Thursday, September 02, 2010

Pacifism with a punch

The promoters of nonviolent liberation, regime change, or other nonviolent civil society struggle frequently claim, as do I, that you can get victory with strategic nonviolence and that a pacifist philosophy is irrelevant. After all, I often rhetorically ask students once they've watched Bring Down a Dictator--remarkable Steve York film documenting the nonviolent overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic--How many of the hundreds of thousands of people in Belgrade on 5 October 2000 believed in religious or philosophical nonviolence? Three? Seven? Only two?

And all this is true. Nonviolent strategy can achieve astonishing triumphs with no lifetime commitment to the practice. However, I'd propose a corollary, that as soon as those who are victors using nonviolence return to violence or the threat of it, the gains begin to erode. The minute the people--civil society--can no longer count on a government acting with nonviolence, they realize they are sliding back to 'normal,' to what humanity has done for thousands of years, that is, using violence to get their way.

And my point? My point is that even though nonviolence can achieve great gains, those gains are often less sustainable if the strategy of nonviolence is then mixed with a violent 'back-up.' Opponents begin to treat the nonviolent victors with less of a sense of confused respect--confused because they are not sure how to deal with the mysterious force that won the day, respect because the innovative results speak for themselves. If a government, or the new leadership of institutions radically changed by a nonviolent movement's success, downshifts to a mixed strategy, that is a parallel problem to a movement using mixed methods. Faith in that movement begins to backslide and faith in the veracity and power of a nonviolent victory begins to waver as soon as violent potential is reintroduced.

Kenneth Kaunda experienced that in Zambia. As documented in Sutherland and Myer (2000), the liberation of Zambia from white rule Rhodesia (the northern part, with the eventual violent liberation of the southern part becoming Zimbabwe) was nonviolent, but Kaunda and his team could not devise a strategy to survive without a military. This eventually spiraled downward into some corruption, some inequity, some injustice and the other concomitants to the use or threat of violence. It was nothing remotely like the ironfisted brutality of Robert Mugabe, predictable after his violent revolution establishing Zimbabwe, but it wasn't what one might expect if that strategic commitment to nonviolence had been extended into a long-term strategic commitment to defending that liberation using nonviolence.

Probably the most extreme example is the Rose Revolution in Georgia resulting in the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze on November 23, 2003. While the revolution was nonviolent, there was almost no carryover of commitment to method, and the situation degenerated to the Mikheil Saakashvili government using violence not only against his own people but against Russia in 2004 and 2008. Clearly, the use of Kleenex nonviolence (use it once, toss it) is not going to achieve enduring results.

So there is some point at which successive commitments to strategic nonviolence effectively become a form of pacifist philosophy, and there is some point at which the extreme pacifist actionist becomes strategic, even if no thought is given to strategy. Probably the most radical example of that is the Franz Jägerstätter example, when the young Austrian father was simply beheaded for refusing conscription into the Nazi army. Daniel Ellsberg credits a few strong influences, including Franz Jägerstätter, on his decision to release the Pentagon Papers. So the totally astrategic nonviolent sacrifice in Germany in 1943 helped shorten a war on the other side of the world a generation later. Now that is inadvertent strategic pacifism.

For my many completely pacifist friends, I joke that voluntary poverty continued long enough ceases to be voluntary, and it's a bit like that with nonviolence. Wage it long enough as a strategy and you'll gain the trust, power, and potential for more victories that comes with that strategic commitment so profound it will shade into philosophical and principled nonviolence. Pacifism with a punch.


Sutherland, Bill, and Matt Meyer, Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation in Africa. Trenton NJ: Africa World Press, Inc., 2000.


Greg said...

Do you consider yourself a peace worker, or a peace imperialist?

Tom H. Hastings said...

A peace imperialist by definition is one who would employ the methods of negative peace, that is, violence imposed to achieve a peace and threatened violence to 'keep the peace'. So, I guess I try to be a peace worker, since I subscribe to a pacifist philosophy and use nonviolent methods. I hope this contributes to your knowledge of our field of nonviolence studies.