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King, Gandhi and non-violent protest

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Issue 1683

What do socialists say?

King, Gandhi and non-violent protest

By Helen Shooter

MANY PEOPLE who yearn for an alternative to capitalism also hope there is a peaceful way to transform it. Yet when non-violent protesters question the system’s priorities they are frequently met with state repression-from arrests to teargas and, in extreme cases, live ammunition. Socialists want to build a society where wars and violence no longer happen. But is it possible to build a movement to challenge capitalism that has a principle of non-violence?

The black US civil rights activist Martin Luther King, and Gandhi, who campaigned to end British rule in India, are held up as proof that change can come through peaceful means. But that is not true in either of these examples. British rule in India reduced a country rich in resources to one where millions lived in dire poverty. Gandhi was part of the educated middle classes who wanted the British out of India. Like others of his class, Gandhi wanted a movement powerful enough to force Britain to leave. But he did not want it to spin out of middle class control and threaten to confront Indian business and leaders.

He always insisted his supporters obey the law, even though it was law imposed by Britain to defend its wealth and power. During the “Quit India” movement in 1942-3, which sparked off huge clashes with the police and army, Gandhi appealed for calm. The brutality of the British provoked mass strikes, peasant rebellions, armed attacks on police stations and the blowing up of railway lines. In 1946 there were even bigger protests, a wave of strikes and a naval mutiny that united Hindus and Muslims.

It was these confrontations, rather than Gandhi, which convinced the British ruling class they had to leave the “ungovernable” India. In the 1960s another bitter struggle took place. It was over civil rights for black people in the US. In the Southern US the Jim Crow laws meant black people were segregated from whites and denied the right to vote. Martin Luther King too came from a middle class background. He became leader of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, the campaign against segregation on the buses.

King argued the way to end discrimination in the south was to stage non- violent protests against those who believed in segregation and the racist police. The ensuing bloody battles forced President Kennedy to introduce civil rights laws in 1964 and his successor, Johnson, to put through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But these “non-violent” gains depended on the repressive force of the state, such as the National Guard, to implement the laws against the wishes of racists. The US government would not play this role once King’s protests spread to the north. Black people there faced discrimination even though the Jim Crow laws did not apply. King’s protest movement now meant confrontation with the government. Many black activists came to the conclusion that they needed more radical protests. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members were increasingly influenced by the more militant Black Power ideas. Its leaders, such as Stokely Carmichael, began to talk of armed resistance.

The civil rights struggle hit the North after repeated police violence resulted in the Watts ghetto in Los Angeles exploding in a riot. King himself was shifted leftwards by the experience of struggle and his recognition that racism was built deep into the system. He broke with the government over the Vietnam War in 1967, saying the US should get out, and began to put across much more radical ideas. King was on his way to support a strike by black workers in March 1968 when he was assassinated.

To have a principle of non-violence can be a barrier to people fighting back. It can be used to attack those who defend themselves when the police weigh into demonstrators or strikers on a picket line. The danger is that by making non-violence into a principle we also make it impossible to build a movement which can effectively take on capitalism, the most violent system that has ever existed.

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