Historical Literature

Book Reviews Gandhi Nonviolence Erikson

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Erik H. Erikson died at the age of ninety-two in 1994.  He was the embodiment of analytical courage, as willing to go mind-to-mind at a round table with Black Panther leader Huey Newton on the subject of violent revolution (allowing Newton to show his intense genius as a serious student of revolution concerning all phases of universal evolution) as he was to analyze the actions of Mahatma Gandhi in exploration of the origins of passive resistance or what he titled as militant nonviolence.

Numerous books have been written on the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi; one of the most fascinating of these is Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence by Professor Erikson in 1969 and still in print today by its original publisher W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Gandhi assumed leadership of a textile workers strike in 1918 in the city of Ahmadabad, and Erikson points out that this was Gandhi's well-known modus-operandi for using local issues to mobilize broad Indian masses to political action against the British.

The book is an unusual psycho-historical inquiry of the years before the India-Pakistan partition.  Erikson actually interviewed witnesses of the events at this time in Gandhi's life – not yet the "Mahatma" he would become for India – and how he influenced Indian youth to join him in shoring up his historical role as the father of militant nonviolence in the midst of an historically violent and bloody period beset by wide scale civil disobedience and rioting, not only against the British, but with Indian religious factions attacking one another.

The author does not disappoint as psychoanalyst when he investigates in detail not only the current event in Ahmadabad and its human wave effect on a massive population, but also a much younger Gandhi whose personal history abroad played its part in the consciousness development of Gandhi to lead on political, spiritual, and philosophical levels an extremely complex and volatile set of circumstances.

The book required two readings by me, several years apart, to appreciate the intricate workings of Erik Erikson's analytical mind in using (because it came out of left field for me) the contrast-and-compare that the author undertakes between Freud's ruminations concerning sexuality and Gandhi's beliefs in the nature of violence, and using these to show at its most naked states of violence and animal passion the blatant human weaknesses of repressive and excessive behavior that Professor Erikson saw as the fate of humanity.

Having read Gandhi's autobiography and knowing his struggle with sexual repression over what he considered to be excessive mental activity imparts to me a broad, subtle idea of why the author chose to bring sex into the book and make such comparisons – it is a work about Gandhi in the deepest sense and to tell the story of humanity through one human life is a powerful statement. However, specifically, it still strikes me as odd.   

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