Gandhi and Occupy

On August 25th, 2012 Occupy Brooklyn TV sat down with Norman Finkelstein – political dissident and world renowned scholar on the Israeli-Palestine conflict – to talk about Gandhi, the Occupy movement, Julian Assange, the economic crisis, and a possible Israeli attack on Iran. Below is a transcript of that conversation.

James Green: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with Occupy Brooklyn TV. I’m most interested in talking to you about this new book that you wrote about Gandhi that you dedicated to the Occupy movement. Can you tell us about the book and why you decided to dedicate it to Occupy?


Norman Finkelstein: The book began several years ago, probably about 3 or 4 years ago now, when I was trying to think through the most prudent strategy for trying to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories – the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem. And I thought that the wise place to turn would be to see what Gandhi had to say on the subject. The Indians were facing an occupation, in their case the occupation of India. Both the Indians and the Palestinians are confronting major regional and international powers –  again, in the case of India the British. In the case of the Palestinians, the Israelis and right behind the Israelis the Americans. And also it was pretty obvious, or it should be obvious at this point, that Palestinians don’t have an armed option. Their only real option if they hope to achieve their goal is some sort of non-violent civil resistance or civil-disobedience. And so for all of those reasons it seemed the obvious place to look would be Gandhi. One assumes that non-violence is pretty straight forward – you just don’t use violence – and Gandhi seems, on the surface at any rate, a pretty simple person. So you see simple person, simple ideology, so you don’t have to read very much to figure it out. But in fact on a moments reflection it’s not so simple. And I wanted to see how Gandhi reasoned through a lot of the obvious objections and arguments to his doctrine. And so I started to wade my way through his collected works.


It was a more formidable undertaking than I initially expected. His collected works come to something like 98 volumes. Each volume is about 500 hundred pages. It’s a lot of reading.

JG:  Did you find anything that you didn’t know before that you think is useful to applying to the Palestinian issue?


NF: Well there are two separate questions. One, did I find anything I didn’t know before. And in fact I found a lot I didn’t know before. Gandhi is anything but transparent in terms of his doctrine. It’s pretty complicated what he has to say though he never really spells it out. There is no sort of guide to Satyagraha, what he calls non-violent Satyagraha. There is no guide to it. He thought the best guide was his actual experience. So it’s very contradictory what he has to say. A lot of it can’t be reconciled, but there are parts of it that you can reconcile. And you can piece together a more or less coherent picture of what he has to say, bearing in mind that every statement he makes can be elsewhere contradicted. But if you make an effort, a good faith effort, you can piece together a pretty coherent doctrine. A lot of it, I would say probably eighty percent of what he had to say came as a surprise to me. Then there was a second aspect to your question, namely that’s useful to the Palestinians. Yeah, I found things there that were useful for trying to understand the Palestinian situation. Also more broadly, movements like the Occupy movement. He has interesting insights I thought.


JG:  What are those things that you found, or what are those insights?

NF:  I would say the most important insight for me in reading Gandhi was – I come from a political tradition, I go back to the 1970’s – and I consider myself part of that much longer political tradition going back to Marx, then the second international, then the communist international, the third international. So that whole Marxist tradition. And the basic Marxist tradition, and I know it’s going to\ sound very crude. Whenever you say the basic and you try to reduce a vast amount of written thought and a huge historical experience. But I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the Marxist tradition consisted significantly of there’s this vanguard of people who as it were know the truth. Their truth is, as we used to say, is scientific. It’s as predictable and susceptible to reasonable and rational analysis as the laws of physics. And this truth, we called it Marxist, some of us called it Marxist-Leninism, some of us who are even more cultish in our political opinions called it Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung thought. I happen to belong to that third category. And we had the science in our possession. And we were supposed to go out and enlighten the benighted masses suffering from all sorts of afflictions. We used to call it things like false consciousness, commodity fetishism, suffering from all these afflictions. And we were supposed to bring them the truth. And bring lightness where there was darkness. Enlightenment where there was confusion. And so on and so forth. And that was our political raison d'etre. Gandhi had a very different understanding of politics. For Gandhi, politics was not trying to enlighten the masses per se, but to get them to act on what they already know was wrong. That a typical person, yourself, myself, from the moment you get up in the morning to the end of the day you are turning a critical eye to everything around you. You’re saying that’s wrong, that’s unfair, that’s unjust, that shouldn’t be. We have a whole litany of injustices that we observe and we express some sort of internal outrage or indignation over in the course of each day. And most of those outrages are real, they’re legitimate. They’re not conjured in our heads. But for Gandhi the challenge was not to bring enlightenment about injustice in the world. People already know the injustices. The problem is getting them to act on what they already know is wrong. And the purpose of politics, in particular non-violent civil disobedience for Gandhi was that it was supposed to act as a stimulant to goad people, goad the indignant but still passive bystanders, to goad them into action. To get them to do something about what they already know is wrong.

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