Can Thinking of Gandhi’s Ahimsa as 'War Machine' Revive the Non-Western Revolution?

The author invokes the Gandhian concept of ahimsa and compares it to that of the "war machine" from the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. He seeks the possibility of appropriating and adapting Gandhi’s subaltern politics of the multitude for the new creative struggles in the future.


The invention of the concept “war machine” by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari happened to be an epoch-making event in the history of political science. The historical significance of this concept has not yet been properly revealed and its potential has not been put to work by plugging it into the current of forces that change the world. The concept of the war machine, however, should be recognised as one which effects a paradigmatic shift, inspired by Machiavelli, Spinoza and Marx, in the history of Western political thought. 

The historical significance of this concept comes to light in the context of crisis and confusion in theory and practice in the political and ethical life of the present-day world. As both the great revolutions—bourgeois and proletarian—became outworn and their strategies turned counterproductive towards the end of the last century, a huge ethico–political void has formed before the new generation of workers, students, and marginalised and suppressed subaltern sections all over the world. All the philosophical works of Deleuze and Guattari, as they themselves revealed, attempt to address the above-mentioned void by radically subverting the representational model of the Western image of thought and perception (Deleuze and Guattari 1984, 1988; Deleuze 1994). This is the remarkable adventure in which they invent some ground-breaking concepts that usher us out of the statist realm of the age-old styles of the theorising in philosophy, art, and politics. The concept—war machine—turns out to be an outstanding one not only because of its novelty and complexity, but primarily because of its creative potential to bring into being a field of nomadic power relations with its distinct political anthropology as opposed to the sedentary, striated,[1] hierarchical, and oppressive relations of power implied in state forms and their apparatuses. This discovery of the nomadic “other” power relations and the invention of its conceptual category in the war machine as an abstract machine enable us to retrieve the missing emancipatory desires of the minoritarian forces or the multitudes.[2] This is the context in which this paper proposes the revival of the Gandhian non-Western revolution by reinforcing his concept of ahimsa by connecting it to the war machine, even though Gandhi and Deleuze are two distant figures in every other respect.

Ahimsa, meaning non-violence, is an ancient Indian moral concept that has been regarded highly by Indian religions such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. The dictum “Ahimsa Paramo Dharama” (meaning the absolute virtue is ahimsa), itself makes it clear how much this moral notion was important in Indian life though it has undergone different interpretations over time. However, the Gandhian concept of ahimsa is not a revival or a new interpretation of the old notion, but a new invention presented in the old nomenclature. The Gandhian concept of ahimsa is a political concept; it can be a non-Western, non-modern, and non-statist micro political concept. Since it is easily misunderstood from Western perspectives, Gandhian ahimsa has been wrongly interpreted by various political groups across the spectrum as a passive, retrogressive, and submissive concept that arises from the cowardice and powerlessness of the subdued, armless, and hapless. For Gandhi, on the other hand, ahimsa is the affirmative force of life. He once defined it as “… the only true force of life” (Gandhi 2016: 69). The long and tedious political struggle for the independence of India led by Gandhi was based on this affirmative force of life.

Gandhian Political Theory

In Gandhi’s political theory, as distinct from dominant Western theories (such as those of Locke and Hobbes), power is conceived as the ruling power exercised by states over citizens to keep them under control and to protect them as civilised human beings. The Gandhian theory of self-rule eschews the idea of the state as an institution gifted to human beings through social evolution—from the state of nature to higher levels of civilised existence. For Gandhi, the formative power that is constitutive of humanity is not the state power exercised from above, but the multiplying common forces collectively generated by the coexistence of human beings from below. For him, it is the affirmative common force of life, which is the continuation and transformation of the right to exist and thrive in nature like any other creature. As in Spinoza, in Gandhi, natural rights of human beings transform themselves as political rights and power in the social nature of collective life—a power of life which is there prior to all ruling powers. This is the natural power—socially and collectively generated, prior to the state—in which Gandhi finds the true force of life and names it after ahimsa. Gandhi firmly believed that human society is naturally non-violent, in contrast to all state-centred political theories based on violence. This is why Gandhi declared, with unshakable conviction, that “non-violence is the greatest and the most active force in the world” (Gandhi 1948: 113).

Throughout his life, he tried to reclaim and realise this basic reality of non-violent forces through non-violent means, which he called satyagraha (meaning steadfastness in truth), against all forms of violent forces, including the state. He mentioned his conviction in the natural objective reality of ahimsa as opposed to ahimsa as a religious concept in the following way:

All society is held together by non-violence, even as the earth is held in her position by gravitation. But when the law of gravitation was discovered [,] the discovery yielded results of which our ancestors had no knowledge. Even so [,] when the society is deliberately constructed in accordance with the law of non-violence, its structure will be different in material particulars from what it is today. … What is happening today is disregard of the law of non-violence and enthronement of violence as if it were an eternal law. (Gandhi 1948: 198)

Here, it is easy to understand why Gandhi equates ahimsa, the natural active force in human life, with love, and the law of ahimsa with the law of love. He says, 

It is the law of love that rules mankind. Had violence, [that is] hate, ruled us, we should have become extinct long ago. And yet the tragedy of it is that the so-called civilised men and nations conduct themselves as if the basis of society was violence. (Gandhi 1948: 266)

And he applies to the law of love, the same scientific objectivity and reality that he endows to ahimsa. See this statement: 

Whether mankind will consciously follow the law of love, I do not know. But that need not perturb us. The law will work, just as the law of gravitation will work whether we accept it or not. And just as [a] scientist will work wonders out of various applications of the laws of nature, even so a man who applies the law of love with scientific precision can work great wonders. (Gandhi 2016: 12)

He asserts his conviction thus: “If love or non-violence be not the law of our being, the whole of my argument falls into pieces” (Gandhi 1948: 121). Armed with this objective law of love, Gandhi succeeded in overthrowing the British empire from its most coveted possession, India.

The exponents of the dominating political practices of the modern world—from liberal democrats to followers of official Marxisms—consider Gandhi an exception to standard versions of practical politics. They regard Gandhian ideas as noble, but impossible in normal political practice. In 1949, George Orwell expressed this idea when he stated that Gandhi’s ideas would only work against the British and they would never work against the Soviet Union. Though less than half a century later, in Central Europe and East Europe, history proved Orwell wrong.

However, the Gandhian political theory based on ahimsa or the forces of love lacks a contemporary philosophical and scientific framework that would put an end to its glorified exceptionalism. The philosophical experiment that attempts to connect ahimsa with the war machine is, thus, significant because it brings Gandhi face to face with present-day challenges as a living active force rather than as an idol for worship. 

Philosophical Enquiry by Deleuze and Guattari

To this effect, let us explore in detail the nature and function of the war machine as a nomadic assemblage of power, from which Deleuze and Guattari derived the war machine as an abstract machine and its enormous possibilities of creative actualisation. Deleuze and Guattari make use of the path-breaking innovations made in anthropology and ethnology by Pierre Clastres, which broke away from the evolutionist, stage-ist, and logocentric understanding of the social history of mankind. Pierre Clastres founds war and state on paradigmatically different planes and endows them with antagonistic functions, structures, and logics. Hence, Clastres not only parts with the evolutionist concept of the formation of the state, but he puts forward the novel idea of the “other power” as war machine, the nomadic assemblage of power that resists and wards off the formation of the state, which is the oppressive apparatus of capture. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari describe this decisive finding of Pierre Clastres:

The prime interest in Pierre Clastres’s theories is that they break with this evolutionist postulate. Not only does he doubt that the state is the product of an ascribable economic development [,] but he asks if it is not a potential concern of primitive societies to ward off or avert that monster they supposedly do not understand. Warding off the formation of a state apparatus, making such a formation impossible, would be the objective of certain number of primitive social mechanisms, even if they are not consciously understood as such… But Clastres goes further, identifying war in primitive societies as the surest mechanism directed against the formation of the state. […] Clastres can thus invoke natural law while reversing its principal proposition: just as Hobbes saw clearly that the state was against war, so war is against the state, and makes it impossible. It should not be concluded that war is a state of nature, but rather that it is the mode of a social state that wards off and prevents the states. Primitive war does not produce the state any more than it derives from it. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 357)

Following Pierre Clastres, Deleuze and Guattari shatter evolutionist theories of the state. Explaining the existence of the near-palaeolithic archaic imperial states and the simultaneous existence of counter-state societies which produce mechanisms that ward off state forms, they not only establish the reality of counter-state power, but also free the concept of the state from superstructural shadowy existence to become a real machinic assemblage of power. Thus, two types of powers—one, that of the stateless societies that resist and foil the formation of the state forms, and the other the state power that captures and submits everything to a centre—and their interactions become the main features of the political anthropology of Deleuze and Guattari. For them, the war machine is not a machine that relates to war in the ordinary sense, but a multiple assemblage of collective power that operates in the unbounded smooth space of the spontaneity of life. It is the joyful affirmative power (puissance), the desire or will to exist and express. They conceived state power, on the other hand, as a form of violence that captures everything into its striated spaces of constriction, confinement, and negativity. For them, the state form of power is not just an exterior machine of capture but also a negative striated form of power inherent with violence in advance for the future, whereas war machine is the life force that resists the monstrosity of this violence. Thus, war machine as the anti-violence machine becomes a positively non-violence machine.

Deleuze and Guattari do not stop their philosophical enquiry at this level of empirical innovation. The anthropological concept of the war machine underwent a deterritorialisation, and got transformed into that of an abstract machine in their philosophy. Paul Patton describes this conceptual transformation: 

As abstract machines of mutation and change, assemblages of the war machine type may be actualised in a variety of different material domains: they can appear in thought as well as in material practices of resistance to capture. Such a machine might take the form of new invention or process in a given technological phylum, a new individual or collective affect in the stratum of desire, or a revolutionary judgment or new branch of jurisprudence in the law. Machines of this kind can emerge in any domain or stratum of the social field so long as they are propagators of smooth space: “an ‘ideological,’ scientific or artistic movement can be a potential war machine, to the precise extent to which it draws, in relation to a phylum, a plane of consistency, a creative line of flight, a smooth space of displacement.” (Patton 2000: 110)

As Patton suggests, the concept of the war machine as an abstract machine turns out to be a rhizomatic multiplicity machine that actualises any form of affirmative life force into art, love or ahimsa.[3] In short, when Gandhi unequivocally equates ahimsa with love, Deleuze also finds in the war machine another name for creativity and love. In a plane of consistency that allows new types of flows and affects, the war machine is ahimsa or love, which unfolds the forces of creative existence.[4]

Reading Gandhi Through Deleuze and Guattari

As there is an empirical, anthropological, and ethnological background from which Deleuze and Guattari derived the concept of the war machine, there is also a real background of life behind Gandhi’s creation of the concept of ahimsa. In India, there were autonomous village societies, tribal groups, and nomadic societies from ancient times onwards, which resisted the pan-Indian imperial mega-machines of state power that ruled from above, though the imperial rulers changed at times, as was the case of archaic empires elsewhere. So, the conflicts and the balancing of state power that ruled from above and the subaltern power that resisted it from below, are the characteristic features that determined Indian life and culture for centuries without fundamental change. There were several techniques and forms of struggle in practice, envisaged by the collective imagination of subaltern groups to ward off and to resist the encroachment and oppression of the state power so as to protect their autonomous power relations and to safeguard the stateless smooth space of multiplicity and collectivity. Fasting unto death was a form of struggle practiced by various sections of village communities against the violation of their autonomous power and right by the state power. There are references to such forms of struggle called pattini (fasting) in ancient collections of songs like Sangam poetry. Another non-violent form of revolt against the inappropriate acts of rulers by the agricultural villagers in India was called deshathyaaga which meant going back to the forest leaving behind their homes, land, and cultivation to escape state power and its atrocities.

Here, we can remind ourselves of the concepts of hegemony and domination reinvented by the subaltern Indian historian Ranajit Guha, in order to differentiate state power as domination over the subaltern communities, from the exercise of their counterpower to resist the domination of state power as hegemony. It would be productive to compare the concepts of the war machine and hegemony as they both involve the same type of power that act against the domination of state power.

Gandhi took almost all his non-violent techniques of struggles from these indigenous subaltern expressions of power, which were basically non-violent. But he was not just imitating them. Here lies Gandhi’s principal difference from Westernised modern national leaders from all over the world. Gandhi identified himself with the subaltern masses in India through his experiments of several becomings. Through his experiments of becoming-untouchable, becoming-tribal, woman, and Muslim, he became an intensive body of the subaltern desire for self-rule that seeks to escape the foreign state power imposed upon them. In the introduction to Gandhi’s book, Thomas Merton wrote about Gandhi’s identification with Indian subaltern multitudes: 

In rediscovering India and his own “right mind,” Gandhi was not excavating from libraries the obscure disputed questions of Vedantic scholasticism (though he did not reject Vedanta). He was, on the contrary [,] identifying himself fully with the Indian people, that is to say [—] not with westernised upper classes nor with the Brahmin caste, but rather with the starving masses and in particular [,] with the outcaste (untouchables), or Harijan.… Gandhi realised that the people of India were awakening in him. The masses that had been totally silent for thousands of years now had found a voice in him. It was not an “Indian thought” or an “Indian spirituality” that was stirring in him, but India herself. It was the spiritual consciousness of a people that awakened in the spirit of one person. (Gandhi 2016)

This is how, through the direct experience of the Indian subaltern power and its techniques of resistance, Gandhi invented ahimsa, a concept equivalent to the war machine of Deleuze and Guattari. Gandhi could transform the concept of ahimsa by deterritorialisating it from its experiential level to an abstract machine, which could actualise love and truth as political categories devoid of their personal and spiritualist bearing.

Let me conclude by pointing to a moment in Gandhi’s enlightening experience of ahimsa. There is a chapter in Gandhi’s autobiography titled “Face to Face with Ahimsa.” It is about his first visit to Champaran, where the peasants were oppressed and exploited by European indigo planters. The colonial government banned Gandhi’s tour in Champaran. As he refused to obey the order he was summoned to the court. This news spread like wildfire all over the district, thousands of peasants gathered around Gandhi and followed him wherever he went, even though he was not previously known to them. Gandhi saw them as humans freed from all fear of punishment, but yielding obedience to the power of love. He felt that he stood face to face with ahimsa embodied in the non-violent multitude, fearless, confident, and full of love. Gandhi recorded the intensity of his experience like this: “It is no exaggeration, but the literal truth, to say that in this meeting with the peasants I was face to face with God, Ahimsa and truth… That day in Champaran was an unforgettable event in my life and a red-letter day for the peasants and for me.” (Gandhi 1996: 344)

Now we are able to understand that what Gandhi faced then in the name of ahimsa, in a much broader and more contemporary philosophical perspective, is the war machine, the abstract machine of creativity, love, happiness, and absolute democracy invented by Deleuze and Guattari, following Spinoza, Marx, and Nietzsche. Let us hope such an understanding would help us to appropriate and adapt Gandhi’s subaltern politics of the multitude for the new creative struggles to come, in which not only humanity but nature as a whole is at stake.


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