THE IDEAS of Mahatma Gandhi have had a lasting impact on the left, from the civil rights movement of the 1960s right through to the movements against corporate greed and racism that are developing today. Many see Gandhi as the embodiment of politically-effective pacifism.
The success of his nonviolent strategy, however, is largely a myth.
The most common version of the Gandhi myth is the simple assertion that a struggle based on pacifism forced the British out of India. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed this view many times when explaining the methods of the Civil Rights movement he led:
"This method was made famous in our generation by Gandhi, who used it to free his country from the domination of the British Empire."
King believed that:
"Gandhi was inevitable. If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore Gandhi at our own risk."
This view of Gandhi's contributions has lent credibility to the principle of nonviolence in the fights against injustice around the world since then.
But the Indian revolt against British rule was anything but nonviolent. Gandhi's tactical ideas, moreover, had serious limitations as a guide to struggle. Movements that began under Gandhi's sponsorship often ended in premature retreats or escalated into physical confrontations. And the final ouster of the British in 1947 can't be counted as a victory for Gandhi's methods, since India's independence came as the movement was shoving Gandhi and his nonviolent philosophy to the political margins.
Gandhi, nevertheless, did make major contributions to the movement. Most crucial was his success in leading masses of people into struggle against British rule -- something he did better than any other Indian leader. But while Gandhi's political leadership was the spark for these struggles, it was not their cause. The struggles arose from real, deep grievances against British rule, and the masses, once mobilized, showed repeatedly that they were willing to adopt militant tactics when nonviolent ones didn't work.
I urge all of you peace fetishizers to read this debunking of the "nonviolent" tactic of social change (written by Meneejeh Moradian and David Whitehouse):