Iron Gandhi

photo via Barack Obama, some rights reserved

Norman G. Finkelstein’s What Gandhi Says arrives with an implication of urgent timeliness. At only 81 pages, the slim volume comes off as a primer on Gandhi’s politics that Finkelstein feels need be delivered quick and succinct. Both the introduction and conclusion speak of #OWS and the Arab Spring, implying they are functions of Gandhian thinking that require his immediate guidance. The bound pamphlet may have well been called It's Gandhi Time!

“Although Mahatma Gandhi’s name is frequently invoked, he is seldom read,” the text begins. So seldom indeed that Finkelstein implies he is one of his greatest Anglophone researchers. In a recent interview promoting the book on Democracy Now, he claimed, “When I first started checking out the works at the NYU Library, apart from one volume I was the first person ever to check out any volume of Gandhi’s 98 collected works.” Reading about half of the Mahatma’s massive corpus, Finkelstein asserts complications he has deduced within Satyagraha, Gandhi’s non-violent political program—the most important of which is summed up: “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.”

Finkelstein later interprets this to mean Gandhi would, at times, “advocate violence.” Unfortunately, the application of such a subjective matrix to anti-oppression action is impossible today, as the terms (courage/cowardice, violence/nonviolence) could only be qualified by the Mahatma himself, or more accurately, his “inner voice.” Satyagraha was a strictly religious formulation, although an esoteric and modern one, and its adherents reported directly to Gandhi as both a political and spiritual adviser—their “sole authority.” Without his permission, there could be no hunger strikes, labor stoppages, or marches. Analyzing the famous “fast unto death,” which briefly stopped religious violence between Hindus and Muslims, Finkelstein writes: “Only Gandhi could possess such an overpowering spiritual force; it lived and died with this person. This was a great personal triumph, but also his great political failure. The tactic [self-suffering] has no generalized value.”

So what can we salvage from Gandhi that didn’t die with him? For Finkelstein, it’s the importance of ethical action in the process of taking power. Agreeing with Gandhi’s warning that “Violence may destroy one or more bad rulers, but… others will pop up in their place,” Finkelstein concludes, “the further along [the struggle] gets nonviolently, the more likely it will be that the new world will also be a better one.” Non-violence becomes an ethical standard; not an imperative.

Another angle is the media game. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the state-sponsored assaults on Tahrir Square, and the “voluntary arrests” of 800 demonstrators on the Brooklyn Bridge were all Gandhian, Finkelstein argues, a sequence reading like “a page out of Gandhi’s life.” These events resonated with the public in a way that evoked popular pity and outrage, leading to rapid growth in the movements’ ranks. Victimization and self-suffering are merely useful tactics to help win over public opinion. This aspect of non-violence resonates less with ethical considerations than with Gandhi’s sinister concept of an army of non-violent martyrs who could be commanded to run to their deaths.

Nonetheless, such non-violent martyrdom seemed to be a popular idea in the Occupy ranks for quite a while. Shouts of “cameras!” chorused whenever police initiated an arrest, with occupiers often submitting themselves voluntarily. And don't forget the unheralded hunger strikes. Shirts and stencils depicting Gandhi’s saintly smirk were ubiquitous at occupations, as were his later day Satyagrahi, who would remove barricades from the streets, form human shields to protect police lines from anarchists, and threaten to expose any provocations to the media.

Gandhi's figure never loomed more spectral to Occupy as during its February attempted occupation of Union Square. As bored blue-shirts shuffled around diehard occupiers in the Union Square atrium, the statue of Gandhi, petrified by reification, looked on like a mute general. That week was a turning point in which Occupy’s comparatively few remaining devotees recognized that the police would no longer tolerate any disobedience—civil, legal, or otherwise, and henceforth their movement would only be treated as an intolerable disturbance. During the resulting “Fuck the Police” marches in New York and Oakland, a new militant edge seized the demonstrator’s tenor—one that seemed to suggest they were tired of being beaten, arrested, and pushed around.

What would Gandhi have said about the ensuing preference towards physical resistance, vandalism, and disruption of flows? On principle, Gandhi stood firmly opposed. “Obstructing society’s function” and “noncooperation” were too coercive for Gandhi, whose program aimed at “melting the hearts” of oppressors from the small (Colonial bosses) to the huge (Hitler).General Strikes and direct actions all attacked the system “externally,” and could only force change in behavior instead of spirit. For this reason, Gandhi urged any antagonistic actions to “have their roots in love.”On the other hand, Gandhi at times implicitly or explicitly advocates violence, saying “self defense is everyone’s birthright,” and (in a passage that reminds Finkelstein of Malcolm X), “if you are humiliated you are justified in slapping the bully in the face…” So Gandhi, while generally regarding the act of punching a cop to be immoral and unproductive, would not deride the insurgent for lack of courage. In this distinction, Finkelstein attempts to redeem Gandhi for our era, recasting him as a principled pragmatist who has some funny ideas but nonetheless just wants social justice achieved without people losing their heads. Like the movement’s Hedgeses and Solnits, Gandhi may urge the uprising continue, albeit disappointed that it lost its prior composure.

While these conclusions appear to pull together a reasonable compromise between today’s radical movements and Gandhi’s dogma, Finkelstein’s shadow lurches distractingly. A foremost pro-Palestinian scholar, he is known for his one-track mind, which characteristically interrupts his analysis at regular intervals, and this text is no exception. During the Democracy Now interview, Finkelstein used a considerable amount of his time to compare the liberation campaigns of Palestine against Israel to India's against the British. In the past, Finkelstein has gone on record to declare solidarity with Hezbollah and Hamas, and hoped for Israel to suffer a military defeat comparable to Germany’s at the close of World War II.

We could stretch artifacts of Gandhi’s writings to the point where we could see him advocate for violence in certain circumstances, but are we really to believe that all out war was a potential card in the Gandhian deck? Or has Finkelstein had a change of heart? A reconciliation is nowhere to be found in the text, although surrounding the sprinkled moments of respect for Gandhi we see a greater mass of pejoratives. In the first chapter alone Finkelstein called Gandhi an “eccentric,” “shot through with contradictions,” “superficial, flippant, and downright arrogant,” “deceptive,” and “sometimes sounded like Stalin.”

Maybe Finkelstein feels there is redemption to be found in Gandhi, but is frustrated for what the ramifications would imply for his issue of choice. The non-violent movement of marches, hunger strikes, sit-ins, and destruction of border fences in Palestine has proceeded for years now with many skeptical of its effects beyond pacification of the resistance. A common joke in these circles goes: “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi? In Israeli prison.”

Even more problematic is fitting Gandhi’s strategies to occupations, a conflict not of imperialism vs. self-determination or the people vs. dictatorship, but the 99% vs. the 1%, an issue of class conflict that Gandhi “formally abjured.” “Landlords and capitalists must be persuaded and converted” by “nonviolent noncooperation and civil disobedience,” he said. Finkelstein acknowledges that there is a contradiction between the problem and solution, that, in effect, the bourgeoisie are forced to take moral stands in order to avert massive social movements. He further acknowledges that Indian self-rule did not come from “the power of love,” but instead the unprofitability of continuing colonialism.

So too have Arab Spring and occupation movements hit limits with civil disobedience. In the face of such moments, when the State has prepared to unflinchingly exterminate any resistance, Gandhi has consistently given his horrific response equating “extermination” with “victory.” At moments like these, in which Finkelstein describes Gandhi as seeming like the leader of a “death cult,” he gives us few ideas of how to traverse the limits and puts the rest of the line of thought that gets us there into question.

Returning to the statue in Union Square Park, not far from the library where Finkelstein studied, one sees Gandhi not as a dynamic social activist, but an idol. Religious figure that he was, his task was the practical liberation of his people, and his spiritual Satyagraha was tailored to achieve this goal. We see new inheritors tailoring Gandhi’s today, appropriated by pacifists, Che Guevara-wearing college students, or even bellicose intellectuals.

Finkelstein’s true success in What Gandhi Says comes in his comparisons of Gandhi’s writings at different stages of his life, the assertions of his odd, farfetched, but consistent views, and the generous explication of what Gandhi meant by non-violence. He fails when he treats Gandhi less like a historical figure than a patron saint to whom we should pray for guidance. Finkelstein would have done better to take more time writing a longer book – perhaps “What Gandhi Said.” The historical Gandhi here comes across eccentric, deeply flawed, rarely successful, but still hugely compelling. The idolized Gandhi, on the other hand, needs a nonviolent sledgehammer to the head.