Lecture, Karuna Mantena: “Action and Criticism in Gandhian Satyagraha”
Guest Writer: Debleena Biswas

Thursday, September 13, 2012

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[On September 10, 2012, the Unit for Criticism hosted "Action and Criticism in Gandhian Satyagraha," a lecture by Karuna Mantena of Yale University]

The truth-force of an inter/action

Written by Debleena Biswas (English)

In her lecture on Gandhian satyagraha this Monday, political theorist Karuna Mantena set out to show M.K. Gandhi’s political thought as a form of transformative action focused on relations between the individual and the collective. Satyagraha,which is often associated with non-violent protest but means something along the lines of “truth-force” in English, emerged less as an epistemological inquiry into truth and more as a mode of “connected” action which seeks to actuate truth by shaping political relations.

Mantena began by examining social criticism in general, and Gandhi’s mode in particular, from the standpoint of Michael Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism (1993). Gandhi’s mode is not “neo-Kantian”: that is, it does not involve the detached and dispassionate outlook of a critic intent on solving problems who speaks from an allegedly objective and universal position by assuming that his or her reasoned criticism will be acceptable to all. Nor does Gandhi occupy a Marxist externalist standpoint that sets out to demonstrate truth, unmask others’ views and, as a corollary, dehumanize its opponents. A politically effective criticism, Mantena argued, is one that addresses its public as equals, under shared conditions. Gandhi’s satyagraha strives to achieve this efficacy by taking the passions and the heart into account in politics. Reform is not sought through coercion but through active participation and persuasion.

For Mantena, Gandhi is a “connected critic” because of the stance he adopted. As a critic of the British Empire, he self-consciously presented himself as a loyal British subject who demanded that the empire make good on its promise to provide political equality and protection for all the subjects and, thus, an end to racial discrimination. Despite the extra-legality of some of his methods, he demonstrated a deep respect for the law in his civil disobedience. Second, as a critic of radical and extremist forms of Indian nationalism, Gandhi acknowledged the unhappiness of militant nationalists but believed their elitist methods, which excluded India’s peasant millions, would achieve merely a change of masters, not a change of rule. Finally, as a critic of inequality in the Hindu social order, in his disputes with Hindu orthodoxy, Gandhi claimed to be the most orthodox of all. According to Mantena’s interpretation of Gandhi, such criticism belongs resolutely to the plane of action and not to the plane of contemplation.

“Connected” criticism is considered to be more effective because it presupposes a suspension at least of enmity and an opportunity for being heard. Sincere engagement with one’s opponent in argument forestalls the undesirable end of an argument between abstract ideas. Connected criticism as satyagraha works in painstaking ways to convert allies and opponents alike to a commitment to reform, and thus breaks down resistance and recalcitrance.

In Walzer's terms, Gandhi’s mode evokes local and shared values and aims to radicalize them from within. But the Gandhian problematic extends and reformulates the problem of criticism as proposed by Walzer in two crucial ways. The first concerns an understanding of the tendency of politics toward violence and the second involves a movement from relations of speech to relations of action. Political action is an iterative and interactive chain of action and reaction in which the actors’ investments are transformed, egoistic passions become heightened, and dehumanization and moral erosion follow. For Gandhi, opposition is never wholly rational, even though the intellect provides support for beliefs, enabling affect and argument to coincide. To understand this emotional aspect of belief is to accept the limits of persuasion in politics: repeated attempts to demonstrate the right of any position only breed resentment.

Gandhi concluded that political reform must pierce the heart, both of the satyagrahi (political actor) whose humble discipline and willed suffering compels attention to principles, as well as that of the opponents of this resistance—whom the satyagrahi does not condemn. According to Mantena, satyagraha works through intimacy: its efficacy mitigates the negative residue of politics—hostility—while creating the moral authority for political inter/action.

What does it mean to say that the authority to command attention might be gained through satyagraha? Mantena’s prefatory warning was apposite. The language of moral authority is slippery: claims can rest on deference to the status quo, or on satisfying demands for proof and playing on the politics of identity. Gandhi’s popular authority rested partly on his ability to reach out to the masses by adopting popular idioms and becoming, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s words, the greatest peasant of them all. Yet Gandhi himself felt that stature was derived from the nature of the work done; moral authority was not given but made, and specifically had to be acquired through a search for and an insistence upon truth. In this respect Mantena underscored the importance of Gandhi’s “constructive program” of satyagraha which was conceived as an antidote to escalating ideological violence.

Mantena suggested that the very concept of satyagraha is aimed at gaining a certain kind of authority: solidarity through self-conscious seva or service. She argued that Gandhi’s constructive program of social work is integral to his political thought and not separate from “real politics.” For Gandhi, such work was not an ideological project to prepare the ground for a national politics but actual politics itself, working to redeem and reconstitute political space made available through withdrawal (withdrawal of the British from India, withdrawal of coercive speech and action from political interaction, withdrawal of consent to violence and its divisive tendencies).

Achieving radical social reform depended on engagement at an intimate scale through a search for a concrete practice of service and solidarity. Gandhi therefore emphasized “silent, patient, constructive work” which by degrees would “infect” the people with the “courage of action.” Where attempting to force solidarity across entrenched social divisions would always be a fragile and precarious activity, concrete and local reform activity could help offset the negative effects of political activity and speech. The large-scale decentralized enterprise of khadi (spinning) needs to be viewed in this context, where the patient work of isolated individuals at their spinning wheels in “civil obedience to an institution they have built up themselves” has an equalizing influence.

Mantena reminded us that Gandhi was not universally successful; the search for communal friendship and caste reform were failures to various degrees. A long peace requires more than new ideologies and bargains. Yet, the intimate action of constructive satyagraha, where everyday action undoes distrust and forms the basis for a long-lasting renewal, is a good conceptual alternative to existing modes of political action. Mantena pointed to the work of Uday Mehta, Akeel Bilgrami and others who have turned to Gandhi for an alternative model of criticism and who find that model in exemplary action.

In conclusion, Mantena returned to a fundamental and urgent aspect of Gandhi’s political understanding—a general sense of precariousness and fragility in the iterative enterprise of politics, against which Gandhi perhaps pitted the reconstructive work of committed individual work. If criticism is to be politically efficacious one has to be acutely aware of the situatedness of standpoints. And in the end, the task of such criticism, via Mantena’s understanding of Gandhi’s thought, is, in Joan Bondurant’s words,“not to assert propositions but to create possibilities.”

Several questions from the audience after the talk approached the intimate politics of satyagraha from Kantian and Saidian perspectives and teased out the relations between the local and the universal. Manisha Basu drew connections to Edward Said’s conception of “filiation without affiliation” and asked about the place and concept of love in Gandhian thought. Another questioner asked how radical Gandhi could be if he did not acknowledge the difference that makes up the very fabric of the social. Mantena’s responses affirmed continuity in Gandhi’s flexibility (politics is contextual, requiring different practices at different times) and struggle to work out exactly what work would build solidarity and trust as well as which methods would persuade without evoking immediate resentment.

In response to Lauren Goodlad’s question about Mantena’s larger project and the future of the political “realism” she had outlined, Mantena spoke of the need to situate Gandhi within a tradition of non-violent action, and the need to map what is lost and gained between Gandhi’s ideas of localized non-violent action linked to politics in his time and the generalized non-violent action we see now which is often really the political power of the masses. Her response to a reading of Gandhi as an epistemological anarchist skeptical of truth claims acknowledged that non-violence has its anarchist moments but emphasized that Gandhi would have preferred moderation in both means and ends. The “necessary thing” in politics must be set against efficacy. If there is a myth of our time it is not that we do not do enough but that we are not sufficiently self-constrained.


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