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Part 3: Norman Finkelstein on What Gandhi Says About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage

June 05, 2012
Web Exclusive


Norman Finkelstein

author and scholar. He has two books out this week: Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End and What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage.

After an exhaustive study of Mahatma Gandhi’s works, scholar and activist Norman Finkelstein has written a new book about the principles of nonviolent resistance from the Indian struggle for independence to Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park. He says Gandhi found "nothing more despicable than cowardice," and argued that nonviolence does not mean running away from danger. In fact, Gandhi argued that fighting a war with weapons takes less courage than nonviolent resistance in which "you’re supposed to march into the line of fire, smilingly and cheerfully, and get yourself blown to bits." Finkelstein’s new book is titled What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage. Click here to see part 1 and part 2 of this interview.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, joined by Norman Finkelstein, scholar, activist, author. He has just published two books. One, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End. His other is called What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage. What does Gandhi say, Norm Finkelstein?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, I think the first point is, very few people read Gandhi. They just assume: Gandhi, simple person, simple dresser, skinny, nonviolence, it’s obvious what it means—when, in fact, it’s not obvious at all what nonviolence means for Gandhi. His collected works come—you’ll be surprised, I think, to learn they come to 98 volumes. And that’s about 500 pages per volume. When I first started checking out the works at NYU Library, New York University Library—and NYU is a prominent research library—I think you’ll be surprised also to learn, even though they acquired the collection in 1984, apart from one volume, I was the first person who ever checked out any volume of Gandhi’s 98-volume collected works. I went through about half, 47 volumes, about 25,000 pages.

I was curious to know, what did Gandhi mean by nonviolence, because, you know, on reflection, it’s not so obvious. And the first thing to say about it is Gandhi was not the kind of nonviolent pacifist that, for example, was depicted in Sir Richard Attenborough’s film on Gandhi. Gandhi valued nonviolence, no question about it. But he attached equal value, and in some places you could say more value, to courage. Not just nonviolence, but courage. And he found nothing more despicable than cowardice. It wasn’t violence that, for Gandhi, was the most repellent of human instincts; it was cowardice.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read a quote, that you quote in What Gandhi Says. Gandhi says, quote, "My nonviolence does not admit of running away from danger and leaving dear ones unprotected. Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer violence to cowardice. I can no more preach nonviolence to a coward than I can tempt a blind man to enjoy healthy scenes. Nonviolence is the summit of bravery. And in my own experience, I have had no difficulty in demonstrating to men trained in the school of violence the superiority of nonviolence. As a coward, which I was for years, I harboured violence. I began to prize nonviolence only when I began to shed cowardice." Norm Finkelstein?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, you know, it’s a—first of all, it’s a great quote, and there are many quotes like that in Gandhi. And it’s hard sometimes for a person to understand the logic, because a lot of people on the left, they take nonviolence to be sort of wimpish, and they want violence because it’s more, you know, macho and so on and so forth. But Gandhi comes along, and he says, "I think nonviolence takes more courage than violence." So, at the beginning, when I read that, I thought he was just saying it for rhetorical effect. But then, when you read what he actually means, it’s actually sensible. He says, if you believe in violence, and say there’s a war, your enemy, your opposite, has a weapon, and you have your weapon. So, at any rate, yes, you’re risking your life, but you have something to protect yourself: your weapon. And you may survive the encounter. But Gandhi says, "Nonviolence means you’re supposed to march into the line of fire" — and now I’m quoting him — "you’re supposed to march in the line of fire, smilingly and cheerfully, and get yourself blown to bits." That’s what nonviolence means for Gandhi. You’re supposed to get yourself blown to bits. During the nonviolent activities known—the various campaigns, he would say to his followers, "Don’t be a coward and go to jail, because you’re afraid to get killed. Don’t use jail as a pretext to get away from getting killed. You better" — and I’m quoting him — "You better get your skulls cracked. Otherwise, I don’t want to hear from you." So, the irony is, even though Gandhi is attacked by people on the left for being wimpish, the fact is, he set such a high standard. I couldn’t meet it. I mean, I have to be honest about those things. I wish maybe, if I’m thrust into circumstances like that, I’ll find the courage to do it. But sitting here, no, I couldn’t honestly—I couldn’t honestly say I can meet that standard.

I’ll give you an example. A couple of days ago, a friend of mine, my webmaster, Sana Kassem, she sent me a video of a fellow, an American Jew, protesting in the Occupied Territories. And every time the Israelis fire the tear gas, he’s of course running in the opposite direction. Of course. And it’s being filmed. And I’m thinking to myself, but Gandhi says he’s supposed to march—go right into it. And you’re supposed to get killed.

AMY GOODMAN: But, I mean, he was very strategic. He wanted to achieve an end. He didn’t want just to have people killed. He—most importantly was to accomplish what he was driving for: Indian independence.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, well, India independence. But we have to be clear about Gandhi. Sometimes he’s reduced to India independence. But no, he had a whole program of Hindu-Muslim unity, about—and he led many campaigns. I mean, it was news for me also. I’m not pretending as if it’s common knowledge. But Gandhi was very careful. He would only take on public campaigns where, he said, the public already recognized the wrong.

So let’s take one example. In the 1930s, he led a major campaign against alcoholism, which was a big problem in India. And people said, "But Mr. Gandhi, why do you focus on alcoholism? There are many other problems. We have a problem with people who are addicted to racetrack betting. And they’re addicted to the cinema," which, you know, Gandhi thought was a sin. So he said, "Why do you choose" — excuse me — "Why do you choose to focus on alcoholism?" And Gandhi’s answer was very straightforward. He said, "Because Indians already recognize alcoholism is a problem. But they don’t recognize that racetrack betting or the cinema is a problem." And then he said, "It’s wasting time." Gandhi always said, "I’m a man of action. I want to get things done." And so, he wants to start with where public opinion is at. You see, for Gandhi, politics was not about bringing enlightenment to the masses. No, that’s sort of like the Marxist tradition: "We’re the vanguard. We know the science, the science of Marxism" — or in my day, the science of Marxism-Leninism. "We have the science, and we have to bring enlightenment to the benighted masses who suffer from false consciousness and all sorts of other, you know, maladies." Gandhi is not that.

Gandhi is sort of like the Occupy movement. Yes, he’s very much like the Occupy movement, because the Occupy movement started from where people were already at. The Occupy movement comes up with a slogan: "We are the 99 percent." The basic point being, 1 percent are hoarding it all, and 99 percent are getting nothing. And it immediately struck a responsive chord with Americans because that’s how we already felt. They started—what made the slogan so successful is they tapped into a sentiment that was already there. They started from where the consciousness of the American people already was. Nobody had to educate us that the system was unfair. It had been rolling before our eyes for the last several years, or more. And so, what made their movement so successful was, I think, the Gandhian tactic: they found the perfect slogan that embodied the consciousness of the American people at that moment. If they had gone a little further in their slogan, they may have lost the people. And that, I think, was a real—for me, it was a real insight in Gandhi that politics is not about enlightening people. Politics, for Gandhi, to use an expression, is to quicken the conscience of the public to get them to act on what they already know is wrong.

And actually, it worked in my own case. You know, personally, I’m a person of the left, have always been, and always railing against the capitalist system, the unfairness of the distribution of wealth and so forth. When I started to hear about these folks in Zuccotti Park, it resonated for me. But then I heard they’re camping there. I said, "All right, Norm, you’re heading toward 60. You’re not going to Woodstock. You’re past your prime. This is not for you." And so, I just was an observer, a sympathetic observer, but an observer. And then, when I heard about—I’m from Brooklyn, New York, and I heard 800 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. I said, "OK, Norm, it’s time to do something." Now, nobody had to tell me the system was wrong. What people had to do was quicken my conscience to act. And that’s what Gandhian nonviolence is all about, getting people to make the kinds of personal sacrifices which will force the bystanders to say, "OK, I really have to do something now. If they do it, why aren’t I doing it?" And that’s what Gandhianism was about.

But also, as I said, you have to enter a thousand caveats, qualifications, about his commitment to nonviolence, because it was not nonviolence that for him was the ultimate sin. Actually, I’ve read through about half of his—as I said, half of his collected works. He uses—I know it’s a paradox—he uses the most violent language, not against those who commit violence. Actually, he says he was an admirer of Sparta, because he admired the courage of the warrior. And he always used military metaphors. It was "the army of the nonviolent." He was "the general." He always used martial metaphors. But he said—as I said, he reserved his most violent language for cowards. He literally says they don’t deserve to live. A coward does not have a right to live.

There is where he gets—you know, Gandhi was very strict about nonviolence. He had to be nonviolent in thought, word and deed. But you could say he sort of verges on violence—violent language, thought and word when it comes to cowards. And I have to say also, probably in his classification, I would rate a coward. I mean, I’m not proud to say that. But he had such a high standard of what political commitment was about and the sacrifices you were obliged to make, if you want to be morally consistent with your values, it’s a tough act.

AMY GOODMAN: A thumbnail sketch of who Gandhi was, since you’ve studied him. For people who, as you said, have a very sort of scant—a sort of caricature of who he is, explain where he was born, why he came to adopt the views he did.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, I’ll tell you—I mean, I’d like to always be honest. I didn’t look too closely at the biographical data. I mean, I know as much as, you might say, a Wikipedia entry might say. I was more interested in the theory. I was interested—I began the whole project because I said to myself, well, you know, India under Gandhi—under Gandhi’s influence, it faced the same sort of challenges as Israel-Palestine. First of all, Gandhi wanted to end an occupation, like the Palestinians. Second of all, Gandhi was confronting the great power of his day, the superpower of his day, namely the British Empire. Similarly, the Palestinians have to face a formidable regional power, namely Israel, and right behind it, the superpower of our day, namely the United States. And thirdly, the Palestinians don’t really have a military option. The only way they’re going to succeed is if they try these tactics that Gandhi pioneered in India. And so, I felt, for those three reasons—trying to end an occupation, facing a superpower, and the only tactical option is really nonviolence—it would be interesting to see, OK, how did Gandhi reason the whole thing through? And that was my impetus. I don’t know the history better than sort of a generalist, or, for that matter, Gandhi’s personal biography.

He was a—you know, there were—many things about Gandhi were very eccentric and also very autocratic. You know, Gandhi was, "you do it my way, or go the highway." He was very, very autocratic. And he said that what he decides to do is not based on reason. Reason comes later. It’s what his inner voice tells him to do. Well, obviously you can’t rationally argue with an inner voice. Either you agree, or you don’t agree and you leave. I did have a good opportunity when I was in South Africa a couple of years ago. I went to see his granddaughter, Ela Gandhi. And I remember her saying to me, and it just came out in conversation, she said he had great confidence in that inner voice, which is—you know, nowadays we would say—we would call it, he had good political instincts. But you can’t argue with an instinct. Instinct tells you, "Do this at this moment." But you can’t really argue with it. And so, it was very hard. You know, reading him, there’s that streak of autocratic—that autocratic streak, which is very unpleasant.

On the other hand—and, you know, I sort of get emotional—you can’t but admire that man. I mean, the kind of moral force he had, it was just terrifying at the end, in '47, you know, Egypt—excuse me, Israel—ah, India erupts in this horrible bloodletting, the Partition. They estimate like a million people were killed. You go into streets of Calcutta, literally 10,000 bodies in the street. All the blood is literally flowing in the streets. And Gandhi comes in, and the first thing he does is he goes to the Hindu temples. Now remember, this is where the intercommunal hatred has reached a fever pitch. And he goes into the Hindu temples, and he insists, "I'm going to begin each religious—each service, prayer service—I’m going to begin it with a passage from the Koran." The Hindus were going mad. "What do you mean, the Koran?" And he is adamant. "I am beginning with the Koran." And there would be the hecklers and the people who were worse than hecklers. He would stay with them in the temple the whole night. He said, "I’m going to sit and reason it through with you why I’m beginning with the Koran." And when he went on the hunger strikes during the terrible bloodletting, you know, to his credit—you can take it away—they stopped. OK, it’s true they stopped killing each other temporarily. You can even say they stopped briefly. But for the Mahatma, for Gandhiji, they stopped. You know, that’s—it’s very impressive. Of course, the downside is, that kind of moral power came and went with Gandhi. There was nobody else commanding that kind of moral authority. But it was a very impressive show. It really was. And it gets me a little bit angry when people on the left, who I like, you know, and they’re very harsh on Gandhi. No, there were a lot of problems, no question about it. But there, there went a man.

AMY GOODMAN: Author, scholar, activist, Norman Finkelstein. He has just written the book, out this week, What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage.

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