Conflict Resolution and Gandhian Ethics


By : Thomas Weber

Table of Contents

About This Book

By : Thomas Weber
Published by : Gandhi Peace Foundation,
221/223, Deendayal Upadhyaya Marg,
New Delhi - 11002

The Position of The Individual

If you haven't the strength to impose your own terms upon life, you must accept the terms it offers you.

T. S. Elliot (The Confidential Clerk)

Gandhi's emphasis on the individual and his premise that by changing individuals one changes the world appears to be at odds with modern sociological tradition which emphasises the "priority" of society, and views individuals as the product of the social order. To a large degree Gandhi held with the traditionalists that the individual preceded society - the social structure derived from the qualities of the individual. He was fond of making seemingly simplistic pronouncements on the importance of the individual: "The individual is the supreme consideration", "Ultimately it is the individual who is the unit", "If the individual ceases to count what is left of society?" and "I have discovered that man is superior to the system he has propounded".1 These statements, which span twenty-five years, show a strong concerned humanist streak in Gandhi while concealing the degree to which these often unsophisticated pronouncements can mesh with current sociological thought. As Iyer points out, Gandhi refused to believe....that society is governed by laws of growth which are beyond the ability of any individual to alter." 2At the heart of all his personal, and social actions "lay an insistence that individual will and reason can effect social and political change". 3 In fact Iyer goes as far as to accept that Gandhi developed his concept of truth "in an effort to understand external authority and to reaffirm the moral autonomy and authority of the individual as an agent, and an active performer in the arena of politics and social life".4 At any rate Gandhi firmly believed in the perfectibility of the individual and of the flow through effect to society:
I do not agree that our ideologies, ethical standards and values are altogether a product of our material environment without any absolute basis outside it. On the contrary as we are so our environment becomes. 5
Gandhi however was aware of the practical aspects presented by the reverse of this argument, for example, the alienation of the individual through feelings of powerlessness caused by massive centralisation in modern society. He was very concerned with increased power of states which seem to lead to a corresponding decrease in civil liberties:
I look upon an increase in the power of the state with the greatest fear because, although while apparently doing good by minimising exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress.6
If a person loses this freedom "he becomes an automaton and society is ruined. No society can possibly be built on a denial of individual freedom. It is contrary to the very nature of man". 7 It is obvious that Gandhi is thinking here as politician rather than as a sociologist, and many sociologists would argue that his statements beg the question as to what exactly this freedom that must be protected is. Gandhi also makes the claim that "A small body of determined spirits fixed by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history." 8 Gandhi believed in the almost unlimited nature of individual ability; he saw the individual as the subject rather than the object of history, and he firmly believed that the relationship between the individual and society was one of the parts determining the whole.
Will Durant rightly claimed that Gandhi made "very little application of history to the understanding of the present" 9 and Gandhi himself admitted to Romain Rolland that he had learned very little from history, stating: "My method is empiric, all my conclusions are based on personal experience." 10 To paraphrase Bhattacharya, Gandhi either did not, or could not, recognise individuals as products of social relations in the sense that the sociologists have generally taken them to be - that is, insisting that individuals must be looked at in their social and historical milieu, meaning that man must be discovered "in his origin, in his evolution, in the development of society, in his history". 11
Sociological thought then is concerned with the individual in society, how they act and why, and what cultural factors go into making them what they are. Sociological theory is a scientific tool that aims to explain these interrelationships. This chapter will analyse Gandhi's ideas concerning the individual's ability to change society in the light of modern sociological knowledge and thereby evaluating the applicability of satyagraha.
In the sociological tradition to a large degree wholes are seen as determining the parts: the individual is not seen as having quite the freedom that Gandhi claims for them - the individual is moulded by the social forces acting upon them – their likes and dislikes, values and modes of behaviour are those of his culture. Charles H. Cooley, in his holistic approach to social structure, noted that the consideration of the individual apart from the society of which they are a member is as artificial as considering society apart from individuals. He remarked that not only did most people see the two as separate and antithetical but that they, like Gandhi, considered the former as antecedent to the latter. Most people would admit that individuals make society but "that society makes persons would , strike many as a startling notion . Although he could see no good reason for "looking upon the distributive aspect of life as more primary or causative than the collective one", he ventured to say:
The reason for the common impression appears to be that we think most naturally and easily of the individual phase of life, simply because it is, a tangible one, the phase under which men appear to the senses, while the actuality of groups, of nations, of mankind at large, is realized only by the active and instructed imagination. 12
For Cooley society is far more than a mere sum of the individuals within it having an organisation and life process "that you cannot see in individuals separately. The individual is its product receiving their heredity, language and education from the society of which they are a member. 13
George Herbert Mead likewise held that mind presupposes and is a product of the social process rather than the other way around. He distinguished the social and individual theories of the mind and self by arguing:
The latter theory takes individuals and their individual experiencing - individual minds and selves – as logically prior to the social process in which they are involved, and explains the existence of the social process in terms of them; whereas the former takes the social process of experience or behaviour as logically prior to the individuals and their individual experiencing which are involved in it, and explains their existence in terms of that social process.14
Of the great sociologists, Durkheim perhaps goes the farthest in postulating that the individual is a subject whose goals and aspirations cannot be understood without knowing the social system of which they are a member. Durkheim, along with the others mentioned, maintains that a person is born into a society which already has a definite structure and which conditions their personality, that they are only one of the elements of the totality of relationships which make up a society, and that these relationships are not created by any single individual but are made up of the various interactions between individuals. Added to this, for him society is far more than the source of impersonal rules and values, over and above this society "possesses all the spiritual characteristics necessary to arouse in an individual the sense of being in relationship with a morally superior being". "A superior life" emanates from society, which "reacting upon the elements [individuals] who produce it, elevates them to a superior form of existence and transforms them". This interpretation, as well as Durkheim's statement that "there is only one moral power…which stands above the individual and which can legitimately make laws for him, and that is collective power”, goes against Gandhi's value position on this subject. 15
For Gandhi collective moral rules need not be superior to individual moral judgements. One should remain loyal to institutions as long as they are conducive to, inter alia, personal growth. Where they impede it, Gandhi boldly proclaims, stressing subjective discretion, it is an individual's "duty to be disloyal to it". 16 The moral development of society, for Gandhi, stems from the moral development of the individual.
Not all major sociological theorists however downplayed the ability of the individual to change their environment. Simmet saw society and the individual as being in a dialectical relationship, the "synthesis or coincidence of two logically contradictory determinants: man is both social link and being for himself, both product of society and life from an autonomous center".17 Max Weber went as far as to say that the above theories of social determinism need not apply in all cases. Weber saw individuals as a composite of general characteristics derived from social institutions and as actors of social roles but believed that "this holds only for men in so far as they do not transcend the routines of everyday life". H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills note that Weber's concept of charisma serves to underline his view "that all men everywhere are not to be comprehended merely as social products". 18
Even more than the abstract power of collectives, the march of history, or more specifically changes in the economy brought about by changing modes of production, lead to changes in the individual in the Marxian analysis. For Marxists then, it is the individual's social existence that determines their consciousness rather than the consciousness of individuals that determines their existence. Many interpreters of Marx place little emphasis on the individual as a prime mover of the unfolding of the path of history that will ultimately lead to a society free from violence and exploitation in which individuals are free once the state, classes and private property have been abolished. The individual becomes an instrument for the removal of obstacles which temporarily impeded this pre-determined historical progression. The revolutionary individual was one who was in the right place; at the right time to be of assistance to the historical changes in society, but as they were also a product of that society they could not by themself instigate changes that were not ready to come about anyway. This transformation in which changes in the structure of the state lead to individual changes is governed by economic laws.
The proposition that the role of the individual has been under-played in the Marxist analysis of history, or at least in many interpretations of it, has been stated strongly by several critics. 19 Marx himself in his "Third Thesis on Feuerbach" made the point:
The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringings, forgets that circumstances are changed precisely by men and that the educator must himself be educated. 20
These arguments, as the latter writers mentioned above show, need not lead to the necessary acceptance of one or the other of two mutually exclusive theories of social process and events – one individualistic and the other holistic. Peter Berger, in his Invitation to Sociology, notes that occasionally there are “cases where individuals succeed in capturing enough of a following to make their deviant interpretations of the world stick, at least within the circle of this following". He maintains that society is an objective fact that coerces and even creates the individuals within it, while on the other hand "it is also correct to say that our own meaningful acts help to support the edifice of society and may on occasion help to change it”. Agreeing with Weber he makes the point that men "can say 'no' to society and have often done so":
it is possible, though frequently at considerable psychological cost, to build for oneself a castle of the mind in which the day-to-day expectations of society can be almost completely ignored. And as one does this, the intellectual character of this castle is more and more shaped by oneself rather than by the ideologies of the surrounding social system. 21
Gandhi would argue that the normal expectations of society can be ignored, as suggested by Berger, without going to the length of "retiring from the social state".
The authenticity of existence can, and often does, run counter to the playing of socially defined roles. The question of whether one is acting in such "bad faith" depends on whether the role is played blindly or knowingly and willingly. Because Gandhi maintains that the individual moulds themself to fit in with society 22he can claim that by acts of will one can go against socially determined modes of behaviour.
Early Christian thought emphasised the belief that changes in society could be effected if individuals were changed, and Hindu thought allows for the existence of the truly free being, the jivan-mukta, who has abolished, or transcended all conditioning. The sociological anti-thesis to this was that individuals were strongly held by their social conditioning and would only change as social conditions changed. According to Prasad, Gandhi realised that under the original thesis great individuals could come forth while society degenerated, while under its anti-thesis society could be enriched while the individual lost their freedom.23 Gandhi's social philosophy encompassed both an enriched society and free individuals. Changes in social conditions are dependent upon changes in the hearts of men and women which begin, obviously, at the individual level. This does not happen through the inevitability of progressive historical change – persons must consciously, individually as well as eventually collectively, endeavour to bring about changes in their own lives and surroundings. He claimed that not only did people change society but that they had to take an active stance to ensure that this occurred. The responsibility for the state of society rests personally with each individual. When talking of the change to a more ideal social system, a socialism where there is "none low, none high", Gandhi asserted:
we may not look on things philosophically and say that we need not make a move until all are converted to socialism. Without changing our life we may go on giving addresses, forming parties and hawk-like seize the game when it comes our way. This is no socialism. The more we treat it as a game to be seized, the further it must recede from us. Socialism begins with the first convert.24
Gandhi was no theoretician; in line with his idealism that individuals could change themselves and their society he merely explored, on an ad hoc basis within the rules of satyagraha, individual and social paths that had consistency with the goals sought.
The focus on the individual and his/her responsibility for changing the world through changing the self is aptly conveyed in Gandhi's conviction that nonviolence and methods of solving disputes nonviolently are contagious if conducted in the right spirit. "The more you develop it in your own being the more infectious it becomes till it overwhelms your surroundings and by and by might over sweep the world." 25 And further:
Nonviolence is like radium in its action. An infinitesimal quantity of it embedded in a malignant growth acts continuously, silently and ceaselessly till it has transformed the whole mass of the diseased tissue into a healthy one. Similarly even a little of true nonviolence acts in a silent subtle, unseen way and leavens the whole society. 26
It must be noted, however, that Gandhi was not an advocate of mere self-reform trusting that the benefits would eventually filter through to society at large. Gandhi himself led large mass movements that were concerned with social issues. Satyagraha means fighting injustices. Self-reformation cannot come about in isolation, selflessness is a key to its attainment. Reformation of society and the self are inextricably linked – reform yourself and you have started to reform the world, reform the world nonviolently and you will have reformed yourself. This interplay between the individual and society can be seen when Gandhi speaks of the attainment of swaraj (independence) for India. He announces that once you stop regarding yourself as a slave you cease to be one. You will have changed your self-conception and through the measures of boycotting the institutions of former rulers will have started changing society; thus "... if we become free, India is free ....It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves. It is, therefore, in the palm of our hands….such Swaraj has to be experienced each for himself." 27
Current sociological knowledge does not indicate that Gandhi's interpretation of the interplay between society and the individual is necessarily invalid; it merely means that stepping outside the social norms to change society is not easy. The sociological debate, however, has great bearing on the question of whether satyagraha, as developed by Gandhi, has any applicability as a method of conflict resolution outside of the social setting in which it was developed. As the individual is indeed indebted to their society for a great many of their modes of behaviour so too are their responses to interpersonal conflict institutionalised. From the point of view of Durkheim and others, Gandhi's "philosophy" cannot be separated from Gandhi the person, or from the cultural traditions, historical circumstances, or the economic, political and social organisation of the society in which satyagraha emerged as a technique of conflict resolution. All societies have their own shared concepts of moral rules and dispute processing practices which allow members of the society to live together with minimum frictions and conflicts – methods imported from a foreign social setting may not "fit". As Rudolph and Rudolph point out, at least in theory much of the West's adversary legal tradition and political life embodies "the belief that conflicts are best resolved through the frank confrontation of alternatives, the clear articulation of opposites, their clash and the victory of one alternative over the other”, while “Traditional Indian ideas of conflict management in both politics and law...tend to stress arbitration, compromise, and the de-emphasis of overt clashes, of victories and defeats.” 28
Further, if satyagraha is more than a mechanical method for conducting conflict in a nonviolent manner and more than a step by step approach to resisting evil and injustice but is also, as Gandhi certainly claimed that it was, a way of life, then the question of applicability is even more immediate. We live in a modern industrialized society and to the degree that this society predetermines and predefines what we do, think and believe as Gandhi's social background did for him, the transportation of satyagraha, across cultural lines and historical times, may not be valid.
As we have seen from Gandhi s interpretation of the relationship between society and the individual, these arguments would personally not trouble him at all. Society does not make the individual in his view. The individual makes themself, and makes their society. They can choose their modes of behaviour. Satyagraha, according to Gandhi, is a science and consequently crosses cultural barriers. Nonviolence too is universal, being "the law of our species, the great Eternal Law governing man" and as a law "must hold good for all".29
The validity of Gandhian echniques for non-Hindu society, however, can be demonstrated without posing the beliefs of a sociologist like Berger, who claims that individuals can break out of their social conditioning by acts of will, against the beliefs of the strict social determinists like Durkheim. Gandhi was not a mere personification of Indian traditions. He often defied accepted traditions and orthodoxies.30 He firmly asserted that evil must be fought rather than merely accepted or understood - and this is far more of a Western than Hindu concept.
Gandhi's critics have often pointed to the inapplicability of satyagraha to a Western setting, especially as a response to Gandhi's appeal for Jews to use satyagraha as a response to Nazi persecution. They claim that his words "have meaning within the context of Hindu tradition" and that "they provide some understanding of the patience or passivity of the Indian peoples in the face of centuries of oppression".31 These critics have failed to note that, although Gandhi's roots were deep in Indian tradition, his philosophy of life was formed in British-dominated India and South Africa, he was educated as an English attorney-at-law in London, that he often acknowledged his debt to the Western thinkers such as Ruskin, Tolstoy and Thoreau. 32His attachment to the Sermon on the Mount is well known, 33 and greatly influenced his interpretation of his Hindu spiritual reference the Bhagavad Gita. During his third visit to London in 1909 he spent considerable time meeting suffragette leaders like Emmeline Pankhurst and attending their rallies, and of the over 250 books known to have been read by him almost 200 are by Western authors (excluding English translations of Eastern texts) including, besides several by the three mentioned above, such names as Besant, Carlyle, Goethe, Shaw, James, Plato, Spencer, Mazzini, Shakespeare, Bunyan, Huxley, Milton and Bacon. All of these Western cultural influences went into the making of Gandhi, the author of satyagraha. Bondurant explains that the emergence of satyagraha then "cannot be explained in terms of the Indian traditional ideal alone. Western objectives – social equality, economic prosperity, basic popular social action – played their role”.34 Satyagraha is an amalgam of the two models postulated by the Rudolphs.
That Gandhian techniques can be used by non-Hindus is amply demonstrated by their successful use in Europe by Lanza del Vasto and Danilo Dolci, in America by Martin Luther King Jr. and by Moslem tribesmen under the leadership of Abdul Ghaffar Khan in what is now northern Pakistan. With regard to this last group, Bondurant points out:
The development among the Frontier Pathans of a movement committed to the use of satyagraha as a means for promoting social and political objectives, demonstrates the potential appeal of the technique among a people unfamiliar with a tradition or philosophy enjoining nonviolence.
And further:
The point of greatest significance for a study in the philosophy of action is that satyagraha could be, and was, adopted by a people to whom the concepts of ahimsa, tapasaya [sacrifice or self-suffering] and satya were unfamiliar... That this was achieved is a matter of primary interest for those who are concerned with the conditions under which the technique may be employed and by whom it may be adopted.35
Perhaps satyagraha has greater problems crossing the barriers of time. Maron points out that with modernisation there is a powerful trend towards intensive institutionalisation of social living to the exclusion of the personal element, and along with this the exclusion of the basis of morality. This brings the individual up against a “system" which is immune to the moral influence on which satyagraha depends. Thus, he concludes, modernism and satyagraha are incompatible. 36 It may be difficult to argue against this position. Gandhi would maintain, perhaps a little naively, that in the final analysis all institutions are made up of individuals who are open to moral influence. This argument, however, cannot be used against the applicability of satyagraha as a method for resolving interpersonal conflicts, nor would it greatly worry Gandhi who believed in the duty of each individual to struggle against injustice even where victory is seemingly impossible, not just to help reach that victory, which may still occur, but for the sake of the dignity of the satyagrahi.