December 03, 2007

BOOKS: Nonviolence by Mark Kurlansky, and Gandhi on Nonviolence edited by Thomas Merton

nonviolence.jpgNONVIOLENCE is published by the Modern Library/Random House; GANDHI ON NONVIOLENCE, edited by Thomas Merton, is soon to be reissued by New Directions Press.

Nonviolence as a strategy to end social injustice—or bring about the resolution of armed conflict—doesn’t get much play in our media or political discourse; most of us seem to stand by what we like to call Realpolitik, although its most recent application has led our country into a war without victory or apparent end.

While some of us may express our support of nonviolence in theory, we find it difficult to imagine a world without military conflict. Aside from passing and affectionate schoolroom references to the Quakers or Mennonites, we actually learn very little of their more serious efforts, and the practical application of nonviolent resistance and its proponents; Gandhi and King may have been inspiring examples but their legacy is usually relegated to discussions of spirituality and humanism, not discussions of political options.

gandhinonviolence.jpgWith Nonviolence: Twenty-five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea, Mark Kurlansky gives us something to work with. Nonviolence follows the pattern of his earlier bestselling books, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, and Salt: A World History. But this time, instead of taking fish or a tabletop condiment to illustrate sweeping movements in human history (both great reads), he takes an idea—nonviolence as political and social strategy—and traces its history from early religious movements up to the present day.

I’d recommend the book not to those who support radical nonviolence as a viable option—although they will certainly enjoy it—but to those who don’t. It may not change any minds, but it will contextualize a movement as misunderstood as it has been marginalized. Whether you agree with Kurlansky or not, you’ll find yourself considering whether what worked for Gandhi and King would work for the military powers themselves. Problem is, as Kurlansky and others have pointed out, we use what we’ve got—and in our case, we’ve got plenty of arrows in our quiver and a history of militarism to draw from.

George Orwell reasoned that Gandhi’s movement succeeded because the British were civilized (although, Kurlansky points out, they had no compunction about firing into crowds of women and children at the time). No such strategy, he argued, could work with Soviet-style communism. The Velvet Revolution—and even the Solidarity movement in Poland--put the lie to this idea, but once again, it’s much more comfortable—although far less defensible—to argue that Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet empire. Any thoughtful person knows that it collapsed from within—as most military giants eventually do.

Kulansky’s Nonviolence is a wonderful read whether you’re typically interested in the idea or not. I could never have imagined wanting to read books about salt or cod but upon a friend’s recommendation I read Kurlansky’s books on both—like Nonviolence, I couldn’t put them down. But what this book may do—along with Kurlansky’s insightful introduction to a reissue of Thomas Merton’s Gandhi on Nonviolence—is reintroduce nonviolence as a discussable—and viable—option.

- James Shaheen, Editor & Publisher

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Anonymous's picture

See, from what I remember the war was sold as a premptive act but intellectually the neocons saw it as idealistic Wilsonian nation building project that would save the middle east, with cheap oil and democracy for everyone! Yea! Of course we know that turned out.

As far as it goes, the British DID have Stalin's technology in Inida. They had better technology and a superior control apparattus. It was the same time frame. The difference is while they could fire into crowds and have small scale massacres, in the long run the British public would have started to recieve reports and the political winds had turned against imperialism in general. So massacring non-violent protesters, while surely desired by some in Britains government, was simply not viable. That's what Orwell meant. What Stalin or Hitler had Britain did was control over political power and information. I will check out the book, but my understanding is nonviolent protests acts as a kind of propaganda, mobilizes grassroot support that can lead to adverse political results for their opponents or even violent mass protests in the streets if not addressed. Which also leads to the question, especially with Ghandi, if their wasn't an implicit threat of violence behind the nonviolent protest.

tricycleblog's picture

Many thanks for you questions -- they're not easy to answer, but let me try.

First, yes, good point. Fact is, Gorbachev no longer had the means to keep the East Bloc in line, otherwise he might have. And I have no doubt that if the British had had the technology and means Stalin did, they would have held onto India. So the question is, is a strategy of nonviolent resistance even possible under the likes of a Stalin or Hitler? I don't have the answer.

Second, Realpolitik: I don't believe it was Realpolitik; it was anything but in the final analysis, although that's how the war was sold to us. A preemptive strike was presented as the realistic and only option, and any opposition was, the argument went, tantamount to appeasement of the Neville Chamberlain sort. Now it seems that the Bush invasion of Iraq was launched for ideological reasons and perhaps a little oil.

Thanks again--I suggest you read Kurlansky, he addresses questions like yours much better than I can. Perhaps you can take a look at the paperback due out soon and let us know what you think. - James

Anonymous's picture

Two questions: How is the Iraq war Realpolitik? And don't you think there is a considerable difference between the Soviet bloc in the Gorbachev era and the Stalinist one?