Mahatma Gandhi and His Myths
Civil Disobedience, Nonviolence, and Satyagraha in the Real World
By Mark Shepard
Another of the biggest myths about nonviolent action is the idea that Gandhi invented it.
Gandhi is often called “the father of nonviolence.” Well, he did raise nonviolent action to a level never before achieved. Still, it wasn’t at all his invention.
Gene Sharp of Harvard University, in his book Gandhi as a Political Strategist, shows that Gandhi and his Indian colleagues in South Africa were well aware of other nonviolent struggles before they adopted such methods themselves. That was in 1906. In the couple of years before that, they’d been impressed by mass nonviolent actions in India, China, Russia, and among blacks in South Africa itself.
In another of his books, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp cites over 200 cases of mass nonviolent struggle throughout history. And he assures us that many more will be found if historians take the trouble to look.
Curiously, some of the best earlier examples come from right here in the United States, in the years leading up to the American Revolution. To oppose British rule, the colonists used many tactics amazingly like Gandhi’s—and according to Sharp, they used these techniques with more skill and sophistication than anyone else before the time of Gandhi.
For instance, to resist the British Stamp Act, the colonists widely refused to pay for the official stamp required to appear on publications and legal documents—a case of civil disobedience and tax refusal, both used later by Gandhi. Boycotts of British imports were organized to protest the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and the so-called Intolerable Acts. The campaign against the latter was organized by the First Continental Congress, which was really a nonviolent action organization.
Almost two centuries later, a boycott of British imports played a pivotal role in Gandhi’s own struggle against colonial rule.
The colonists used another strategy later adopted by Gandhi—setting up parallel institutions to take over functions of government—and had far greater success with it than Gandhi ever did. In fact, according to Sharp, colonial organizations had largely taken over control from the British in most of the colonies before a shot was fired.