Karuna Mantena | Theoretical Foundations of Satyagraha

By Karuna Mantena


Although boycotts, political fasts, non-resistance, and civil disobedience had existed in politics before, Gandhi’s innovations in nonviolent politics in the early 20th century was a crucial moment of crystallization.  Gandhi was the first to self-consciously theorize and practice nonviolence as a novel form of political action.  In 1908, Gandhi proposed the neologism satyagraha to describe the new forms of dissent and disruption he was practicing to protect the rights of Indian migrants in South Africa. Initially glossed as “firmness in a good cause” or “grasping onto truth,” the new term differentiated satyagraha from passive resistance and its implication of weakness.  He also referred to satyagraha as ‘nonviolent direct action’ or ‘civil resistance’ and conceived of it as an alternative to armed rebellion as well as other more coercive modes of collective mobilization.  Gandhi’s second important innovation was to make satyagraha a mass politics, of which the Non-Cooperation-Khilafat movement (1920-1922) and the Salt Satyagraha (1930) were the most iconic and important campaigns.

Theoretical Foundations


Non-cooperation is a nonviolent strategy to disrupt sources of governmental support, dramatize disaffection, and thereby undermine a regime’s authority.  It does so by targeting the material basis of legitimacy, namely the cooperation or collaboration of subjects.  Withdrawing assistance breaks the functional machinery of government and serves as a practical demonstration of the idea that the true basis of a regime’s power and authority is the people over whom it governs.  In this sense, the theoretical core of nonviolent disruption is a strong empirical theory of consent or obedience.  “In politics,” Gandhi argued, satyagraha “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.”[1]  We might think of this theory of consent as broadly Humean; it is premised on the real, voluntary as opposed to hypothetical or formal consent of the people as the fundamental root of authority, legitimacy, and power.  Gandhi insisted that all regimes – even the most authoritarian – were based on the collaboration of the many and could never be sustained by pure force.   The implication was that all regimes could be disrupted by the withdrawal of consent on a mass scale.

This theory has become especially prominent in recent years, especially in the wake of the successful wave of anti-authoritarian struggles of the 1980s and 1990s (South Africa, Eastern Europe, Philippines) which conspicuously deployed mass-based nonviolent resistance.  Gene Sharp, probably the most influential activist/theorist of nonviolence, dubbed this the ‘social’ or ‘pluralistic’ view of power.[2]  Jonathan Schell and Dustin Howes have drawn connections between nonviolent power, democracy, and Arendt’s view of power as action in concert.[3]  What I find most striking is how they have developed the Arendtian distinction between power and violence to pointedly question the conventional assumption about the superior efficacy of force in politics.  To my mind, chipping away at the tenacious hold this assumption has on our political imagination is one of the most important theoretical and political implications of nonviolent politics.

Persuasion & Discipline

According to its contemporary advocates, the key to nonviolence’s political potency is its capacity to organize tactics of disruption on a mass scale.  Chenoweth and Stephan term this nonviolence’s “participation advantage;” it makes nonviolence twice as effective as armed movements in overturning authoritarian regimes.[4]  However, for Gandhi – as well as for Martin Luther King – there was something distinctive about the form of nonviolent protest, beyond simply the size and scale of protest.  They both thought mass disruption and disobedience was most effective and truly nonviolent when it was disciplined, or more precisely when it was enacted through forms of protest that display and dramatize discipline.  By discipline I have in mind practices of self-restraint and self-mastery that convey sacrifice, willingness to suffer, and bring to the forefront the dignity of the protestors.  The staging of discipline and dignity is what renders nonviolent protest more persuasive than either physical violence or other kinds of overt coercion and intimidation involved in traditional forms of mass action.

Nonviolent politics emphasizes the persuasive power of direct action.  What is most striking about this account of persuasion is its non-rational character.  It reveals how attuned Gandhi and King were to the moral-psychology of political conflict.  They both thought political arguments were ripe with rationalizations and affective modes of resistance that disruptive protest on its own would only exacerbate.  But when tethered to discipline, nonviolent direct action could mitigate, breakdown, or otherwise disorient psychological resistance.  Reinhold Niebuhr, in his account of this political dynamic, suggested that by enduring “more suffering than it causes,” nonviolent protest displays “freedom from resentment and ill-will to the contending party.”[5]  Ideally, this kind of self-discipline would temper the passionate resistance of opponents and weaken their entrenched commitments.   More often, it has a salutary effect on potential allies of the movement – neutral observers and the public at large.  It can help the public see beyond the inflamed and polarized situation and confront the underlying issue of justice.

Hazards of Action

This combination of disruption and discipline is arguably the most distinctive feature of nonviolent politics.  But the championing of radical practices of mass dissent alongside the emphasis on restraint has been met with confusion and derision.  Marxist critique of Gandhian politics, for example, often views the emphasis on discipline a sign of a deeper ideological conservatism.  But I want to suggest that the duality of satyagraha is premised on what might be called a pessimistic, tragic, or realist view of politics as a realm of recurring violence and of political action as a peculiarly hazard-bound activity.[6]

For Gandhi, political action was a precarious activity wrought with difficulty, always subject to failure, and one that carries within it the potential for violence.  The burdens of political action are heightened or made more dangerous because political contestation enables and is enabled by negative passions and egoistic dispositions.  When left unchecked, the logic of political contestation leads to polarization and entrenchment and enflames feelings of indignation, resentment – which, in turn, feed the temptation towards violence and attendant forms of moral erosion.

This account of political action puts Gandhi in interesting proximity to a critical and skeptical strand amongst theorists of action.  Skepticism was most apparent in the voices of critics of violent revolution as the strategy and goal of popular mobilization – such as Tolstoy, Weber, Camus, and Arendt.   I find connecting Gandhi to Weber and Arendt to be instructive.  All three were attuned to the contingency and unmasterable character of action and emphasized action’s imbrication in a political field characterized by necessary conflict and the play of unintended consequences.  And what made action dangerous was not the fact of action’s contingency or unmasterability or boundlessness but the psychological response to these dilemmas and especially reckless attempts to master or subdue them by force.[7]  That force or violence lends itself to more predictably reliable results is part of this delusion, a hyper-realist fantasy that sustains state militarism as well as revolutionary violence.  Advocates of violence imagine the effects of violence to be more predictable and manageable than they have ever proven to be.

Disciplined Disruption in Practice

Discipline or self-restraint in nonviolent action was not simply a way of inculcating and displaying particular moral and spiritual attitudes.  Rather discipline allowed forms of disruption and dissent to more successfully navigate the inherent hazards of action and the complex politics of persuasion.   It was a structural as opposed to an ideological feature of nonviolent politics, embodied in the very organization of protest.  Disciplined conduct and comportment were especially prominent in the early or classic phase of nonviolence – in Gandhian era, in civil rights movements in the US, the anti-nuclear protests in the UK – staged in specific and directed actions like the sit-in, the march, and freedom rides.  This might be usefully contrasted to (sometimes unruly) crowds gathering in public spaces more readily associated with collective nonviolence today.

Gandhi’s writings and speeches are full of rules and distinctions about how nonviolent tactics could be deployed most persuasively and without enacting coercion.   Specific actions like pickets, boycotts, and hartals had to avoid all appearance of intimidation.  For example, in the case of the hartal, a day long work-stoppage, Gandhi insisted they be announced weeks in advance and that activists had to refrain from pursuing compliance on the day itself.  In the case of pickets, strikes, and boycotts, one could not physically block people from crossing lines or entering shops.   In more general terms, campaigns had to be open and planned, tied to specific demands, and proceeding in precise and progressive stages.  Pure provocation or escalation could never become a goal of its own.  Thus, at every stage of confrontation, demands had to be publicly declared, justified, and circulated, and avenues for negotiated settlements (including face-saving measures) had to be kept open.  Campaigns of disobedience and resistance were meant to produce conditions for progressive and iterative resolutions, rather than cascading revolutions.

Gandhi’s and King’s most famous campaigns enforced discipline through training and codes of action.  In addition to formulating rules for how to dress and comport oneself, in both the Salt Satyagraha and the Birmingham campaign, protestors had to explicitly assent to these rules in the form of a vow or pledge.  Allegiance to these rules showed activists to be self-organizing and self-sacrificing – that they understood, and were willing to bear, the costs and burdens of protest.  The rules were also meant to help muster and exhibit discipline in the face of threats, intimidation, and outright violence.

Another feature that highlighted the tactical effect of discipline was the use of collective prayers, songs, and silence during large-scale demonstration and marches.   Marches themselves were to be slow and deliberate.   Songs or silent prayer communicated inner calm and resiliency but also cut through or lessened the emotional temperature of protest to make more visible and stark who stands on the side of justice.  Moreover, the larger the crowd, the more confrontational the tactic, the more crucial the need to mitigate any sense of intimidation, coercion, and potential unrest that might obscure or distract from the political message of the protest.

At its most effective, this unique combination of disruption tempered by discipline can disarm and off-balance state responses to insurgent protest, creatively dramatize injustice and dissent, undermine legitimacy, and provoke critical political realignments.


[1] M.K. Gandhi, “Evidence before Disorders Inquiry Committee (9-1-1920),” The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 19, 217.

[2] Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Volume I, 10-16 (Boston: Sargent, 1973).

[3] Dustin Howes, Toward a Credible Pacifism: Violence and the Possibilities of Politics (Albany, 2009); Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (New York, 2003).

[4] Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York, 2011).

[5] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York, 1932), Chapter 9.

[6] K. Mantena, “Another Realism: Gandhi and the Politics of Nonviolence,” American Political Science Review 106:2 (2012).

[7] Max Weber, “The Profession and Vocation of Politics,” in Weber: Political Writings, eds. Peter Lassman and Ronald Speirs (Cambridge, 1994).  Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1958).