Unanswered Questions

Steve Bloom

Connecting Contemporary African-Asian Peacemaking and Nonviolence:
From Satagraha to Ujamaa

Vidya Jain and Matt Meyer (Eds.)
518 pages, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018.

Since readers might be curious we will begin this review by citing the definitions offered in the book itself of two words used in the title that will surely be unfamiliar to many:

‘Satagraha’— Sanskrit word meaning ‘truth-force,’ ‘soul-force’ or ‘love-force,’ popularized by Gandhi throughout India to suggest the establishment of power based on truth, soul, and love rather than on greed, individualism, and a striving for personal profit.”

‘Ujamaa’—Swahili word describing village-based socialistic practices. It was used prominently by Julius Nyerere of Tanzania in his effort to bring scattered peasant communities together in order to encourage collective production and provision of social services.”

Connecting Contemporary African-Asian Peacemaking and Nonviolence is a sweeping collection of essays about social change in Africa and Asia—pulled together as part of the work of the International Peace Research Association (IPRA). The two editors are both prominent leaders of IPRA. Matt Meyer—in addition to a long record of activism, in particular around the struggle to free political prisoners in the USA—is currently IPRA Secretary General. Vidya Jain is a professor of Political Science at the University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. She is principal of Maharani College and Director of the Centre for Gandhian Studies, University of Rajasthan.

The book contains twenty-six numbered chapters, each considering a particular experience in a particular country, plus six introductory essays and two poems. Taken as a whole these contributions pose a number of questions including:

* What are the possibilities for nonviolent social change in our contemporary world?

* What do we mean by “nonviolence”?

* What do we mean by “social change”?

To the first question there is a clear collective answer: The potential is deep and profound, with case studies offered from a wide range of countries in a variety of social contexts. But the other two questions, which just happen to be key to understanding the first, are not actually considered. Many readers will no doubt notice that different authors are using the same words to mean different things.

In his Prologue Matt Meyer sums up the value of considering the specific examples that are covered in the book:

“Nonviolent social change must not be viewed as an Indian, or Asian, or African phenomenon. Conversations and the sharing of best practices across the Global South, especially from the point of view of local change agents, must intensify as we are collectively called upon to sharpen our definitions of and redefine traditional concepts of nonviolence, constructive programs, and social justice for this century.”

Meyer is also aware, however, that a number of questions are being left unaddressed. This, too, from the Prologue: “There is far from a singular ideological thread that binds the authors of this volume, or the associations they work in, together. Thus, one will find some quite radical interpretations of, and prognosis for, societal ills but then note elsewhere more conservative notions about the nature of contemporary history and events.”


“Standing armies of national governments cannot be allowed to hold onto monopolies of power, while communities who bear the brunt of state violence are disarmed and left vulnerable to repression. But even this viewpoint is not so clearly stated, and perhaps not so clearly understood, in all the essays.”

In order to be totally honest with himself Meyer might want to reconsider the word “perhaps” in that passage.

There are, of course, many references in the book to the Gandhian style of “non-violent revolution” that occurred in India. But the “nonviolence” discussed by the various authors also includes, for example, electoral campaigns and processes of mediation between warring parties. All of this begs the question (about electoral campaigns in particular): Are efforts to generate social change within the limits of pre-established state forms actually non-violent? Who established these state forms? Through what kinds of processes (universally violent in some meaningful sense)? How are the results of elections enforced? (By standing armies and police forces. There is, in the final analysis, no other process by which the choices made in elections are recognized and carried out.) Some authors even include actions by the police or armed forces to enforce an established legality in their discussion of “non-violence,” an approach that seems especially problematic.

In assessing the final result we will, in these notes, pay particular attention to the perspective developed by Matt Meyer in his multiple contributions to the volume. Meyer is not only co-editor; his name also appears seven times in the Table of Contents while only one other person is listed more than once (an individual whose name appears twice.) Taken as a body, Meyer’s contributions constitute an attempt to pull the volume together as a collective whole. Thus it seems appropriate for us to focus explicitly on what he has to say.

In his chapter titled “Total Revolution: Resistance, Bliss, and the 21st Century Relevance of JP Narayan and Narayan Desai” Meyer explains his personal appreciation of “revolutionary nonviolence.” It would be interesting to quote from and discuss this entire essay in some detail, but we will limit ourselves here to one paragraph:

“Can it be that, in the Indian experience of total revolution—and its attempts to form a fusion between socialist ideas and nonviolence ideals—the concept of revolution has itself been reinvented? Gail Omvedt’s important research on new social movements in India suggest such a possibility, despite a critique of JP Narayan on several crucial grounds. Like Gandhi before him, JP’s base did not include the Dalit ‘untouchable’ community, led by Ambedkar and other key radicals of the period. In addition, the calls for total revolution had few ‘compelling programs’ for grassroots organizers, especially as the ruling Congress Party began to reassert itself. Nonetheless, JP is understood as a figure who fought against both capitalism and statism, beginning the process of bringing together broad groupings of the lower classes and castes into a truly revolutionary alliance. The new movements—Ambedkar followers along with those of Gandhi, rural farmer’s movements, and a burgeoning ‘women’s power’ movement of the 1980s and beyond—all ‘used a variety of militant, law-defying strategies of action, but distinguished themselves from strategies based on “taking up the gun.”’ For Omvedt and for all those looking to objectively examine current trends in resistance and civil society, revolution itself has to be redefined in broader terms.”

Indeed, it seems clear that “redefining” revolution “in broader terms” is the key here, as suggested by the quote from Gandhi which is placed at the start of this chapter: “A nonviolent revolution is not a program of ‘seizure of power.’ It is a program of transformation of relationships.”

Yet the fact remains that once the “seizure of power” is deleted from our understanding of revolution that concept loses its ability to describe a genuinely revolutionary social change. This is the dilemma on which Matt Meyer finds himself perched, with no solution in sight that this reviewer can see. Gandhi’s counterposition and Meyer’s apparent acceptance of it are misplaced. A revolution must consist of a transformation of human relations, yes. It must also, however, have a program for the seizure of power in order to create state forms that will then allow our transformed human relationships to survive and thrive, rather than being strangled by the “greed, individualism, and a striving for personal profit” that are an inherent part of the present world order.

If this is true then the proper answer to the question with which Matt begins the paragraph quoted above will be “no”: The concept of revolution has not been reinvented in the Indian experience of total revolution—at least not in a way that we should accept. If an attempt to “form a fusion between socialist ideas and nonviolence ideals” leads us to the counterposition that Gandhi insists on, removing the seizure of power from the revolutionary socialist portion of that duality, then this is an approach we cannot endorse. It isn’t, in fact, a fusion at all, but a simple negation.

Also, nothing in Meyer’s exposition, or in the rest of this 518-page book, considers how “the Indian experience of total revolution” (at least as developed by Gandhi himself) ends up where it is today, with the toxic poison of Hindutva. It is, after all, not only “armed struggle” that can degenerate into totalitarian rule, leadership cults, and all the mess we’re too familiar with. This is an element which the contributors to Connecting Contemporary African-Asian Peacemaking and Nonviolence need to consider and, at some point in the future perhaps, offer us their thoughts about. Similarly, the reader might wonder how and why the village-based “African socialism” vision of Julius Nyerere evolved into the present Tanzanian regime, with its authoritarian and repressive character.

We would like to suggest that Matt Meyer, and by extension Connecting Contemporary African-Asian Peacemaking and Nonviolence, poses the relationship between non-violence and revolution in the wrong way: “Can nonviolent action be revolutionary?” he asks. Formulated in these terms the answer is: “Of course.” When we look at the historical record, in fact, most of the action that takes place in most revolutions is non-violent. (The guerrilla model of revolution is an exception, but most revolutions do not follow that model. And even the guerrilla model requires considerable non-violent action by civil society in order to succeed.)

Considered in this way the question itself becomes almost trivial.

What makes any action “revolutionary,” in the sense Matt Meyer is using this word, is that it advances the independent mass mobilization of alternative social forces in opposition to those forces which control the existing state. Meyer (once again in his Prologue) refers to those who “write of ‘revolutionary nonviolence’ to distinguish a set of practices which eschew liberal and conservative policies or a short-term reformism.” When used in that way the concept is completely valid. Many non-violent actions (from strikes to mobilizations against war or for social justice) can be thought of as “revolutionary” in this sense.*

The distinction we need to make isn’t between violence and non-violence as revolutionary instruments, but between the alternative social forces which are being mobilized and relied on in order to bring about social change. When an action attempts to mobilize the existing state—or forces loyal to the existing state—in order to use the established power of that state as the agent of change, then that action cannot reasonably be called “revolutionary.” (In my judgment it cannot reasonably be called “nonviolent” either, see notes above about elections and the role of police and standing armies.) We can, however, properly apply the term “revolutionary” to any and all actions that base themselves primarily on the mobilization of independent social forces, acting to advance their own interests.

There is, however, a different question about the relationship between nonviolence and revolution, one that is inherently posed in these 518 pages but never addressed even by Meyer: Is there such a thing as a non-violent revolution? This is, after all, the goal those who advocate nonviolence as a philosophy, or generalized strategy of social change “distinguished . . . from strategies based on ‘taking up the gun’” are attempting to achieve.

Here we note that history seems to clearly answer this question in the negative. The ruling forces in control of the state will inevitably react to the non-violent revolutionary actions, if these actions ever actually threaten to lead to successful revolution, with a violent repression of the non-violent movement. The movement must, therefore, be prepared to engaged in self-defense through armed actions. The only alternative is to be massacred in the streets—or rounded up and sent to concentration camps. This is indeed what has happened historically on numerous occasions. Some will tell us that the liberation of India from British colonial rule is one historical case study in “nonviolent revolution,” and it is, indeed, the only case that might be credibly cited. Yet even this took place against the backdrop of the extreme violence of World War II which weakened the British empire to the point where India could “nonviolently” win its political independence. There is at least a question, therefore, about whether we can accept the assertions about “nonviolent revolution” even in India.

Connecting Contemporary African-Asian Peacemaking and Nonviolence: From Satagraha to Ujamaa completely fails to wrap its head around this difficulty. Most readers will probably not notice, since most readers don’t spend much time contemplating the problems of revolutionary social change—in particular the difference between revolutionary social change and other varieties. But many or most who have taken the time to consider this problem, who do concern themselves with developing a meaningful strategy of revolution, will close the final page of this book feeling dissatisfied because it fails to even pose, let alone answer, this key question.

In a chapter titled “Looking to Africa for Peace, Pan African Nonviolence, and the Need to Move Beyond Mythologized Histories” Meyer refers to “the Africa of unquenchable, creative struggles for peace and justice” which “provides a true hope for all humanity.” The problem is that providing hope by itself is insufficient. If we are unable to realize that hope in the form of meaningful and lasting social change—real revolutions that will actually lead to the transformation of social and human relationships—hopes that are repeatedly raised and then disappointed will ultimately lead to discouragement and demoralization, thus opening the road to right-wing solutions. This, too, is a lesson of history that we would do well to remember.

Later in the same chapter Meyer suggests that “only a revolution that looks deeply at the role of capital and neoliberalism and understands how caste, white supremacy, and patriarchy bolster the diversified imperialisms of the current moment, can meet the needs required by our future struggles.” This is a sentiment with which we can wholeheartedly agree. Can a “revolutionary nonviolence” that refuses to raise the question of state power, as projected in the quote above from Gandhi, conceivably engage in this way? It is a question all the authors and editors of Connecting Contemporary African-Asian Peacemaking and Nonviolence need to consider if they want to address the actual possibilities for nonviolent social change in a 21st Century world.

We will end this review with a full disclosure: The reviewer worked on the book as a copy editor, and is also a contributor as the author of the poem which concludes the volume. The reader will have to judge whether that relationship between the book and the individual who is assessing it prejudices these notes in unacceptable ways, or perhaps (as I hope you will conclude) gives me a familiarity with the material which, in turn, enhances my ability to assess it objectively. A copy editor, after all, does not select the material to be published and has no stake in the success of the subsequent product. The task is, merely, to make sure that whatever might be included in the book is presented in a manner that’s clear, stylistically consistent, and as readable as possible.

* In a different sense only those actions which truly pose the potential for a transfer of power are “revolutionary.” (We note, however, that even these can be and most often are nonviolent. Think about Rosa Luxemburg and her vision of the insurrectionary general strike.) The Marxist movement has traditionally reserved the term “revolutionary” for actions such as these. Others are referred to as “prerevolutionary” or “preparatory.” This reality—that the Marxist movement has traditionally used the term “revolutionary” in a different sense than the one Matt Meyer does in this passage—could cause confusion if we fail to remain aware of the fact that the same word is being used in two different ways. We therefore call attention to the difficulty in this footnote. In the sense that Matt Meyer is using the word, all nonviolent actions that advance the independent mass mobilization of alternative social forces in opposition to those who control the present state are “revolutionary,” whether they actually create a moment when the transfer of power becomes possible or not.

1 comment

  1. I, a co-editor of UNANSWERED QUESTIONS, write this call—to all authors from the original book, all members of the International Peace Research Association and our affiliates (responsible for the Abuja and Trinidad conference and many others), all readers of Against the Current, and anyone who has gotten their hands on this text—to write your own reactions: to Steve’s essay, the co-edited book, or even simply any of the questions raised in this note. We want to encourage a broad dialogue on what a successful insurrection might look like—in various locales and on a multinational scale as well. We want to seek answers to these unanswered questions in creative, non-sectarian ways, with as little dogmatic thinking or mindless repetition of previous orthodoxies as possible. There is too much need for concrete creative ideas on rebuilding a revolutionary left, inspired by a vision for a sustainable future.

    We are planning to collect these comments—be they a few sentences jotted down on the way to a protest, a few paragraphs scribbled in reaction to something you liked or something which infuriated you, or a full-blown essay in response to any of these essential issues. Together, we want to share these essays among all those interested, en route to a space for in-person conversations.

    PLEASE THEREFORE EMAIL these comments—whether voluminous, verbose, short, or somewhere in-between—to my International Peace Research Association e-address, which is:
    internationalpeaceresearch.sg@gmail.com.–Matt Meyer

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *