Of late years it has been the fashion to talk about Gandhi as though he were not only sympathetic to the Western Left-wing movement, but were integrally part of it. Anarchists and pacifists, in particular, have claimed him for their own, noticing only that he was opposed to centralism and State violence and ignoring the other-worldly, anti-humanist tendency of his doctrines....
Gandhi's pacifism can be separated to some extent from his other teachings. Its motive was religious, but he claimed also for it that it was a definitive technique, a method, capable of producing desired political results. Gandhi's attitude was not that of most Western pacifists. Satyagraha, first evolved in South Africa, was a sort of non-violent warfare, a way of defeating the enemy without hurting him and without feeling or arousing hatred. It entailed such things as civil disobedience, strikes, lying down in front of railway trains, enduring police charges without running away and without hitting back, and the like. Gandhi objected to “passive resistance” as a translation of Satyagraha: in Gujarati, it seems, the word means “firmness in the truth”. In his early days Gandhi served as a stretcher-bearer on the British side in the Boer War, and he was prepared to do the same again in the war of 1914-18. Even after he had completely abjured violence he was honest enough to see that in war it is usually necessary to take sides. He did not — indeed, since his whole political life centred round a struggle for national independence, he could not — take the sterile and dishonest line of pretending that in every war both sides are exactly the same and it makes no difference who wins. Nor did he, like most Western pacifists, specialize in avoiding awkward questions. In relation to the late war, one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: “What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without resorting to war?” I must say that I have never heard, from any Western pacifist, an honest answer to this question, though I have heard plenty of evasions, usually of the “you're another” type. But it so happens that Gandhi was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer is on record in Mr. Louis Fischer's Gandhi and Stalin. According to Mr. Fischer, Gandhi's view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler's violence.” After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly. One has the impression that this attitude staggered even so warm an admirer as Mr. Fischer, but Gandhi was merely being honest. If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be lost in some other way. When, in 1942, he urged non-violent resistance against a Japanese invasion, he was ready to admit that it might cost several million deaths.
At the same time there is reason to think that Gandhi, who after all was born in 1869, did not understand the nature of totalitarianism and saw everything in terms of his own struggle against the British government. The important point here is not so much that the British treated him forbearingly as that he was always able to command publicity. As can be seen from the phrase quoted above, he believed in “arousing the world”, which is only possible if the world gets a chance to hear what you are doing. It is difficult to see how Gandhi's methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary....the assumption, which served Gandhi so well in dealing with individuals, that all human beings are more or less approachable and will respond to a generous gesture, needs to be seriously questioned. It is not necessarily true.--George Orwell (1949) "Reflections on Gandhi."
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda shocked me not because it was genocide; genocides occur too frequently in human history for one to be shocked, which presupposes surprise. Rather, it shocked me because it happened in broad day light with UN troops that could stop it nearby. After the end of the cold war, I had assumed that the United Nations would be able to act on its core humanitarian mission. A year later the Srebrenica massacre took place right in a purportedly UN protected safe area. I focus on these two events because they are 'best-case' scenarios for those that argue for the permissibility of war. After all, most other self-proclaimed humanitarian interventions tend to be mere pretext for naked self-interest or generate further disasters [the intervention in Libya being evidence for both these claims]. And unlike Rwanda and Screbrenica, many other instances of just wars (of self-defense) are beset with epistemic challenges in establishing true justness. These challenges are especially acute because of the existence of pervasive propaganda, group loyalty, and official secrecy. In a recent rather ungenerous review of a new book by Larry May, Narveson thinks otherwise and concludes (or assumes): "it seems obvious that our participation in some wars is justified." But I do not find it obvious, and I have started to think that pacifism may be the only reasonable position.
In his review of May, Narveson trots out an argument from Hitler. In general I mistrust such arguments because while after the fact arguments from Hitler point to obvious conclusions, it worth noting that Hitler was not fought because he committed acts of genocide (notoriously the Allies were not especially active in preventing that). And, even after the Holocaust, many Allied nations (for example, the USA) were unwilling to open their doors to the survivors. Because even liberal democracies so often fail to do the right thing when they can, and since allowing a moral right to war is frequently so easily abused, pacifism may well be the only moral stance.
Even so, as Orwell notes (recall also yesterday), the moral stance of pacifism is "awkward" and may, in fact, be obtuse in light of totalitarian regimes. As it happens North Korea may be the last remaining genuinely totalitarian regime, and while dangerous it is being contained (with a mixture of carrots and military threats). [I am open to expanding the list.] There are, of course, plenty of dictatorships, but only a few of these actively eye their neighbors' territory. So, while the argument for pacifism looked hopeless in much of the twentieth century, it is less so today. Most wars now are civil wars or insurgencies; while undoubtedly one side or another is right to feel victimized and aggrieved, it is also pretty obvious that once civil wars get under way, they turn savage and barbaric.
When we conceive of pacifism as “firmness in the truth,” a kind of steadfast integrity, then it may be well be one of the few forms of political life in which our words and deeds can match. Such steadfast or existential integrity ought to hold great attraction to philosophers and philosophy. Yet, this integrity can come, as Orwell notes, at a cost: "If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be lost in some other way." I am unsure what to respond to this point, and so while I understand pacificism as the last remaining moral option, I hesitate to embrace it as a guide to political life, and wonder what it would take to become firm in truth.