RESISTING THE NATION STATE the pacifist and anarchist tradition (Excerpts)

the pacifist and anarchist tradition

by Geoffrey Ostergaard

The collapse of the New Left coincided with the exhaustion of the less well-publicised Sarvodaya (welfare of all) movement for nonviolent revolution in India, led by Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan (1902-1979), which had sought through voluntary villagisation of land to realise Gandhi’s dream of an India of village republics. The implication of Sarvodaya for the subject of this book is brought out by the statement of Jayaprakash Narayan: ‘In a Sarvodaya world society the present nation states have no place.’ (38) In the India case the disintegration was disguised by the movement’s venture, sparked off by students in Bihar, into confrontation politics – a venture which led to the declaration of a state of emergency in 1975-77 and the period of unstable politics that has followed. (39) It would be premature, however, to write off anarcho-pacifism. In India, Gandhi remains a potent symbol and source of inspiration.

The single most important intellectual influence helping to shape anarcho-pacifism is that of M K Gandhi (1869-1948), who began his career as a disciple of Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s great weapon for undermining (rather than overthrowing) the state was the refusal by individuals to cooperate with it and obey its immoral demands – the weapons defended by Henry David Thoreau in his classic essay on ‘Civil Disobedience’ (1849), (33) and the one used by pacifist COs. But Gandhi, in the course of the whole Indian movement for national liberation, showed that there is a whole range of weapons, collective as well as individual, in the armoury of those who are prepared to resist oppressive structures. In doing so he shifted the emphasis from passive non-resistance to active non-violent resistance.

He also emphasised the theory of power underlying their use: the theory of ‘voluntary servitude’, originally outlined by Etienne de la Boetie in 1548, namely that structures of power, even when they seem to rely on physical force, depend in the last analysis on the co-operation, however reluctant, of those over whom power is exercised. Further, Gandhi clarified the relationship between means and ends, particularly with reference to the use of violence. Means, he insisted, must not merely be consistent with ends; this principle, though preferable to ‘the end justifies the means’, is based on a misleading dichotomy. Means are ends, never merely instrumental but also always expressive of values; means are end-creating or ends-in-the making.

One implication of this view is that we can, in a sense, forget what are called ‘ends’ and focus on ‘means’, confident in the knowledge that if the ‘means’ are pure, then the desired ‘ends’ will follow. Another is that our conceptions of desirable futures, our ‘utopias’, are only mental constructs for guiding our actions here and now. We realise our ‘utopias’, insofar as they are realisable at all, by acting now as if ‘utopia’ had already arrived. Lastly, Gandhi developed the concept of nonviolent revolution, to be seen not as a programme for the seizure of power, but as a programme for transforming relationships. The concept sits neatly with the observation of the German anarchist, Gustav Landauer (1870-1919): ‘The state is a condition, a certain relationship between beings, a mode of behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.’ Gandhi’s ideas were popularised in the West in books such as Richard Gregg’s The Power of Nonviolence (1935), (34) and Bart de Ligt’s The Conquest of Violence (1937). (35) The latter is particularly important for anarchists since, as one himself, de Ligt specifically addressed those who lust for revolution. ‘The more violence, the less revolution’, he declared. He also linked Gandhian principled nonviolence with the pragmatic nonviolent direct action of the syndicalists. (The General Strike is an expression of total nonco-operation by workers, though it should be added that most syndicalists believed that the revolution should be defended by armed workers.)

Retrieved from on August 31, 2011.


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