Blogs > Liberty and Power > The Kings of Nonviolent Resistance

Feb 2, 2006 3:58 pm


The Kings of Nonviolent Resistance



It is no longer news that Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., passed away this week. She was 78.

An advocate and practitioner of nonviolent resistance, Martin Luther King Jr. once uttered a classic statement:"I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear."

While a lot of discussion has ensued over the nature of the"love thine enemy" philosophy that seems to underlie King's statement, I think there is a truth therein, which was made even more apparent by King's wife. Coretta Scott King often repeated her husband's maxim:"Hate is too great a burden to bear." But she added:"It injures the hater more than it injures the hated."

I've talked about the effects of hating in other posts dealing with everything from Yoda to my articulation of"The Rose Petal Assumption," so I won't repeat my reasoning here. Suffice it to say, there is an internal relationship between hatred, fear, anger, and suffering, and, often, the transcendence of one brings forth the transcendence of all.

I think what the Kings focused on was not"loving one's enemy" per se, but the practice of a positive alternative in one's opposition to evil. Nonviolent resistance is not equivalent to pacifism. It is not the renunciation of the retaliatory use of force; it entails, instead, the practice of a wide variety of strategies—from boycotts to strikes, which remove all sanctions of one's own victimization. One refuses to be a part of a cycle that replaces one"boss" with another. One repudiates real-world monsters, while not becoming one in the process. For as Nietzsche once said:"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."

Nonviolence is not a social panacea, and sometimes it is absolutely necessary to use violence in one's response to aggression. But much can be learned about how to topple tyranny from the lessons provided by the theoreticians and practitioners of nonviolent resistance.

It's fitting that today I've marked Ayn Rand's birthday, for Atlas Shrugged is one of the grandest dramatizations in fiction of the effectiveness of fighting tyranny through nonviolent resistance. It is no coincidence that, while writing her magnum opus, Rand's working title for Atlas was"The Strike." Of course, Rand was no theorist of nonviolence, but her novel is instructive.

For further reading on the subject of nonviolence, let me suggest first and foremost the books of Gene Sharp, founder of the Albert Einstein Institution. See especially Sharp's books, The Politics of Nonviolent Action and Social Power and Political Freedom.

Cross-posted to Notablog.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Roderick T. Long - 2/2/2006

Heh, worked that time.


Roderick T. Long - 2/2/2006

Hmm, I thought maybe I could use HTML magic to make the italics after my post go away, but so far no luck.


Roderick T. Long - 2/2/2006

</i>Sorry about the run-on italics.


Roderick T. Long - 2/2/2006

Some miscelleaneous notes:

A good bibliographical source on nonviolent resistance is Bryan Caplan's piece here.

Chapters 7 through 12 of Eric Frank Russell's classic science-fiction novel The Great Explosion, online here, are an entertaining dramatisation of nonviolent resistance to tyranny.

I have some speculations here about the possible role of nonviolent resistance in the defensive policy of a free society.

True that Rand wasn't a theorist of nonviolence, but she does have some interesting points of theoretical contact with Gandhi. Here's an excrpt from a forthcoming piece of mine about parallels between Rand and Hindu thought:

Rand's attitude toward the Indian ideal of detachment is more complicated than it might appear. While she certainly rejects the sort of detachment that leads one to withdraw from worldly concerns (as dramatized by the character of Dominique Francon in The Fountainhead), the psychological outlook that Rand advocates might be characterized as one of passionate engagement with the world -- but with an inner core of detachment. As The Fountainhead's hero, Howard Roark, puts it: "I'm not capable of suffering completely. ... It goes only down to a certain point and then it stops. As long as there is that untouched point, it's not really pain." A further echo of Indian asceticism shows up in the plot of Atlas Shrugged, as the heroes "drop out" of their former lives, renouncing (albeit temporarily) their most treasured projects, because remaining in the world would continue the cycle of exploitation.

Indeed, despite Rand's disagreements with Mahatma Gandhi over the merits of industrial capitalism, the strategy of the strikers in Atlas Shrugged -- undermining the power of oppression by withdrawing cooperation from it -- bears more than a passing resemblance to Gandhi's campaign of satyagraha. "You can govern us only so long as we remain the governed," Gandhi declared; "no Government can exist for a single moment without the co-operation of the people," so "if the people suddenly withdraw their co-operation ... the Government will come to a standstill." Likewise, in Atlas Shrugged Hank Rearden tells his prosecutors: "If you choose to deal with men by means of compulsion, do so. But you will discover that you need the voluntary co-operation of your victims .... And your victims should discover that it is their own volition -- which you cannot force -- that makes you possible."

Rand's emphasis on voluntary cooperation brings us to one final parallel (and contrast). Common to many Indian ethical traditions is the ideal of ahimsa, "non-violence," or more broadly "non-injury" -- though the precise requirements of this ideal (is it compatible with warfare? meat-eating? self-defense?) are vigorously disputed. (Gandhi, for example, takes consistent ahimsa to require "utter selflessness" and so to be incompatible with, inter alia, romantic love: "If a man gives his love to one woman, or a woman to one man, what is there left for all the world besides?" This standpoint would not find favor with Rand, to put it mildly.) In Rand's ethic too we find a version of the ahimsa principle (though she does not use the term), in the form of a prohibition on any attempt to profit from another without giving an equivalent value in return. Since both subordinating oneself to others and subordinating others to oneself are forms of dependence and so undermine the commitments needed for successful self-maintenance -- i.e., they bring the Randian equivalent of bad karma -- Rand insists that we should "not make sacrifices nor accept them," but instead "deal with one another as traders, giving value for value." In addition to ruling out nonviolent forms of manipulation and parasitism, Rand's version of ahimsa yields a specific condemnation of initiatory force: "Men have the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use."

Many Indian traditions appear to reserve the consistent practice of ahimsa, however interpreted, to a committed few, treating it as a distant ideal whose onerous burdens the ordinary laity may appropriately postpone (either to old age or to a later incarnation). But there is nothing optional or deferrable about the Randian version of ahimsa -- which is intended as a guide, not an obstacle, to living in this world. That is why Rand's ban on initiatory force protects not only bodily integrity but private property as well: "Since material goods are produced by the mind and effort of individual men, and are needed to sustain their lives, if the producer does not own the result of his effort, he does not own his life." Gandhi would agree, in principle: "There is surely often more violence in burning a man's property than doing him physical injury." But unlike Gandhi, Rand infers the illegitimacy of all taxation and economic regulation -- since officials of the State enjoy no exemption from the requirements of ahimsa: "No man -- or group or society or government -- has the right to assume the role of a criminal and initiate the use of physical compulsion against any man." Hence all laws restricting the freedom of individuals to do whatever they please with their own persons and property are illegitimate; the Randian call to ahimsa is thus a demand for a radical libertarian transformation of existing society. (Indeed it is a matter of controversy whether Rand’s prohibition on initiatory force is compatible with the existence of any State at all.)


Roderick T. Long - 2/2/2006

I've argued here that there's at least one sense in hich we should love our enemies:

"Anger is often justified; but hate, I think, is never justified, at least against a person.

Where does the difference lie? Well, we can be angry with a person and still wish that person well; after all, we are often angry with those we love, and we do not stop loving them while we are angry with them. But we cannot hate a person and still wish that person well. I think this makes hate morally problematic in a way that anger is not. For I accept Aristotle's conception of happiness as a life of virtuous rational activity. Surely we should wish our enemies to be more virtuous and more rational; after all, if they were more virtuous and more rational, they wouldn’t have hijacked two airplanes and sent them crashing into the World Trade Center. Any move, by anybody, in the direction of greater virtue and greater rationality should always be met with approval. But if Aristotle is right about happiness, then to wish for our enemies to be more virtuous and more rational is ipso facto to wish for them to be happier.

I think this must be what such moral teachers as Socrates, Jesus, and the Buddha mean when they advise us to wish our enemies well. Obviously we should not wish success to our enemies' projects; for those projects are evil, and they could not cease to be evil without ceasing to be the projects they are. Hence hatred for those projects is quite in order. But people can always cease to be evil without ceasing to be. If they refuse to cease being evil, we may find it necessary, in self-defense, to make them cease to be; but we should always prefer that our enemies cease being evil. But what is that, but to prefer that our enemies become better people -- that they live better, more worthwhile, less destructive, hate-filled lives? And if that is what we ought to prefer, then we ought to wish our enemies well. And while that is compatible with being angry at them, and with killing them if necessary, it is not compatible with hating them."

History News Network