The Wars on Ahimsa: The Culture Wars, the Cold War, and Gandhism in the 1980s

[Originally written for the Society for U.S. Intellectual History Blog, July 16, 2013]

Dedicated followers of William F. Buckley’s Firing Line were treated to discussions of topical political and cultural controversies by leading intellectuals, cultural figures, and politicians for over thirty years. Many must have been struck by the unusual choice of debate when in 1983, Buckley was joined by Commentary columnist Richard Grenier and University of Chicago professor Lloyd Irving Rudolph to debate “Was Gandhi for Real?” The proximate cause of the debate was Grenier’s scathing review of Richard Attenborough’s critically acclaimed 1982 film “Gandhi” – as well as attacks on the historical Gandhi – in the March 1983 issue of Commentary. While Grenier’s criticisms of the film can be seen as the heretical views of a solitary reviewer, debates over the historical Gandhi are best understood as a battle in the Culture Wars defending the superiority – and efficacy – of Western values against a perceived, non-Western threat. The struggle over Gandhi also demonstrates how intertwined the Culture Wars were with the ongoing Cold War. Gandhism was not only dangerous because it undermined Western values, but because it preached a romantic pacifism that could imperil American readiness to oppose communism.


Grenier’s review of “Gandhi” is a puzzling document. He begins by highlighting the shortcomings of Attenborough’s idealized depiction of Gandhi as well as the ways it may have been influenced by the partial funding of the project by the Indian government.[1]Attenborough’s Gandhi is “cleansed of anything too embarrassingly Hindu” and avoided far too many of Gandhi’s misdeeds like his sleeping with “pretty teenage followers” to test his vow of chastity and his patriarchal relationship with his wife and children.[2] From this sparse foundation of film criticism (totaling barely two pages), Grenier aims to set the record straight by exposing Gandhi’s many flaws and uncovering the “Gandhi nobody knows.” The rest of the article is a parade of calumnies against Gandhi’s character, his movement, and his nonviolent philosophy. Grenier highlights Gandhi’s indifference to racism against South African blacks while campaigning for Indian rights there at the turn of the 20th century and also toward non-Hindus in India, he depicts Gandhi as friendly with Hitler and unconcerned with Nazism even as he decried British crimes against India, and he dwells at length on Gandhi’s scatological concerns and prohibitions against sex.[3] What is peculiar about Grenier’s criticisms – aside from their overstatement – is that they were hardly unknown in 1983. In fact, most of Grenier’s information about the historical Gandhi seems to have been culled from the writings of three of Gandhi’s most trenchant critics Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, and Robert Payne.[4] Furthermore, most of these appraisals, like Payne’s The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi, had been widely read and debated for decades.[5]

So, why was it so important to Grenier to tear down the Gandhi myth in 1983 and, furthermore, why did Buckley deem it a topic of sufficient concern to devote an entire episode of his popular show to the controversy? The impression given both by the review of the film “Gandhi” and by the Firing Line episode on the controversy is that Gandhi’s persona and philosophy were deemed credible threats to Western geopolitical and moral supremacy in a time of continued ideological struggle against the USSR abroad and a resurgent pacifist left at home. Grenier and Buckley both argue that Gandhi’s success was largely due not to his methods, but the high mindedness of his British adversaries.[6]Ignoring the successes of Danish nonviolent resistance to Nazism as well as the burgeoning Polish Solidarity movement, neither conservative saw nonviolence – in any form – as an efficacious mode to oppose totalitarian regimes. To Grenier and Buckley, Gandhi was successful in opposing British colonialism largely because they allowed him to win. Americans who embraced ahimsa (nonviolence) or satyagraha (truth-force or principled nonviolent resistance) as a credible means to oppose the Soviet Union or as an instrument of American foreign policy could imperil the West in the Cold War. Just as Gandhi urged the British and the Jews to lay down their arms against Nazism, so would American Gandhians surrender themselves to the communist menace.

The urgency and violence Grenier brings to tearing down the Gandhi myth was also due in no small part to the success of Attenborough’s film and its reception by both Hollywood and lay audiences. Grenier and Buckley both speak ominously of a “pacifist trend” in Hollywood.[7] Grenier, though he readily admits to not reading all of Gandhi’s writings on nonviolence, goes one step further in reducing Gandhi’s ahimsa to “our old European friend: pacifism.”[8] Like pacifism in Europe, ahimsa could not articulate a positive philosophy once the immediate threat of British colonization was removed. The lack of a coherent vision of an independent India – owing in large part to Gandhi’s incompetence as a politician – in Grenier’s estimation precipitated a bloody civil war between Muslims and Hindus resulting in up to a million deaths and the eventual partition of India.[9]

One can also view Grenier’s assessment of Gandhi’s life and philosophy as a proxy through which to criticize Gandhi’s most famous American adherent, Martin Luther King Jr., and the nonviolent dimensions of the Civil Rights Movement. On the Firing Line, it is from a discussion of King’s adoption of Gandhian nonviolence that Grenier segues to the importance of high-minded adversaries to successful nonviolent resistance.[10] American Southerners despite their brutality toward civil rights activists were ultimately closer to their civilized British brethren than the “totalitarian” insanity of Nazism or communism. For Buckley and Grenier, though Western values could oppress, they were flexible enough to accommodate outside challenges without undue bloodshed. After all, as Buckley says in response to Lloyd Rudolph’s challenge that Gandhi was a figure around which both Hindus and Muslims’ rallied, if John F. Kennedy had gone to Birmingham the violence against Civil Rights activists would have stopped.[11]

Debates over Gandhi during the 1980s shed little light on his life or thought, but they do show an anxious conservatism warding off a perceived pacifist threat to Cold War goals while trying to reshape the historical narrative of nonviolent protest by discrediting one of its most formidable practitioners. The battles over Gandhi show how intimately Cold War aims of democratic victory were intertwined with Culture Wars attempts to build a hegemonic historical narrative of 20th century domestic and international politics. To win the Cold War, conservatives needed to win the domestic war over American values. A loss of Western values could imperil the international war against communism. Similarly, a political victory against communism abroad with a loss of Western democratic values at home – be it to Gandhism or Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition – would render international victories meaningless.

[1] Richard Grenier, “The Gandhi Nobody Knows.” Commentary (March, 1983): 60.

[2] Grenier, “The Gandhi Nobody Knows,” 60.

[3] Grenier, “The Gandhi Nobody Knows,” 64-65 ,68-69 ,69-70.

[4] A fact which Grenier recognizes by his frequent citation of Naipaul and Payne and a point which Lloyd Rudolph points out on Firing Line.

[5] Pierre Stephen Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi (London: Bodley Head, 1969).

[6] Richard Grenier and Lloyd Irving Rudolph, “Was Gandhi For Real?” on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line (1983): (min. 13).

[7] Firing Line (min. 52).

[8] Grenier, “The Gandhi Nobody Knows,” 65.

[9] Grenier, “The Gandhi Nobody Knows,” 66.

[10] Firing Line (min. 11-13).

[11] Firing Line (min. 34).

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