Every historian worth their salt knows that historical and local specificities ultimately render all analogies inaccurate. Yet people navigating times of great change and uncertainty habitually seek reassurance from the past.
In 1852, Karl Marx observed how revolutionaries "anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past … to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise." By helping to legitimize major change, historical analogies have played a key role in the very making of modern history, including its ugliest episodes: The Nazis defended their camps, for instance, by pointing to British concentration camps in the South African War at the turn of the 20th century. Much of what has transpired in history has been justified by reference to some precedent.
Making new comparisons thus helps shift the paradigms and false equivalences through which we inherit the past so that we might make new history in the present. Despite their own inevitable inaccuracy, fresh analogies help uncover the darker historical truths obscured by the more flattering comparisons that enabled them. The question is not so much whether to analogize but whether the analogies we invoke serve ethical ends.
Today, the world faces climate crisis, a pandemic, vast inequalities, war—a litany of troubles that makes our time seem unprecedented but also profoundly continuous with the past: The climate crisis is a product of the accumulated pollutants of the industrial age, and inequalities are partly the legacies of the historical processes of slavery and colonialism that were never redeemed. If our goal is to identify a propitious historical analogy that will help us cope with and overcome polluting industrialism, racist oppression, and violence, we might look to the Indian non cooperation movement that began in the 1920s—not as something done, over, in the past, but as an ongoing struggle that we might resume.
The Indian struggle for independence from British rule had begun much earlier, but tactics of nonviolent protest burst on the scene under the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi from the 1920s to 1940s. Gandhi's approach built on earlier struggles in India and South Africa and was the product of a global intellectual history, including Jainism and Leo Tolstoy's Christian pacifism. In a series of mass movements, protesters engaged in tax resistance, marching, and boycotting British educational institutions and British-manufactured cloth (in favour of local hand-spun cloth). Autonomy was achieved and proved through the very act of nonviolent refusal of British rule, whatever its consequences. In this sense, it was fundamentally about redemption of the self.
Among the movement's actions that seized global attention was the Salt March of 1930, when Gandhi and dozens of followers set out on a 25-day, 240-mile march to protest the British salt monopoly and extortionate salt tax. Tens of thousands joined as Gandhi spoke to crowds along the way. On reaching Dandi on the Arabian Sea coast, Gandhi picked up a lump of salt-rich mud on the shore and declared the British law breached. Over the next several weeks, masses around the country violated the salt laws and other repressive laws. Hundreds of nonviolent protesters were beaten; more intense British violence was checked by extensive international press coverage. Gandhi was among the 60,000 arrested by the end of 1930—but the following year, the British conceded his demand to participate in negotiations about India's future.
The British departed India in 1947, but, to many, the struggle for decolonization remained unfulfilled, as the institutions and values the British had established remained intact. In the Gandhian vision, the mere transfer of power was not decolonization, for the enemy was not the British but British civilization's centering of material desire as the key to prosperity and progress. A regime in which white rulers were simply replaced by brown ones would also have to be resisted. It would remain, in Gandhi's words, "foreign rule."
This warning that the struggle for decolonization had to be permanent is the movement's most compelling legacy for our time. It emerged from an understanding, shared by other anti-colonial groups, that liberation—in the sense of a recovery of our full humanity, not just political freedom—is something experienced in the course of common struggle. Man's purpose, Gandhi's contemporary the philosopher and poet Muhammad Iqbal argued, is to remake oneself ethically rather than to remake the world.
The idea that struggle is meaningful itself, regardless of its effects, pushed back against European colonisers' claims that history is a story of progress in which evils such as colonialism are sometimes necessary. To Gandhi, this vision of history discounted the sustaining force of love that routinely defuses would-be conflicts in a manner illegible to history. Nonviolence embraced such quotidian practices of love, creating new possibilities for the future by calling on humans to be morally accountable exclusively in the present. Insofar as it was about being ethical—and thus civilised—now, nonviolence was the end in itself, not a means to some political end. It was self-rule ("swaraj") in the most substantive form.
"It is swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves," Gandhi explained in 1909. "It is, therefore, in the palm of our hands." Freedom might be attained instantly, entailing only refusal to be ruled by another. Each person would thus "become his own ruler," he wrote in 1939; government itself would be redundant. Such utopianism was necessary to meaningful decolonization, he insisted: "To believe that what has not occurred in history will not occur at all is to argue disbelief in the dignity of man." Straining after the ideal mattered more than arriving at it: "Let India live for this true picture, though never realisable in its completeness," he affirmed in 1946.
For Gandhi, then, moral transformation at the level of the self, more than the departure of the British, was the movement's real goal. It meant recovery from the values of colonialism: that material attainments (rather than ethical being) were a measure of civilization, that evil might be justified by some future vindicating effect, that society thrived through individual self-interest rather than the reciprocity of interests. Such values were incompatible with planetary habitation: "God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West," Gandhi warned in 1928. "If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts."
Given these goals, Gandhian noncooperation, or satyagraha, relied on boycotts and strikes against British economic dominance and unjust laws but also everyday practices aimed at redeeming the mind and soul—walking, singing, fasting, and spinning yarn. Sacrifice, of conveniences or even life, for the sake of ethical action demanded by the present—as opposed to instrumental sacrifice in the name of some future purpose—was at its core. Satyagrahis' willingness to endure deprivations, violent punishment, imprisonment, and even death sought to awaken the suppressed humanity of their oppressors. The point was not to punish but to open themselves up to punishment to instigate the conversion, or decolonization, of their oppressors' minds. As Faisal Devji, a historian at the University of Oxford, recently put it, Gandhian noncooperation was "motivated by love for the opponent's humanity, no matter how residual it might have become."
Gandhi recognized that challenging the entrenched values of colonialism was a formidable task. Though the moral transformation of the self was in the palm of one's hand, the power of colonial educational institutions propagating instrumental views of evil and centering consumption as the key to civilization meant that it would take time for each individual to realise the need for it.
Many anti-colonial thinkers perceived that empire's shape-shifting capacity meant permanent anti-colonial struggle, rather than a moment of decisive victory. Satyagraha—literally, insistence on truth—was necessary precisely because of the way the empire was so easily normalised and obscured. Liberation would be experienced in, rather than as a result of, that unresolved struggle. Colonialism valorized "a society of individuals where each person shuts himself up in his own subjectivity," the Martiniquan philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), but human nature is essentially intersubjective, and the very forms of collective organisation necessary to anti-colonial struggle allow the colonised to recover the kinship and solidarities that are integral to lived experience: "[T]he community triumphs and … spreads its own light."
In the wake of such anti-colonial movements and the horrors of World War II, many European philosophers, too, recognized that history was not a narrative moving in a particular direction but the unceasing flux of life through which individuals strive to redemptively transcend their humanity—a continual quarrel between ethics and circumstances that shapes the ends of each of our lives.
This is a way of living in a state of constant aspiration, aware that fulfilment of struggle lies in the struggle itself. The search for analogies with this understanding of history is not about tracing history's direction or lamenting our failure to learn from the past; it is about grasping human capacities so that we don't mistake our predicament as exceptional and lose sight of it as part of a continual quarrel in which our life's meaning is at stake. The Indian anti-colonial movement is not an analogy from the past offering lessons but where we actually are in history—trying to recover our humanity in the face of state oppression and destructive materialism.
Nor is it a story about another place, and so, irrelevant to the United States. Descendants of the Indian and other anti-colonial struggles are there—U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, for one, frequently refers to his ancestors' participation in the Gandhian movement. Moreover, early Indian anti-colonial activists drew inspiration from contemporary American anti-racist struggles. And precisely because the redemptive power of love is a universal value, the Gandhian movement's ideas and tactics also watered American struggles. Black civil rights leaders met with Gandhi in the 1930s, and Gandhian tactics profoundly influenced the postwar civil rights struggle led by Martin Luther King Jr. and the anti-war and pro-environment movements that followed—whose descendants are among us, too. These movements are all ours. The collective heritage of global struggles against oppression is an American strength.
The past is not a series of self-contained moments behind us—pearls that we might squint at to find a reflection of our times—but something everlasting in the way it structures the world we inhabit. It's time to join the salt march, to go beyond single-day rallies and endure the deprivations needed to seriously confront the military-industrial structures causing existential climate crisis and rampant violence. As Americans despair at their political institutions' failure to alleviate the epidemic of mass shootings, it's time to ask: What would happen if, during the school year, teachers launched a month long march to their state capitols to demand gun regulations and Americans joined in their thousands along the way?
Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance professor of international history at Stanford University and the award-winning author of Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East and Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution. Her most recent book is Time's Monster: How History Makes History.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.