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by Mark Juergensmeyer
University of California Press, 2002
Review by J. E. Morris, MA, MS on May 1st 2003

Gandhi's Way

What is a good fight? A successful resolution? Is there a non-aggressive alternative with the persuasive power of violence? These are just a few of the questions Juergensmeyer’s book addresses.

“Gandhi’s Way – A Handbook of Conflict Resolution” is a primer for readers unfamiliar with Gandhian principles and moral action. It was Gandhi’s belief that fighting could illuminate truth, which is the essential component of non-violent conflict resolution. Juergensmeyer writes, “a good Gandhian fight, then, calls into question the truthfulness of every position, no matter how vaulted.” Understand that Gandhi didn’t want people to fight every fight, but rather he didn’t want them to flee any fight due to fear.

The text is broken into three sections: [1] the Principles of Gandhian Fighting, [2] case studies, and [3] brief essay dialogues. From the beginning Juergensmeyer makes clear that the basic premise of Gandhi’s approach was to focus on principles and the transformation of structures, not people. Gandhi believed that conflicts re-emerged because they were resolved only superficially – in essence, missing the point, which is all individual parties possess some degree of truth. Gandhi sought to restructure life-negating organizations through the pursuit of truth; he sought to transform relationships not seize power.

The author outlines the three steps in Gandhian fighting:

·        Examine the principles on both sides of the argument to reach agreement on which will rightly be a part of the solution

·        Create a Gandhian alternative, which requires defining a solution that will enhance both points of view

·        Begin doing that alternative whether or not the other side participates in the alternative

Juergensmeyer explains compromise isn’t necessarily a positive resolution. He also discusses the essential difference between coercion and non-cooperation. He later discusses double advocacy, which is an effort to reach truth through decreased self-righteousness; and non-violence, which is defined as “not just harmlessness but a positive state.” In short, Gandhi maintained that violence of any kind negates life. This idea resonated, leaving me wondering how often are we violent?

According to Juergensmeyer, the basic rules of engagement are:

[1] Do not avoid confrontation

[2] Stay open to communication and self-criticism

[3] Find a resolution and hold fast to it

[4] Regard your opponent as a potential ally

[5] Make your tactics consistent with the goal

[6] Be flexible

[7] Be temperate

[8] Be proportionate

[9] Be disciplined

[10] Know when to quit

Section II offers in-depth case studies on: a domestic squabble, a labor-management dispute, a personal decision, a social crusade, and a situation of massive political oppression.

It’s important to note that some conflicts are more easily fought according to Gandhian principles. Juergensmeyer points out that “Gandhian fighters sometimes take on larger issues and greater opponents than they are able to combat; this is one of their most frequent failings.” The author validates both critics and supporters of Gandhi. He concludes that there is an essential element of Gandhian fighting worth adopting even if the greatest change made is our own lives.

Section III was, by far, the most stimulating. In this final section Juergensmeyer creates dialogues between Gandhi and Marx, Freud, Neibuhr, and himself. The dialogues are lively, witty and engaging – easily the strongest writing in the text. For the most part, Juergensmeyer seems to have a deep understanding and appreciation for Gandhi’s way. That is precisely what makes his suggestion that there may be times for violence such an awkward contradiction, especially in a primer text.

The author noted “those who consciously try to follow Gandhi’s ideals may fare no better than those for whom the nonviolent path comes quite naturally.” This also sums up the text itself – it is unclear whether you will fare better for the reading.


© 2003 J. E. Morris


J. E. Morris currently works as a program coordinator and primary counselor at Chrysalis House, Inc., a long-term residential treatment program for women recovering from substance abuse, in Lexington, KY.