Gandhi, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Quote or No Quote?

It’s been weeks and weeks since we looked at a Gandhi quotation. Given that he’s probably the most misquoted person in human history after Windy Winston Churchill, it’s about time that we examined another supposed Gandhi-ism. As you know, Gandhi was one of the leaders of the Indian Independence movement in the early 20th century, and is usually considered the spiritual leader of Indian nationalism. He spent the second half of his life seeking moral and religious meaning behind the fights against injustice and oppression. This led him to add a certain moral (sometimes moralistic) tone to his political statements from the 1920s onwards. I think that’s one of the reasons why so many sayings, aphorisms, and bits of political and spiritual wisdom are attributed to him, whether or not he ever actually said, or coined, them. And as we’ve heard so many times on this show, Gandhi-quoting yoga posters, new age websites, and coffee mugs plague our culture and send nitpickers like me into fits of buzzkilling.

There’s a great quote and sentiment about sticking with a righteous movement for much-needed change, particularly when it’s faced with a big, entrenched and powerful foe. That quote goes like this:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

And it’s often attributed to Gandhi. That’s not very surprising. After all, “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” is not an unreasonable summary of the Indian Independence movement against British rule in the first half of the 20th century.

But we here at the Buzzkill Institute don’t call him the Mahatma of Misquotation for nothing, and as we’ll see in a couple of minutes, if you were forced to boil down one of Gandhi’s very lengthy and sophisticated arguments to a bumper sticker slogan, the “First they ignore you…” saying would fit, more or less.

Gandhi never said it, however. This No Quote is yet another example of a good thought or saying expressed by a person who’s been forgotten or overlooked by the general culture, yet whose words are later attached to a more appropriately famous person, like Gandhi.

While addressing the Third Biennial Convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1918, Cincinnati journalist and trade unionist, Nicholas Klein, sketched out how successful social movements eventually triumphed. He ended his speech with the essence of this week’s quote:

“And, my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”

Nicholas Klein, by the way, was a frequent contributor to a street newspaper called The Hobo News, a journal for homeless migrant workers in the early 20th century. It’s motto was, “of the hoboes, by the hoboes, and for the hoboes.” Although not nearly as flashy, it was somewhat similar to the weekly magazine, The Big Issue, that started in London in the 1990s.

So it’s Nicholas Klein who deserves recognition for coining this sentiment in 1918. But we can’t just leave Gandhi hanging out there, uncelebrated. Three years later, Gandhi’s much longer exposition of this idea appeared in Freedom’s Battle (1921). Addressing the Governor-General of India, and referring to the Indian Non-Cooperation movement, which resisted British rule through nonviolent boycott of British goods and the British “system” as much as possible, Gandhi wrote:

“Unfortunately for His Excellency the movement is likely to grow with ridicule as it is certain to flourish on repression. No vital movement can be killed except by the impatience, ignorance or laziness of its authors. A movement cannot be ‘insane’ that is conducted by men of action as I claim the members of the Non-co-operation Committee are. … Ridicule is like repression. Both give place to respect when they fail to produce the intended effect. … It will be admitted that non-co-operation has passed the stage [of] ridicule. Whether it will now be met by repression or respect remains to be seen. … But the testing time has now arrived. In a civilized country when ridicule fails to kill a movement it begins to command respect.”

That won’t fit on a bumper sticker, but serious thought about serious political action never does.

Address of Nicolas Klein to the Biennial Convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, by Nicholas Klein Wednesday, May 15, 1918

Mr. President and Friends: I did not expect to be called upon at this very moment, at least, because of the presence of my good friend and colleague, who has just come to you from the City of Washington, with a message of encouragement, I have no doubt.

But I was asked when I approached the platform to say some few words of encouragement to the Schloss Brothers strikers of Baltimore. I can only say this, that much more than I could say this morning has already been demonstrated here on this platform and In this hall. The marching around of the men and the women this morning, and the standing up of the groups of delegates from the various cities, was indeed an inspiring spectacle to my mind.

I believe that they have been on strike for five consecutive weeks. The strikers now realize what war means. And they also realize no doubt what Sherman said about war, because, my friends, a strike is a war, the two contending forces fighting like separate armies, each for its share of the spoils in this world today.

The speaker this morning, the Chairman or the co-worker of Baltimore, said that a settlement was about to be had, and he expected to announce before the adjournment of your convention a settlement of this strike. My friends, I hope that is true. I hope that the Schloss Brothers strikers are going to win a splendid victory!

There never has been such a wonderful opportunity for labor as presents itself this very moment. But, my friends, I have in mind this, and I say this to the strikers and I say this to the delegates:

Labor just now is in the flower of its manhood. Just like this beautiful spring day, when the buds are beginning to open, so labor is coming into its own. But, my friends, that is due in great measure not so much to your stand, either as workingmen or working-women, but to the peculiar economic status which has been brought about by the war. And I say to you, my friends, that perhaps after this war — and that is not so far off — a chance will come to you strikers, and to you workers, to show not by applause, but by action, how much per cent, you feel for organised labor.

Because, my friends, after this war, there will be a great unemployment problem. The munition plants will be closed and useless, and millions of munitions workers will be thrown out upon the market. And then the time will come to show whether you strikers and you workers believe one hundred per cent for organized labor or only 35 per cent.

Because, my friends, my good friend is he who is with me when the storms are beating, when I am hungry, when I have no money, when everybody is spitting on me, when I am in jail; and then, when a man comes to me and says, “I am with you; have courage; I’m your friend!” that man is my brother — that man is two hundred per cent because that man is not a sunshine friend. Sunshine friends organized labor can get now. Sunshine friends organized labor can get when it is victorious, when it is on top.

But the true test will come to you, strikers, and to you workers, in just a short time. To you strikers, who have been holding out five weeks. I may say a word of courage, and that is this:

When you go into the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, you are going into a real organized Union, not a bosses’ union. You are going into a union made up of those who have ideals, of those who believe in you, of those who are working for you, of those who are using every energy and every effort, not for politics, but to make it better for you in the shop, not because of a label, but because you are workers and you produce all the wealth.

And I say to you, stick to that Union. That Union means just what it says. It is a Union of organized forces in America in the needle trades.

So, my friends, without taking up any more time, let me say to you, and without being pessimistic, that there will be evil days coming. And they are not so far off. I wonder how many of the membership of New York and Chicago and all over the country are so solidified and will stick to the Union, to the Amalgamated, when the time comes — when the call comes, and you are put to the test. Will you be a real soldier in a grand army of labor, or will you be one of those stragglers who only come in to get two dollars or more wages per week? That is going to be the great problem.

And the education of your membership now, the solidifying of your forces now, the making of your lines strong now, my friends, is the big, big question, and it can be done — anything can be done. If a Union of one hundred thousand members can be organized in three years like has been so wonderfully done here by your leaders and by your officers and your membership, my friends, anything is possible. Education is possible, and the winning of strikes is possible.

Let me close just now by giving you a little story that I have given you once before. I close by telling you the story, because I think it explains better than anything else, at this time, the great possibilities which can come to labor. There is a story told about the making of the first railway. There was an old man, it is said, whose name was Stephenson, who made the first locomotive. You know, just like in the labor movement they said locomotives were impossible. You had to have horses or cattle to pull a train; that nothing would go without something being attached to it. There would be no locomotion.

And when old man Stephenson proposed a train — something to be run without the aid of horses or oxen, he was ridiculed. One day a test was made, and they laid two pieces of wood and upon these two pieces of wood they placed some thin sheets of metal, and upon that crude arrangement was placed the first locomotive.

And it is said in this story that thousands of people were out to see the first test of that locomotive, and of course the people all shouted, and pointed to their heads, and said the man was crazy, and they said the locomotive was out of question; it was impossible, and the crowd yelled out: “You old foggy fool! You can’t do it! You can’t do It!” And the same everywhere. The old man was in the cab, and somebody fired a pistol and the signal was given. He pulled the throttle open and the engine shot out, and in their amazement the crowd, not knowing how to answer to that argument, yelled out: “You old fool! You can’t stop it! You can’t stop it! You can’t stop it!”

And my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.

And that is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.

And I say, courage to the strikers, and courage to the delegates, because great times are coming, stressful days are here, and I hope your hearts will be strong, and I hope you will be one hundred per cent union when it comes!

Buzzkill Bookshelf:

Philip Dray, There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America (2011)

In this stirring new history, Philip Dray shows us the vital accomplishments of organized labor and illuminates its central role in our social, political, economic, and cultural evolution. His epic, character-driven narrative not only restores to our collective memory the indelible story of American labor, it also demonstrates the importance of the fight for fairness and economic democracy, and why that effort remains so urgent today.

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