had been seen either as an
expression of the Gospels, or as a variant on the stoic philosophy
of Marcus Aurelius. But neither the Christian nor the stoic
teachings gave us a method to deal with injustice except through
endurance. This was fine if I was the one suffering, but it did
not provide a way to stop you from inflicting injustice on a third
party. The Christian could choose to endure great injustice - but
what of the non-Christian who had done nothing to merit the
suffering, and sought relief from it?
Particularly after World War II with the horror of the mass
killing, there was a sense that pacifism alone - the refusal to
kill - was not good enough. Communism offered one answer but, as
expressed by Lenin and Trotsky, it was an answer in which the end
justified the means and by 1945 it was clear that, at best,
Communism was a "lesser evil" than Fascism. Into this
vacuum, this "historic place" where we found ourselves
confronted by the reality that men such as Hitler and Stalin
existed, that the atom bomb was possibly a final step in human
history, the pacifist movement embraced what we call today
"Nonviolence" as opposed to the earlier word
And it was here that I entered the pacifist movement, as old
ideas and new ones were explored and tested. It was one of the
twists of history that when nonviolence did re-enter American
life, it was returning home. Henry David Thoreau's essay on Civil
Disobedience had been read by Tolstoy, Tolstoy had been read by
Gandhi, and Gandhi had been read by Martin Luther King Jr. It was
an ideology which had been around the world, affecting and being
affected by all it encountered.
In trying to understand the philosophy of nonviolence, it is
important to keep in mind there is no living, vital philosphy
which does not have "holes" in it. Let me give two
examples. Marxism (and I am heavily indebted to Marx) has an
inherent contradiction in that it argued "history is on our
side, socialism is inevitable, the result of contradictions which
will lead to the collapse of capitalism". Fine, if socialism
is inevitable, then why not sit back and wait for it? Why risk
one's life - as so many courageous socialists and communists did -
in a struggle, the end of which was already certain?
Buddhism, to which I am also personally indebted, tells us that
Buddha sat under a tree, meditated, and discovered the truth, a
large part of which was non-attachment. Why then did he bother to
teach it? If Buddha had gained the answer, why was he still so
"attached to the world" that he taught at all? In both
cases I have heard the answers - they do not persuade me.
Philosophies, those which can change the course of lives, and
alter history, are marked by contradictions. Only minor ideologies
have all the answers.
Nonviolence does not answer all questions. It is filled with
contradictions. My own grasp of nonviolence is a blend of things I
have read in Gandhi, heard from Bayard Rustin and A. J. Muste,
from reading Eastern philosophy, the gospels, Karl Marx, etc. This
is an effort to outline what I have learned, knowing there is not
a single idea here which is original with me.
Let's begin with a basic assumption of nonviolence. There is an
absolute reality, but none of us are absolutely certain what it
is. Each of us sees part of it, none of us can grasp all of it.
Let's think of reality - the "real world" - as the earth
itself. If we ask a handful of widely scattered people what the
"reality of the earth is", the man who lives on a small
island in the Pacific will say it is almost entirely water, except
for the patch of land on which he and his family live. A woman in
Kansas will say it is flat, dry except when it rains, and is
covered by wheat. The nomad in the Sahara desert will say the
earth is dry, sandy, constantly moving with the wind, and there is
little vegetation. The hunter in the Brazilian rain forest will
insist the earth is wet with water, the air is thick with
moisture, the day is filled with the sounds of birds and insects,
and the vegetation so dense that it is hard to move.
Each statement is true - as a part of the truth. None of
the statements is true of the whole. Yet we often believe
the partial truth we perceive is the full truth. Put it another
way - each human being perceives "reality" in different
ways. For most of us that difference is so slight we don't notice
it. But the matter is important when a person is color blind and
cannot distinguish between red and green - which is why STOP signs
say STOP and do not just flash red (it is also why the red is the
top color of traffic lights, and green the bottom one - a person
who is color blind can still tell the difference by their
position). Someone who, from birth, is deaf or blind lives in a
world as "real" as the one you live in, but their
"reality" will be profoundly different.
We are, each of us, finite beings in a universe which, so far
as we can know, is infinite. Whether the universe had a beginning
and an end we are not sure - but we are certain we had a beginning
and we all know we will have an end. There is a limit to the time
during which we can learn things - and there are far too many
things to learn for any of us ever to be sure we are an authority
except - at best - in small and limited ways.
We may be absolutely certain - as I am - that behind the
illusions of a solid world (an illusion, because the solid world
is made up of impossibly small ticks of energy bound together in
such a way as to give the illusion of being chairs, tables,
people, etc.) there is some "reality." But I am
absolutlely certain, because I am finite and the true reality is
infinite, that I can never be absolutely certain of anything being
absolutely true. I believe there is truth, but I do not believe I
will ever be certain of it.
This all seems terribly convoluted but let's look at Gandhi,
who said "Truth is God, God is Truth". His Autobiography
was titled "My Experiments with Truth". It is easy to
miss the edge of what Gandhi was saying, because it was so
obvious. Asked by a Westerner if he believed in God, Ghandi
replied "God is even in these stones", tapping a stone.
This is part of a Hindu belief that God is not, as in the West,
separted and apart from us, personal and yet distant - rather, God
is impersonal and pervades everything. The line between this
belief and a kind of religious athiesm is hard to draw. In the
Hindu sense "God is all things". So that
when Gandhi said "God is Truth" it was a statement a
scientist might understand with greater immediacy than the rest of
For me there has always been a link between this and Marx's
thought, in which the entire body of Marxism was built up by
observation of the material world, by a search for the facts, by a
determination that theories had to reflect the "material
reality". Both Karl Marx and Mohandas Gandhi spent a great
deal of time trying to find out what the concrete facts were about
Marx did his work among stacks of books in the British Museum.
Gandhi looked over reports, read statistics, listened to peasants,
sought the truth before reaching a conclusion. Neither man
sat alone, meditated, and waited for truth to arrive on the wings
of pure logic. No - truth was determined by observation. There is
to Gandhi something of the pure scientist, the physicist, willing
to test his observations.
And if Gandhi's search for truth saw "God as Truth",
then it is possible for the "non-believer" to approach
Gandhi, with the search for truth as a common ground. But - and we
will return to this again and again - because Gandhi was aware
that he could not be certain that he was right, he was not
willing to destroy others in his test of truth. Himself, yes, but
not others. He was aware (and Marxists tend not to be) that his
perception of reality was always, and by the nature of things,
"partial and incomplete". And he knew that his opponent
also saw a part of the true reality. This is terribly hard for us
to admit or recognize. The General sees a part of reality? Nixon
saw a part of reality? Yes.
Let me close this first "chapter" by noting that one
of the things which most deeply impressed me about the late A.J.
Muste was his ability to listen with respect to those with
whom he deeply disagreed, not as a tactic but because he hoped
to catch in their remarks some truth he himself had missed.
Most of us, in arguing, can hardly wait for our
"opponent" to finish so that we can "correct"
him (or her).
A.J. was in no hurry to "correct" his opponent, nor
was Gandhi. Nonviolence is many things, but if it is not a search
for truth - a search that is never ended - it will fail.