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John West


(December 1934)

From New International, Vol.1, No.5, December 1934, p.159.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Power of Non-Violence
by Richard B. GRGregg.
369 pp. Philadelphia, J.P. Lippincott. $2.50.

This book is an odd mixture of simple-mindedness and sophistication. The style is that of a salesman turned YMCA secretary; and yet the references and careful documentation are witness to unusually wide reading in many fields. Mr. Gregg’s zeal in gathering a multitude of facts from psychology, history, politics, economics, military science, is exactly matched by his ability to misinterpret them.

Gregg’s central thesis is this: Non-violent resistance (what Gandhi calls Satyagraha) is a more effective method for bringing about desirable social change in the modern world than violence. Indeed, Gregg goes further, asserting that non-violent resistance is the only effective method, and that every violent method is doomed to failure. Notice – and this is what is unusual about the book – that Gregg’s thesis is not a moral one. He is not here primarily interested in maintaining that non-violence is morally preferable to violence, but that non-violence is superior as an instrument to bring about social change. And notice also that he is speaking of non-violent resistance, not of non-resistance, which is quite another matter.

I do not wish at this time to go into the details of Gregg’s arguments. They have, indeed, been adequately refuted by others, and most conclusively of all by the lessons of history. I wish, rather, to examine briefly the assumptions or postulates upon which his arguments rest. Underlying the lot of them is the general position of philosophic idealism, expressed in the belief that social and economic institutions are the outward manifestations of men’s thoughts and feelings and characters. Thus, Gregg concludes, we must change the thoughts and characters first before a significant change can he made in the institutions; and violence is unable to accomplish this; it can be done only by non-violent resistance, properly understood, and backed by good will.

Opposed to this, of course, is the Marxian contention that it is the institutions, themselves founded upon the productive process, that – on the whole at least – determine the thoughts and feelings and characters of men. The institutions, then, must be altered as the necessary pre-condition for raising the level of these thoughts and feelings and characters. The institutions can be basically altered only by being overthrown; and since (as Gregg himself admits) the institutions are founded on and supported by violence, only a superior and better directed violence can overthrow them.

Gregg further postulates that man is innately good (the Rousseau doctrine) and that the interests of all men are the same and can be understood by them as the same if once they can be led to see “the truth”. Violence, he claims, prevents the innate goodness from coming to the surface, is divisive rather than unifying in its effects, and forces men to act as if their interests were diverse, exaggerating and reënforcing the conflicts and thereby keeping men from realizing a community of interest. Nonviolence will let the good come forth, and will gradually teach the opponent that there is no real conflict. We are led imperceptibly to the step that Gregg does not openly take: the capitalist and the worker will clasp hands in brotherly truth over the buried illusion of class conflict, and so on and on to the spiritual regeneration of the corporate state.

The healthy contrast of Marxian realism is evident enough: Men are “innately” neither good nor bad. The interests and values they hold to are based upon the objective historical conditions of their lives. Community of interest is possible only when men stand in the same economic and social relations, that is, when they have the same economic and social status. A capitalist can have the same interest as a worker only when he is no longer a capitalist. Thus, once again, the necessary pre-condition of developing the “goodness” of men, of achieving a real community of interest among men, is the overthrow of the system which by its very nature makes such community of interest impossible. Gregg wants to do the job backwards.

Marxists are not worshippers of violence. Above all do they try to guard against the sporadic, meaningless and inevitably self-defeating violence that suffering and resentment are so likely to prompt. There are, moreover, many half-truths in Gregg’s book; and it is well always to remember that violence alone will not achieve socialism, that, for the long run, the physiological, psychological, and indeed the moral factors that Gregg stresses are fundamental if we are aiming at a better, a more human world. But Marxists deal with the society that confronts them, not with hopes and dreams. And consequently they will judge the effectiveness of non-violence less by the nobility of Gandhi’s sentiments than by the Constitutional Reforms for India, now before the British Parliament, which are the result of twenty years of Satyagraha.


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