Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue on Satyagraha

By Bernard E. Harcourt

A robust theory of satyagraha is exceptionally demanding—for many, unbearably so. Gandhi’s writings are of unparalleled exigency: one must take the burdens of injustice on oneself, turn suffering onto oneself, purify oneself as an exemplar to others, fast and engage in civil disobedience when appropriate, at sacrificial cost, bear no anger or resentment against one’s oppressors, even remain celibate or, if married, chaste. The full measure of Gandhian satyagraha is indeed arduous. And regardless of the criticisms of Gandhi’s actual practices and weaknesses—Gandhi has been, as you know, criticized for hypocrisy, for misogyny, even for racism and casteism, and his statues too have come under increasing scrutiny—Gandhi’s writings, taken on their face, demand a level of commitment and persistence that is practically unparalleled in other political traditions. They call for the kind of existence exemplified—as Gandhi himself suggested—by Buddha and Christ. One can hardly imagine a more demanding and exigent standard.

In large part, the force of Gandhi’s writings lies precisely there—in the literal “truth-force” that binds together the ethical and spiritual and political. The integration of these multiple dimensions—what Uday Metha referred to as the essential link between the ethical, the political, and the transcendent; what Jesús Velasco indexed as the political-theological; what Akeel Bilgrami identified as the integrity of the philosophical, the political, and technologies of the self—are what provide the binding strength of Gandhi’s vision. It is the ethical and spiritual demand of holding fast to one’s own truths and one’s genuine self that allows for a centering of the self, for a certain patience, for a certain distance from the chaos and demands of everyday life, that makes possible political judgment and exemplarity. It is the self-mastery that makes possible masterful politics. And from within the fully integrated and rich framework, mere non-violence is no longer the objective or goal, but rather the natural outcome of ethical being.

Karuna Mantena is assuredly right to highlight the pragmatic dimensions of Gandhi and of satyagraha. There is no question that Gandhi engaged a complex affective analysis of techniques of the self, and articulated extensive rules about fasting, about disobedience, about not blocking or targeting individuals, about sexuality. There is no doubt that Gandhi paid deep attention to the reception and effect of various methods of resistance. It is not by accident that Gandhi led a massive political mobilization—that Gandhi led a country to independence. But of course, teasing out the pragmatic dimensions in Gandhi and the realist affinities of satyagraha does not contradict or undermine the strength of the integral theory. On the contrary, it both highlights the complexity of the multi-dimensional theory in relation to its practical political effects, and makes even more pointed the original question with which we opened the Uprising 5/13 seminar:

Whether it is even imaginable that we could take pieces of Gandhi’s vision of satyagraha without embracing the whole ethical, spiritual, political, and transcendent framework? Can the simple notion of non-violence survive outside the much broader and more robust ethic of satyagraha? Is it possible to shave off some of the Gandhian apparatus and nevertheless retain enough from satyagraha to enrich our practices of resistance?

These questions are all the more pressing in light of Banu Bargu’s subtle distinctions between the different strategies and techniques of fasting and civil disobedience as between the fully integrated conception of satyagraha and a strategic notion of non-violence. Contemporary non-violent protest movements, as both Bargu and Mantena emphasize, downplay the suffering and the self-mastery. “In contemporary movements,” Bargu noted, “self-mastery is not the goal, but rather a way to be a good soldier.” Along these lines, the practices of death fasting in Turkey, for instance, represented perhaps a somewhat violent method of the “weaponization of life”—and the notion of weaponization, naturally, falls outside the register of satyagraha. But even when the practices do not, even when they remain robust acts of non-violence, do they maintain their ethical force when stripped of the full ethical and spiritual framework? Without a good answer to this question, doesn’t non-violence simply devolve, as Partha Chatterjee suggested during the seminar, into a mere technology, largely facilitated today by the smart phone?

Now, of course, if they are stripped of their ethical and spiritual dimensions, then strategic uses of non-violence are purely political and can only be evaluated through a pragmatic and strategic perspective. By definition. In other words, they surely will lose their ethical force if they are stripped of their ethical dimension. That’s a tautology. But do they retain the kind of legitimacy or authority that might give them their political effectiveness? Does the strategic use of non-violence have political effects—and are those proportionate to the loss of effect associated with the withholding of violence (if that is imaginable or possible to imagine measuring)? There is no doubt that strategic non-violence will still have some political effects—so for instance, the sight of police violence inflicted on non-violent protesters is galvanizing and will have political effects. Similarly, the sight of violent protesters—of Black Block protesters, for instance, that engage in property damage or physical confrontations—tends to have a detrimental effect in the public imagination on social movements. But the key question is how much and for how long?

My sense is that these effects will be less strong and last less long—that is, less than if they were embedded in a more robust ethical framework. Why? Because the calculated nature of the actions diminishes their force. They are no longer received as principled, but as instrumental. And we tend to discount instrumental action precisely because it is instrumental: we recognize that it is intended to have effects on us. So it’s not just that there are one or two dimensions less—the ethical, the spiritual—it’s that there’s a likely recognition of the calculation. Of the calculated nature of the act. Of the fact that the act has been designed to have an effect. This can often be forgotten in the heat of the act, or in the emotional response—but that may fade with time, and the consciousness of calculation resume. The temporality and the temporal effects are important here.

Recall the counterfactual raised during the seminar: Could India have achieved independence through violent insurrection? Alternatively, could it have achieved independence through strategic non-violence, rather than satyagraha? I have to believe that the answer is yes to both questions. Certainly, violent insurrection would have brought about national independence—as was true in Indochina, Algeria, Malaya, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Anti-colonial insurgencies prevailed in the twentieth century. Everywhere. The end of de jure European and American colonialism and imperialism was inevitable—the inexorable product of geopolitical forces in the aftermath of World War II, superpower conflict during the Cold War, and economic development in the emerging third estate or what became known as the “Third World.” India would have gained independence one way or the other. But would independence have taken longer or happened earlier in India if the movement had been violent? Or if the non-violence had been merely strategic and tactical? And would violence have changed the course of history for India and Pakistan? It is of course impossible to say for sure—that is the point of a counterfactual. Only one thing is certain: India did achieve independence through a campaign of non-violent resistance. But it is likely that independence did not depend on non-violence and likely would have been achieved through different means.

What if we posited for a moment, then, that Indian independence would have occurred more rapidly had there been violence, or alternatively, strategic non-violence only? What if we postulated that it would have taken five or ten years longer using satyagraha? What then?

From a Gandhian perspective, the delay would not have militated in favor of changing political tactics. For Gandhi, satyagraha was a personal ethic that he demanded of himself, and in doing so, Gandhi rejected instrumental rationality: his own actions could not be justified by the ends of independence, they had to be justified in themselves. Gandhi was instantiating, in his writings, the kind of world that he aspired to: a world of equality, respect, dignity, self-sacrifice, self-care, and non-violence. The essence of Gandhi’s entire political thought is wholly invested in living one’s philosophy. So, Gandhi would not have condoned violence if it would have achieved independence faster. Perhaps if there was no other choice or if the only other choice was cowardice. Gandhi did write, in 1920, that “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 victim of her own dishonor” (#55, p.132); but Gandhi did not believe that India was in that hopeless situation. And he did not believe that he, himself, was in that helpless situation (#55, p. 133). Barring that, Gandhi saw no place for violence.

There is, in Gandhi’s writings and thought, “a distinct temporality,” as Uday Mehta suggested. One could even say, with Mehta, that violence for Gandhi was “a form of impatience.” It is our impatience that drives us to violence, and in that sense, time plays a peculiar role in Gandhi’s thought. Mehta pointed to a passage in which Gandhi wrote that we must do our part and that “time will do the rest.” This was not intended to suggest that time had agency or directionality. As Mehta emphasized, Gandhi did not have a philosophy of history and did not believe in a teleology. One might even say that Gandhi’s concept of time flips teleology on its head: the point is not that time will work in our favor, but that we cannot know what time will do. Patience is necessary to struggle. It’s because there is no teleology that we need to let time do the rest—to see what happens. Karuna Mantena suggested that the notion of time is connected to Hindu notions of karma, and that is undoubtedly true for Gandhi; but it might be possible to avoid that association and nevertheless maintain a robust idea that time plays a role in protest without having agency or teleology.

In any event, it is clear that, for Gandhi, there could be no instrumental use of violence. No use now for a non-violent future then. No postponing of truthful action. In the same way in which the General Assembly at Occupy Wall Street prefigured a world of equality and respect, satyagraha instantiates an ethic that cannot wait. To postpone is to give in. In Gandhi’s view—and that of many others—it was essential to stay true to one’s beliefs, now and later. Staying true to yourself: that is Gandhi’s challenge, and it is, of course, the very literal meaning of satyagraha.

But how would we feel if our own independence was delayed five or ten years, and how would we account for the suffering that takes place during the interim? And what longer-term effects are there to a violent versus a non-violent uprising? In other words, are there effects of non-violence that cannot be measured now, but that should weigh in the balance? Jean Cohen asks, “what difference does violent versus non-violent liberation make?” And the answer, Cohen suggests, is clear: look at the political regimes created in India and South Africa versus elsewhere, perhaps Vietnam or China, and notice constitutional democracies as opposed to autocracies. Even with all their warts, the differences are significant and suggest that there may be ways to break the cycle of violence and oppression a little bit, Cohen suggests. This goes, then, to the longer-term and often hidden consequences of these political choices. Is it possible to say the same about the civil rights movement in the United States and its long-term consequences? To return to our original question, then, it may well matter whether the non-violence is fully integrated in a robust ethical framework or merely strategic. Once again here, my sense is that the long-term effect would be more robust if it were the product of a deep ethical commitment, since that commitment might serve to enrich future political choices.

What about strategic non-violence where the instrumentality is masked? If no one sees the calculation, if no one recognizes the instrumental reason, might tactical non-violence have the same effect as satyagraha? But then how do we even talk about it—or do we all become Straussian? And at that point, have we all begun to calculate so much that the calculus of violence begins to make more sense? How weak all this feels, though, compared to the truth-force of staying true to oneself.

We are left, then, with a number of key questions,  crucial for our times—many raised in the insightful questions of Nadia Urbinati, Partha Chatterjee, Reinhold Martin, Jesús Velasco, Shai Gortler, Camila Vergara, Palvasha Shahab, Gaspard de Monclin, Jim Dingeman, and others at the seminar:

  1. Even if we do not subscribe to a philosophy of history—and as I suggested elsewhere, we are increasingly moving away from such meta-histories—there still must be historical and contextual dimensions within which non-violence functions better or less well. What are those historical and contextual factors? And what about when relations of power are inversed—as in the case of domestic satyagraha, as Reinhold Martin asked?
  2. In the end, does one need to assume so much suffering oneself? Or can there be a non-violent movement that does not take on all the suffering? And if so, is it still satyagraha or something else? The notion of self-suffering is of course complex and tricky. The Civil Rights sit-ins were non-violent acts of civil disobedience that were often accompanied by aggressions and arrest; the Freedom Rides were non-violent acts of civil obedience where the suffering occurred at the hands of the mob. How exactly does the suffering at the hands of a mob relate to self-suffering? Is it the same to bring the suffering on oneself? What are the distinctions to be drawn here?
  3. And what would satyagraha look like today, in these times of increasing fascism and political polarization? Gandhi’s writings from 1936 and 1938 on the Jews in Germany were deeply problematic. How should we think of them when we revisit satyagraha today? Satyagraha did function in 1920-1948 India, in a country of hundreds of millions of inhabitants—about 300 million—that was governed by a hand-full of British civil servants and soldiers. In a context of a vast disproportion of population. In a situation where the occupying force—as is so often true—lacked legitimacy and moral authority. In a functionally military occupation. These factors conspired to make satyagraha so potent. But today? In a liberal democracy, for instance? How would we, for example, challenge the treatment of Muslim minorities or the inequalities in society along the lines of Gandhian satyagraha—if indeed we conclude that only the fully integrated ethical vision of non-violence is proper?

In thinking about all this, I am often brought back to the Stoic examination of conscience that Seneca discussed so brilliantly in section 36 of his De ira (“On Anger,” appropriately)—and that Michel Foucault elaborated on so productively in his lecture of April 29, 1981, in Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal. There is, to my mind, a great affinity between Seneca and Gandhi. You will recall the Pythagorean examination of conscience: “Do not allow sweet sleep to slide under your eyelids before you have examined each one of your daily actions. What have I done wrong? What have I done? What have I omitted that I should have done?”[1] Seneca drew on the Pythagorean examination to suggest that, at the end of each day, we take stock of our every thought and action, and assess them in view of our moral codes and ethical principles and beliefs. As a way to remind ourselves, and teach ourselves, as a way to take some perspective and evoke what is important to us. There is, in that nightly examination of conscience, a steadfast manner of staying true to oneself. Somehow, I feel that it is in those moments of self-reflection, in that care for the self, alone, when the night is still, that we might realize how to be true to ourselves. It is then, with some distance and great calm, that we can reach better decisions.

But I confess, I remain unsure how one decides in those prized moments of self-reflection. Even more, I am unsure how I would judge another. I am just not certain how I would decide in that moment of peaceful clarity and ethical equipoise. And I know not how I would criticize another, or tell them what to do. I must admit, it is the ethical force of satyagraha that compels me—and stripped of this moral force, non-violence feels weak. It almost feels cowardly, as if one were not sufficiently committed to one’s cause. It does not have the force of conviction, it is so instrumental. Tactical non-violence is just that: instrumental. It lacks conviction. It does not persuade. It is opportunist, rather than righteous. It has little spirit. But how could I possibly ask for more? How could I assume such suffering? And how, even in exemplarity, could I possibly suggest to others to assume such sacrifice?

These are, perhaps, the most important questions today. They demand an answer. And perhaps they will find one, tonight, late this evening, just before sleep slides under our eyelids.

For the time being, though, let me close by pointing to our next seminar Uprising 6/13: Revolt: Foucault on Iran. In one of his final contributions to the controversy surrounding his writings on the Iranian Revolution, on May 11, 1979, Foucault published an essay “Is it useless to revolt?” in which he famously wrote: “One does not dictate to those who risk their lives facing a power.” The passage is striking, so let me conclude there, in anticipation of our next seminar:

No one has the right to say, “Revolt for me; the final liberation of all men depends on it.” But I am not in agreement with anyone who would say, “It is useless for you to revolt; it is always going to be the same thing.” One does not dictate to those who risk their lives facing a power. Is one right to revolt, or not? Let us leave the question open. People do revolt; that is a fact. And that is how subjectivity (not that of great men, but that of anyone) is brought into history, breathing life into it. A convict risks his life to protest unjust punishments; a madman can no longer bear being confined and humiliated; a people refuses the regime that oppresses it. That doesn’t make the first innocent, doesn’t cure the second, and doesn’t ensure for the third the tomorrow it was promised. Moreover, no one is obliged to support them. No one is obliged to find that these confused voices sing better than the others and speak the truth itself. It is enough that they exist and that they have against them everything that is dead set on shutting them up for there to be a sense in listening to them and in seeing what they mean to say. A question of ethics? Perhaps. A question of reality, without a doubt. All the disenchantments of history won’t alter the fact of the matter: it is because there are such voices that the time of human beings does not have the form of evolution but that of “history,” precisely.[2]


[1] Hierocles, Commentary of Hierocles on the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, translated by Nicholas Rowe (London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1971), at p. 86.

[2] Foucault, “Useless to Revolt?” The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, Vol. 3. pp. 449-453, at p. 452.