Gandhianism and the Darker Nations[1]

This essay is concerned with understanding Gandhi’s influence in the darker nations, specifically how Gandhian nonviolence (Gandhianism) inspired Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. in leading their own struggles against oppression.  Using one piece of writing from both Mandela and King, I will try to understand how Gandhi’s ideas about nonviolent activism were interpreted and negotiated in the darker nations.  What made Gandhianism attractive to the darker nations? Was it even possible to practice Gandhianism in the darker nations? If so, how was it altered to fit the needs of the people? If alteration did occur, how much was by choice and how much because of political, social or cultural context?  For Mandela, the political reality of South Africa made it necessary to significantly challenge the basic assumptions of Gandhianism.  For King, the cultural reality of the southern US made it necessary to supplement Gandhianism with Christian concepts.  Ultimately, I will argue that even though they practiced Gandhianism in different ways, both Mandela and King adopted Gandhianism in their struggles for freedom and dignity.  As a result, I hope to also show how Gandhianism’s adaptability is what allowed it to become a universal weapon against oppression.

In the beginning of his essay “Black Gandhi,” Vijay Prashad writes, “Gandhi, in his lifetime, came to symbolize a new kind of politics, but his tactics had the weight of history behind them.  The elements that distinguished Gandhianism—marches, fasts, disobedience and strikes—had little novelty.”[2]  But if nonviolent activism was nothing new, what made the Gandhian brand of nonviolence so unique?  According to Prashad, “while most political movements used nonviolent tactics, Gandhi raised nonviolence to a moral ethic, to a strategy with a vision for recreating the world” (emphasis in original).[3]  Specifically, although “other political traditions shared the Gandhian adherence to strikes, fasts, and other nonviolent forms of protest,” they did so “without rejecting other tactics, such as sabotage, destruction of property, and militant confrontation with the police.”[4]  Thus, Prashad argues, “Gandhianism alone believed that the end of peace could only be attained through the means of peace.  No violent means, according to the Gandhians, could possibly create a nonviolent society.  Violence, in this scheme of things, breeds violence.”[5]  In short, Gandhianism was the first political tradition to wholeheartedly reject violence in the practice of nonviolence.

Importantly, the success of Gandhian nonviolence as a mass political tactic was not only recognized by Indians and Britishers, but also by other colonized and oppressed peoples around the globe.  As the success of mass nonviolent resistance became plain, moreover, Gandhi became increasingly famous.  Corroborates Prashad, “in the 1920s and 1930s, as the Indian freedom struggle became synonymous with Gandhi, colonized and oppressed people in the darker nations took notice.  From Jamaica, African America, and southern Africa, among other places, came the query: Where is our Black Gandhi? Will our Black Gandhi come?” The darker nations, witnesses to the political magic of Gandhi, could not help but wonder whether they would get a mahatma of their own.  “Implicit is such queries,” Prashad notes quite rightly, “was a demand for a replication, across the globe, of the type of anti-imperialist mass movement that Gandhi is believed to have fashioned in India.”[6]  But was a replication possible? That is, was the replication of Gandhian mass nonviolence possible in the darker nations? Black radicals in particular asked themselves these questions. As Prashad points out, “the Black International engaged aspects of Gandhianism that centered on whether it was possible to entirely eschew violence when confronted with an extremely violent colonial or racist regime, such as those in southern Africa and the southern USA.  Could nonviolence, as a hard standard, succeed in bringing about popular mobilization when racist violence had shattered the confidence of a people? Would the oppressed not need a violent revolution to restore their sense of self?”[7]  One senses that the underlying concern the Black International had with Gandhianism was that it was not masculine enough, and therefore, could not produce the desired results of the violently oppressed.  In other words, they were under the assumption that, to gain their dignity back, they needed to answer violence with violence.  After all, violence was the language of the oppressor: it was the only language they spoke and the only language they understood.[8]  In spite of their concerns, however, and “despite occasional bouts of violence, the bulk of the population throughout most of the black world came to a simple conclusion: unless forced into guerrilla warfare by a ruthless adversary, it was far better to engage the last ounce of goodness in the enemy through moral nonviolent confrontation.”[9] Seeing nonviolence as a moral ethic is, in Prashad’s view, “the genius of Gandhianism that appealed to many in the Black International.”[10]

Nelson Mandela, in his 1999 Time Magazine essay “The Sacred Warrior,” shows quite clearly that Gandhi and “the genius of Gandhianism” inspired him in his struggle against oppression in South Africa.[11]  For example, towards the beginning of the essay, he writes, “[Gandhi] is the archetypal anticolonial revolutionary.  His strategy of noncooperation, his assertion that we can be dominated only if we cooperate with our dominators, and his nonviolent resistance inspired anticolonial and antiracist movements internationally in our century.”[12]  Two things become clear from this passage. First, Mandela’s admiration for Gandhi is unabashed: Gandhi is the perfect example of an anti-colonialist.  Second, Mandela believes that the genius of Gandhianism inspired movements against oppression the world over.  He sharpens these ideas soon after when he claims, “the Gandhian influence dominated freedom struggles on the African continent right up to the 1960s because of the power it generated and the unity it forged among the apparently powerless.”[13]  In Mandela’s view, then, Gandhianism was more than just the inspiration for several anticolonial movements: it was also the dominant inspiration.  Moreover, Gandhianism was the dominant inspiration because it generated power and forged unity among the oppressed.  In fact, nonviolence was so appealing and successful that it “was the official stance of all major African coalitions, and the South African A.N.C. remained implacably opposed to violence for most of its existence.”[14]  Gandhianism gave the moral upper hand to the oppressed, and Mandela—inspired by Gandhi—understood this better than most.

Still, as the Black International anticipated, Gandhianism could only do so much in the darker nations.  In the face of extreme violence, black South Africans had no choice but to resort to violence themselves.  Admits Mandela, “Gandhi remained committed to nonviolence; I followed the Gandhian strategy for as long as I could, but then there came a point in our struggle when the brute force of the oppressor could no longer be countered through passive resistance alone.  We founded Unkhonto we Sizwe and added a military dimension to our struggle.”[15]  Even after violence became necessary, however, Gandhian ideals were not simply thrown to the wayside.  In fact, Mandela reminds the reader that “Gandhi himself never ruled out violence absolutely and unreservedly.  He conceded the necessity of arms in certain situations. He said, ‘Where choice is set between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I prefer to use arms in defense of honor rather than remain the vile witness of dishonor…’”[16]  As Mandela sees it, rather than disavowing Gandhi by becoming violent against their aggressors, black South Africans heeded his advice.  That is, black South Africans resorted to violence only to defend their honor.  However, Mandela insists, “violence and nonviolence are not mutually exclusive; it is the predominance of the one or the other that labels a struggle.”[17]  To put it another way, as long as nonviolence as moral ethic predominates over violence in a struggle against oppression, the authenticity of Gandhianism is not compromised.  Part of the “genius of Gandhianism,” then, is that is adaptable to political contingency.

Like Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr. found inspiration in Gandhi and Gandhianism.  In his capacity as one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, he espoused nonviolent resistance as the path to freedom for African America.  It is hard not to see the inspiration of Gandhi in King’s written work, but there are a number of pieces that explicitly mention Gandhi or Gandhian ideals in their connection to nonviolent activism in the southern US.  For instance, in the opening remarks of his essay “An Experiment in Love,” King proclaims,

From the beginning a basic principle guided the movement.  This guiding principle has since been referred to variously as nonviolent resistance, noncooperation, and passive resistance.  But in the first days of the protest none of these expressions was mentioned: the phrase most heard was ‘Christian love.’…

As the days unfolded, however, the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi began to assert its influence.  I had come to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom.[18]

In short, although nonviolent activism was practiced in the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, it was not yet connected to Gandhi.  As time went on, however, Gandhianism began to “assert its influence” within the movement.  Without replacing the original motivation for nonviolent resistance—Christian love—Gandhianism provided African Americans with an essential tool in their fight against oppression.  As King concludes, “Nonviolent resistance had emerged as the technique of the movement, while love stood as the regulating ideal.  In other words, Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method” (emphasis mine).[19]  The importance of what King is saying in that last sentence should not be overlooked: Christ is the motivation for the Civil Rights Movement, Gandhianism the method.  On one level, this idea demonstrates the deep impact that Gandhi had on King.  On another, possibly more important level, it demonstrates that, for King, Gandhianism can operate successfully in a deeply violent and racist environment.

However, not all African Americans were convinced that mass nonviolent resistance would bring about the change they desired.  One such person was W. E. B. Du Bois, who believed, as Prashad explains, that “the African American situation…was different from India’s.  Gandhi’s struggle thrived in a context where a tiny minority oppressed the vast majority, whereas in the US blacks comprised a small percentage of the population, and any call for nonviolent resistance ‘would be playing into the hands of our enemies.’”[20]  King may well have agreed with Du Bois that the African American situation was different from India’s, but he would have not agreed with Du Bois’ logic about violence—that is, if nonviolence benefits the oppressor, then violence benefits the oppressed.  In King’s estimation, “to meet hate with retaliatory hate would do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe.  Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets greater toughness.  We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love, we must meet physical force with soul free.  Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.”[21]  As King sees it, violence cannot be the answer to violence because, in the end, it is detrimental to everyone.  Therefore, violence can only be met with nonviolence; that is the way to a better society.  Undoubtedly, this is the essence of Gandhianism.  Remember that, according to Prashad, Gandhianism differed from other forms of nonviolent activism because it “alone believed that the end of peace could only be attained through the means of peace.”[22]  If this statement is indeed true, then there is no denying Gandhi’s influence on King and the Civil Rights Movement, in general.

In an article written about his trip to India in 1959 (“My Trip to the Land of Gandhi”), King makes the following comment: “While I understand the reasons why oppressed people often turn to violence in their struggle for freedom, it is my firm belief that the crusade for independence and human dignity that is now reaching a climax in Africa will have a more positive effect on the world, if it is waged along the lines that were first demonstrated in that continent by Gandhi himself.”[23]  It is almost as if King, anticipating the bloody future in Africa, is pleading with Mandela to remain true to Gandhianism.  Unfortunately, that was not what happened.  Mandela and black South Africans practiced “pure” Gandhianism for as long they could.  There came a point, though, when the oppressed had no option but to resort to violence.  King and most African Americans, on the other hand, made nonviolent resistance the central tactic of the Civil Rights Movement.  Still, in order to accommodate African American culture in the southern US, Gandhianism linked with Christian Love.   In the end, despite the differences between Gandhianism as practiced in South Africa and the southern US, both of the darker nations in question adopted Gandhianism in their struggle against oppression.  Gandhianism, in its ability to adapt, functioned as a universal tool for achieving freedom and human dignity.


[1] I use the term “darker nations” as it is used in Vijay Prashad, “Black Gandhi,” Social Scientist 37 (January/February 2009): 3-20, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27644307.  In that essay, the term is used to distinguish Gandhi (someone with “brown” skin) and peoples with darker skin color (people with “black” skin).  The distinction is important because in Prashad’s Darker Nations (2006), the term is used to describe the entire global south. The darker nations discussed in depth in this paper are African America and southern Africa.

[2] Prashad, “Black Gandhi,” 3.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] I was introduced to this metaphor in Nelson Mandela, “The Sacred Warrior,” where Mandela quotes a speech he gave in 1962: “Force is the only language the imperialists can hear, and no country became free without some sort of violence.”

[9] Prashad, “Black Gandhi,” 4.

[10] Ibid.

[11] As a more recent reflection from Mandela, I realize that this source is in some ways problematic.  Still, as an essay written by Mandela himself, I think the pros outweigh the cons.

[12] Nelson Mandela, “The Sacred Warrior,” accessed December 11, 2013, http://www.mkgandhi.org/articles/sacred_warrrior.htm

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Martin Luther King, Jr., “An Experiment in Love,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), 16.  I was introduced to this essay and others in Prashad, “Black Gandhi.”

[19] Ibid., 17.

[20] Prashad, “Black Gandhi,” 13.

[21] King, Jr. “An Experiment in Love,” 17.  These statements echo one made by Gandhi in Hind Swaraj: “We who seek justice will have to do justice to other.”

[22] Prashad, “Black Gandhi,” 4.

[23] Martin Luther King, Jr., “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), 27.

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One thought on “Gandhianism and the Darker Nations[1]

  1. Pingback: To sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression against human rights and injustice, and create the biggest movement on earth | We dream of things that never were and say: "Why not?"

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