(One in a series of posts on Mark & Paul Engler’s 2016 book, This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping The Twenty-First Century.)

For organizers and leaders seeking large-scale, transformative change, a campaign built around symbolic demands and symbolic victories, the Englers argue, can be more powerful and effective than one built around instrumental demands and victories.

To illustrate this point, they examine in detail one of the great nonviolent campaigns of the 20th century, Gandhi’s Salt March.

In 1930, the Indian National Congress had voted 1) to launch a campaign seeking Purna Swaraj (“complete self-rule”) and to 2) to give Mahatma Gandhi complete authority to determine the scope, timing and direction of the campaign.

Many of Gandhi’s closest colleagues in the Congress leadership expected—and wanted—a campaign focused on constitutional questions, such as winning “dominion status”, within the British Empire.

Instead, Gandhi—accompanied by 78 of his most trusted followers walked 240 miles over 3 1/2 weeks to the seaside village of Dandi, went to the beach, picked up a grain of dried salt left behind by the receding tide and ate it.

That initiated the “Salt Satyagraha” in which millions of Indians joined, tens of thousands were jailed, and the British Empire ultimately, after a year of protests, agreed to negotiate as equals with Gandhi and the INC.

Why salt? Because, as Gandhi argued, “Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life.” (p. 124)

The Englers elaborate: “(Salt) was a simple commodity that everyone was compelled to buy and which the government taxed…. The fact that Indians were not permitted to freely collect salt from natural deposits or to pan for salt from the sea was a clear illustration of how a foreign power was unjustly profiting from the subcontinent’s people and its resources.” (pp. 124-25)

After a year-long struggle, Gandhi emerged from talks with the British Viceroy, Lord Irwin, with an agreement to end the campaign. Under the terms of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact,


  1. the Salt Act, with minor exceptions for a few coastal areas, remained law;

  3. the British made no concession on independence;

  5. the British refused to investigate incidents and allegations of police misconduct;, and

  7. most, but not all, of the repressive security measures enacted by the Raj during the campaign were repealed.

Congress won only the release of political prisoners, the return of fines collected from tax resisters, and the right to continue its boycott of British cloth.

It was a classic example of Gandhi’s preferred negotiating strategy of the “reduction of demands to a minimum consistent with the truth“. (p. 128)

Instrumentally, the outcome of the Salt Satyagraha was a failure. After all, Great Britain had not conceded a single step towards independence for India, and still retained its monopoly (and tax) over salt.

Symbolically however, it was a huge victory for India, as even the Empire’s staunchest advocates acknowledged:

“In a now-infamous speech, Winston Churchill, a leading defender of the British Empire, proclaimed that it was ‘alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi…striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace…to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.'” (p. 128)

Congress leaders initially were divided about the campaign’s outcome, but the Indian people were not:

“Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the radicals in Gandhi’s organization who was skeptical of the pact with Irwin, had to revise his view when he took in the reaction in the countryside. As (Geoffrey) Ashe recounts, when Bose traveled with Gandhi from Bombay to Delhi, he ‘saw ovations such as he had never witnessed before.’ Bose recognized the vindication. ‘The Mahatma had judged correctly,’ Ashe continues. ‘By all the rules of politics he had been checked. But in the people’s eyes, the plain fact that the Englishman had been brought to negotiate instead of giving orders outweighed any number of details.'” (p. 128)

The Englers recount a similar tale regarding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s 1963 Birmingham campaign. Launched with the stated goal of desegregating the city’s public facilities, the negotiated settlement Dr. King agreed to desegregated department store fitting rooms…and little else. (Public parks remained segregated; the city would “begin a process” to desegregate lunch counters and take down “Whites Only” signs; “at least one Negro sales person or cashier” would be hired in downtown Birmingham.)

But while the Birmingham campaign was an instrumental failure, it was a massive symbolic victory—swinging public opinion sharply against Jim Crow, smoking out the cautious and calculating President Kennedy, and compelling him to deliver a televised speech announcing a sweeping new civil rights bill, explaining, “The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.” (p. 131) A year later, President Johnson signed that bill into law as the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Both Gandhi and King would gladly have won the instrumental demands announced at the start of their respective campaigns. But both recognized that they were also, and in some ways more importantly, engaged in a symbolic struggle for justice, freedom and equality. By organizing and leading campaigns that operated effectively on symbolic levels (e.g., claiming access to salt, water fountains, lunch counters), they and their movements were able to win important symbolic victories that ultimately sped up the arrival of victory on their instrumental demands.

Crossposted at: https:/masscommons.wordpress.com

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