Monday, November 4, 2013

Book Review: What Gandhi Says by Norman Finkelstein

“Although Mahatma Gandhi’s name is frequently invoked, he is seldom read.” (11) Thus begins Norman Finkelstein’s very short book What Gandhi Says About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage.  The work, which Finkelstein dedicates to the Occupy Movement, explodes the contemporary caricature of Gandhi and pithily extracts the aspects of his philosophy and practice most germane to present politics.

First, Finkelstein points out that Gandhi’s philosophy is complex, occasionally bizarre and often contradictory: “It was not only Gandhi’s actions that contradicted his words.  His statements also, and often flagrantly, contradicted each other.” (17-18)  Nevertheless, Finkelstein believes that the essential “content of his doctrine can be accessed by reason and made accessible to the rational mind.” (25)

Gandhi’s views on violence are probably his most referenced, but most people completely misunderstand his perspective.  Finkelstein observes, “However much he deplored violence, Gandhi did not unreservedly oppose it.” (32)  Indeed, Gandhi made declarations such as “‘self-defense is everybody’s birthright.’” (32)  Furthermore, “Gandhi did not just extenuate violence on circumstantial grounds.  He also positively advocated it if, in the face of an injustice, the only other options were abject surrender or retreat.” (34)  Gandhi went so far as to proclaim violence preferable to certain kinds of nonviolence: “Nonviolence born of fear is cowardice; cowardice is worse than violence; violent retaliation is morally superior to fear-inspired abstention.” (38)

Finkelstein highlights many instances of Gandhi’s unsavory behavior that makes one hesitate to venerate him as a saint.  His statements could be demeaning (to a women’s conference: “‘I know your sex and your needs better than you do yourselves.’” (20)), distastefully unconventional (late in life he “slept naked with young girls to test his capacity for sexual restraint” (48)) and morally relativistic (“the United Nations set out to fight Hitler with his weapons and ended by out-Hitlering Hitler’” (31)).  After examining Gandhi’s record of encouraging self-sacrifice of his followers and showing no remorse for -- even exhilaration upon -- their deaths, Finkelstein concludes “It might fairly be said that Gandhi fostered a death cult.” (40)  All this is to say nothing of his opposition to such modern decadence as wristwatches, underwear, pencils, pens, etc. (24)

At times, Gandhi can sound much more radical than most remember him.  At one point, sounding more like Lenin, he says the Indian independence struggle is “‘only part of the general struggle of colonial peoples against world capitalism and imperialism.’” (62)  On another occasion, conjuring Proudhon, Gandhi utters, “‘A thing not originally stolen must nevertheless be classified as stolen property if we possess it without needing it.’” (63)

It is true, putting all the above ambiguity aside, that Gandhi is renowned most for his nonviolent practice and philosophy.  Finkelstein concludes by saying, “If a criticism is to be leveled against Gandhi’s nonviolence, it is that he sets the bar of courage too high for most mortals to vault.” (81)

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