The Power of Nonviolence
January 14, 2009
CSU Archives/Everett Collection
Demonstrators lock arms in front of the
Last spring The Nation Institute sponsored a forum at the Society for Ethical Culture in
SCHELL: I believe that Gandhi's Satyagraha is the most important political discovery of the twentieth century. It happened on September 11, 1906, in the Empire Theater in
Gandhi saw the act as an attempt to destroy this community. He said, "It meant absolute ruin for the Indians in
Another interesting feature of the event was that it occurred on the spur of the moment at the Empire Theater in
At the meeting a gentleman called Seth Haji Habib demanded that the audience take an oath, before God, not to observe the Black Act. Gandhi was startled because he saw a world of difference between a mere vote and an actual oath by individuals, which he believed could only be taken by those people themselves and which was binding on them no matter what anyone else did. A new force, a new power, was being brought to bear in politics, a new commitment, a new will really unto death, yet without violence.
BRANCH: I'd like to jump forward to late in the twentieth century. Dr. King was in
There were ferocious arguments within the movement about using small children to demonstrate. Not just 15-year-olds or 12-year-olds, but 6-year-olds. They only had twenty people willing to face
Those two days there were a tremendous watershed for nonviolence in the
Another story, a year and a month later, June 21, 1964. It was the first night of Freedom Summer in
The Klansmen couldn't forget those words. Almost a month later, two of them in widely separate incidents confessed to FBI agents the events of that night, and both of them said those were Schwerner's last words, and both times the agent said, "Are you sure? That's a very unlikely thing for somebody to say." And they both said, "Yes, I'll never forget that."
It had an enormous effect on the agents. And they asked people in the movement: Is this something that someone would say? And, of course, the people in the movement said, Yes, that's what nonviolent training is about. One is the discipline not to resist, not to strike back, and the other--"Sir, I know just how you feel"-- is the discipline to try to make a human connection with somebody, even the person that's about to kill you.
The heart of nonviolence is to discipline yourself and have faith in the other guy. Mickey Schwerner epitomized it. This was an evanescent moment because nonviolence began to dissolve even within the movement, but that's another story.
SUZANNA LESSARD: Jonathan, could you do a quick check of the times in which nonviolence actually prevailed?
SCHELL: It was centrally involved in the defeat of the British Raj, with Gandhi leading the way. And the
And then, of course, the civil rights movement, and a whole string of democratic nonviolent revolutions at the end of the twentieth century, starting in Southern Europe in
So there really is a counter-story to the dominant narrative of the twentieth century--the shocking and unbelievable expansion of the use of violence. But this sort of subterranean stream of nonviolence was also present. The fall of the
BRANCH: The people suffering segregation in the South had no other weapons. They had no money. They didn't have much education. They were a tiny minority of the population, and only a tiny minority of that minority was involved in a nonviolent revolution. And yet they believed there was much power in it. It came out of the refuge of the church. The mass meetings there substituted for all the institutions that they really didn't have. They didn't have a newspaper. They didn't have a theater. They didn't have any deliberative structure whatsoever. They developed nonviolence at a very special moment in history.
Jonathan, how do nuclear weapons fit into the history of nonviolence?
SCHELL: With nuclear weapons you had the ultimate self-defeat of violence. Not only were nuclear weapons going to blow us all up, but they couldn't even accomplish what violence actually had done. They could no longer get rid of a figure like Hitler, because if the attempt were made everybody would die. Violence, the so-called final arbiter, wasn't working anymore. And so you needed something else. Some other arbiter, some other court of judgment--not violence, not war--had to be brought into play.
And slowly, in Eastern Europe and in
BRANCH: It's a cruelty of history that the epitome of the civil rights movement, the march from Selma to Montgomery, occurred at the same time the Vietnam War was starting. The first Marine units landed literally within hours of the crossing of
King struggled with it. He had just given his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, in which he said that the movement, the ten-year movement against segregation in the United States, showed that nonviolence was a tool that ought to be studied globally for application against the triple scourges of mankind racism, poverty and war, which he called violence of the flesh and violence of the spirit.
So he saw a country that was embracing dramatic changes in power relationships through nonviolence. And at the same time, the
It was a terrible dilemma for King because for the first time the movement had access to the corridors of power, to begin to get justice done. So most of the mainstream civil rights organizations were horrified that he wanted to speak out against the Vietnam War. He felt that he couldn't segregate the principles of nonviolence as a tool for change and a way of understanding
We still haven't absorbed the lessons of the 1960s, the blessings of nonviolence and the curse of violence. I think the civil rights movement offered us a way to advance democracy in the world, but we never think of that model. We're stuck on the
SCHELL: One of the connections here was that the Black Power movement was rising at that time, and King was pressed to give an answer in his speech against the war at Riverside Church in
Who is speaking that way today about the
BRANCH: What you hear in the Oval Office conversations of Johnson with other people, particularly his old buddy Richard Russell, is, "I would give everything not to do this war. We're going to lose. We're on the wrong side. It's politically stupid. We'll never convince these Vietnamese to support us. It won't work militarily. It won't work politically. But if I don't do it, they'll call me a coward and they'll run me out of office. The American people will forgive you for anything but being weak."
What imprisons all of us is the atavistic feeling that the willingness to do violence is the ultimate measure of your commitment, that you're not really a patriot unless you're willing to do violence. Johnson didn't want to wage the war in Vietnam, but he was afraid not to be violent. He was afraid that he would be run out of office and everything else he wanted to do wouldn't work.
Martin Luther King would say to his people, "We in the heart of the nonviolent movement feel this ourselves. When the
King never in any of his Vietnam speeches used the name Lyndon Johnson, never once. And everybody else was saying, you know, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" We were demonizing Johnson. So King said, "Everything that Johnson's doing is connected to our own human nature, and we cannot demonize even his commitment to democracy. We just have to say this is the wrong way to do it. And it's our war and it's our government, and we're responsible to fix it." That's a really, really high, difficult standard, but it's at the heart of nonviolence.
SCHELL: The prison of American political life is that no matter how crazy a particular war is--and the
This syndrome has gotten worse, I think. Today the country is more militaristic than it was back in the days of
BRANCH: Diane Nash, the great pioneer of nonviolence from the sit-ins to the
That the Black Power movement comes right on top of the Six-Day War is another cruelty of this period. Stanley Levison, Dr. King's closest adviser, said just a few days after the Six-Day War, We're in a real pickle here because the architects of nonviolence theory, of the enlightenment of ethical culture, have always been Jewish, and the Jews are turning into hawks because of the Six-Day War. You know--
Is spirituality essential to nonviolence, and can it be translated into practical politics?
BRANCH: Well, it certainly can be translated into practical politics. Gandhi and King showed that. Part of King's genius was that he spoke about religion and politics every day, yet never once on the record do I have an instance in which he was criticized for mixing church and state. And the reason for that is because he did it in such an ingenious way, drawing on the roots of a nonsectarian spirituality, which I call "equal souls," meaning that we all have equal souls, and if we all have equal souls, then we can pursue nonviolence and democracy. He could offer people a choice: if you're an atheist and you still believe in the promise of the American revolution, then I'm for you; if you're cynical about Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves, but you still believe in equal souls, you can come in that door, too.
King believed that all of our most affecting patriotic oratory had not a religious but a spiritual cast. He was calling on that, and I think it was part of his strength.
SCHELL: Certainly the movements of the twentieth century offer a large array of examples of that. If you look at the nonviolent movements in Eastern Europe, such as the Solidarity movement in
Hannah Arendt wrote that power and violence are opposites. She refused to call the power that flows from a barrel of a gun political power. She thought political power grew out of exactly the sort of thing that happened in the Empire Theater, which is a sort of Tocquevillian civil association of people ready to fight without violence. Action in concert, she called it. Arendt foresaw that the Soviet Union's use of force in Eastern Europe, while successful in the short run, was weakening its power and that it might one day disappear, as it did.
Jonathan, you've written about the leaders who felt only burdened by their nuclear weapons and yet they were unable to disarm because of the resistance of political establishments to nonviolence. I wonder if you could just speak about that resistance.
SCHELL: When you get into the details of the negotiations in international crises, like the Cuban missile crisis, you find that the strategic thinking goes out the window. Leaders on both sides--e.g., Kennedy and Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis--find their nuclear weapons are simply useless. It never occurs to them, for instance, to actually rattle the nuclear saber at each other in any of their private exchanges. It's only in a couple of public comments that they do it. In the so-called ex-com, the executive committee meetings, Kennedy is by far the biggest dove in the room. At one point he pulls aside Pierre Salinger and says, Do you think the people in that room know that if we make a mistake more than 250 million people are going to die?
BRANCH: I have spent some time at the
So I think they have a much greater appreciation for nonviolence as something at the heart of politics. I was struck by their interest in nonviolence, by their historical perspective on the use of nonviolence.
One of them astonished me by putting this to the rest of the class: suppose a brigade commander ordered you to go to the
To me the lesson in this is that we tend to think of nonviolence as a very exotic and farfetched thing. Actually, nonviolence is at the heart of what democracy is. Every vote is nothing but a piece of nonviolence. Democracy is institutionalized nonviolence.
And if we could get our politicians to see that institutionalizing nonviolence is what democracy is about, votes rather than the management of force, we would be more of a light to the world. So this is a more practical, everyday subject than a lot of us think, and we have more allies than we realize.
SCHELL: In Vietnam and now also again in Iraq it's absolutely clear--and military men today understand, even George Bush understands--that there's no military solution to the war, that there's only a political solution if there is a solution. The people there are going to sort it out according to their own political will. That is what will decide the thing in the end.
BRANCH: One lesson of
I long to see an American politician who would go before the United Nations and say, "We're sorry for what we did in
That doesn't necessarily mean that a solution is possible, but it does mean that we take our own values seriously, and so far we haven't done that.
- Copyright 2008 The Nation
- From: Print: The Power of Nonviolence