Critique of Nonviolent Politics from Mahatma Gandhi to the Anti-Nuclear Movement


Howard Ryan – TRANSCEND Media Service


Part I – Problems of Nonviolent Theory

1 Nonviolent Philosophy 6
2 Moral View: Violence Itself Is Wrong 9
3 Practical View: Violence Begets Violence 13
4 Nonviolent Theory of Power 21
5 Voluntary Suffering 24
6 Common Nonviolent Arguments 34
7 A Class Perspective 49

Part II – Gandhi: A Critical History

8 Father of Nonviolence 56
9 Satyagraha in South Africa 59
10 Textile Strike 66
11 Noncooperation Movement 1919-22 70
12 Religious Conflicts 80
13 Salt Satyagraha 87
14 Congress Ministries 97
15 The War Years 101
16 Independence and Bloodshed 111

Part III – Nonviolence in the Anti-Nuclear Movement

17 Nonviolent Direct Action 120
18 Consensus Decision Making 123
19 Open, Friendly, and Respectful 136
20 Civil Disobedience 142

Preface (2002)

Critique of Nonviolent Politics may be the only comprehensive critique of nonviolent theory that has been written. I wrote it between 1980 and 1984, while living in Berkeley, California. Since 1977, I had been active in the movement against nuclear power and weapons which, in California, focused its protests at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant near San Luis Obispo, and at the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore Labs where nuclear weapons are designed. Nonviolence was the prevailing political theory in the movement, especially in the “direct action” wing which organized mass blockades and occupations at nuclear facilities. Nonviolence informed our tactics and strategies, our group processes, and our general ethos and outlook.

As I engaged in the movement, I was drawn to nonviolent theory and became an avid student. In early 1980, I began a writing project–a positive explanation of nonviolent theory to serve as a guide for anti-nuclear activists. The project would also help to clarify my own developing political philosophy. My working draft was soon challenged by a politically astute friend, who introduced me to Marxism. While grappling with these ideas, I remained active as an anti-nuke activist but became critical of various movement practices that were influenced by nonviolent theory. I also encountered books by Indian historians who pointed out the elite biases in Gandhi’s thought and practice. A year after embarking on my positive nonviolence guide, I was writing instead a full-scale critique of nonviolence. By 1984, when I set the project aside, I had written a book-length treatment. In 1996, I extracted the document from very old computer disks and did some editing. I dropped a concluding chapter on anti-nuclear strategy, adding in its place a new epilogue. But the document remains largely as originally written.

Preface (1984)

Nonviolence is a model of social change rooted in religious pacifist teachings and fashioned into a mass protest technique by leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and A.J. Muste. Today, the tradition is carried by anti-nuclear groups committed to nonviolent direct action. Tens of thousands of protesters have applied the Gandhian technique of mass civil disobedience at nuclear facilities and military bases in Europe, Australia, the U.S., and Canada. Most of these protests are guided by nonviolence codes of conduct and a nonviolent philosophy.

My own introduction to nonviolence came in 1977 when I joined the anti-nuclear movement in Southern California. After a period of fascination and learning, I became a doubter and finally a firm critic of nonviolent philosophy. The reasons for my change were twofold:

  • I discovered that Mahatma Gandhi, the father of modern nonviolence, was not the progressive leader hailed by nonviolent advocates. Rather, Gandhi closely controlled the movements he led, opposed independent movements of workers and peasants, and sought to counter the revolutionary potentials in India. Gandhi’s nonviolent doctrine was integrally tied to these aims.
  • I began to recognize problems in the anti-nuclear movement’s processes and strategies which hindered its mass organizing efforts. I traced many of these problems to the influence of nonviolent theory.

It became clear to me that there is a need for critical discussion of nonviolence as a model for social change, and I decided to write this book as a contribution to that discussion.

Nonviolence is an attractive philosophy for people dedicated to social justice, and especially so for peace activists working to stop the violence of the military machine and its nuclear buildup. Longstanding pacifist groups such as the War Resisters League and the American Friends Service Committee have for decades provided support and leadership to peace and disarmament efforts, draft resisters, conscientious objectors, and civil rights strugglers. There is much in their history and present work in which nonviolent activists can, and do, take pride.

At the same time, there are problems in nonviolent political theory which can hinder the work of activists. Nonviolent proponents have misread and distorted history, exaggerated the accomplishments of nonviolence, and been slow to recognize the problems nonviolent theory has posed for people’s movements. The drawbacks of the nonviolent model of change are suggested most dramatically in the campaigns led by Mahatma Gandhi, and seen also in today’s anti-nuclear movement. While the scope of this book is limited to these two cases, future studies might apply a critical eye to other movements guided by nonviolent philosophy such as the U.S. civil rights movement.

I hope this book’s critique will be a helpful, provocative challenge to the nonviolent community, while contributing to the progress of the anti-nuclear movement. Part I examines major problems in nonviolent political theory. Part II explores the political history of Mahatma Gandhi, the century’s most influential practitioner of nonviolence. Part III looks at the impact of nonviolent philosophy in the direct action/civil disobedience wing of the anti-nuclear movement.

Certain groups and individuals figure large in my critique of nonviolent theory, whether because of their influence or because of their many writings on the subject. The first is Movement for a New Society (MNS), a nonviolent training network with a small press, New Society Publishers, based in Philadelphia. MNS, along with the Quaker-connected American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), has played a particularly large role in bringing nonviolent theory and consensus decision making to the U.S. anti-nuclear movement. The War Resisters League (WRL) is one of America’s largest pacifist organizations, has been active in anti-militarist movements since its founding in 1923, and is currently active in campaigns against nuclear weapons. Gene Sharp, a fellow of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, is probably today’s leading theorist of nonviolence. He has written several systematic studies, of which his three-volume Politics of Nonviolent Action is most notable, and he is widely cited in the nonviolent literature. Of course, Mahatma Gandhi is an important reference throughout my book as both a theorist and activist.

* * * * *

There were two “Reigns of Terror” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon a thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor terror, the momentary terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? What is swift death by lightning compared with slow death by fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by the brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by the older and real Terror–that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.
— Mark Twain

Chapter 1 – Nonviolent Philosophy

Life must be saved by nonviolent confrontations and by what the Quakers call “bearing witness.”…We must obstruct a wrong without offering personal violence to its perpetrators.
— Greenpeace

Aggression, conquest, and brutality are the defining masculine characteristics. War, feminists believe, is a function of masculine (phallic) identity.
— Andrea Dworkin


Critique of Nonviolent Politics


©2002 by Howard Ryan – All rights reserved

Readers have my permission to use and distribute for nonprofit and educational purposes.

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2 Responses to “Critique of Nonviolent Politics from Mahatma Gandhi to the Anti-Nuclear Movement”

  1. Nonviolence: More Fundamental than Disarmament
    Surya Nath Prasad, Ph. D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

  2. This article by Howard Rayan may have been appropriate in the 1980s and in the USA context, chronically embroiled in questions concerning weapons and military interventions. Moreover, his criticism of Mahatma Gandhi is, in my view, not relevant because the concept of nonviolence has now moved beyond Gandhi and progressed along a serious scientific approach (see below). Rayan’s criticism reminds me of the attempts of creationists to dismiss evolution by criticising Darwin (1859), not contemporary evolution scientists (Ayala, Gould, etc.): too easy.
    Even the comment by Dr Surya Nath Prasad, essentially correct, is limited by the simple comparison between disarmament and nonviolence.
    Contemporary anthropologists and neuroscientists have carried the concept of nonviolence much further by studying the social behaviour of Palaeolithic people (in prehistoric rock art, with excavations of Late Neolithic villages and by recording the social behaviour of contemporary nomadic hunter-gathering cultures, who are all nonviolent). Neuroscientists have shown that at birth the human brain is only able to relate to its mother, while nervous pathways serving social behaviour are defined by postnatal social experience. We know now that violence started only 5-6.000 years ago and nonviolence has represented the secret weapon for survival during the bio-cultural (not only biological) evolution of Homo sapiens. The term “human nature” has appeared in the title of Anthropology books since 2013 (cf. Douglas P. Fry, for example). The origin and significance of nonviolence has been discussed in a recent short and popular book: Giorgi, P.P. (2019) “La rivoluzione nonviolenta” Gabrielli Editori, Verona. The English version is appearing soon (cf. The academic version should appear within 2010-11.