However, in a few protests, a minority of people have been violent, in some cases even damaging property. That includes a Feb. 1 protest on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, and an Inauguration Day moment in which someone punched alt-right activist Richard Spencer (the video of the punch went viral), and the burning of a limousine, with severe damage done to an SUV parked behind it, during protests in downtown Washington on Inauguration Day.
Much of the commentary about these episodes has focused on efficacy: Are violent protests politically productive or counterproductive? The anarchist “black bloc” organization advocates violence to overturn the political balance. Resisting this approach, columnist Steven Petrow points to Mahatma Gandhi and asks, “When did civility become incompatible with protest?” Others, including Olga Khazan, do not invoke Gandhi but ask a similar question: Is violence really the way to get meaningful change?
But Gandhi approaches such questions as matters of ethics rather than efficacy. It is true that Gandhi was a key political leader. But he was less interested in political success than in ensuring right action.
Gandhi wasn’t just a politician
It’s no surprise that people look to Gandhi for guidance on how protest movements should work. Gandhi’s actions were critical in freeing India from British rule, making his efforts the standard for nonviolent protests. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously used Gandhi’s lessons for the U.S. civil rights movement. In Gandhi’s voluminous writing, we find that the guiding principles of his movement were ahimsa and satyagraha — Sanskrit words meaning nonviolent civil disobedience and the search for truth, respectively.
For Gandhi, resisting the British and arguing for Indian independence was not just a political action; it was part of a larger struggle to find truth in everyday life. It was in search of this truth that Gandhi undertook his most famous protests, the hunger strikes, in which he would fast for up to 21 days to protest unjust laws and to stop riots, as well as the acts of civil disobedience in which he willfully broke laws, including the salt tax, to protest their unjustness.
Gandhi recognized that violence might work more quickly than peaceful protest. He rejected it anyway, not because it was ineffectual but because it tainted the movement. To succumb to violence was to cede the moral high ground. In the Hind Swaraj, Gandhi’s Socratic dialogue advocating for Indian independence and his movement, he wrote that “to arm India on a large scale is to Europeanize it.” In other words, if India took up the tools of the colonizer in resistance, Indians would themselves become colonizers.
Gandhi saw violence as an unpardonable sin; to advocate violence, even as a proportional response, would be to participate in that sin.
He wrote that violence was unpardonable because the protester shouldn’t be looking merely for political success. Rather, the satyagrahi, or protester, should aim not just to win political victories but to seek truth and convert opponents to the cause. This means that the protester has additional responsibilities — and chief among these is preventing all violence.
Gandhi’s writings exhort readers not just to avoid physical violence but also mental violence, even ill will. In his view, it is not enough for a protester simply to refrain from violence herself; she must strive to prevent all violence, even putting herself in harm’s way to do so. In a number of letters describing his movement, Gandhi writes that resisting (satyagraha) is “really a state of mind.” Because it “burns the flame of love,” the act of protesting involves “no ill will whatever.”
However, protest based on love and not violence is anything but passive or weak. Gandhi claims that it is “more active than physical resistance or violence” and represents a “soul-force” that is stronger and more courageous than physical force. Gandhi does not expect protesters to sit idly by as injustices are committed, but to directly confront those who cause problems and to cheerfully step into harm’s way to do so.
Gandhi does not take the act of protest lightly. The bar is very high for resisting. Duties are placed upon the protesters to be civil, polite and well-mannered, and to accept no violence, be it in word, action or even thought. The protester must be prepared to suffer and undergo hardship because the path is, as Gandhi says, “as narrow as the edge of a sword.”
Gandhi views the truth as a fundamentally ambiguous thing. He compares understanding the truth to several blind men attempting to identify an elephant by touch alone. Each understands the part of the elephant he touches; each is correct in describing the trunk, leg or tail, but none of them arrives at the full truth.
Seeking truth is a continual process, and he does not expect everyone to follow his exact path. But his work asks protesters not just to look for political victories but to reflect on what message they are sending out into the world. Political victories are important, but just as important are the types of communities these political victories will create.
Gandhi’s guidance has lessons for today’s protest movements. Other research from political science — such as the work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan — suggest that nonviolence does actually work better to elicit mass participation, which paves the way for political change. But for Gandhi, political success is a side benefit, not the main point of protest.
Stefan Kehlenbach is a graduate student at the University of California at Riverside. He studies political theory and comparative politics.