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VIOLENCE [image, unknown] New routes to social change

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[image, unknown] Chris Brazier
New Internationalist
[image, unknown] Editor: Chris Brazier

Looking beyond violence

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Photo: Jan Kopec / Camera Press

Political oppression in the Third World is often so severe as to demand violent resistance. But conditions in the West, says Chris Brazier, offer more constructive routes to social change - routes we can and should take.

ON the wall above my bed I used to have a poster of Che Guevara. You probably know the one - his hair curls up romantically from under his beret, and he stares into the distance with a look that somehow contains the knowledge of his martyrdom in Bolivia.

It was a powerful image, one that could be found on the walls of thousands of young Westerners in the late Sixties and early Seventies. In a way it was a token of trust in the future, of the belief that self-sacrifice might produce a fairer world.

In part this was a prayer for the certitude of black and white - and more than a little self-glorifying. But, more than anything else, it was a war game. George Orwell noticed in the Thirties that many people who despised patriotism and nationalism at home simply transferred their own patriotic and jingoistic feelings to a more ‘acceptable’ object, Russia, in the name of Communism. In a way Orwell was doing the same when he leapt to the call of the Spanish Civil War. He put his relish for combat, his Eton cadet corps training, at the service of an impeccable humanitarian cause - that of the Loyalist forces fighting Franca and Hitler.

It’s because I recognise in myself this relish for the ‘just war’ that I am wary of violent change. I’m not sure I could trust myself to handle armed resistance in the right way. So how could I trust others? Can killing people ever bring about a better world’.

As Daniel Berrigan, a radical American priest, has said: ‘How sublime, how ironic. We have had "just" wars of the Right, a long history of blood, the blood of colonials and natives and slaves and workers and peasants. But we are through with all that. Now we are enlightened. We are to have "just" wars of the Left!’

And yet this is not the whole story. In at least 28 countries around the world at this moment people are using guns to try to change their societies - to achieve national liberation, greater social justice or recognition of their rights as an ethnic minority. There are those who dismiss the fighters as ‘murderous terrorists’ - but this is cheap and indecent. People who leap to condemn all guerillas must be blind to the conditions which make such resistance necessary - blind to a violent world economic system which leaves 450 million people suffering from hunger or malnutrition and 2.000 million without safe water to drink. How can we blame them for fighting back?

But in many ways it is ridiculous for us to pontificate on such matters from comfortable armchairs - about whether or not blacks in South Africa, for instance, should use force to regain control of their lives. Ultimately it must remain their choice and if they feel they have no option but to take up armed resistance then they deserve our support. Our efforts, after all, will amount to very little compared with the amount that our own leaders are doing to bolster up the most oppressive regimes - either commercially or through direct military help.

'Papusas, senor?' Salvadorean guerillas pay for what they need instead of just taking it.
Photo: Rex Henderson / Camera Press

It is from Nicaragua that the case for violent revolution gets its most recent support. Catholic priests there agonised for years about whether to support the Sandinista guerillas, torn between their abhorrence of violence and the needs of the people they served. Most ended by backing the rebels, and some by joining them. As Father Gasper Garcia Laviana put it: ‘I’d seen perhaps the most miserable, the most oppressed of Nicaragua. I tried to respond in a Christian way, peacefully, promoting social and human development… But I realised it was all a lie, all deceit. I became discouraged to see that so much work had meant nothing. that so many hopes were left in the air. The people continued living the same… And so I joined the armed struggle, knowing that nothing peaceful was possible... any other way would have been dishonest to my people and myself.’

For the Sandinista priests, violence was the only hope for change. But it was a desperate last resort - they knew that killings carried out by a revolutionary are no less terrible than those done by a soldier. As Daniel Berrigan says, ‘I have never seen any-one morally improved by killing: neither the one who aimed the bullet, nor the one who received it in his flesh.’ To be able to pull the trigger and kill someone you have to block off what is human about them - it helps the firing squad as well as the victim if a blindfold covers the eyes. And even a white South African has their own unique humanity - as well as a slave in the kitchen.

Those who develop a capacity for dehumanising their enemies are hardly equipping themselves very well for a new society in which individual human qualities and needs are recognised and respected.

In a way this is the old argument about means determining ends. Guerilla forces may be less rigid than conventional armies but they still depend on a hierarchy in which an elite issues orders and expects them to be obeyed without question. They prepare the ground for a society based on centralised decision-making, distant from ordinary peoples needs. Guerilla leaders used to expecting unquestioning obedience are unlikely to look kindly on differences of opinion, or even opposition parties, once they become politicians.

The most sympathetic observer would probably catch a hint of this in the current situation in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government has faced all kinds of problems - not least the effects of the recent drought and South Africa’s efforts at destabilisation. But it has also shown signs of an intolerance of dissent, a cavalier attitude toward the rights of the minority Ndbele tribe and an inclination towards a one-party state. This doesn’t mean that ZANU’s long battle against white Rhodesia was any less justified, but it does ring some alarm bells.

It takes people with exceptional vision and humanity to demilitarise their thinking as soon as they achieve power - people like Tomas Borge, who is now Nicaraguan Interior Minister. Tortured for 500 hours by the National Guard, Borge recognised one of his tormenters in prison after the revolution and released him, saving ‘This is my revenge - I forgive you’.

But not all of us are capable of such compassion. And nonviolent thinkers argue that, if you are aiming to create a society in which people treat each other decently, then it is nonsensical to set about it by shooting - or by treating those on your own side as mere pawns to be moved around at the will and whim of a revolutionary leadership. If people are to participate in decision-making later on they have to be deeply involved right from the start.

This is what nonviolence seeks to do. Nobody is excluded from a nonviolent movement for change. To fight a war you have to be young, fit and usually male. But even someone aged, blind and disabled can protest in other ways. Indeed the weaker you are the more effective this kind of resistance can be. Gandhi gained much of his impact from his own apparent frailty - the idea that the British could allow such a thin, vulnerable old man to starve to death was monstrous (even if they had been allowing unknown Indian peasants to starve to death every day for 150 years).

There are signs that more people are recognising the power of nonviolence. Take Northern Ireland. What has been the tactic which has advanced the Republican cause most in the last few years’? Not the Harrods bombing or the murders of significant Ulster Loyalists but the hunger strike of the Maze prisoners, a tactic lifted directly from Gandhi and the nonviolent textbooks. The plight of Bobby Sands and his companions and the British Government’s callous indifference to it swung international sympathy behind the IRA in a way that no bombing campaign ever could.

But it is probably the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common which has done most to make people recognise the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. The peace camp has been infinitely more useful than, say, a bombing campaign against the American bases would have been. Protest bombing is too similar in impulse to nuclear bombing to say anything useful, whereas Cruise missiles and the power behind them have been revealed in all their ugliness by the fresh contrasts that Greenham has created - between male and female, for example, between State violence and grassroots nonviolence, between American air force and British public.

Feminist protest brings me full circle, since the temptation to glorify violent resistance, to Che-worship, is much more marked in men than in women. Taught, as we men are, to see life as a battlefield - from the war games in the nursery through to competition at work and in sport, we are bound to be attracted to ‘acceptable’ forms of violence. We learn very early on at school and in the streets that we have to stand up to’ a bully and be ‘hard’ enough to avoid being marked out as a weed or a wimp (or, still more alarming for a boy’, a poof/faggot). How’ can this not leave a mark on us?

It’s a force not to be underestimated. Violence runs in a continuum from the boy with his toy gun through the husband battering his wife to police brutality and beyond that to war and nuclear war. Any man that doesn’t recognise this link between violence and masculinity will make a dangerous revolutionary, one prone to making all the old mistakes of dehumanising the expendable enemy and glorifying the gun and the sword.

Men’s tendency to violence is not their fault, but it is their/our responsibility to recognise and do something about it. And that includes joining with women in changing the society that has conned us into our strait-jackets.

In the Third World the poverty’ and repression are more extreme and it would be arrogant of us at the top of the heap to tell people at the very’ bottom that they should not pick up a gun to fight back. Their violent resistance is always understandable, and often deserves our full support - the system which creates their poverty’ and powerlessness is far more obscenely violent than the act of a guerilla. Yet no one should lose sight of the damage and the dangers inherent in violence and if nonviolence exists as an alternative it should always be used.

But in the West we can be unequivocal and perhaps, after Greenham, feminist nonviolence shows a new way’ forward. Certainly the old faith in ‘armed struggle’ that be-devilled the Sixties and later produced pointless, painful gestures like the Italian Red Brigades and the German Baader-Meinhof Group should be dead now. Those working for change should have grown out of that faith and be seeking new ways of achieving justice for the world’s poor that are no less difficult but could be infinitely more radical.

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