Non-violence: A Response to Ta-Nehisi Coates

I find myself in rare agreement with Ta-Nehisi Coates on the question of violence as a political tactic, which has been debated in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s passing. Coates notes that “Americans should understand” that “violent resistance to tyranny” is justified. He appeals to Malcolm X and even Martin Luther King, Jr.

Coates could also have written about some of Mandela’s own thoughts on the subject. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes about being inspired by Israeli leader Menachem Begin’s violent struggle against the British Mandate. (Like Mandela, Begin would later become an unlikely peacemaker.)

My personal favorite observation on the subject of political violence is George Orwell’s essay on Gandhi, in which he notes that the British colonial authorities found his tactic of non-violence rather to their liking: “…the gentleness with which [Gandhi] was nearly always handled was due partly to the feeling that he was useful.”

There are two caveats, however, which I think Coates leaves out. One is that Mandela’s use of violence is not as morally problematic as the fact of his alliance with Soviet communism. That alliance led to violence being used and excused in quite horrific ways, not least against fellow ANC members, tortured and murdered in exile.

The other is that violence must always be a tool of last resort. For some in Mandela’s party, it became an end in itself: even as he was negotiating with the apartheid regime, some of his fellow ANC cadres tried to invade the country and stage their own violent overthrow in Operation Vula. It was a logistical failure–a disaster averted.

I understand the frustration of those who see Mandela transformed into something he was not by those who had least in common with him during his struggle. But he was also never the man that his more radical and regrettable allies (Arafat, Castro, Gadhafi) imagined him to be. He did not share their contempt for morality.