Richard Bartlett Gregg

American philosopher, pacifist and peace activist

Biography

Background

Richard Bartlett Gregg (1885-1974) was an American philosopher, pacifist and peace activist who died in 1974.  He was one of the first Americans to live and work with Gandhi and brought Gandhian philosophy to America in the early 20th century.  He wrote extensively on peace and simplicity.  His two major works were The Power of Non-Violence (first published in 1934) and The Value of Voluntary Simplicity (he coined the term), but he also wrote many other short books and pamphlets.  Throughout his life he corresponded with numerous important figures of the 20th. Century, including Gandhi, Nehru, Aldous Huxley, Martin Luther King, Reinhold Niebuhr, Bertram Russell, W.E.B. Dubois and many others.  He visited India several times and lived there for a number of years.  He went to England to work with the Peace Pledge Union (a major force in the mid 1930s in the UK).  Aldous Huxley was one of its leaders and Huxley’s writing and ideas on pacifism cite and refer to Gregg extensively.  Martin Luther King wrote the foreword for Power of Non-Violence when it was republished in the 1950s.   Later, Gregg became an organic farmer but was an activist in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movement.

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Not a Socialist

Gregg was not a socialist.  He was a pacifist.  He may have brought as much to Gandhi as he took from him (especially his knowledge of economics and experience with labor relations).  There are suggestions in his work that his pacifism was deeply linked to a very strong thread of anti-industrialism and anti technology.  In fact, these are one and the same thing for Gregg – a peaceful world was not possible without a return to a simpler life.  As a result, he spent much of his life promoting simplicity, organic farming and communal living.

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Move to IndiaTOP

On October 4, 1924 thirty nine year old Richard Bartlett Gregg typed and hastily corrected a letter to be mailed and circulated between his mother, his siblings and, their spouses. The letter passionately outlined the reasons behind his plans to leave the United States to take up permanent residence in India.  Gregg wrote that during the past ten years, in his professional legal experience acting as a liaison between industry, government, and labor, he had worked in at least a dozen positions across twenty industries.  He had settled strikes, run strikes, and opposed strikes.  His work had given him a perspective on the relationships between American labor, industry, and the government that few other men could claim, which had led him to startlingly radical conclusions.  He wrote to his family that, as a result of his experiences,

I am opposed to our government and to most existing governments. Government is founded on and exists by violence…I am against machine industry and commercialism…I’m opposed to capitalism …Trade unions accomplish little for they simply work within the existing order, not attempting to change it but merely to get a fairer division of the profits.

He concluded, “You see these beliefs don’t fit into modern America. They don’t fit at all into any place, but I think more of them fit into India than into any other country.” 

Gregg spent several years in India working with Mahatma Gandhi.  They became friends and Gregg was a key member of a very small group who brought Gandhian philosophy to the West in the 1930s. 

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Voice of Pacifism

Gregg’s writings and extensive communication with some key figures of the twentieth century mark him as a significant voice in the development of not only pacifist thought but, also, as a rare advocate for active resistance to violence.   Combined with his analysis of war and the failures of both capitalism and socialism to create humane social systems, his work stands as a major contribution to critical appraisals of modern society.  Most importantly, he argued that non-violent protesters engaged in “moral jiu-jitsu.”  When two people in conflict entered a cycle of physical violence they were in tacit agreement concerning moral values.  The use of non-violent protest by one side of the conflict, however, caused the attacker to, “lose his moral balance.”  Gregg built this idea of “moral jiu-jitsu” on psychological insights into human sentiments, similar to the argument he made about the differences in ideas that underpin socialism and Gandhiism.  Gregg argued that the cruelty of the assailant was rooted in fear, anger and pride.  In non-violent protest the actions of the protester suggested to the assailant that he might be in the morally inferior position and unable to conquer the protester.  Having established the dynamics of non-violence between individuals, Gregg turned to the issue of mass non-violence, setting out an argument to show non-violent resistance in military terms and as a substitute for war.  This was the first time a definitive strategy for non-violent resistance was fully articulated – it would later be read and used by Martin Luther King and others during the US civil rights movement.

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