Lessons for an aspiring movement?

THE RECENT wave of Occupy activism has, understandably, piqued interest in prior icons of radical politics. The many questions thrown up by the movement have invited an interrogation of the Left’s ancestry, on the safe assumption that our forebears once wrestled with many of the same challenges that ail us today.

Enter Norman Finkelstein. His slender What Gandhi Says is framed as a contribution to this effort to mine our tradition for lessons for the present. Admittedly, the timing of the book is somewhat fortuitous—Finkelstein began his exhaustive study of Gandhi’s collected works (more than half of the 100 volumes!) prior to the emergence of Occupy, “in order to think through a nonviolent strategy for ending the Israeli occupation.” But his conviction that “Gandhi’s name is everywhere on the lips” of those today challenging the political and economic elite inspired him to broaden the scope of this text. The sales pitch is unambiguous. Gandhi, Finkelstein proclaims in his preface, “devoted the whole of his adult life to organizing the powerless 99 percent against the greedy 1 percent.”

Certainly, the book is not without the virtues we have come to expect from Finkelstein’s pen. The prose is clear and militantly precise, which remains regrettably unfashionable amongst segments of the Left. The task of the intellectual is to make the complicated simple (not the opposite), and to his immense credit Finkelstein has always understood this as well as anyone else. In this sense the book represents, formally, the activist scholar’s ideal division of labor. If Gandhi is “everywhere on the lips” of today’s movement, surely the 99 percent stands to benefit from this clear, labor-intensive defense of his doctrine?

Not so, unfortunately. The book fails in its ambitions to present a Gandhi worth incorporating into our political practice. This is not, again, because Finkelstein is at all unclear, but simply because he’s mistaken in his assessment of the man.

First, because Finkelstein seeks to reconstruct Gandhi’s political doctrine qua doctrine, we learn very little about Gandhi as an activist. The history of the Indian nationalist movement rarely enters the narrative, and when it does its place is fleeting and its expository role often random.

Now, in one sense this might seem unfair as a criticism of this book. Finkelstein does not claim to be writing a history of the Indian National Congress, or of the nationalist movement more generally. But without some sense of the movement over which Gandhi presided at his most prominent, it becomes impossible for the uninitiated to get a reliable pulse of his politics.

For activists seeking to understand the full dimensions of Gandhi’s political leadership, What Gandhi Says compares unfavorably with, say, Modern India: 1885–1947, by Sumit Sarkar—or even Perry Anderson’s recent series of excellent essays in the London Review of Books. There, perhaps precisely because their focus is the history of the broad movement, the reactionary character of Gandhi’s general leadership is made plain. As Sarkar and Anderson both show, Gandhi’s was an example the 99 percent would do well to disregard—at key junctures in the history of the Congress, Gandhi marginalized those currents committed to the overthrow of the “greedy 1 percent.” He was, when all was said and done, indispensable to the machinations of the Indian elite, steadying them as they sought to balance their grievances against the British with their unfaltering fear of the Indian masses.

Of course, Finkelstein could grant us this, yet still defend the mission that motivates What Gandhi Says. The book, again, doesn’t seek to defend Gandhi as a historical figure, but only as a political thinker. Provided the man’s practice was consistently at odds with his thought, perhaps there’s still something to be learned?

Yet it is precisely here that the book is at its most disappointing. Gandhi’s theses on power and activism, as crystallized here by Finkelstein, appear strikingly naive. Really, there are two core claims, a familiar one about the powerful, and a more unfamiliar one about the powerless.

The first is the classically Gandhian argument that privilege can be shamed out of its excesses—or even out of existence. At its worst this was Gandhi’s doctrine of “trusteeship.” In his own words: “I do not believe that the capitalists and landlords are all exploiters by an inherent necessity or that there is a basic or irreconcilable antagonism between their interests and those of the masses.” Much deserves to be said about the political practice that this sanctified—as Gandhi’s left-wing rivals argued, “trusteeship” euphemized the Congress’s slavishness towards an Indian elite that had anything but the interests of the subcontinent’s subalterns in mind.

But even without a sense of the politics it justified, radicals can have no truck with this position. These are lessons, after all, that any Marxist has internalized by the end of her first reading group. Structural pressures are such that elites must collect competitive amounts of revenue in order to reproduce themselves. Simply put, kind or ashamed capitalists either cease to be kind or ashamed, or they cease to be capitalists.    

Finkelstein, admittedly, is not uncritical. But, after excusing himself by oddly suggesting that “here is not the place to weigh the merits or demerits of Gandhi’s trusteeship scheme” (where, one wonders, if not here?), his defense is to offer a second claim, in its place. Gandhi, Finkelstein argues, was not himself always convinced that the powerful could be disarmed through “self-suffering.” The object was just as much the powerless and their mobilization. It is this insight, it seems, that Finkelstein understands as this book’s signal contribution: this other purpose of self-suffering (or, more generally, nonviolent resistance) is to activate the moral conscience of one’s own constituents such that they, inspired by your example, are moved to bring the necessary force to bear on the powerful.

At best, this is only partially compelling. Finkelstein is right to stress the importance of forcing elites to concede the world we want. But casting what’s really a fairly elementary insight in this Gandhian idiom threatens to take us several steps backward. The proposal that movements base themselves in the public’s latent moral convictions is a nonstarter. If the American working class is going to be summoned to do battle with the 1 percent, the movement under whose auspices they mobilize will have to speak unambiguously to their self-interest. Activists can have other motivations, but mass movements they do not make.

This was arguably Occupy’s overarching problem. First, by eschewing representation and majority rule, the movement developed an institutional form that—mass marches aside—demanded unsustainable contributions of time and energy from participants. Second, while Occupy succeeded in piquing the public’s moral outrage at bankers, the police, and their ilk, it was, at best, only sporadically successful in wresting tangible concessions from that elite. Only the odd, exceptional individual will persist in participating in a movement that wins her no material victories.

Finkelstein routinely invokes this same Gandhian insight to give weight to his strategic recommendations for Palestine activists, who he has urged to exploit the overwhelming international consensus that Israel withdraw to its 1967 borders. While he’s right to indict some activist strands for a lack of realism in this regard (“We demand a bi-national workers’ State within a Socialist Federation of the Middle East, and we demand it now!”), the line between sobriety and defeatism is very fine, indeed. The danger of relying on latent convictions is that we forget that the radical’s central task has always been the very hard one of changing people’s minds.

Here, undoubtedly, the decision to compress his thesis into such a slender volume does Finkelstein a disservice. Had he tackled some of these questions more deliberately, the book (and its activist audience) would have benefited. This is doubly the case because too many of the opening pages are lost battling a peculiarly unintelligent evaluation of Gandhi. Too many people, Finkelstein seems to think, reject Gandhi because they associate his commitment to nonviolence with cowardice, even weakness. In fact, we learn, Gandhi condemned cowardice as the worst of all sins. “If Gandhi preached simultaneously the virtues of nonviolence and courage, it was because he believed that nonviolence required more courage than violence.”

This is correct, as far as it goes. Gandhi was brave and uncompromising—perhaps particularly in his last years, in the face of the intercommunal slaughter prior to the partition of British India, as Finkelstein notes on the last page. But as lessons for an aspiring movement, this lacks substance. Courage and bravery are empty virtues; what make them admirable are the ends they serve. A factory owner who refuses to desert his machinery in the heat of a factory occupation might well be the bravest man for miles. But so what? And if the point is that one must be courageous in confronting the powerful (as Finkelstein mistakenly thinks Gandhi was), this is not insight but rah-rah.

On balance, then, What Gandhi Says disappoints. This is not entirely Finkelstein’s fault, let’s be clear. In fact, it’s the book’s virtues that make this particularly evident. By presenting the man and his doctrine in clear, unambiguous language, Gandhi’s flaws appear as plain as day. What’s bizarre is that the book doesn’t quite spot them—or that, even where it does, that it continues to search for redemptive lessons in Gandhi’s legacy.

Here, in the end, history is on the other side. Our left-wing ancestors inside and outside the Indian National Congress—those committed to a “socially-divisive” movement that would end the depredations of both the British and the Indian elite—considered Gandhi’s leadership and doctrine obstacles to achieving the movement and world that they wanted. For Finkelstein and for us, our commitments to these twin goals demand the same.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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