Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Failure of Nonviolence (and why we must also struggle)

Drawing heavily on thinkers such as Ward Churchill and Errico Malatesta, this zine hopes to illustrate the bankruptcy of limiting struggle to purely nonviolent forms, how tenents of nonviolent thought has been detrimental to breaking with the prevailing order, and why struggle is needed to establish a peaceful society free of violence and exploitation. Download the free print version here

SEARCH ‘THE CRITIQUE of nonviolence’ on Google and your return will be a swag of articles affirming, rather than rejecting, the use of nonviolence as an effective means for social justice. Yet any examination of history (or even a quick look around us today) clearly illustrates the failure of nonviolence as the predominant form of social struggle towards radical, sweeping change. Unfortunately, as the above example shows, nonviolent forms of resistance has a hegemonic hold — peace marches, candle vigils, symbolic protest and ‘nonviolent’ direct action (a contradiction in terms?) are all accepted as the main outlets for dissent.
Drawing heavily on thinkers such as Ward Churchill and Errico Malatesta, this zine hopes to illustrate the bankruptcy of limiting struggle to purely nonviolent forms, how tenets of nonviolent thought have been detrimental to breaking with the prevailing order, and why armed struggle and violence will be a necessity in establishing a free and peaceful society.

“We are on principle opposed to violence and for this reason wish that the social struggle should be conducted as humanely as possible. But this does not mean that we would wish it to be less determined, less thorough; indeed we are of the opinion that in the long run half measures only indefinitely prolong the struggle, neutralising it as well as encouraging more of the kind of violence which one wishes to avoid” — Errico Malatesta

THIS IS NOT a critique of nonviolence per se, but the pacifist position which limits all forms of social struggle to purely nonviolent ones. I have personally experienced meetings with ‘pacifists’ who shout down or banter anyone who would dare to put forward even the slightest hint of ‘violent’ action. “Not only are pacifists of this sort unwilling to fight back — which of course is their prerogative — and not only are they unwilling to consider fighting back — which is still their prerogative — but far more harmfully they cannot allow anyone else to consider fighting back either.” Ignoring and rejecting a wide range of options for social struggle, they have no qualms about restricting others from those options as well.
By restraining themselves and others to a narrow band of ritualistic and symbolic forms of struggle, pacifists negate the potential flexibility in confronting the state. As Ward Churchill points out: “within this narrow band, actions become entirely predictable rather than offering the utility of surprise. The balance of physical power thus inevitably rests with the state on an essentially permanent basis, and the possibility of liberal social transformation is correspondingly diminished to a point of nonexistence.” This close-mindedness and intolerance for any tactics save their own is harmful in many ways. It decreases the possibility of effective synergy between various forms of resistance, it creates the illusion that we are really accomplishing something while the state continues to perpetuate violence, and it positively helps those in power.
Again, Churchill notes: “There is not a petition campaign that you can construct that is going to cause the power and the status quo to dissipate. There is not a legal action that you can take; you can’t go into the court of the conqueror and have the conqueror announce the conquest to be illegitimate and to be repealed; you cannot vote in an alternative, you cannot hold a prayer vigil, you cannot burn the right scented candle at the prayer vigil, you cannot have the right folk song, you cannot have the right fashion statement, you cannot adopt a different diet, build a better bike path. You have to say it squarely: the fact that this power, this force, this entity, this monstrosity called the state, maintains itself by physical force, and can be countered only in terms that it itself dictates and therefore understands.”

“Pacifists eliminates choice and responsibility by labeling great swaths of possibility off limits for action and even for discussion. ‘See how pure I am for making no wrong choices?’ they say, while in reality facing no choices at all. And of course they are actually making choices. Choosing inaction — or ineffective action — in the face of exploitation and violence is about as impure an action anyone can conceptualise.” — Anon

SO WHAT ARE some common pacifist positions, how are they justified, and what is the logical results of their (non) acts?
Firstly, pacifists tell us the ends never justify the means. As Derrick Jensen points out, this is a statement of values disguised as a statement of morals. “It becomes absurd to make absolute statements about means and ends, as there are some ends that justify some means, and there are some ends that do not.” We must make these distinctions or be confined to mere slogans.
“Pacifists tell us that violence only begets violence. This is manifestly not true.” Violence can beget many things — currently it begets submission, material wealth, and power — but it could also beget liberation, freedom and the end of all violence.
Pacifists tell us, “we must be the change we wish to see”. This ultimately meaningless statement manifests the magical thinking of those unwilling to engage in reality, unwilling to give up their privilege,
and unwilling to struggle. We can change ourselves all we want, and all the while we (and others) continue to be exploited, governed and oppressed. This line of thinking does nothing to challenge, halt or abolish the concrete power held over the majority of this world.
“Pacifists tell us that if you use violence against exploiters, you become like they are. This cliche, once again, is absurd, with no relation to the real world. It is based on the flawed notion that all violence is the same. It is obscene to suggest that a women who kills a man attempting to rape her becomes like the rapist.”
“Pacifists tell us that violence never accomplishes anything. This argument, even more than the others, reveals how completely, desperately and arrogantly out of touch many dogmatic pacifists are with physical, emotional and spiritual reality.”
If violence accomplishes nothing, how is it that entire cultures have been exploited and eradicated? How is it that we live under an economic system which forces wage slavery upon the majority, while a few in power profit? How is it that the real violence of poverty still exists in an overproducing and overstocked society? Violence works for those in power — dreadfully well. To say that violence never accomplishes anything not only degrades the suffering of those harmed by violence, but it also devalues the triumphs of those who have fought back out of exploitative situations.
“Pacifists tell us that violence alienates people. If so, are we to refrain from engaging in anything but passive acts of protest because this will win popular support? If this is the case, why, after years of consistent nonviolent protest, no qualitative growth, and only the slightest quantitative, has occurred within movements for social change?” Catering our activity to a perceived perception (which may not even be accurate) of the level of resistance acceptable to people — far from being revolutionary — is in fact counter to the development of revolutionary consciousness, and reduces the level of both.
All successful moments of social revolution have included violent resistance to those in power. To ignore or to claim otherwise is either a sign of a pathological problem, naivety, arrogance, or plain delusion.

“Frightened by the revolutionary threat to the fundamental institutions of their society — tradition, property, and privilege — the ruiling elite turned to the only weapon it understood: violence” — Stuart Christie

THESE VARIOUS POSITIONS combine to serve the interests of the ruiling elite. Not only are they nonsensical, they are harmful to revolutionary movements for social change. Absurdity clearly abounds when suggesting that the state will refrain from using all necessary physical force to protect against undesired forms of change and threats to its existence.
“Pacifists imply that the ‘immoral state’ which they seek to transform will somehow exhibit exactly the same sort of ‘superior’ morality they claim for themselves. Insisting that certain tactics should avoid ‘provoking violence’ (when it is already massive) or that by remaining nonviolent they can’morally compel’ the state to respond in kind must be considered delusional.”
As history has shown, “there simply has never been a revolution, or a substantial social reorganisation, brought into being on the basis of the prnciples of pacifism. In every instance, violence has been an integral requirement of the process of transforming the state. Pacifist praxis, if followed to its logical conclusions, leaves its adherents with but two possible outcomes of their line of action:

1 — to render themselves perpetually ineffectual (and unthreatening) in the face of state power, in which case they will likely to be largely ignored by the staus quo and self-eliminating an terms of revolutionary potential,
2 — to make themselves a clear and apparent danger to the state, in which case they are subject to physical liquidation by the staus quo and are self-eliminating in terms of revolutionary potential.

“In either event — mere ineffectuality or suicide — the objective conditions leading to the necessity for social revolution remain unlikely to be changed. The mass suffering that revolution is intended to alleviate will continue as the revolution strangles itself on the altar of nonviolence.”

Unfortunately, we have been brought up on parlor games, where participants discuss whether or not they are ‘for’ or ‘against violence’. Can you picture a similar discussion on whether we are for or against disease? Violence, class struggle, and disease are all real. They do not go away through mystification... those who deny the reality of violence and class struggle are not dealing with the real world”
— Blase Bonpare

PACIFISM SEEKS TO project itself as a radical alternative to the staus quo. Yet such a movement that has forced
approximately zero substantial changes upon the state must be overcome. This is not to say that we should replace hegemonic pacifism with a cult of terror, terrorism and violent bloodlust. Instead, as Churchill notes, “it is the realisation that in order to be effective and ultimately successful, any revolutionary movement must develop the broadest possibel range of thinking/action by which to confront the state.” A hollistc approach to social change is needed.
A number of nonviolent activities must be amongst our revolutionary tool box, but there is no place for dogmatic pacifism to preclude the utilisation of violence as a legitimate and necessary method of achieving liberation. It is obvious that in order to bring about concrete social change, violence has a (albeit unwelcomed) part to paly.

“No ruling class in history has ever relinquished its power without struggle. Power will be taken from them by the conscious, autonomous action of the working class themselves and will be a time of violence as well as liberation. The idea that socialism can be achieved peacefully, or by a revolutionary elite acting ‘on behalf of’ the working class is both absurd and reactionary. — Beyond Resistance

“ANARCHISTS ARE OPPOSED to every kind of violence” states Malatesta. “The main plank of Anarchism is the removal of violence from human relations. It is life based on the freedom of the individual, without the intervention of the state. For this reason we are enemies of capitalism, which depends on the protection of the state to oblige workers to allow themselves to be exploited — or even to remain idle and go hungry when it is not in the interest of the bosses to exploit them. We are therefore enemies of the state, which is the coercive, violent organisation of society.”
“But if one declares that they believe it stupid and barbarous to argue with a stick in their hand; that it is unjust and evil to oblige a person to obey the will of another at pistol point, it is, perhaps, reasonable to deduce that that person intends to allow themself to be beaten up and be made to submit to the will of another without having recourse to more extreme means for their defence?”
“Violence is justifiable when it is necessary to defend oneself and others from violence. The slave is always in a state of legitimate defence and consequently, their violence against the boss, against the oppressor, is always justifiable, and must be controlled only by such considerations as that the best and most economical use is being made of human effort and human sufferings.”
“This revolution must of necessity be violent, even though violence is in itself an evil. It must be violent because a transitional, revolutionary violence is the only way to put an end to the far greater, and permanent, violence which keeps the majority of mankind (sic) in servitude.”
A month of non-revolution is infinitely more bloody than a week of revolution. To rule out violence on both moral and tactical grounds enables a much greater violence to continue — the violence of coercion, authority and exploitation used by capitalism and the state.
It is a truism that the only limit to the oppression of government is the power with which the people resist it. The only reason Ghandi and Martin Luther King were succesful was because their protest was the ‘lesser evil’ when compared with other forms of resistance (ie violent ones). Ghandi’s success must be viewed in light of the existance of violent peripheral processes — the general decline in British power brought about by two world wars within a thirty year period. Likewise, King’s nonviolent movement quickly became the lesser of two evils when confronted with a black liberation movement ready to resort to armed self-defence.
Our task, as revolutionaries, is to break the strangle hold pacifism has on the majority of the working class and our forms of resistance. Lobbying simply isn’t enough. “It is abundantly clear that violence is needed to resist the violence of the state, and we must advocate and prepare it, if we do not wish the present situtaion of slavery in disguise, in which most humanity finds itself, to continue and worsen. We are not pacifists because peace is not possible unless it is desired by both sides. We consider violence a necessity and a duty for defence. And we mean not only for defence against direct, sudden, physical attack, but against all those institutions that use force to keep people in a state of servitude. We are, above all, against governement, which is permanent violence.”


The majority of this essay was compiled directly from Pacifism as Pathology by Ward Churchill (AK Press, 1998) and Anarchism and Violence by Errico Malatesta (Zabalaza Books). For further reading I would reccomend these and anarchistfaq.org

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