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Guns and Satyagraha: Never the ‘twain shall meet

It is simply impossible to talk about firearms as being a part of satyagraha. They are diametrically opposed. You may or may not like satyagraha, you may disagree as to its effectiveness and you may have a thousand different opinions on Gandhi the man and the leader but there is no factual or historical basis for claiming that guns are compatible with satyagaha.

Adam Kokesh, an activist and former marine that I’ve written about before, is inviting fellow gun owners to march into Washington, DC on July 4th while openly carrying loaded rifles. Adam may or may not follow through on this. He and his fellow marchers may or may not get arrested. He may or may not be doing something constructive, depending on whom you ask. I won’t be joining him in the march, but I applaud his courage and his proactivity. Adam is a valuable member of the libertarian community. I like him, I respect him and he deserves our support.

Yet I must take issue with his latest statement in the Washington Post. When asked by a reporter what he will do if DC police block him and his companions from entering DC, he replied simply, “Satyagraha.”

This is where I facepalm.

Satyagraha is a strategy of active nonviolent resistance used by Mohandas Gandhi in the struggle to get the British government forces out of India in the middle of the 20th century. The word ‘satyagraha’ translates as ‘soul force,’ ‘truth force’ or ‘insistence on truth.’ Satyagraha is not a synonym for civil disobedience, although civil disobedience can be part of satyagaha. It is, in fact, a way of life. The term is intricately linked with Gandhi and his radical nonviolent approach to life. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a conscious practitioner of satyagraha.

As you can see in the Gandhi movie, Gandhi never used satyagraha with firearms. In fact, if you study Gandhi at all, you will know that Gandhi was not a fan of firearms. He was against forcibly disarming people. But he refused to use violence or carry a gun. Interestingly, he viewed satyagraha as superior to force of arms.

In fact, Gandhi viewed violence, including the force of arms, as utterly incompatible with satyagraha. He demanded that people stop practicing satyagraha in the middle of fairly successful campaigns precisely because some individuals were taking advantage of them to use violence against British government troops.

It is simply impossible to talk about firearms as being a part of satyagraha. In satyagraha, you present your case to your oppressor. You stand firm, demanding that a mutually agreeable solution be worked out. You take any abuse the oppressor dishes out but you keep on coming back. You do not give up. But you do not use violence, defensive or aggressive, against the oppressor. The goal is to reach his conscience – because every individual has a limit as to how many times they can hurt another, directly, face to face.

You may or may not like satyagraha, you may disagree as to its effectiveness and you may have a thousand different opinions on Gandhi the man and the leader but there is no factual or historical basis for claiming that guns are compatible with satyagaha.

Satyagraha and guns are not just not compatible. They are diametrically opposed. The very success of satyagraha for Gandhi and his fellow Indians came when they abstained from all appearances or uses of violence in the face of the brutally violent British government response. This tactic made clear the moral superiority of Gandhi and his friends while revealing the utter moral depravity of the British government.

You cannot combine guns and satyagraha and expect anyone to take you seriously. Satyagraha is about the force of truth – an uncompromising adherence to the truth that does not permit fear or subservience! Firearms are about the force of gunpowder and lead. Satyagraha works when your cause is righteous and you come to your oppressor with only the force of your truth. For public relations purposes, the disparity in force of arms between you and the oppressor makes for a good David and Goliath story. It inspires media coverage – and respect. It makes for a good story, which everyone enjoys. Everyone loves those who have the courage to stare down a barrel of a gun armed only with the force of their truth.

Satyagraha can not be used where both sides are armed with the force of gunpowder and lead. There is no space here for sympathy. The individual oppressors can not relax and listen to you, because you represent an immediate and credible threat to their lives. Also, your force is, on a surface level, equal with theirs. Both sides are armed. Since the presumption of correctness falls on the government side among the great mass of the population, the state-regulated press will easily make you look like the bad guy. Now you are corrupting the term ‘satyagraha’ for all those who will come after you and actually engage in the real thing!

That is a perversion of the truth. It’s infuriating and disappointing.

Take the example of the 1981 Irish Republican Army (IRA) hunger-strikers. Members of the IRA in prison took on a hunger strike – a nonviolent tactic – to protest their imprisonment. But they were in there on charges of using armed force. Armed force and nonviolent tactics are incompatible. Ten of these IRA members died due to their hunger strike. Their cause did not inspire the requisite sympathy – whether you think it was just or not – because they were known for using violent tactics. Their nonviolence was not sincere.

On the other hand, the woman suffragists during World War I did not use violence. Their hunger strike, after being jailed for political reasons, did engender sympathy. Their cause was just and their means were nonviolent. They successfully got the government to give them the vote. Not that it did them much good, but they met with success.

But I don’t think we have to look into the past in order to understand why mixing violent and nonviolent tactics is a major fail. Look into your own heart. You can not threaten to strike someone and then expect them to be sympathetic to you. Nonviolence is an attempt to reach a mutual understanding using reason. Violence is an attempt to force your point-of-view on another person. Reason doesn’t play a part in it. Force cancels out reason, in fact.

But the rifles would never be used! Perhaps Adam or another participant will make this claim. Look at it from the point of view of the DC police. It’s like that Emerson quote: “Your actions speak so loudly, I can not hear what you are saying.” The act of carrying a loaded rifle by individuals who claim that you are using aggressive force against them and that they are justified in using defensive force against you is a credible threat. It doesn’t matter what you say in a political confrontation when you carry a tool that can be used to kill. In the shoes of the DC police, I wouldn’t be able to hear a thing any of the rifle-toting folks said because I’d be too busy watching for any sign of attack.

In fact, in the Washington Post article, the reporter asks Adam if his use of the word satyagraha means that violence is unacceptable at the march. Adam replied, “Only if absolutely necessary in defense of life or limb.” And this confirms, for anyone lagging behind, that Adam does not understand the meaning of satyagraha.

I’m not against firearms. I open carried for 6 months in the Philadelphia area in 2009 and 2010. I was arrested twice for it and forced to stop when the US marshals in Allentown confiscated my guns as a precondition of letting me out of federal prison. Every individual’s freedom to keep and bear arms must be respected. But, before you start talking about satyagraha to a national newspaper, you better know more than Adam obviously knows about it right now. Because when we finally have the courage and the conviction to actually use satyagraha, the corruption of the term will only make this challenging yet incredibly noble and ultimately effective strategy all the more onerous to implement.

There has been an enormous amount of criticism around Adam’s planned march, both against the march itself and Adam personally. This article has nothing to do with any of that. I must admit to being a little concerned for Adam. I wonder if he is biting off more than he can chew here. I support him personally and, while I won’t be participating in his event, I support his right to do what he proposes to do under the current political paradigm.

Why won’t I be participating? I am a dad and my son is still very young. My primary responsibility is to ensure that he grows up with me around as an active force in his life for his own personal right to self-determination. I can’t do that if I’m dead or caged. My primary strategy for achieving liberty is satyagraha. I’m not currently interested in using the force of arms to achieve anything other than the defense of myself and my loved ones in some very extreme scenarios. This event is not compatible with my own personal strategy but I simultaneously respect Adam’s chosen path.

How Adam Can Fix this

It’s not too late for Adam to evolve his event. Jettison the firearms. Make it a real example of satyagraha. We can train participants in satyagraha, which is much more than simply a synonym for civil disobedience. March not for the right to self-defense but for the right to self-determination, which is what we actually celebrate on July 4th anyway. Adam knows where to contact me if he’s interested in my proposal.

Further Reading

Wikipedia: Satyagraha

Washington Post: Activist Adam Kokesh has history of rabble-rousing and self-promotion

Facebook Event: Open Carry March on Washington #OpenCarry130704

Wikipedia: 1981 Irish Hunger Strike

Wikipedia: Women’s Suffrage in the US during WW I

By George Donnelly

I'm building a tribe of radical libertarians to voluntarize the world by 2064. Join me.

6 replies on “Guns and Satyagraha: Never the ‘twain shall meet”

Hi George,

I disagree. Consider the possibility that Adam doesn’t want to use Satyagraha unless he and his group are blocked by the police. Under that condition, he has publicly stated, he will resist non-violently.

Carrying a loaded weapon is not violent. I agree there is an implied threat, which precludes the march itself from being in keeping with Satyagraha, but if that threat is declaimed and remains untriggered (just as the fists of Gandhi) under oppression, then the source of the threat can easily be said to be practicing Satyagraha. If, on the other hand, the oppression is allowed to win (for example, if the weapons are unloaded, discarded, or left home in the first place), then the resistance part of the Satyagraha would be missing.

Dave, thanks for your comment!

I have to be straight with you. You don’t know what satyagraha is. Please gain a thorough understanding of the concept before talking about it to satyagraha newbies.

Satyagraha is not something you only do if x, y or z does or does not happen. Satyagraha is not merely a tactic or strategy but a way of living.

You may be thinking of strategic nonviolence. Satyagraha is principled nonviolence.

Michael Nagler’s book “The Search for a Nonviolent Future” does a great job of explaining the difference in use and expected results between strategic and principled nonviolence. Here are quick summaries if you’re not up for a whole book at the moment:

I already explained this in the article but I will expand on it here for you. Carrying a loaded firearm in an everyday situation is not necessarily any more of a violent act than carrying a hammer. Of course, opinions differ widely on this.

Carrying a loaded firearm while marching with perhaps thousands of others doing the same with the stated goal of violently overthrowing the government (Adam said this) and then marching to the center of that government is undeniably a credible threat.

For people who like the non-aggression principle (NAP), such an action is defensive in nature. For people who haven’t the first clue about the NAP and/or believe the government in question is legitimate, it looks offensive in nature. It looks like a credible threat of deadly aggression.

This is incompatible with any form of nonviolence. It is quite the opposite.

It is especially incompatible with satyagraha, which is the use of the force of truth, not the force of arms.

Further reading on satyagraha:

It’s true, it’s not well understood or even well-known. That’s something that needs to be remedied – urgently.

There is a lot of educational material out there on this. Gandhi’s works, Nagler’s book and more. Nagler, who is a professor at UC Berkeley even has a video course online that is quite comprehensive:

We have a few courses of action at our disposal, one is continued apathy, another is outright violence and another is satyagraha. The first is the east, the last the hardest, and most effective.

Thanks! You made me think about this a lot! I started (a few minutes ago) with “But when confronted with a criminal in an isolated situation with no audience, being able to threaten an aggressor would be more effective.” Then I challenged myself. More effective at what? Saving the contents of my wallet, maybe, but the pissed off criminal may just go hurt someone else more out of frustration. To speak the truth and resist non-violently would let him take what he feels he needs while giving him exactly as much guilt for it as he thinks he ought to feel. Interesting! Plus the truth might lead to his hanging out with me and figuring out how to earn an honest buck instead of skulking around with repressed guilt all the time. So again, Thanks!

For Gandhi, satyagraha was a way of life. He might have allowed the private aggressor to take everything he had, because that is how he was. Or he might have stared him down in a test of wills. Because he was like that too.

You should definitely check out the Gandhi movie from 1981 or 1982. Last time I looked it was on Netflix Instant, if you get that. It’s not just entertaining and moving but Gandhian experts like Nagler say that it is very true-to-life.

There is another subtle line of delineation one can establish and that is between political reform attempts and private defense. The moral high ground in the latter is definitely what you describe but it may be more difficult to practice satyagraha there – and riskier with less potential upside.

Although I attempt to live satyagraha, I would be inclined to defend myself by any means possible from a private aggressor, especially if my son was at stake. Who knows what one would do in such a situation?

In the former situation, the state has overwhelming superiority in force of arms. And they have the corresponding weakness in terms of their desperate need for legitimacy. Hence why principled nonviolence has a special potential for these kinds of situations.

Have a great Sunday!

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