Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Satyagraha

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“For my ambition is no less than to convert the British people through non-violence, and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India.”

— Mahatma Gandhi, Letter to the Viceroy, March 2, 1930 (#100, p.227).

An anti-colonial independence movement in India founded on non-violent resistance that brought about national independence from the British Commonwealth. A nationwide civil rights movement founded on non-violent action, radiating from Montgomery, Alabama, that contributed to fundamental civil and political rights—including voting, education, and housing—in the United States. Non-violent action has a storied history. And still today, principles of non-violence infuse broad national movements in the West (Velvet Revolution, #BlackLivesMatter, Occupy Wall Street, Nuits Debout, Orange Revolution), in the East (Tiananmen Square, Umbrella Movement, Impeachment of Park Geun-hye), and in the South (Jasmine Revolution, Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, Tahrir Square, Taksim Square).

Non-violent action has been a potent modality of uprising throughout history, and it remains so today. In sharp contrast to the modern conception of revolution and Maoist forms of insurrection, but delicately woven into the fabric of the Arab uprisings and the movement for Black lives, non-violence is a unique form of revolt that aspires to a deep self-transformation of the militant actor and a conversion of the opponents through the witnessing of self-suffering. In this Uprising 5/13 seminar, we will focus on one strand of the theory and practice of non-violent action, namely the writings and practices of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) on Satyagraha.


The neologism satyagraha that Gandhi coined—the literal meaning of which is “to hold on to truth” or “to cling to truth” or “a tenacity in the pursuit of truth” (Gandhi #3, p. 6; Editor’s Notice, p. iii; Karuna Mantena; Bilgrami, “Gandhi, the Philosopher,” p.7)—refers to a personal ethic and self-transformation through which an individual remains true to his or her ideals of justice, and seeks to convince or convert others by working on him or herself and taking on the burden of the sufferings of injustice. The term is often simplified, in translation, to mean “non-violent resistance,” and at a practical level it is narrowly associated with the imperative of non-violence. But the concept has to be understood through the larger framework of an ethic or a faith that gives someone the strength to turn the suffering of injustice onto themselves. The resulting non-violence is not so much a practical maxim or a political strategy—although it is always political and strategic—so much as it is the necessary product of steadfastly staying true to one’s ethical or spiritual beliefs and the ethical imperative not to hurt others.

The concept of satyagraha contains, at its core, three central elements: truth, self-care, and suffering. Let’s take these in order.

1/  Truth, or faith: It is true belief or faith—holding onto a personal truth—that empowers and lends force to satyagraha. Gandhi defined satyagraha as “Truth-force” (satya means “truth”)—though in other places he also referred to “Soul-force” or “Love-force” (#3, p. 6). It is only when the believer is entirely committed to “the truth of his cause,” Gandhi emphasized, that he or she will have the force to succeed in non-violence (#88, p. 202). It is that faith in the truth of one’s cause that ensures that the reformer will not lash out at an opponent, but instead work harder on him or herself, and be prepared to sacrifice him or herself. In this sense, satyagraha does not give rise to an instrumental form of non-violence, but instead to an unconditional, entirely committed faith, like a spiritual belief or a moral commitment.

The exact nature of that moral belief or faith is intricate. Akeel Bilgrami unpacks Gandhi’s notion carefully in his chapter “Gandhi, the Philosopher,” where he argues that, for Gandhi, it is the link between moral judgment and moral criticism that is severed: the satyagrahi can form binding moral judgments that ground her practice, but at the same time must refrain from making moral criticisms of others—despite the fact that she believes those moral judgments to be entirely right and universalizable. As Bilgrami argues, “There is no other way to understand [Gandhi’s] insistence that the satyagrahi has not eschewed violence until he has removed criticism from his lips and heart and mind” (“Gandhi, the Philosopher,” p.15).

This severing of criticism from judgment goes hand in hand with the satyagrahi serving as an exemplar for others, rather than criticizing them. Exemplarity replaces criticism—in Bilgrami’s words, it “is intended to provide a wholesale alternative to the concept of principle in moral philosophy” (ibid., p.20). The importance of exemplary action resonates with what Uday Mehta refers to as “Gandhi’s anchoring moral acts in the most mundane aspects of everyday social and individual existence” (Mehta, p.370).

2/  Work on the self:  Non-violent resistance requires self-transformation. It involves work by and on the individual him or herself. It cannot be achieved from outside the person. It is deeply subjective. Gandhi explained this in discussing the case of protest at temples, where he opposed for instance blocking the way of those who refused to admit the untouchable. “The movement for the removal of untouchability is one of self-purification,” Gandhi wrote. “No man can be purified against his will.” (#88, p. 201). Gandhi explained that any and all steps, even in drastic situations, “have to be taken against ourselves” (#88, p. 202). These are, as Mantena explains, “practices of ascetic self-mastery.”

Practices of self-mastery and care of self permeate non-violent resistance: “Satyagraha presupposes self-discipline, self-control, self-purification,” Gandhi wrote (#25, p. 77). Notice the omnipresence of the self. It is care of self that comes first. As Gandhi explained: “the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but on one’s self” (#3, p. 6).

3/  Suffering:  The willingness to bear the suffering of injustice, to take that suffering onto oneself, is at the very heart of remaining true to oneself and converting one’s opponents. It is by suffering that one truly demonstrates the sincerity of one’s beliefs and the stakes of justice. It is also the most powerful way to convince others to change themselves. It shows that the satyagrahi is not there to hurt, but rather to impress upon others the justice of their position.

Suffering—or the broader concept for Gandhi of “the law of suffering”—is what converts others. This law of suffering represents, for Gandhi, the historical fact that no country achieved independence without going through hell—in his words, “without being purified through the fire of suffering” (#47, p.112). Conversion is the operative term: “I have deliberately used the word conversion,” Gandhi wrote. “For my ambition is no less than to convert the British people through non-violence, and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India” (#100, p.227). And it operates through the emotions and affect of the opponent. The goal is to “draw out and exhibit the force of the soul within us for a period long enough to appeal to the sympathetic chord in the governors or the law-makers” (#7, p. 35).

Withstanding suffering is thus at the heart of satyagraha. “He who has not the capacity of suffering cannot non-co-operate,” Gandhi wrote. “He who has not learnt to sacrifice his property and even his family when necessary can never non-co-operate […] He who is not ready to undergo the fiery ordeal cannot non-co-operate” (#19, p.67). Suffering is, naturally, extremely challenging; however, the fact that satyagraha is not presented as merely instrumental or strategic, but rather the product of truthful belief or faith, means that the actor is not constantly engaged in a reevaluation of their actions, and can remain single-mindedly focused on assuming the burden of suffering.

In sum, truth, self-care, and suffering are central elements of satyagraha and come together to form the heart of the practice: “in the struggle of life,” Gandhi writes, “[one] can easily conquer hate by love, untruth by truth, violence by self-suffering” (#7, p. 36). Notice: truth, self, and suffering. Non-violence can only succeed through the combined force of these three: “Non-co-operation as a voluntary movement can only succeed, if the feeling is genuine and strong enough to make people suffer to the utmost” (#48, p.117).


Akeel Bilgrami notes that Gandhi’s concept of non-violence “is situated in an essentially religious temperament as well as in a thorough-going critique of ideas and ideologies of the Enlightenment,” especially the Enlightenment paradigm of science (Bilgrami, “Gandhi, the Philosopher,” p.3). Elsewhere he writes that, for Gandhi, “truth is a moral notion, and it is exclusively a moral notion” (ibid., p.26). You may ask how the two might both be correct. The answer is that the moral notion of truth has a spiritual dimension: it is, in Bilgrami’s words, experiential rather than cognitive, and it implies an attachment that is so personal in nature that it approximates a spiritual faith.

The experiential and spiritual dimensions of satyagraha find support throughout Gandhi’s writings. Gandhi claimed, as humbly as he can, to be following in the footsteps of Buddha and Christ (#46, p.111-12). He called himself “a humble searcher after truth” who “knows his limitations, makes mistakes, [and] never hesitates to admit them when he makes them” (#46, p.109). In this, Gandhi also compared himself to a scientist, because of the experimental nature of his search for truth, but suggested that he by contrast could show “no tangible proof of scientific accuracy in his methods” (#46, p.109).

The emphasis on truth or faith should not detract, however, from the realist political implications of Gandhi’s writings and practice, as Karuna Mantena underscores in her insightful article “Another Realism: The Politics of Gandhian Nonviolence.” To the contrary, as Mantena suggests, Gandhi’s work can be read in constructive conversation with modern realists. As she notes, “Gandhi was attuned to the unintended consequences of political action, especially the ways in which idealism and moralism, despite the best of intentions, could enable ideological escalation and violence. This understanding of the sources and legitimation of violence was tied to a moral psychology that emphasized the causal force of affect—of pride and egotism—over reason and rationality in political conflict” (Mantena, p. 457).

What this suggests—and there is plenty of evidence for it—is that, although truth-force is what drives satyagraha and makes it work, and although it requires deep and abiding faith rather than mere instrumental rationality, there is nevertheless a strategic dimension to non-violence. It requires an enormous amount of political calculation. Gandhi speaks of his moments of “miscalculation” (see, e.g., #24; #47, p.114); and there is a clear dimension of practical reason in his work as well, real calculation. Gandhi meticulously prepared for his direct actions, and also meticulously prepared other satyagrahi. In anticipation of the Salt March in 1930 and his pending arrest, for instance, Gandhi primed his followers, directing them to respond to his arrest with wide-scale action. “This time on my arrest there is to be no mute, passive non-violence, but non-violence of the activest type should be set in motion, so that not a single believer in non-violence as an article of faith for the purpose of achieving India’s goal should find himself free or alive at the end of the effort to submit any longer to the existing slavery” (#99, p.223).

Gandhi denied being a politician or partaking in politics (#46, p.109), but he did self-identify as “a practical idealist” (#55, p.133). The calculations show well this element of practicality. He knew and admitted that mistakes would be made and that he might cause avoidable suffering (#47, p.115).

Gandhi had a rare pragmatic streak. In fact, he even justified violence under certain extremely limited circumstances of domination and weakness—in cases of extreme self-defense or helplessness—not as a form of satyagraha but as a form of vulnerable self-defense. “I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I would advise violence,” he writes, and adds, “I took part in the Boer War, the so-called Zulu rebellion and the late War” (#55, p.132). The illustration he gives is of a time when he was almost fatally assaulted, and would have wanted his son to defend him, even using violence. He even adds, “I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should in a cowardly manner become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor” (#55, p.132). In situations of helplessness, of utter weakness, violence may be appropriate.[1] But he then added that “I do not believe India to be helpless. I do not believe myself to be a helpless creature” (#55, p.133).[2]

It is this complex ambivalence toward practical reason and pragmatism that makes Gandhi someone Uday Mehta calls a “deeply anti-political thinker,” at least along the traditional lines of modern political theory (Mehta, p.363). As Mehta writes, “His commitment to non-violence can only be understood by acknowledging that he did not view the world solely or even primarily in political terms” (Mehta, p.364).


As Karuna Mantena suggests, nonviolence functions at its best through the representation of popular power: “Through bodies and action,” Mantena writes, “it reveals where political power truly lies, namely, in the consent and assent of the people. From its very invention, nonviolence was based upon this fundamental insight – that power resides in the people.”

You will recall Gandhi writing, in 1927, that “In politics, its [satyagraha] use is based on the immutable maxim, that government of the people is possible only so long as they consent either consciously or unconsciously to be governed” (#7, p.35). This was central to his thought: that the few British in India could not govern such a large populace without their consent. Three hundred million people could not be cowed into submission by three hundred armed men (#104, p.238).

Mantena comments that “Gandhi thought that all regimes – even the most authoritarian – were based on the collaboration of the many. Mere force could never, by itself, sustain a government. The implication was clear: any regime could be disrupted by the withdrawal of that consent on a mass scale. This was the logic of non-cooperation. By diluting sources of governmental support and dramatising disaffection, non-cooperation undermines the state’s authority.”

In terms of practice, several forms of non-violent action fall within satyagraha, including non-co-operation and civil disobedience (#1, p.4). Civil resistance was another subsidiary term, used alongside civil disobedience (#99, p.223). Satyagraha excluded, in Gandhi’s words, “every form of violence, direct or indirect, veiled or unveiled, and whether in thought, word or deed” (#88, p. 201). It even ruled out bad thoughts toward others. The satyagrahi, Gandhi maintained, “must not harbor ill-will or bitterness against the [evil-doer]. He may not even employ needlessly offensive language against the evil person, however unrelieved his evil might be” (#25, p. 77).

In this sense, for Gandhi, non-violence had to extend to thought as well as action. It meant avoiding anger, it excluded even swearing and cursing (#26, p. 79). It implied, in the anti-colonial context, scrupulously avoiding “intentional injury in thought, word or deed to the person of a single Englishman” (#26, p.78). It even involved being courteous and polite toward the police that are arresting you and the prison officials who are detaining you (#26, p.79). Gandhi wrote:

It is a breach of Satyagraha to wish ill to an opponent or to say a harsh word to him or of him with the intention of harming him. And often the evil thought or the evil word may, in terms of Satyagraha, be more dangerous than actual violence used in the heat of the moment and perhaps repented and forgotten the next moment. Satyagraha is gentle, it never wounds. It must not be the result of anger or malice. It is never fussy, never impatient, never vociferous. It is the direct opposite of compulsion. It was conceived as a complete substitute for violence. (#88, pp. 201-202)

Gandhi’s practices of fasting—which, as Banu Bargu discusses in Starve and Immolate (2016, p. 14) “were formative for the constitution of modern India”—represent the kind of work on the self and the suffering that characterizes and defines satyagraha. Sometimes, but not always. Gandhi’s views on direct action were extremely nuanced and contextual. Civil disobedience was not always appropriate and had to be judged based, for instance, on whether individuals were doing it because they expect some personal gain (#72, p.171). Fasting, as well, could be used for good or ill depending on the context.  “Even fasts may take the form of coercion,” Gandhi wrote (#88, p. 202), “there is nothing in the world that in human hands does not lend itself to abuse.”


Banu Bargu recounts and theorizes the use of hunger strikes and immolation as a political practice. In her fascinating book, Starve and Immolate, Bargu focuses on the six-year long campaign against high-security prisons led by the militant Left in Turkey—mostly self-declared Marxists of different ideologies—that took primarily the form of death fasting, and which ended in January 2007, leaving 122 prisoners and companions dead, mostly from self-inflicted fasting and burnings. Bargu analyzes the campaign through the lens of what she calls the “weaponization of life,” by which she means “the tactic of resorting to corporeal and existential practices of struggle, based on the technique of self-destruction, in order to make a political statement or advance political goals” (p. 14).

The form of martyrdom that is represented in these death fasts, “the necroresistance,” in Bargu’s words, feels different than the Gandhian form of satyagraha, in several ways. One important dimension is that these practices of death fasting were being carried out by Marxists and in that sense, did not fit within a non-violent register. (The notion of non-criticism at the heart of satyagraha is at a far distance from a Marxian or critical theoretic position). The practices Bargu analyzes operate more at the level of the only possible weapons—“weaponizing life”—that are left to the prisoners and their allies. Not a form of principled non-violence, of non-violence across the board, but rather a desperate final fallback. They may represent the type of violence that Gandhi uncomfortably justified, when one is in a position of total domination. As a result, the death fasts described in Starve and Immolate feel almost violent in nature—violence directed at oneself, by contrast to self-suffering.

Banu Bargu’s invocation of biopolitics, I think, is important here. Bargu argues that these practices of death fasting and immolation must be understood through a Foucaultian lens, one that underscores the biopolitical idea that life has become increasingly regulated in modern times and sovereignty increasing organized around the power of life and death. This may be the nub of the difference with a Gandhian view. To be sure, as Karuna Mantena suggests, Gandhi recognized the conflictual nature of social relations—the condition of civil war that marks civil society (to borrow a Foucaultian register). Mantena writes that “Gandhi’s realist theory of politics was a contextual, consequentialist, and moral-psychological analysis of a political world understood to be marked by inherent tendencies toward conflict, domination, and violence” (p. 457). This certainly sounds Foucaultian. But despite this recognition, I would argue that if we head down the path of civil war as anything more than just recognition—as, for instance, something one must engage or one inevitably engages in conflict with others—then one has moved a far distance from satyagraha. This is, I take it, the deep and perhaps insurmountable tension between Gandhi and Foucault. The difference between satyagraha and, as we will see in Uprising 6/13: Foucault on Iran, Foucault’s insistence that we cannot judge another person’s revolt.


Let me conclude with a short passage from Gandhi’s writings that I found particularly remarkable. It addresses issues of crime and punishment.[3] It draws both on notions of satyagraha and on his notion of self-governance—of what he called Swaraj or home-rule (#166, p. 351). It is a remarkable passage, from which there is, I believe, a lot to be learned. I will leave the final word to Gandhi then:

A villager was brought to him with injuries on his body, received at the hands of thieves who had taken away ornaments etc. from his house. There were three ways, Gandhiji told the villagers of Uruli, of dealing with the case. The first was the stereotyped orthodox way of reporting to the police. Very often, it only provided the police a further opportunity for corruption and brought no relief to the victim. The second way, which was followed by the general run of the village people, was to passively acquiesce in it. This was reprehensible as it was rooted in cowardice. Crime would flourish, while cowardice remained. What was more, by such acquiescence we ourselves became party to the crime. The third way, which Gandhiji commended, was that of pure Satyagraha. It required that we should regard even thieves and criminals as our brothers and sisters, and crime as a disease of which the latter were the victims and needed to be cured. Instead of bearing ill-will towards a thief or a criminal and trying to get him punished they should try to get under his skin, understand the cause that had led him into crime and try to remedy it. They should, for instance, teach him a vocation and provide him with the means to make an honest living and thereby transform his life. They should realize that a thief or a criminal was not a different being from themselves. (#166, p. 350)



[1] Gandhi’s writings about Jews in Germany in 1938, which espouse satyagraha, would have done better perhaps drawing on this justification of violence (see #165). Mehta discusses these writings at p.366, noting that “Gandhi’s words provoked shock, controversy and considerable condemnation.”

[2] Note that, in this context, there is often a masculine dimension to non-violence. Gandhi writes that “forgiveness is more manly than punishment” and that “Forgiveness adorns a soldier” (#55, p.133). Elsewhere he writes that mistakes at time are “preferable to national emasculation” (#47, p.115).

[3] Note that there are other passages on issues of crime and punishment that are less inspiring. I have in mind a passage in “Work in Jails” (#16) where Gandhi writes that “We are not out to abolish goals [jails] as an institution. Even under Swaraj we would have our goals” (#16, p.60).


Mahatma K. Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha) (New York: Dover Publications, 2001)

Banu Bargu, Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016)

Banu Bargu, “Why Did Bouazizi Burn Himself? The Politics of Fate and Fatal Politics,” Constellations Volume 23, No 1, 2016, pp. 27-36

Akeel Bilgrami, “Gandhi, the Philosopher,” in Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Harvard 2014)

Karuna Mantena, The Power of Nonviolence, Aeon (2016)

Karuna Mantena, “Another Realism: The Politics of Gandhian Nonviolence,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 106, No. 2 (May 2012), pp. 455-470

Uday Singh Mehta, “Gandhi and the Common Logic of War and Peace,” Raritan (Summer 2010) 30:1, pp. 134-156.

Uday Singh Mehta, “Gandhi on Democracy, Politics and the Ethics of Everyday Life,” Modern Intellectual History, 7:2 (2010), pp. 355–371.

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