Machiavelli vs. Mohandas Gandhi-Martin Luther King Jr. on Power Essay

The term ‘power’ has been explicatively the most contriving subject, a deep political discourse and a philosophical thought since generations and among great thinkers of the bygone era and even of today. What exhibits a power within a paradigm of political intrigues and among ruling elite is a question answered by philosophers with their philosophical juxtaposition to the contemporary political situation of the era. For some philosophers, the rule by force or law justifies power politics but through abiding by the moral principles. Following the ethical principles makes the ruler rightful heir to the powers he can exert. However the term ‘power’ has much more deep intensity and depth explored and applied into the consciousness of the people with great dexterity into the current political scenario. Machiavelli in his most famous treatise The Prince criticized this moral principle of authority to explain the power. For him there is no moral or ethical ground on the basis of which legitimate or illegitimate use of power can be discussed, instead a person who is in authority has a right to command. This power position and explanation of power is contrary to the principles of Mahatma Gandhi-Martin Luther King Jr. for whom power is a means not an end in the political circle and when deep apathetic political overtures are being undertaken. The following essay will be a discussion on the Machiavelli’s concept against much lighter in intensity Mahatma Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s concept of power.
The Prince as a political treatise was written around 1513 AD using a Latin title De Principatibus (About Principalities) soon after Medici took the control of Florence in his hands and soon after the arrest and torture of Machiavelli’s himself. He contrived the notion of ‘power’ in its real sense, in other words, power and authority are synonymous to each other: if a person is powerful he has the right to command too, but if a person is good that does not ensure he has the power too. Quite in contrary to early theories of moral values, a political ruler will always strive to retain his authority and position which has nothing to do with his legitimate right of a ruler and ownership. Machiavelli’s experience with the Florentine government made him develop and contrive his idea of ‘power’ in kingship. He said right and goodness are not sufficient conditions to gain and win over political seat. It is very necessary for a successful ruler to get to know how the power should be applied. Through the application of the power in an adequate way that a ruler can be successful in making his subjects obey. Machiavelli insists to follow the path drafted by Cesare Borgia who became an exemplary figure of Machiavelli’s concept of a ruler. It was debated that the choice of Machiavelli of Cesare Borgia, also known as Duke, to get the status of hero in his The Prince was a great mistake because it could undermine his reputation at the later stage. “Cesare had committed crimes on his way to power, and it might be added that he had committed other crimes too.” It appeared that he was expecting such criticism but he stood by his point as he said, “Reviewing thus all the actions of the Duke, I find nothing to blame, on the contrary I feel bound, as I have done, to hold him up as an example to be imitated by all who by fortune and with the arms of others have risen to power.” To retain the status, even a mythic historical figure of Rome, Romulus murdered his brother Remus to garner power in his hands. He too agreed to the death of Titus Tatius, who was chosen to have the equal right to power with him. Machiavelli contrives the notion that these murders will ultimately prove to be beneficial for all. However it is to be noted here that though Machiavelli’s agreed that these evil acts were against the moral norms yet he fully contrived to the notion of these violations purporting his view that “[…] in the actions of men, and especially of princes, from which there is no appeal, the end justifies the means.” To these cruelties and destructive tendencies he termed as “destructive purification”, which could be very beneficial to all in the long run.

Political theory of Machiavelli is an attempt to leave out questions on authority and right of ruler-ship while making any political decisions or framing political judgment. His views come out very clearly in his discussion on the law and force. Machiavelli believed that good arms and laws are essential parts of the well established political system. As human beings have a tendency to be selfish, they want to gain maximum benefits for themselves but there are theories that claim human beings as good and can be won by goodness or love, but Machiavelli denied it as he said men never live in this way. This is a provocation enough for the political rulers to adopt the policies that could be enforced upon the people for their mutual benefits. His vision of the power politics can well be understood with the help of the term ‘virtue’ which in conventional terms is moral goodness but for Machiavelli, it implies qualities a prince should possess while running the state.

Power of Machiavelli was the most effective tool in a political circle of sixteenth century however twentieth century deciphered a complete different perspective- a movement started by great spiritual leader of India, Mahatma Gandhi and political leader Martin Luther King Jr. Mahatma Gandhi’s ideologies on power politics had a much profound influence on the political leaders all over the world as he thwarted what had been a conventional approach of the power with notwithstanding Machiavelli’s power politics. Particularly stand taken by Nelson Mandela against apartheid in South Africa and Martin Luther King Jr. to fight against racism in America had an influence of Mahatma Gandhi’s step taken against the British dominating rule in India. Mahatma Gandhi had said in one of the treatises, “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment” (quote of Gandhi). For Gandhi attaining the power and position in the nation through love can turn out to be more effective rather than exerted by force. Gandhi made use of non-violence as the most effective weapon in his fight against the British’s rule and its policies in India. Gandhi was not a philosopher but a political strategist as he never tried to conceptualize his views rather he brought a complete political and social change not only in the history of India but also the world. He believed in asserting the voice through not by force but by what David Cortright suggests “social coercion”. Gandhi used “Satyagraha”, in other words, the most peaceful means to make enemies especially ruling class to succumb to the demands but not by hurting anyone. Satyagraha is the most dynamic concept involving constant persuasive strategies and pressure and not a symbol of cowardice as it made out to be by many. For John Wallis, Gandhi’s policy was a “spiritual politics.” It is Gandhi’s “Karma” means task or a moral duty for human kind. Human beings are virtually good and they ought to be won by goodness. This is the concept of “Karma” however paradoxically if we go by Machiavelli’s concept, human beings are selfish too as Gandhi and even Martin Luther King Jr. did not deny this fact.

The Satyagraha movement was started in Transvaal, South Africa against Asiatic Registration Act in 1906. At a massive protest in Johannesburg on 11 September 1906, Gandhi persuaded Indians to reject the new law and suffer punishments rather than adopting violent means. The plan was initiated leading to seven long years of struggle whereby Indians refused to register and even burned their registration cards. This caused British government to lavish extravagant brutalities on Indians- thousands of them were put behind bars, slogged and brutalized and even shot to death for not compiling with the orders. Though government attained success in suppressing the protestors yet the outcry of the public was enough for the South African General Jan Christiaan Smuts to come on negotiating terms with Gandhi. This was the most powerful movement that led almost whole India into the wave of their struggle for independence.

Again in 1930, Salt Satyagraha was started as a non-violent protest against the British salt tax. Gandhi from Sabarmati Ashram led popularly known as Dandi March on 12th March, 1930 to oppose unjustified salt tax and for complete independence from the British yoke. Protestors in large numbers joined Gandhi along the way for Dandi in Gujarat to produce the salt from the sea without paying a single penny as tax. On 6 April 1930, Gandhi picked up the salty mud and forcefully asserted, “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire…I want world sympathy in this battle of Right against might.” This incident was a direct strike against the British yoke yet with the most peaceful means. Though Gandhi was put under arrest soon afterwards yet this small incident created a spark of Indian Independence and attracted people from around the world. The agitation continued for one year and in the end Gandhi was released from prison and Viceroy Lord Irwin was forced to bring Gandhi for negotiations at the Second Round Table Conference in September 1931. Though it was a great achievement as Indians now were joining in large numbers for their war for Independence yet it did not evoke to attain maximum concessions from the British. In United States too, Martin Luther King Jr. started the civil right movement to cure the evils in the society and against racism.

Martin Luther King Jr. principles of non violence and civil rights movement to bring about changes in the society were Agape Love, courage, perseverance and others including education, non compliance, boycott, protests and marches among others. These are the most vital elements of power if garnered by the masses in their daily lives could bring in massive change in the society including eradication of the social ills that were preponderating on the American soil since centuries. King in Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963) advocated, “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Rosa Park declined to obey the law which compelled her to leave the seat on the bus because she happened to be black. Sit-ins too became one of the most popular non-violence strategic moves and mass protests that resulted into Civil Rights Act of 1964, which brought to end racial segregation in the United States. We must possess civil rights as a power to decline the laws and that would make us serf and refuse to obey any injustice and inalienable rights and anything that does not allow us to enjoy our rights. Martin Luther King Jr. finally said to the people that “we know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” It’s time for the people to raise their voice to attain the freedom and that is possible only by adopting the above principles. However freedom through the above means cannot be obtained overnight as it is a constant persistent effort on the part of the human beings. Further he said that once it is attained, it needs to be protected.

During 1963, King gave to the people his A Bold Design for a New South. It was his voice making President John F. Kennedy to realize that the South had been divided into two parts- one was already prepared to accept the change while the other obstinately defied to accede to any change except for the trivial changes. King demanded administration to “place its weight behind the dynamic South, encouraging and facilitating its progressive development.” He thought “this was the moment for government to drive a wedge into the splitting South” and widely spread it giving ample opportunity for the civil rights movement to attain success. What was so defined in this essay was his voice on “tokenism”. He believed that at this moment the decline of civil rights movement was a direct result of the people’s agreement to “tokenism”. He believed that people had not yet stopped their fight to attain equal rights but have been forced to accede to certain symbolic victories which he termed as “tokenism”.

After the decades of struggle, Martin Luther King Jr. understood the Civil Rights Act as a mere tokenism, which for him was just the “cynical manipulation of symbols to create the illusion of progress- as perhaps the paramount threat to the work of democracy.” He criticized sharply the limited privileges gained by the Blacks which were for him mere mercy of the whites which they could revoke at their own sweet will. King was able to understand that tokenism in the form of few legislative laws could neither gain them security nor full freedom and for the purpose of the same they had to continue with their struggle. Tokenism, as accepted by everyone, was unavoidable in the circumstances that were compelling the administration to resolve the discrimination issues. Administration on one hand wanted the Negros to feel they felt worried for them but on the other hand they also wanted the backing of the whites. This was the most skeptical situation faced by the administration. This made them compel to resort to certain ways to keep Negros satiated and retain the position of whites still superior.

King’s and Gandhi’s approach towards power as a means of influencing others and the states was the most potent means of power adopted to make ardent changes in the society. These actions were also to a certain degree a part of coercion as they involved consistent persuasion and adopting of the means that forced the government to accept to the demands. Here the ardent leader of non cooperation movement and stringent in his views had to change his strategies as he sat for negotiations. But overall change in the strategy was neither adopted by Gandhi till his end nor by Martin Luther King Jr. and even not by Machiavelli himself, as for him any means that justify the ends, is a righteous way. However Judith Brown criticized Gandhi by asserting that his method of moral persuasion reduced his efficacy as a political leader and a person who could easily be carried away for negotiations and for compromises. His decision to put an end to the Salt Satyagraha entered into wide controversy at the time when British officials refused to give adequate relaxation to their tax laws during their Round Table negotiations. Gandhi was seen so desperate to enter into negotiation that according to Stanley Wolpert’s words he “retreated from the brink of victory.”

There is a vast difference in approach of Machiavelli and Mahatma Gandhi-Martin Luther King but both views had the same basis as they explicitly believed in the means justifying the end. Machiavelli ways were the wickedest and cruelest whereby it involved killing, deceiving and even betraying others but by making use of these means, Prince would become more powerful and attain complete authority to govern his subjects in the most fruitful way. Berlin connotes that he was earnest as whatever the way might be but the end result he achieved was the same. Machiavelli never said we cannot use the other ways of winning the heart of the people to attain the same result. This means that he can change the strategy as and when situation demands to calculate correctly political mileage a Prince or a ruler needs to cover to win over his subjects. This is possible through all means and ways. He further said everything is allowed to sustain the interest of the society. How could then Gandhi- King’s perspective become a game of power politics with non-violent means? Gandhi’s and King’s non aggressive movements were sufficient enough to control the ills of the ruling powers. Gandhi became for the colonial government most “dangerous radical” and Martin Luther King Jr. the most powerful force. Through their power of persuasion, they were able to impose upon the government to dispose their rules to their ways making further path for the complete freedom. Gandhi and King too were rigid in their response to the gap between the ends and the means but through “law of Karma”, in other words through the moral ways, they tried to reduce the dichotomy tendency between the ends and the means. Power in politics is a game of powerful and of the ones who can win the hearts of the people either by adopting Machiavelli’s means or Mahatma Gandhi-Martin Luther King’s ways and who can utilize the circumstances to evoke the policies for the overall social benefits.

Works Cited

Cortright, David. Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.

Holler, Manfred J. “Niccolò Machiavelli on Power.” Rationality, Markets and Morals 0 (2009): 335-354. Print.

Keppel, Ben. The Work of Democracy: Ralph Bunche, Kenneth B. Clark, Lorraine Hansberry, and the Cultural Politics of Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995. Print.

King Jr., Martin Luther. “A Bold Design for a New South.” The Nation. 30 March 1963. Web. 19 February 2011.

King Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963).” The Political Theory Reader. Ed. Paul Schumaker. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2010. 343-346. Print.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. “The Prince.” Princeton Readings in Political Thought: Essential Texts since Plato. Eds. Mitchell Cohen and Nicole Fermon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996. 167-193. Print.

Parel, Anthony. Gandhi, Freedom, and Self-rule. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2000. Print.

Severance, John B. Gandhi, Great Soul. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997. Print.

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Machiavelli vs. Mohandas Gandhi-Martin Luther King Jr. on Power. (December 24, 2020).
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