Mihir Shah

Martin Luther King’s profound inversion of Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity is a beacon of light for all those who still dream of making a change in the world.

If injustice is a large fact of the world we live in, so is hate. And there is no surprise here. For, the very intensity of injustice provokes anger. Which fuels hate. Capitalism has created unimaginable material prosperity for millions. But hunger and distress remain widespread. The early years of the 21st century have seen hungry people rioting in 37 countries. Eighty per cent of the world’s population still lives below the international poverty line. The World Bank speaks of an almost unnoticed “silent famine” enveloping large parts of the globe.

Adding hurt to this absolute distress are widening disparities. A recent World Bank study reveals that between 1820 and 1992, the income share of the bottom 60 per cent of the world’s population halved to around 10 per cent, while the share of the top 10 per cent rose to more than 50 per cent. A United Nations report covering the period 1950-1998, also reveals growing inequalities within nations. These inequalities revolve around multiple axes of class, community, region, religion and gender. Religion has emerged as a central axis of conflict. Violence as a response to perceived injustice is on the rise, reflecting in part the failure of democracies to function effectively across the world.

The fruits of India’s own development have been shared very unequally, especially in certain geographies (Adivasi enclaves, drylands, hills) and with specific social groups (Dalits, Muslims). India witnessed the fastest growth of high networth individuals worldwide in 2007. In the “other India,” across 200 districts, lakhs of people are either committing suicide or taking to the gun.

Martin Luther King suggests a different response to injustice — the path of love. But the love he spoke of was no ordinary love. In an essay written in 1957, King elaborated the very different meanings of three words for love in the Greek New Testament. Eros, in Platonic philosophy, means the yearning of the soul for the realm of the divine. It has come now to mean a sort of aesthetic or romantic love. Philia signifies the intimate love between friends, a reciprocal love, where we love because we are loved. But the love King advocates is best expressed in the Greek word agape. Agape implies understanding. It intimates a “creative, redeeming goodwill for all, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action.” Thus explained, agape comes very close to the ideal of lokasangraham — action motivated ultimately by the holding together of the peoples of the world — the climax of the enunciation of karma yoga in Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad Gita.

Through a profound inversion of Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, King provides a reconceptualisation of the relationship between power and love. Nietzsche sought to determine the conditions of a new affirmation of life by overcoming what he regarded as the nihilistic despair produced by Christian values. King interrogates the very terms of this problematique by providing a radical restatement of his own spiritual tradition. He questions the legacy of viewing love and power as polar opposites, where love appears as a rescinding of power, and power as a rejection of love. This again is similar to the case against sanyaas (abdication of action) in the Bhagavad Gita. King argues that “power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic.” And this new understanding of power helps King positively formulate the unbreakable bond between love and justice: “power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Love must necessarily take on the larger structures of injustice that stand in its way. This love includes but goes well beyond isolated acts of kindness. At the same time, because love is our weapon, we do not seek to defeat anyone and must try not to end up humiliating those positioned against us. For the struggle is not against persons, it is for transformation of the opponent’s view and the system of oppression. And even more for the self-renewal of those who work for change. As King says, “to retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can be done only by projecting the ethics of love to the centre of our lives.”

Such an organic link between inner transformation of the individual and larger social change is invariably missing in our politics. But there is more. In our pursuit of structural change we cannot overlook the immediacy and enormity of suffering. Sadly, this has been the record of many movements for justice. The millennial quest, based on various teleological certainties of the dynamic of History (with a capital H), has often led to people being treated as cannon fodder. The finiteness of their life-times appears to have little import for leaders who ineluctably belong to classes quite distinct from those who suffer injustice. As a result, the desperation for finding tangible solutions appears much less evident in leaders than for the masses they lead.

We are confronted with a paradox. Narrow preoccupation with daily issues results, for example, in the sterile “economism” of the working class. But the quest for millennial goals of a distant Shangri-la means a striking lack of concern for real-time solutions and an unyielding “protest for the sake of protest.” The former reflects a complete absence of broader vision, the latter a cruel neglect of immediate anguish. The challenge of creative politics is to strike an imaginative balance between the two, without disadvantaging either.

We must stop viewing conflict as an arena of our victory over the “other.” It is better regarded as a problem in search of a solution. A conflict needs not so much a victory, as a resolution. Indeed, a “defeat” that moves society forward on the moral landscape, that empowers the disadvantaged and sensitises those in power, deepening democracy in the process, could even be preferred to a “victory” that fails to achieve any of these.

A key to moving forward in this direction is to give up the antediluvian unitary and insurrectionist conception of Revolution (with a capital R). The unique appeal of “scientific socialism” was its claim to have discovered the “laws of motion of society” that predicted the inexorable coming of a new dawn. This teleology has ended up becoming the chief weakness of Marxism. If change is visualised in these terms, means-ends questions will be run roughshod over and horrors of the Stalinist kind will continue to be perpetrated. Indeed, it would appear that without fana or annihilation of the ego as expounded in Sufi theosophy, without an outpouring of agape love that Martin Luther King evoked, movement towards a more just social order will remain a delusion.

Spiritual standpoint

Such a spiritual standpoint finds strong support in recent advances in Neuroscience and Economics, both of which have traditionally been bastions of selfishness as the central motive of human behaviour. Neurobiologists like Donald Pfaff marshal a new understanding of genes, neuronal activity and brain circuitry to explain our concern for the other. The path-breaking work of economists like Samuel Bowles questions standard textbook assumptions of the selfish homo economicus and emphasises the role of altruism in the very survival of humankind in the difficult years ahead.

A one-track, single-event notion of revolution must also be discarded because it leads to complete neglect of crucial nitty-gritty detail that forms the heart of the transformation we dream of. It is this dry spadework that also contains solutions to immediate distress. Running mid-day meals in schools under active supervision of mothers, local people managing sanitation and drinking water systems, social audits in vibrant gram sabhas, participatory planning for watershed works, women leading federations of self-help thrift groups and workers running industrially safe, non-polluting factories as participant shareholders — all these and many more are the immediate, unfinished, feasible tasks of an ongoing struggle for change.

Unfortunately, activists typically push these questions into a hazy future, to be all answered after the revolution, so to speak. One of the greatest weaknesses of the socialist project in the 20th century was its failure to flesh out the details of possible alternatives to a capitalist society. These are difficult questions that necessitate intricate answers. And we need to begin looking for these here and now, in the living laboratories of learning of our farms and factories, villages and slums. Not in some imaginary distant future after a fictitious insurrection. Why do we forget that this love in action for justice constitutes a large part of the change that we must still dare to dream of?

(The writer is a social activist living and working for the last two decades with the Adivasis of central India.)