‘The Power of Nonviolence: The Enduring Legacy of Richard Gregg’ by John Wooding reviewed by Richard Taylor

The Power of Nonviolence: The Enduring Legacy of Richard Gregg

Loom Press, Lowell and Amesbury, MA, 2020. 286pp., $20 pb
ISBN 9781735168906

Reviewed by Richard Taylor

About the reviewer

Richard Taylor is Emeritus Professorial Fellow, Wolfson College, Cambridge University. He was …


Pacifism has been a longstanding, though very much a minority, tradition in almost all Western societies. Until the nineteenth century, it was inspired largely by the ideals and morality of Christianity, predominantly in the Protestant and Nonconformist churches (most notably the Quakers), although it was present also in both the Episcopalian (Anglican) and Roman Catholic churches. In the twentieth century, with the coming of more secular cultures in most Western societies – the USA being at least a partial exception to the prevailing secularism – pacifism has attracted adherents from a wider spectrum of belief systems, although the Christians have remained a prominent force in most pacifist organizations and movements. However, pacifist ideas and cultures were by no means confined to Western countries: they were deep-seated in other, very different, societies and religious traditions. In the twentieth century, the radical pacifism of Gandhi and his followers in India has been of particular importance. Richard Gregg’s role in bringing Gandhian ideas and practice to the West in general, and the USA in particular, was perhaps his most important intellectual and political achievement. Gregg, born in 1885, a Harvard graduate, and subsequently a successful and radical lawyer, had a long association in the early years of the twentieth century, with ‘labor union’ (trade union) activism and the general opposition to industrial capitalism and its dehumanising culture. He was, as John Wooding notes, ‘a reader’ and a frequenter of radical bookshops; and it was here, aged 37, that he first came across Gandhi’s work and thought. Gandhi rapidly became the guiding force in Gregg’s life. He determined to leave the USA, travel to India and work with, and learn from, Gandhi. He spent more than three years in India (1925 to 1928 and returned on several later occasions), travelling widely and for much of the time working with Gandhi on his ‘Ashram’, getting to know the man, his philosophy and, equally important to them both, the lived reality of day-to-day working on the land and practising both khaddar and the ‘simplicity’ that was so central to Gandhi’s perspective. As Wooding notes, ‘spinning’ was more than the creation of khaddar, the homespun fabric for Indian clothing. It was the essence of Gandhi’s conception of how resistance to British imperialism could and should be articulated; and thus how a vibrant and confident movement for Indian self-sufficiency could develop. For Gregg as for Gandhi, khaddar was both symbolic of the need to turn away from industrial capitalism and its manifest evils, and of the practical reality of learning, or re-learning, a fundamental craft of pre-industrial, rural society. In his seminal work, The Power of Nonviolence, (1939, with repeated revised editions over the following decades), Gregg explained, advocated and celebrated Gandhian ideas and their applicability, not only to India, but to the increasingly troubled societies of the developed world, both capitalist and communist. A commitment to simplicity was central to Gregg’s perspective. Whereas capitalist society produced ‘pollution, commercialism, alienation’ (76), Gregg argued for an alternative – ‘a return to the land’, combined with the adoption of satyagraha – the creation of ‘a new nonviolent social and economic order’, involving active nonviolent resistance to coercion, whether by the state and its repressive forces, or by individuals. A key idea in his conceptualisation – and much quoted and used by later Gandhian-inspired peace activists – was Gregg’s advocacy of ‘”moral ju-jitsu”’. (139) He argued that the cruelty of the assailant was always based upon fear, anger and pride. ‘In nonviolent protest, the actions of the protester suggested to the assailant that he might be in the morally inferior position and unable to conquer the protester. This realization would put the aggressor off-balance, unable to continue the attack.’ (139-40) Wooding’s fine and timely biography analyses Gregg’s relationship with Gandhi and Gandhianism, and explains effectively the ways in which Gandhian philosophy and praxis so effectively melded with Gregg’s disenchantment with American capitalism, his lifelong commitment to Christianity and its core New Testament values, and his search for an explanatory framework centred on spirituality and a ‘return to the land’. His account of Gregg and his times – over a long life – accomplishes much more than this, however. Gregg’s was very much an American radicalism, different in so many ways from the radicalism of (non-communist) radicals in Britain and other Western European societies; and Wooding is good at delineating not only the detail but the ethos of these differences, albeit from a largely American frame of reference. Although Wooding does note briefly Gregg’s contacts with British radicals – Dick Sheppard of the PPU and Harold Laski, for example –more discussion would have been pertinent. He does not, for example, mention Gregg’s important influence upon the Gandhian-inspired Direct Actionists of the anti-nuclear movement in the late 1950s – Michael Randle and April Carter amongst them. Gregg was the son of a Congregationalist Minister, an intellectual, bookish man, deeply empathetic to the poor and distressed, but also ‘rather clannish, favoring other Congregationalists, Harvard alums, and anyone of Scots-Irish ancestry’ (39). It was a close and large family, all of Gregg’s siblings achieving professional success in public service fields – health, law, education and religion. Greg was never a socialist, let alone a communist; although involved with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), he showed no interest either in any variety of syndicalism. Wooding does not explore why Gregg had, apparently, no engagement with socialist theory, whether social democratic or Marxist. However, implicit in Gregg’s perspective, indicated by Wooding in numerous quotations from the latter’s published work, is an affinity with some aspects of anarchism, though the term itself is never used. (Indeed, there is no entry under ‘anarchism’ in the index.) Similarly, although Gregg clearly had much in common with Quaker perspectives – and Quakers are frequently mentioned, in passing, in the text – there is no discussion of Gregg’s empathy with, or reasons for distancing himself from, Quakerism. More broadly, the biography is notably lacking in engagement with any radical ideological framework, apart of course from Gandhianism. Arguably, this absence of ‘theory’ and the corresponding emphasis upon ‘pragmatism’, is characteristic of the culture of American radicalism. (And, despite his English upbringing, Wooding is very much an American radical.) Be this as it may, this absence is an important drawback to European left-wing eyes: some discussion and analysis of Gregg’s ideological position(s) would have been very welcome. On the other hand, as Wooding notes, Gregg provides a pivotal link to the New Left of the 1950s and 1960s, especially its ecological, ‘green’ perspectives. This is particularly so in the American context: and Gregg’s profound influence upon Martin Luther King Jr and the vibrant Civil Rights movement is well-described. (It is salutary, however, to note, as Wooding does, that Gregg’s simplistic advocacy of khaddar as an alternative to industrial capitalism in the West, was dismissed by King, and ‘met with derision by radicals and pacifists alike’. (121)) There are other strange omissions in Wooding’s otherwise comprehensive, warm and evocative biography. Principally, Wooding does not explore at all Gregg’s reaction to the rise of Fascism, Nazism and the cataclysmic events of 1939 to 1945. Many pacifists, in the extreme circumstances of this period, jettisoned, at least temporarily, their pacifist commitments. Clearly, Gregg did not. But what was his rationale? Moreover, there is little here on his reaction to the advent of the nuclear age, and the moral and political dilemmas to which this gave rise, for pacifists and many others. This biography, then, is not without its faults. But it is nevertheless a notable achievement. It is based primarily upon the previously unexplored 50 plus notebooks, meticulously kept by Gregg from 1925. Wooding is clearly an admirer and advocate of Gregg’s political position – and none the worse for that. His book is both personal and passionate. He links Gregg’s courageous pacifist position with his own father’s understated CO status in the Second World War; and he writes movingly and memorably about his father’s quiet, principled stance. Overall, this is a superb book about an important and wholly admirable man, Richard Gregg, who provides a moral and political exemplar for our troubled, corrupt and dispiriting times.

13 August 2021

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