Paul Wehr


Self-limiting Conflict:The Gandhian Style

I have mentioned two basic categories of conflict regulation scholarship. In the preceding section we concerned ourselves with the first, specialists engaged in third-party intervention research and experimentation-intermediaries, negotiation, conciliation, communication control and modification. The second involves the study of ways of waging conflict that tend both to keep it within bounds and to limit its intensity or at least the possibility of violence-nonviolent social movements, nonviolent resistance on the part of individuals and groups, nonviolent alternative national defense strategies. Let us look at conflict processes that are self-regulating in nature, i.e., that have built-in devices to keep the conflict within acceptable bounds and to inhibit violent extremism and unbridled escalation.

Socialization is an important determinant of the style and effectiveness of conflict regulation in any society. If Tolley (1973) is correct in placing the formative period for attitudinal and behavioral patterns concerning peace/war issues and conflict regulation styles at ages 4-12, then learning creative approaches to conflict regulation through family, school, mass media, and other primary learning environments is essential. There are a few sources dealing with this problem (Nesbitt, 1973; Abrams and Schmidt, 1972).

There are societies and groups within societies that socialize their members in effective conflict regulation. Bourdieu (1962) describes Berber Kabyles of North Africa as a society held together by a process of balanced and strictly controlled conflict

56 Self-Limiting Confllict

in which members are socialized to avoid violence. Elise Boulding (1974) observes that there are certain types of family environments and child-rearing practices that tend to produce persons with nonviolent proclivities and creative response patterns to conflict. Ultimately the socialization process, political socialization in particular, is probably the most important conflict regulation device. We should soon learn some interesting things about the impact of a decade of involvement in an unpopular war on the attitudinal and behavioral patterns of America's youth.

Etzioni's self-encapsulation concept is very useful here. It is a process in which certain conflicts are increasingly limited by their own nature and by the nature of the host system, so that the "range of expression of the conflict is curbed." Certain modes of conflict and weapons are excluded by mutual, sometimes tacit, consent, and the conflict becomes ritualized-the game is played by the rules, so to speak. Dahrendorf's analysis of the institutionalization of labor/management conflict over the past half century is an excellent illustration of selfencapsulation. In the United States, encapsulation occurred as a consequence of third-party intervention, when the federal government decided to protect labor's right to strike. It was also self-propelled encapsulation to some degree, as both labor and management decided that it was rational to place strict limits on their conflict-in other words, to maximize gains and minimize losses all around.



The Gandhian Model of Self-Limiting Conflict



Self-encapsulation can also occur through both ideological restraints and tactical approach. If at least one of the parties to the conflict develops an ideology that by its very nature limits the weaponry and violence used in the conflict, it is in an important sense self-encapsulating. Mahatma Gandhi's satyagraha (a word taken from Sanskrit, meaning "insistence on truth") movement in the first half of this century used such techniques, and other movements for social justice and selfdetermination have developed variations on this theme of nonviolent direct action. The Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez movements are the best examples in recent North American history, though there are interesting Latin American nonviolent movements as well.

The satyagraha movement was a series of direct action campaigns aimed at calling into question the validity and moral legitimacy of the dominance-dependence relationships existing in India and South Africa. The movement challenged white rule in South Africa, British rule in the Asian subcontinent, and the caste structure of Indian society itself. As do all ma'or social movements, Gandhi's had a discrete ideology, well defined roles, a strong leadership, and clear goals. It challenged a set of social structures with highly inequitable distribution of privilege, access to authority, and life chances. The movement's primary objective was to refine a technique

for making latent conflict manifest and waging it without violent means or consequences.

Specific political goals included the winning of political independence of the subcontinent from Britain, the liberation of oppressed minorities such as the outcastes, and the creation of a new and appropriate model for Indian economic, political, and social development. There were philosophical objectives as well. The search for social and spiritual truth gave form and direction to Gandhi's strategic and tactical approaches. The concepts of ethnic, religious, and social community were also central to the movement's ideology.



The Gandhian Conflict Style



We will focus on the Gandhian techniques of waging conflict that served to limit the hostility-to inhibit the "runaway processes" within conflict dynamics, as Coleman (1957) terms them. How was Gandhi able to successfully propel yet control a movement that had such great potential for massive violence and reactive repression? In large measure the answer lies in both the strategy and tactics of confrontation that Gandhi developed and in the movement's ideological bases.



Step-wise Strategy. Perhaps the most obvious self-limiting aspect of Gandhi's confrontation style was its step-wise rather than spiralling escalation. Each satyagraha campaign involved a series of steps, each more challenging to the opponent than the preceding one. It would begin with negotiation and arbitration. This would be an extremely elaborate and lengthy stage including (1) on-site accumulation and analysis of facts, with opponent participation; (2) identification of interests in common with opponents; (3) formulation of a limited action goal acceptable to all parties and mutual discussion of same; and (4) a search for compromise without ceding on essentials (Naess, 1958). Gandhi did much to avoid further escalation; at this preliminary stage he established the close, cooperative, personal relationships with opponents that would later limit the antagonism normally generated by the escalation process.

If the conflict was not resolved at that initial level, the satyagrahis would prepare for direct action, then move on to agitation, ultimatum, economic boycott and strikes, noncooperation, civil disobedience, usurpation of governmental functions, and the creation of parallel government (Bondurant, 1965:40). If in any of these stages, the conflict was resolved, those subsequent would be unnecessary. After each new step, however, there was a built-in period of withdrawal, reflection, and analysis of one's own and one's opponents' positions and tactics. Missing was the escalation of normal conflict, in which a hostile response evokes an even more hostile response in an unbroken upward spiral. This strategy maximized the role of rational and conciliatory action on the part of all concerned, while providing for an intensification of the confrontation as needed to achieve the goals of the movement. The step-wise approach and the interaction of reflection and action allowed the movement leadership and rank-and-file participants to control, channel, and direct the dynamics of the conflict situations they had created. One might say that the movement's peculiar "self-consciousness" served to gauge the impact of each step in a campaign, to continually reassess its effectiveness and nonhostile intent, and thereby to maximize its selflimiting capacity.

The step-wise approach suggests that Gandhi's model of the conflict process is phasic rather than cyclical, with a confrontation proceeding through a series of escalatory steps. In the Gandhian perspective, the conflict should lead the parties to a new level of truth, not back to the point where they began.



Ideological Self-Limitation. An essential concept in the Gandhian model of self-limiting conflict was ahimsa or nonviolence. Each satyagrahi had to give unqualified commitment to nonviolent action and was resocialized for this by movement leadership. Although the nonviolent ethic in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism did reinforce satyagraha's nonviolent belief system, satyagrahis from these and other religioethnic sects who were accustomed to battling each other violently had to be resocialized into new forms of confrontation.

The internalization of this ideological commitment gave satyagraha a unique form of self-control. No tight commandand-control system existed within the satyagraha movement. The leader and participant roles, individual and collective behavior, the influence of norms and peer expectation were all rooted in individual and group self-control. It was primarily because of this personalized self-control that such a massive movement developed with surprisingly little violence. Resocialization was essential to this self -control-where it was incomplete, violence would often erupt and Gandhi would halt a campaign.

Nonviolence is by its very nature an ideology that moderates the intensity of a conflict. An inherent theoretical assumption is that a nonviolent act will elicit a similar response from an opponent and will thereby increase the chances for conciliation. In practice, however, the dynamic is much more complex. In his analysis of nonviolent action as a form of interpersonal behavior, Hare (1968), using Homans' exchange theory and Bales' interactional analysis, shows how nonviolent protestors may evoke violent responses from police and bystanders.

The nonviolent actors usually intend to take downward (submissive), backward (advocating social change), and positive roles in their confrontation with others, especially those in authority. When they can maintain this role they seem to be able to "pull" a dominant- positive response which may lead to social change. However, if they become negative, or appear to be negative, then they pull a hostile response. (Hare, 1968:12)



Small group experiments (Shure et al., 1965; Bartos, 1974) have also suggested the potential risk that pacifist or conciliatory responses may increase the aggressiveness of an opponent. The point to be made here is that the training and discipline of nonviolent actors and their understanding of the interpersonal dynamics of nonviolence are important. Socialization into and internalization of the role of nonviolent actor is critical for the self-limiting capacity of nonviolent action.



Controlling the Dynamics of Escalation. Social scientists are now aware of certain growth dynamics of conflict-dynamics that in most conflict situations are unobserved and uncontrolled. Perhaps the most thorough analysis of the dynamics of intensification is that of J. S. Coleman (1957). 1 will describe a number of these dynamics and suggest how Gandhian conflict techniques tended to control them-particularly the "runaway responses" to which Coleman refers.

In community conflict situations certain changes normally occur as the conflict develops:

1. Movement from specific to more general issues and from original to new issues. This shift sets the stage for a wider and more intensive conflict as it alerts more potential parties to the controversy, uncovers fundamental cleavages and differences in the community, and clouds the basic issues. All of this, for obvious reasons, makes conflict resolution more difficult. Where a social movement like satyagraha is involved, such an issues diversification dynamic increases its opponents and inhibits its focus and sense of achievement. The Gandhian tactic for controlling this dynamic was to tie each campaign to a single issue and a sharply limited arena. The limited issue in each campaign, however, was subtly and cleverly tied into larger questions like the end of colonial rule. The effect was to limit the potential allies of the opponent, to retain as much issue clarity and simplicity as possible, and to insure moderate and continuous success feedback in limited increments. With each limited success, the nonviolent action device gained credibility both with its adherents and its opponents. This tended to encourage both increased commitment to nonviolence and more conciliatory attitudes on the part of opponents.

2. Movement from disagreement to antagonism as the conflict develops. Issue-based conflict is transformed into ad persona hostility-the conflict is personalized. Attacks are no longer on opposing positions but on those who hold them. This naturally heightens the conflict parties' sense of perceived threat and intensifies the conflict; it increases the "life-stakes" involved, so to speak.

The Gandhian model of conflict-waging inhibits the conflict personalization process. It reduces threat by stressing the maintenance of good personal relations with opponents while pressing the issues. An exemplary case was the Ahmedabad Satyagraha during which Gandhi maintained close friendly relations with several millowners while persuading them (and finally coercing them through fasting) to make concessions. Gandhi, by personalizing his relationships with his opponents, often accomplished individual "conversions" to his position. By this process of separating the person from the issue, he was able to shake the loyalty of opponents to their respective groups (e.g. millowners, members of the Brahmin caste), to sufficiently break down group identification and increase opponents' propensities toward conciliation. This technique was often employed to limit antagonism in satyagraha campaigns.2

The Gandhian model recognizes both the necessity and danger of polarization. Without it the issues cannot be clarified. The challenging movement needs it to survive and grow. Yet, in Gandhian conflict theory, confrontation is not a zerosum or even a positive-sum ame as much as it is a 'oint process of truth seeking, with the settlement emerging from that process. Gandhian conflict simultaneously provides for confrontation and maximizes the potential for conciliation. Gandhi developed a delicate mix of polarizing and conciliatory tactics that both produced and moderated confrontation. His view of conflict as the joint pursuit of truth rejected absolute ideological and tactical positions, thereby restraining the

polarization process.

3. Distortion of information. As the conflict grows, according to Coleman, informal communication modes supplement and may even replace formal media as a result of an increased demand for information by more people who are alerted and involved. Rumor, slander, innuendo, and inaccurate data tend to aggravate the conflict. The sense of threat is heightened between the parties as they become more secretive. What is the other side planning? The worst is imagined. Information that contradicts threatening images of opponents is filtered out. Gandhi's conflict style, countering this dynamic, maximized the flow of information between the movement and its opponents. His techniques and tactics were openly discussed. Steps in the campaign were made known to opponents beforehand. He used the mass media to acquaint everyone with movement plans. Misinformation and secrecy were eliminated, reducing perceived threat among opponents and lessening public fear and ignorance.

4. Mutual reinforcement of response. Coleman emphasizes the process of reciprocal causation, the stuff of which conflict escalation is made. Cycles of hostile response develop and feed the polarization process. Negative images of the other party are continually confirmed. Hostile acts call forth hostile responses that in turn evoke more hostility and so on. Conflict resolution is largely the discovery of a means to break into escalatory reciprocal causation and reverse its direction. Oberschall (1973:266) notes that reciprocity is also the basis for dispute settlement. The "ethic of symmetry" requires that each give as well as take, and refrain from taking unreasonable and extreme positions.

The Gandhian conflict style uses positive reciprocal causation. Nonviolent action theoretically calls forth a nonhostile response from one's opponent. As I noted earlier, this principle may not always operate-where nonviolent actors are poorly trained, for example. Even when the nonviolent actors are disciplined, the initial trauma of an unexpected nonviolent act contravening established custom and threatening privileged status may anger and frustrate opponents and encourage them to respond violently, as was often the case in the early months

of the sit-in movement in the South (Wehr, 1968). The theory of nonviolent action asserts that while an opponent's initial response may be hostile, nonviolent response to that hostility will increasingly modify and ultimately transform it. The experience of the Gandhian and similar movements tends to len . d supportive evidence t'o this proposition, although, as Bondurant observes, police excesses were common in official response to satyagraha.



An American journalist, Webb Miller, reported that after one

raid on a salt depot he counted, in a hospital, 320 injured, many

still insensible with fractured skulls, others writhing in agony

from kicks in the testicles and stomach. (Bondurant, 1965:97)



5. Emergence of extremist leadership. To curb the operation of Gresham's Law of Conflict (Coleman, 1957:14), by which extremist leaders increasingly replace moderate ones as the conflict heats up, Gandhi selected his first- and second-level leadership carefully, and, as Sharp (1973:470) notes, they were disciplined and trained thoroughly in preparatory periods before each campaign. Wherever possible, Gandhi would lea d a campaign personally, with his stature as a leader permitting him to control access to leadership positions. His pledge of nonviolence acted as a brake on extremist elements. The Gandhian principle of self-reliance also helped the movement to stay clear of alliances with other political forces that did not share its commitment to nonviolence. The emphasis on cooperative, constructive programs in each satyagraha campaign reinforced the positive, creative aspects of the conflict technique. One was not challenging established norms and structures without exemplifying alternatives. The habits of cooperation in improving sanitation, nutrition, and education were essential dimensions of the satyagrahi's role.



Other Limiting Aspects. The principle of self-realization in satyagraha was a conflict-limiting device in two respects. (1) Any conflict was viewed as a self-realization process for all parties involved. Such a view sees the opponent as one to be persuaded or one to be persuaded by, not as one to be elimi- nated, humiliated, or bested. (2) For the satyagrahi, the conflict was an empowerment process. Satyagraha as a technique gave the hitherto powerless a strength, a unique identity and status vis-@-vis their opponents. This identity-producing dynamic encouraged a symmetry in the conflict that reinforced its selflimiting qualities. Violence is often a product of desperation and asymmetry in a power relationship. Satyagraha provided both a power balance that facilitated eventual conciliation with minimal violence and a concern for the opponent as someone with an identity deserving of respect.

Coleman identifies a number of factors working for moderation of conflict in communities-cooptation of the opposition, resort to normal techniques of handling problems, the existence of preconflict relationships that cross-pressure participants, identification with and investment in community institutions. Though Gandhi exploited these factors wherever possible, he was primarily concerned with institutionalizing new conflict processes, creating new rules by which conflict might be waged-encapsulating the conflict, to refer again to Etzioni's concept.

We find, then, in Gandhi's model of conflict built-in inhibitors of violence, rancorous escalation, and extreme polarization-three processes that facilitate destructive consequences in normal conflict waging. The specific self-limiting aspects discussed above are rooted in a conception of conflict as a truth-seeking process in which the objective is not to win, but to achieve a fresh level of social truth and a healthier relationship between antagonists. This is what Bondurant called the Gandhian dialectic.



In every case of satyagraha the conflict is to be understood in dialectical terms. The immediate objective is a restructuring of the opposing elements to achieve a situation which is satisfactory to both the original opposing antagonists but in such a way as to present an entirely new total circumstance [emphasis mine]. (Bondurant, 1965:195)



This rather innovative view of struggle, then, insured that the

techniques of waging it would be self-limiting. The concep-

tion of struggle as truth seeking produces in Gandhian conflict an escalating dynamic somewhat different from the normal one, which Kriesberg has described:



Having expressed hostility and coercive action against another party, the alleged reason for it assumes importance commensurate with the action taken. The cause is endowed with additional significance and there is increasing commitment to it. In addition, as the other side reciprocates with coercion the threats and injuries suffered also induce feelings of loyalty and commitment [that justify] increased effort toward their attainment and the willingness to absorb, without yielding, the coercive efforts of adversaries. (Kriesberg, 1973:155)



In the dynamics of Gandhian escalation, to the contrary, persuasion in theory replaces coercion, though, as Klitgaard (1971) notes, this did not always occur. The escalating commitment is not to "winning" but to the discovery of the truth of social justice, a commitment that admitted the possibility of the opponent's truth.



Gandhian philosophy does not exclude compromise as a device for the accommodation of differing positions at a point where conflict has not become explicit and basic principles have not been challenged. But once conflict materializes the Gandhian technique proceeds in a manner qualitatively different from compromise. What results from the dialectical process of conflict of opposite positions as acted upon by satyagraha, is a synthesis, not a compromise. The satyagrahi is never prepared to yield any position which he holds to be the truth. He is, however, prepared-and this is essential-to be persuaded by his opponent that the opponent's is the true, or the more nearly true, position. In the working out of the Gandhian dialectical approach, each side may, of course, yield through dissuasion any part of its position. But this is not compromise. When persuasion has been effected, what was once the opponent's position is now the position of both antagonist and protagonist. There is no sacrificing of position, no concession to the opponent with the idea of buying him over. Non-violent resistance I 'I persuasion has carried the conflict into must continue until mutually agreeable adjustment. Such adjustment will be a synthesis of the two positions and will be an adj'ustriient satisfactory to both parties in the conflict. There is no victory in the sense of triumph of one side over the other. Yet, there is no compromise, in the sense in which each side would concede parts of its previous position solely to effect a settlement. There is no "lowering" of demands, but an aiming at a "higher" level of adjustment which creates a new, mutually satisfactory, resolution. (Bondurant, 1965:197)



What unfolded in the Gandhian dialectic was a process similar in many ways to the consensus formation traditionally used by Quaker bodies and in certain traditional political systems (Bourdieu, 1962). No one wins or loses. Antagonists arrive at a "meeting of the minds," so to speak.

Gandhi was ostensibly one of the opponents in the satyagraha campaigns, but his style and commitment to the process made him, in a sense, a third party to the conflict. Kakasaheb Kalelkar, one of Gandhi's satyagraha leaders, has called him a

a "master in the art of synthesis. " This skill at facilitating a convergence of positions among antagonists is, unfortunately, impossible to analyze in any but a superficial way here.



Applicability of the Model



Is the Gandhian model as a conflict regulation device transferable, in part or whole, to other conflict arenas? In fact, it has been adopted and adapted for use in other social movements-e.g., the Martin Luther King, Jr. (1961) and Cesar Chavez (Matthieson, 1970) movements for equal rights in the United States and the Danilo Dolci movement in Sicily (Mangione, 1972). Its tactics were borrowed by wartime resistance movements in Norway and Denmark and by the movement in Czechoslovakia in 1968, to cite the most prominent cases. It has been used effectively by groups and individuals not ideologically committed to nonviolence but who have recognized its practical value. Gandhian self-limiting conflict may provide future tactical possibilities for both liberation movements and civilian defense programs.

Of equal interest is the potential applicability of parts of the

model for conflict regulation in marital conflict, community disputes, and international peacemaking. Its transferability will be greatest where conflict involves the total identity of the opponents, where a restructuring rather than a mere reallocation of values is called for. Yet in most conflict situations the information maximization tactic would tend to reduce threat and encourage conciliation. Training people who are likely to be involved in intergroup conflict how to break into an escalating spiral with a nonhostile response would help to regulate conflict. Training people to distinguish between antagonist and issue in their conflict waging is a third Gandhian tactic that would help limit conflict.

One final conflict-limiting mechanism in the satyagraha a pproach that mi ht be used effectively in conflict regulation training is that of timing. Conflict is rarely, if ever, waged "on schedule." Gandhian confrontation was self-limiting partly because it was well timed. Runaway processes were precluded by careful, self-conscious weighing of each action and the opponent's likely response to it. Even in conflicts where maximization of gains is the primary objective for each party, training both parties and third-party intermediaries in timing and scheduling could increase the potential for conciliation.

Satyagraha has several prominent weaknesses, however. For one thing, it is quite culture-rooted, with concepts like selfsuffering and nonviolence difficult to transplant. Yet the Gandhian method of creative confrontation is not as culturebound as is popularly believed. The research of Sharp (1970) and others suggests that many of the techniques of satyagraha were borrowed from Chinese, Russian, and Irish nonviolent resistance movements. While a major part of its genius lay in the way it was skillfully shaped out of Indian tradition, as a means of struggle it has had substantial cross-cultural transferability.

The Gandhian movement was fueled by the charismatic leadership of one man, though it produced other men of somewhat lesser stature like Ghaf fir Khan and Vinoba Bhave. When that leadership was withdrawn, the movement declined rapi idly. Whether nonviolent movements are any more susceptible to such a dynamic than other movements is a debatable point, but with Gandhi and King, movement dependence on their leadership was both strength and weakness.

A third possible weakness concerns the vulnerability of satyagraha to cooptation by opponents. The confrontation/ conciliation mix is an extremely delicate one and the movement may take much less than it could get from opponents in order to maintain the balance. Most revolutionaries would argue that compromise has no place in a struggle movementthat it is only diversion.

Finally, Gandhi's methods did not always work for even Gandhi himself. A number of satyagraha campaigns were abortive or produced violent confrontations. It will be interesting to see how successful the current resurgence of the satyagraha movement in India will be. It has had some major successes in confronting corrupt governments in Gujarat and Bihar and the Desai government is committed to Gandhian principles, but it is too early to measure lasting impact.