*This is an interview about Norman Finkelstein's new book 'What Gandhi Says'. It took place on the 9th of July
Norman, you’ve written several books now about the Israel-Palestine conflict but your new book What Gandhi Says appear to take a new path. What attracted you to the work of Gandhi?
It seemed to me that for three reasons Gandhi was a useful place to look for those who interested in trying to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. Number 1: Gandhi, like the Palestinians, was trying to end an occupation. Number 2: Gandhi, like the Palestinians, was up against the most formidable economic and military power of his day. In the case of Gandhi it was Britain and in the case of Palestine it is the Israelis but right behind them is the United States. And number 3: like India, the Palestinians don’t have a military option. The only way they can defeat the Israelis is through nonviolent resistance. So for those three reasons it seems to me that it would be useful to look at what Gandhi had to say.
Maybe give us a general outline of the thesis of the book.
I wouldn’t say the book has a thesis. The main purpose of the book is that everybody talks about Gandhi but my impression is that very few people have actually read what he had to say. There is the assumption that Gandhi was a very simple person, he appeared very simple, he talked in simple words and therefore the concept the nonviolence is probably also very simple. That is, Gandhi equals nonviolence. But when you start thinking through the topic of nonviolence and what it actually means after just a few moments reflection it becomes clear that what Gandhi meant by it is not at all together obvious. And so I sat down to read Gandhi’s collected works. They come to about a hundred volumes and 500 pages per volume. I started closer toward the end than the beginning since it was at the end where Gandhi faces real challenges – Hindu-Muslim unity, World War Two - and so I read about 47 of the volumes and basically I attempted to present as rational a theory, of Gandhi’s views on these subjects, though having to admit that for every statement Gandhi makes in his collected works you could find a contradictory statement somewhere else. So it wasn’t so easy to tease out a coherent doctrine but I did my best.
So what is the coherent doctrine that you managed to tease out?
Well, I think you have to look at it on two levels. There is what Gandhi meant by nonviolence and what Gandhi meant by politics. Let me start with the first – what Gandhi meant by nonviolence. There is no question that Gandhi was strongly committed to nonviolence. Nonviolence to Gandhi meant nonviolence in thought, in word and in deed. In order to be nonviolent you had to be nonviolent at all levels, in all three dimensions - in thought, in word and in deed, and Gandhi’s view was if people were willing to stick hard and fast to nonviolence then it is possible to galvanize a sympathetic but basically inactive or inert public into doing something. Gandhi can sometimes be a little bit confusing and I think contradictory. Sometimes he talks about nonviolence as a weapon to, in his words, ‘melt the hearts of the oppressors’ and so for example he did believe that you could melt Hitler’s heart – literally, Hitler’s heart – with nonviolence. That to me is the implausible part of Gandhi. The plausible part of Gandhi in my opinion is that nonviolence will invoke a reaction from a sympathetic but basically inert public and get them to act and that is the core of the nonviolent doctrine that I find convincing and worth thinking about.
Now, there is a caveat or a qualification. I said sympathetic public. Because in order for nonviolence to work the goal of the movement must resonate with the broad public. If they don’t agree with the goal then no matter how nonviolent your tactic is then it is not going to move a public to act. As a simple example, take the question of abortion. In the United States the public is divided right down the middle according to all public opinion surveys on the question of abortion. 50 percent, including women, are pro-life. So if you could imagine all of the pro-life people converging on all of the abortion clinics in the country and committing themselves to fast until the death unless abortion doctors stopped performing abortions at the clinics their tactic is obviously completely unobjectionable – they’re not inflicting bodily harm on anybody but themselves to make the maximum sacrifice for their conviction, that is to fast until the death. But if you ask the simple question ‘will such a tactic persuade pro-choice people?’ The answer is obviously no. Most pro-choice people would probably think ‘I hope they do fast until the death and I hope they all drop dead’. So in order for the tactic to work it has to be pitched or calibrated to a goal that the broad public understands and agrees with.
For Gandhi, and I think this one of the most critical insights of Gandhi, politics is not about changing public opinion. He is not trying, as old-fashioned leftists and Marxists use to do, to bring light to the darkness of the masses. He is not trying to dispel the false consciousness of the masses. He is not pretending to be part of a vanguard, which possess scientific truths to which the masses are ignorant. That’s not politics for Gandhi. Politics for Gandhi is getting people to act on what they already know is wrong. Take as another example the recent Occupy Movement. Nobody had to tell Americans, nobody had to educate Americans or enlighten Americans, that our current economics system, at least as practiced, is grossly unfair. A small amount of people – 1% - were raking in money hand over foot, where as the 99% are doing worse than ever before. The occupy movement latched on to a slogan – we are the 99% - and practiced nonviolent tactics like getting arrested and getting pepper sprayed and not fighting back. They managed to move a broad public, albeit temporarily and that is one of Gandhi’s tactics. As I said they can only work if the broad public is ready to receive the message and goal of the movement.
I guess this is a point where a lot of people depart from Gandhi. If you limited politics to trying to get people to act on what they already believe as opposed to trying to change public opinion then there would be a lot of movements that wouldn’t really go anywhere. In the case of Gandhi he was a vegetarian. He presumably also thought that other people should stop eating meat as well. But surely today vegetarianism is a minority position so how would his conception of politics address that issue?
Well, Gandhi was a man of action. That was what he said. Gandhi’s view was that there are ten thousand things out there that everybody already knows are wrong and so then the sensible thing for politics is that if you want to have a practical impact on the world then you focus on subjects, matters and issues where people already agree are wrong and then get them to act on what they already agree with you on. I know and you know that virtually everybody from when they wake up in the morning they look around themselves and they say ‘that’s wrong, that’s not right. That shouldn’t be. That’s unfair. That’s unjust’. We are constantly making judgments of that sort. The problem as Gandhi put it is that we have vented an awful lot and done very little. And so he said the sensible thing if you are a political actor is not to try to raise consciousness but to try to get people to act on what they already know is wrong.
Now Gandhi was a very opinionated person and highly judgemental and had what by our standards would be very eccentric opinions. So you mentioned the vegetarianism, yes he was a vegetarian. He was also a Brahmachari, which meant absolute sexual abstinence. All through his writings he had an opinion on everything. He thought movies were a sin and he thought wearing underwear was sinful. He had opinions on everything. But Gandhi restricted the practice of his opinions on those subjects to himself and like-minded members of his cult, or what you would call an ashram. I would call it a cult but he called it an ashram and in the privacy of these ashrams he practiced these beliefs of vegetarianism, Brahmachari and so forth. Gandhi made no distinction between politics in the personal but he did make a distinction between what you’d call a personal ethic, which he practiced in an ashram, and politics as a broad mass movement.
Gandhi’s main contribution to the Indian indepenence movement in my opinion was not really nonviolence. His main contribution was that he transformed the Indian independence movement from an elitist organisation to a mass organisation. He was determined to rouse the Indian masses into action and he recognised that in order to rouse them into action he could not set as precedents for membership in the movement things like being a vegetarian or a Brahmachari because who was going to join? You have to make a distinction between your personal ethic and your political movement.
Obviously Gandhi was not categorically a pacifist. He did believe that violence was sometimes either necessary or in some way justified. What was for Gandhi the distinction between violence and non-violence and when could violence be an option?
Well, first of all there are two or three immediate caveats to Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence. Number 1: Gandhi didn’t believe that violence in the face of impossible odds really constituted violence. For example, if an individual is being raped and he or she resists the rapist with scratches and kicks and bites Gandhi sad that is not really violence. That is just somebody trying to summon up enough force to suffer with dignity so he didn’t consider that violence. And he also said that when the Nazi Wermacht invaded Poland in September 1939 and the Poles have a few tanks and a few cavalry there was such a huge discrepancy between the Nazi Wermacht and the Polish ‘army’ that their resistance didn’t really constitute violence. It was just a kind of trying to go down in defeat with dignity.
The second caveat for Gandhi was that while he himself preferred nonviolence he thought you had no right to tell other people that even if they themselves were not convinced of nonviolence that they were duty bound to practice it. No, he said. So for example in 1936 to 1939 when the Palestinians began their revolt against British occupation and Zionist colonisation of Palestine Gandhi said that they – the Palestinians – used nonviolence according to the accepted canons of right and wrong because nobody had the right to tell them they can’t practice violence when violence was then the moral standard. They had the right to resist as they would.
The third caveat of Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence and probably the most important one was that, whilst there was no doubt that Gandhi was committed to nonviolence he was as committed and probably more committed even to the principle of courage and bravery. There was nothing Gandhi disdained more; there was nothing he found more contemptible than cowardice. Gandhi was very strongly committed to the value of courage. He was a great admirer of ancient Sparta because the Spartan warriors displayed such courage on the battlefield. So Gandhi’s position was that if you didn’t have sufficient moral resources to practice nonviolence then you should sure as heck use violence if your dignity or your person has come under assault. And he said there was nothing more contemptible, nothing more unworthy of life, than somebody using nonviolence as a pretext or an excuse for their cowardice. So if somebody in the face of an assault retreats and then says ‘well I retreated because I’m nonviolent’ Gandhi would reply ‘it is not that you are nonviolent; it is that you are a coward and cowards don’t deserve to live’ and yes, Gandhi was pretty tough on this issue. His most violent language in his collected works comes is aimed not at people who practice violence but with people who engage in cowardice.
I think one of the misunderstandings many have about Gandhi is that people think of Gandhi as being something of a wimp. They prefer a character like Che Guevara but if you read his works you see that his standard is nonviolence is very difficult to meet and it requires a lot more courage than violence does. Gandhi said that if you go in to battle, say in a war, and your opponent on the battlefield has a weapon and you have a weapon then there is a good chance that at the end of the battle one of you will still be alive. For Gandhi, nonviolence meant that you ‘march smilingly and cheerfully into the line of fire and get yourself blown to bits’. That was nonviolence to Gandhi. He would even say things like ‘don’t tell me about how many of you went to jail; I’m not interested in if you went to jail. You will only interest me if you get your skull broken and the ground if covered with your blood’. That was how he talked. That was Gandhi. It is very different from the Sir Richard Attenborough rendering of Gandhi. Now it is true that Gandhi was a mean of peace and nonviolence but he also had a death cult and he was quite violent in the expectations he had of people if they were committed to his doctrine.
Now I want to move on to a different criticism of Gandhi’s politics. One that doesn’t come up often but does every now and again. Some would say that in all of this there is lacking a level of class analysis. I know you were at one point a Maoist so I know you are familiar with radical theory and class analysis so in your opinion how does Gandhi stack up compared to somebody who would approach the same issues through the lens of class analysis?
It is a complicated question for several reasons. First of all, nobody in the Indian independence movement was more committed to improving the lives of the poor, the hungry and the homeless than Mahatma Gandhi. There I think it is simply absurd to claim that Gandhi was oblivious to class. He used to say ‘I am a socialist long before of the socialists were, unlike them with their suits and ties, I choose to live among the poor’ so on that level of course it is completely dishonest to say that Gandhi was oblivious to the class issue. Secondly, Gandhi did not only express devotion to the poor, the hungry and the homeless but he organised them. He lived among the poor and he was determined to build a movement of what he called the ‘450 dumb masses’, dumb in the literal sense of the term meaning unable to speak or speak for themselves. The place where the class issue is pertinent is that it is said that Gandhi was reluctant to push or to exhort the Indian masses to the point where it created a conflict with the Indian bourgeoisie – he reigned in the class conflict. And it is true that he received extensive financial support from members of the Indian bourgeoisie, most notably the Birla family.
Now, there I think the criticism is partly valid and partly invalid. I think that reading through the literature yes Gandhi was more critical of workers strikes at this moment or that moment than one would like to read. I think that is correct. On the other hand as I make clear in my pamphlet he was constantly exhorting Indian workers and peasants to organise in order to extract from the propertied classes their rights. The place where I think the criticism is not entirely valid is, if you know the history of the Chinese revolution, there too Mao made a distinction between what he called the comprador bourgeoisie, that is those capitalists who were linked with foreign imperialism, and the national bourgeoisie, that is whose enterprise and roots where in the Chinese society. And he said that in the phase of the struggle they were going through then, the liberation struggle, that it is possible to make alliances with the national bourgeoisie who were also anti-imperialist and I know the language sounds very dated and probably evokes from the younger generation a yawn but I think Gandhi applied the same principles, namely, in the struggle for independence you can make alliances with members of the Indian land-owning classes, who themselves were in conflict with the foreign imperialists basically because they were competing for the same market. If you have an Indian cotton manufacturer who was being put out of businesses by the British textile mills and so is anti-imperialist for that reason you can make alliances. But one of the downsides of making such alliances is that you are going to have to reign in workers’ struggles in order to keep this national bourgeoisie in the movement. So if you look closely I actually don’t think it is very much different to what happened during the Chinese revolution during the phase of national liberation.
Finally, before we finish up. What does all of this mean for the Israel-Palestine conflict?
I think the first thing it means both for people here and there is that if you want to galvanise a broad public to support your cause it is not sufficient that your tactics be nonviolent. You also need to set a goal that will resonate with the broad public. Otherwise no matter how nonviolent your tactics are the goal will nullify the effect of your tactics if the broad public finds your goal unacceptable. So you could say that a broad public recognises the injustices being suffered, being endured by the Palestinians. It recognises Israel’s culpability for these injustices and a broad public is now willing to listen and to recognise that they have suffered and that Israel bears a significant burden for the suffering that the Palestinians have to endure. But the broad public wants to know ‘ok, so what do you want us to do?’
Now, on local issues, say ‘we want you to end administrative detention’. Well, the Gandhi tactic of fasting obviously resonated pretty widely and so Israel was forced to concede to the demands of the hunger strikers. And there are a whole number of human rights issues and because the Gandhi tactic is seen as self-evidently right – putting somebody in administrative detention without charges or without trial is to a modern public sensibility obviously an outrage – when you call for the end of administrative detention most people are willing to climb on that bandwagon and support it the end the detention.
But then there is the question of the broader goal. Ok, now how do you want to end the conflict? If you put forth a goal that has no resonance among the broader public then you will never become a movement. You will never galvanize a public. You will become a cult. You will become an Ashram where there is no sex, no meat and no underwear. You become the equivalent of that. I think honest people who have tried to reach a broad public recognise that Israel as a concept, Israel as a state, is deeply entrenched in the public morality and if you put forth a goal that calls for its elimination or if you claim to be agnostic on it you have no chance of reaching a broad public. Now that doesn’t mean that you should accept Israel in all of its particularities. If you say you want to democratize Israel or you want to ensure that all citizens have equal rights then yes that has a good chance in my opinion of reaching a broad public, but you have to say Israel. Israel is a state. It has the same rights and obligations as every other state and that is not just a legal judgment. That is also a judgement based on where the public is at. The idea of Israel is deeply entrenched in the public consciousness. Not necessarily, as I said, in all its bits and pieces, but Israel is there and if you don’t take a clear stand on it you lose. And so there I think the Gandhian standard is right. You can’t go beyond what the public is ready to hear or else you lose them.
Norman, that’s all we have time for. Thank you very much!