Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How the West saw Gandhi

The Mahatma and the Rise of Radical Protest. 
By Sean Scalmer. Cambridge University Press.248pp
People all over the world keep putting their lives on the line for political protest. But when public communication in our Western democracies seems dominated by news-cycle political stunts and media demagogcracy, has radical protest lost its moral and political force?

Sean Scalmer casts a historian's eye over Western protest movements of the 20th Century, from when the techniques of Mahatma Gandhi first attracted Western attention, up to a high point of Western political protest movements, against the Vietnam War.

Scalmer reviews how Western societies responded to Gandhi's words, actions and image, and how those responses influenced political action in Western democracies.

His primary sources are the words of the activists, officials, journalists and commentators whose various impressions of Gandhi, or “Gandhism”, fed into the making of Western public and political opinion.

Until Gandhi's assasination in 1948, Western attitudes generally reflected whether people supported, or resisted, Indian independence from the British Empire. He was also admired and imitated by Western pacifists, numerous 1920-1939 but much fewer once faced with the aggression of the Axis powers.

Later Western movements that owed technical credits to Gandhi's modes of protest were the nuclear disarmament campaigns, beginning in UK in the late 1940s, the US Civil Rights movements in the 1950s and 60s, and finally the protests against Vietnam War.

Gandhism (a term Ganhi himself rejected) had both a moral component (setting out how and why the individual should act in particular situations) and also a pragmatic component, setting out how people could act together to achieve political objectives.

Gandhi's blend of Jain, Hindu, Christian, Sufi and other moral systems earned him a certain mystic authority to mobilize mass protest action in India, and attracted a useful subculture of Western devotees. But the personal side of Gandhi's moral philosophy ultimately was too eccentric for him to be accepted, by Indian elites or by average Westerners, as a political leader for all Indians.

It was the pragmatic effectiveness of his protest techniques that most influenced Western emulators. Gandhi coined the phrase satyagraha from the Sanskrit terms for truth (satyam) and for firmness (agraha). He and his followers believed that mass non-violent resistance against oppression would  morally convert the oppressors.

Although this occurred, at some level and with some oppressors, more hard-headed analysts attribute Gandhi's political successes to publicity.

The public sympathy generated by images of demonstrators being treated violently can mobilize support for political change. But its effect depends on the ruling powers being accountable, at least to some degree, to that converted public. And other significant factors may have to be close to a tipping point for the moral sympathy factor to tip that balance.

Scalmer traces how successive Western protest movements gradually watered down the Gandhian moral element of satyagraha, reducing it to lip-service, then to a pragmatic political method, until eventually American protest movements dropped all reference to Gandhi and claimed that passive resistance methods were their own invention.

By the end of the 1960s, Rev. Martin Luther King's non-violent protest movement, based on Gandhian as well as Christian values, had been replaced in the public eye by the conflict-model Black Power movement, and by the middle-class anti-establishment stunt politics of the psychedelic era.

The media, then and now, give publicity more readily in return for the gratification of retailing conflict, not resolution. Scalmer's survey, in the end, is about us in the West, not about Gandhi. Scalmer writes clearly and concisely, and offers insights that are well worth the read.

 Read the full review

Richard Thwaites passively resists taking part in organized protest movements.