Sami Cleland | Satyagraha Preview

By Sami Cleland


Ghandi’s innovations were first “to self-consciously theorize and practice nonviolence as a novel form of political action,” and second, “to make satyagraha a mass politics.[1]” There is no doubt that non-violence “remains a [potent modality of uprising] today.[2]” For this, we at least partially have the success of the Indian Independence movement to thank. But to what extent do modern uprisings, particularly #BlackLivesMatter, incorporate Ghandi’s Satyagraha into their theories of non-violent revolt? Would conscientious use of Satyagraha support conversion to the #BlackLivesMatter cause?

Bargu, Mantena, Bilgrami and especially Ghandi serve as an almost perfect continuation to the exploration of #BlackLivesMatter as our most contemporary and visionary form of uprising. Whereas Ghandi is the archetypal charismatic male leader, #BLM intentionally rejects that model in favor of a leaderful revolution inspired by LGBT and black feminist theory. And while Satyagraha emphasizes the importance of suffering in the conversion of others, #BLM places black joy, excellence, humanity and identity front and center.[3] Finally, and perhaps most pressingly, as far back as the black power movement strict non-violence was seen as a useful tactic rather than an all-encompassing creed.[4] It was seen as ill-suited for instigating radical transformation, and “meant for an audience of whites[5].” Despite those significant reservations, much of Ghandi’s thought remains valuable for modern uprisings. This book review will explore #BlackLivesMatter through the lens of Satyagraha.



Satyagraha is literally holding onto truth, and it means, therefore, truth-force.[6]” “[It] is a weapon of the strongest.[7]” – Ghandi.

The rise of #BlackLivesMatter is inextricably connected with graphic video depictions of police violence against black bodies. To use Ghandi’s terms, these videos are the “truth-force” behind the movement.



In addition to being a truth force, the death of unarmed black bodies depicted in the videos is what, according to Ghandi, could succeed in converting others. For Ghandi, self-suffering “exhibit[s] 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.[8]

In the above quote, Ghandi is arguing for self-suffering as a means of converting the opponent. #BlackLivesMatter and the videos of police shootings depict a much different reality; the involuntary suffering of death at the hands of the state. It is not clear that the goal of the videos is to convert others as much as it is to (1) illustrate the truth of injustice and (2) hold the perpetrators accountable. For #BlackLivesMatter, the suffering is a component of the movement’s truth-force, which through the videos is weaponized in an attempt to hold the state accountable and prevent further destruction of the black body.



“The Movement for Black Lives is distinctive because it defers to the local wisdom of its members and affiliates, rather than trying to dictate from above. This democratic inflection will pay off if they persevere. Brick by brick, relationship by relationship, decision by decision, the edifices of resistance are being built[9].”

Ghandi stressed the importance of the method, not just the result: “the belief that there is no connection between the means and the end is a great mistake… fair means alone can produce fair results.[10]



Explicitly informed by LGBT theory, black feminism and intersectionality, #BlackLivesMatter “acknowledge[s], respect[s], and celebrate[s] differences and commonalities… we make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.[11]

Ghandi recognized the importance of the oppressed Hindus and Muslims working together to dismantle the British oppressor. “Without unity, we cannot attain our freedom,[12]” he wrote. Does this make Ghandi an early intersectionalist?



For Ghandi, the primary goal of politics and social life is the “the overcoming of an increasing alienation that he thought was pervasively present in modern societies, an alienation that owed chiefly, in his view, to an increasing attitude of detachment in our relations and our perspectives on each other and the world — where the opposite of detachment is not attachment so much as engagement[13].”

As a social movement (and therefore a fundamental democratic institution), #BlackLivesMatter is fighting the alienation in our relations and in our politics. Protest movements such as #BlackLivesMatter “lead to a repoliticization of the social sphere” and “promote social intelligence.[14]

By popularizing concepts such as intersectionality, #BLM promotes social intelligence while attempting to push away from individualistic thinking. It is an attempt to think about the world outside of the scope of the individual. This may represent a turn away from extreme neo-liberalism and its attendant alienation of the individual.



One striking element of Satyagraha is that it reads as Ghandi’s application of his philosophy of argumentation to a popular politico-social movement. Ghandi says that the opponent “must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy.” (#3, pg. 6). In encouraging a sympathetic approach, “Ghandi implied that the manner in ends are invoked, presented, and insisted upon can themselves engender resistance, that is, they may prove counterproductive to the process of converting natural opponents to the cause of reform.[15]

Strategically, #BlackLivesMatter seems less concerned with expressing patience and sympathy than Ghandi believed necessary for conversion. Part of this may be the decentralized structure of the movement, which by its very nature means the movement is the joint expression of a range of levels of sympathy for the opponent. Moreover, the goals of #BlackLivesMatter are not so narrowly focused on the conversion of their oppressor. Instead, #BlackLivesMatter works to expose the injustice perpetuated by the system. This change in goals is reflected in a change in protest style[16]. In attempting to attack the system, #BlackLivesMatter protests, mirroring the 1960s struggles for national liberation and the black power movement, has opted for similarly “confrontational and defiant [strategies], experimenting with tactics that grabbed media attention and shocked public conscience.[17]

This has included blocking black Friday shoppers for entering malls altogether and disrupting political speeches (Bernie Sanders’ Seattle speech and Netroots Nation the most obvious example), While certainly far from violent in nature, such tactics would be considered “coercive” by Ghandi and, to use Mantena’s words, risk proving counterproductive to the process of converting others to the cause of reform.



Satyagraha and #BlackLivesMatter deal different with money. Of course, a lot of this can be pinned on their dissimilar socio-political contexts. For Ghandi, the Indian Independence movement was “not a battle to be conducted with money. It will be impossible to sustain a mass movement to money.[18]

#BlackLivesMatter recognizes the importance of money for sustaining modern social movements in the contemporary attention economy. The incongruity between the neoliberal reality #BlackLivesMatter must operate in and the utopian future it aspires to reinforces Marxism–Leninism–Maoism’s understanding of contradiction, and its universal nature in the development of all things.



As a concluding matter, it is useful to explore Ghandi’s use of the term conversion and how it reflects upon his theory of persuasion. Ghandi’s Satyagraha “seeks to convince or covert[19]” others. With this formulation, Harcourt underscores that the term “conversion” serves as an analog of the “convince,” a word more typically used when describing the art of political persuasion. Ghandi, though, remains obstinate in his use of conversion, and this reflects his emphasis on the importance of psychology (and skepticism towards rationality) in overcoming political resistance.

Conversion, of course, evokes religious transformation. Ghandi does not attempt only to convince his opponents of the righteousness of his cause; he attempts to convert his opponents through discipline, self-suffering and patience — all of which are transcendental in nature. “Nonviolent action [can] mitigate, breakdown or otherwise disorient psychological resistance.[20]” Notice, again, the emphasis on the psychological. For Ghandi, commitment to the term “conversion” is a reflection of his understanding of persuasion and the limits of human rationality.

#BlackLivesMatter places less emphasis on psychological resistance, relying instead on the strength of the justness of their cause, as evidenced by videos capturing the truth of police violence and the suffering of the black body. #BlackLivesMatter does not work to weaken the entrenched positions of their opponents through discipline and self-suffering, and has experimented with aggressive tactics that, for Ghandi, risk further entrenchment.


[1] Mantena, Karuna. Theoretical Foundations of Satyagraha.

[2] Harcourt, Bernard. Introduction to Satyagraha.

[3] Shanelle Matthews. Uprising 4/13.

[4] Mantena, Karuna. The Power of Nonviolence.

[5] Carmichael, Stokely.

[6] Ghandi. Satyagraha, #1.

[7] Ghandi. Satyagraha, #3.

[8] Ghandi. Satyagraha, #7.

[9] Ransby, Barbara. BLM is Democracy in Action, New York Times.

[10] Ghandi. Satyagraha, #10.


[12] Ghandi. Satyagraha, #54.

[13] Bilgrami, Akeel. Secularism, Identity and Enchantment.

[14] Woodly, Deva. Uprising 4/13.

[15] Mantena, Karuna. The Politics of Gandian Nonviolence (Page 7).

[16] Mantena, Karuna. The Power of Nonviolence.

[17] Id.

[18] Ghandi. Satyagraha, #106.

[19] Harcourt, Bernard. Introduction to Satyagraha.

[20] Mentena, Karuna. The Theoretical Foundations of Satyagraha.