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Gandhi's Challenge for the Twenty-first Century

Gene Sharp1

It is 128 years now since Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born and fifty years since he was assassinated.

What relevance do his life, thoughts, and actions have fore us who soon will enter the twenty-first century?

The answer many people offer is “None.” It is thought by many: That he belong to an earlier era only, irrelevant to our own. That any accomplishments he may have made are attributed to his being a ‘mahatma.’ That he was an ascetic eccentric without relevance a half century later, much less to the twenty-first century.

The honour that people seek to offer him by naming him a ‘Mahatma’ becomes a way to permit ourselves to dismiss his life and work without much thought. He was great, but we are not mahatmas, so you can not expect much of us.

Gandhi’s thoughts and work are in my view of grate relevance to us today and will be throughout of twenty-first century. His conviction that people should be able to control their lives and society, and his insights and action showing how people can be master of their societies, are of grate relevance in world of violence, oppression, dictatorship, and conflicts about important issue.

There are though who emphasize only Gandhi’s spiritual views and achievement. Attention to though is fine, but though perspectives must not be allowed to could his relevance for ordinary people.

We opened to not recognize that Gandhi knowingly operated on two levels. One was his own personal religious beliefs and practices. The second was the social and the political level.

Gandhi operated on though two levels simultaneously. He had his own personal beliefs, philosophy, and spiritual and ascetic practices; they were intended for his own life and for the lives of a handful of devotees in his ashram who wish to share them. He also fought political battles, challenging the Empire on which, it was once said, the sun never set. Gandhi rejected the practice of personal non violence and felt strongly obligated to apply nonviolent means in society and politics. He wrote:

That nonviolence which only an individual can use is not of much use in team of society. Man is social being. His accomplishment to be of use must be such as any persons with sufficient diligence can attain. That which can be exercised only among friend is of value only as a spark of non-violence. It cannot merit the appellation of ahimsa.2

Gandhi chose, therefore, to operate social and politically with both political leaders and with the masses of people in struggles to up life the suffering people of India and to win India’s independence from British Empire.

Gandhi committed him self to social and political transformation. In that work he pioneered unconventional means of action that of lasting significance and relevance. In doing so he contributed monumentally to answering the fundamental problem of all political (and should be of all political ethics), that is, how to act effectively to achieve goals and to advance and defend human dignity.

Many years ago I used to think that Gandhi had uniquely united nonviolence and politics. Many people have believed that he had invented a form of struggle that was both powerful and nonviolent. We now know that is not true, even in South Africa.

At the meeting at the Empire Theatre on Johannesburg in 1906 where Gandhi courageously vowed deafens of anti-Asiatic legislation, other Indians and speakers-both Hindus And Muslims-were already familiar with and supportive of disobedience agents oppressive legislation.

Furthermore, as Gandhi himself pointed out, he had been learning from nonviolent struggle elsewhere in the world as well as in India. In the pages of his journal India opinion, he cited methods used in important nonviolent struggles in Russia, china, and Bengal. It is also clear that he was familiar with Irish non violent struggles, religious disobedience in England, and tax resistance in the American colonies. There had also been earlier disobedience by Indies in South Africa and tax resistance by Africans in South Africa, which he cited as reasons why the Indians too could act this way.

A review of human history reveals that non violent protests, resistance, and defiance have occurred in all parts if the world, in all periods of history, and against all types of oppression and regimes.

Dramatically, since Gandhi’s death, nonviolent struggles have grown in prominence and political impact. Recall, For example, the solidarity struggles in Poland 1980-1989, the 1986 people power revaluation in the Philippians, and mass resistance struggles in South Africa, brave but not yet successfully struggles in Burma and China, the liberation of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, the defect of the hard-line coup in Moscow in 1991, the liberation of East Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1991, as well as other, in the Philippines this September, renewed people power demonstration forced the president to cancel an attempt to allow him a now prohibited second term, The nonviolent struggles before Gandhi and the struggles after Gandhi help us to place him in historical perspective, and to understand his continuing significance.

Even after Gandhi become a believer in ahimsa as religious and moral principal, he did not engage in a campaign to win individual converts to that very personal beliefs. Instated, he sought to continual groups that did not accept principled nonviolence to apply nonviolent struggle in the conflicts that faced his people. As they did not accept ahimsa, they would only accept nonviolent action if they become convinced that it was practical, that is that it would “worked”.

Stated more baldly, Gandhi presented nonviolent struggle to India as an expedient, without apology then or later.

Yes, I adhere to my opinion that did well to present to the Congress nonviolence as an expedient, [he wrote in 1942]. I could not have done otherwise, if was to introduce it into politics. In South Africa too I introduced it as an expedient… But I have no seance of disappointment in me over the result obedient. If had started with men who accepted nonviolence as a creed, I might have ended with myself. Imperfect as I am, I started with imperfect men and women and sailed on an uncharged ocean. Thank god that, though the, boat has not reached its haven, it has proved fairly storm proof.”2

Gandhi told student in August 1947 that

He had all along labored under an illusion. But he was never sorry for it. He realized that if his vision were not covered by the illusion, India would never have reached the point which it had today.4

At a meeting of the All Indian Congress Committee in January 1942 Gandhi insisted that he had no regrets on the political nature of nonviolent action he had presented to India. He also rejected the views of those who dismissed his policy as being “religious”.

I placed it before Congress as a political method , to be employed for the solution of the political question, It may be it is a novel method, but does not on that account lose its political character…As a political method , It can always be changed, modified, altered , and even give up in preference to another. If, therefore, I say to you that our policy should not be give up today, I am talking political wisdom. It is political insight. It has served us in the past; it has enabled us to cover many stages to words independence. And it is as politician that I suggest to you that it is a grave mistake to contemplate its abandonment. If have carried the Congress with me all these years, it is in my capacity as a politician. It is fair to describe my method as religious it is new.5

During the 1940s Gandhi also expressed dissatisfaction with the Indian practice of nonviolence action. Nevertheless, he affirmed the importance of corporate and mass struggle. He explained that this was the way by which ordinary people could themselves correct the problems they faced, and thereby achieve a sense of their own strength and power.

The way was not to gain individual conversions to ethical nonviolence. Instead, it was to initiate a pattern of specific substitutions of nonviolent struggle in place of violent conflict.

Those struggles were waged primarily by people who did not believe ethically or religiously in ahimsa. They were, however, willing-as in India-to conduct the struggle nonviolently and to nonviolent discipline. In that way the struggles for justice could be fought nonviolently by masses of people.

Gandhi also conceptualized and began to organize another major tool for transforming society. He formulated a constructive programme for rebuilding society for the bottom up outside the State structure. The constructive programme was and attempt to build beginnings of a new more decentralized popularly controlled society order while the told system still exists. For this he outlined eighteen components, ranging form communal unity, through village sanitation to women’s rights and work with the peasantry and labour. Such work was to be conducted by voluntary efforts and self-help.

The needed work was not all struggling but also building, constructing, nurturing, and healing.

We need to examine our own social problem to determine whether constructive programmes can be developed that would be help in our very different societies, and if so how to do that.

How are we, then to evaluate Gandhi and his challenge for the twenty-first century?

Although Gandhi was not the originator of nonviolent struggle, he was a major historical player in this refinement and development. He brought greatly increased strategic sophistication to the technique. HE charted was in which people-both intellectuals and the so0-called ordinary people alike-who did not shared his full personal beliefs could join in the nonviolent struggle and could become empowered. He challenged the most vast empire the world had ever soon-and won.

In my view, Gandhi’s extremely important contributions include:

  •  He developed nonviolent struggle as a political technique.

  •  He formulated applications of the techniques for specific purposes, as a substitute both for helplessness and for violence.

  •  He consciously developed strategies for use in specific situations as a means to increase the likelihood of success.

  •  He recognized the techniques as a tool through which masses of people could become empowered, and accepted a responsibility to help them to act – not to act for them.

  •  He combined his work on nonviolent struggle with development of a concept social reconstruction through voluntary efforts, the constructive programme.

Where then does nonviolent struggle need to be applied in our societies and time and during the coming new century? We need to continue to examine the problem of conflict, oppression, and violent struggle in our world today, and assess how we cam develop nonviolent struggle to be an effective way to conducting those conflict, operation, and violence in our world today, and assess how we can develop nonviolent struggle to be an effective way of conducting those conflicts that need to be fought.

For example, we must continue and expand our work on the relevance of nonviolent struggle to answer the hard questions before us. What is the possible role of nonviolent struggle in dismantling dictatorship? What is the possible role of nonviolent struggle in blocking new coups d’eta so as to prevent the rise of new dictatorships? What is the possible role of nonviolent struggle in defense against foreign aggression and occupations?

And what additional situation merit consideration of nonviolent struggle as a tool empowerment and liberation?

It is important to us remember that Gandhi brought to nonviolent struggle strategic sophistication and careful planning. Nonviolent struggle was not a formula that could simply be repeated in different conflicts. Instead, Gandhi developed separated plans for the use of nonviolent struggle for each conflict. Instated, Gandhi developed separate plans for the use of nonviolent struggle for each conflict-For example, his strategies for Champaran in 1917, India in 1930-31, and Calcutta in 1947 were very different.

He also recognized the importance of strategy in nonviolent struggle and contributed to the refinement and practice of more effective strategic planning for this type of conflict. We need to build on and expand his important contribution on strategy-the wise use of available resource to increase the possible the success. There are significant reasons to believe that grater strategic sophistication can improve the effectiveness of future nonviolent struggles, well beyond our present understanding.

Gandhi’s effective of this conscious choice of nonviolent struggle in place of violence are profound. Normally most people and need to be expanded into the coming conflicts the twenty –first century.

The implication of this conscious choice of nonviolence struggle in place of violence as the unlimited sections-the final means of applying pressure and power to again one’s objective.

In thought and action Gandhi challenged that view. We must ask now, can nonviolent pressure and struggle become to a much grater degree ultimate sections for the twenty-first century? Can nonviolent power replace violence in conflict after conflict, and issue after issue? Efforts to achieve that development are very important and are a fitting tribute to Gandhi.

We still live in the world of immense problems, as we all known, Gandhi challenges us to help to change our world and point us towards some important tool that we can use to tackle the problems before us.

All this work on the present and the future relevance of Gandhi specifically and nonviolent struggle generally requires adequate funding. From my long work in this field I known all too well just how hard it is your efforts to develop your foundation and to secure the much needed resources to make future work possible.

The twentieth century has been a century of grate violence. Two world wars. Dozens of other wars. Nuclear weapons and other means of mass destruction. Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism. Military and political dictatorships. Repeated genocide. Destruction of the ways of life of indigenous people. Terrorism in the name of justice and freedom. Mass killing of nonviolent demonstrator. Popular powerlessness of masses of people. And more and more.

Yet, something different has also been happening. We must not forget that the twentieth century has also been a hundred years of a major development in the practice of nonviolent forms of struggle often aimed precisely to remove and to combat those forms of political violence.

We also need to remember and learn form the people who have waged nonviolent struggle in many other parts of the word. These include Russian strikers, Norwegian teachers, Berlin wives of Jews, Lithuanian patriots, Chinese and Burmese students, Polish workers, Guatemalan teachers, South African demonstrators, African-American bus boycotters, French conscripts, Mexican and Irish hunger strikers, Filipino mutineers and nuns, Serbian marchers, and Kosovo an resisters. And of coerces many others. Gandhi and the brave Indians who participated in the struggles he led or inspired rank very high among these.

It is now possible to refine the technique of nonviolent struggle, to plan strategies that are more effective, and to learn how to increase the chances of success while reducing the casualties of conflict.

If we can accomplish those tasks, the chances are significantly grater that brave women and responsible political leaders will increasingly apply nonviolent struggle in the conflict of the coming decades. The result can be major reduction in violence, dictatorships, cruelties, and oppression, and a growth of freedom, justice, and peace.

Gandhi’s challenge is to reshape politics. Are we ready to take up his challenge?


  1. Note for the banquet on 2 October 1997, Mahatma Gandhi Canadian Foundation for World Peace, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

  2. Gene Sharp, Gandhi as a Political Strategist, with Essay on Ethics and politics, Boston: Poster Sergeant Publisher, 1979, p. 110, Harijan, 14 December 1947.

  3. Sharp, Gandhi as a political strategist, pp. 103-104, Harijan, 12 April 1942.

  4. Sharp Gandhi as a political strategist, p. 104, Harijan, 29 July 1947.

  5. Sharp Gandhi as a political strategist, p. 116, D. G. Tendulkar, Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (new edition in eight volumes), New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1960- 1963), Vol. VI, pp. 40-41.

1 GENE SHARP, a renowned scholar-researcher on Nonviolence, is Senior Fellow at the Albert Einstein Institution, 50 Church Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. He is the author of a number of books including The Politics of Nonviolent Action; Gandhi Wields the Moral Weapon of Nonviolence and Gandhi as a Political Strategist.

Source: JOURNAL OF PEACE AND GANDHIAN STUDIES, Volume Three, October-December 1997

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