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A Radical Peace


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VIOLENCE [image, unknown] Gandhi's way of change

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A radical peace
Nonviolence is not just a toothless version of violence. Nor is it an easy option. Bob Overy points out the dangers of violence and argues that the choices made by a liberation movement at the start can determine the kind of society that eventually emerges.

MANY of those working for social change will have nothing to do with the philosophy of nonviolence. Yet their own strategies draw on nonviolent methods all the time. In seeking to mobilise masses of people to stand up fearlessly against injustice, by investigating grievances openly and developing political consciousness, by promoting business shut-downs and strikes, boycotts, tax refusal and other acts of non-cooperation, nonviolent movements blend in with the tactics of the left.

In popular resistance in Czechoslovakia and Poland, in the revolution in Iran, the ousting of the generals in Argentina and the opposition to Marcos in the Philippines, we have seen civilian uprisings which demonstrate many of the features of nonviolent struggle. The question, then, is not whether nonviolent forms are appropriate to the struggles of oppressed peoples. They clearly are, because people are adopting them in many parts of the world.

What is at issue is whether Gandhi and Martin Luther King were right in seeing this form of struggle as superior to violence. Should nonviolence be taken up more widely as the best hope for seeing us through to a world of freedom, justice and peace?


is extravagantly wasteful - it uproots and destroys precious human lives it consumes vast resources of intelligence, wealth, industrial plant and mineral assets which should be conserved.

is elitist - it produces disciplined hierarchies of specialists who follow an autonomous logic which it is hard to control politically: it also excludes everyone but the young and fit (and usually male).

is indiscriminate - it is hard to limit its deadly effects to those who are guilty’.

is mystifying - it depends on manipulating popular emotions through lies, anthems, flags, medals, uniforms, hero-worship and the heroic image of ‘the gun’, presenting incredibly destructtve weapons as toys.

disrupts the personality - it encourages ruthless qualities in those who practise it, treating other people like objects to be moved or eliminated in a chess game.

is corrupting and self-perpetuating - it sets off its own spiral of paranoia and revenge, thus ensuring its escape from political control.

is reactionary - it establishes centralised structures to control territory, in the process destroying decentralised sources of power.

is sexist - historically it has been done by men.

is unjust - conscription itself is an injustice. and to be shot down as a conscript unwillingly dragged to war a cruel irony.

This depressing catalogue should be enough to place in higher esteem a method of overcoming injustice which avoids many of these pitfalls. Nonviolence of course does not promise to achieve social change without heavy costs: nor should it claim, despite some of the more prophetic utterances of Gandhi and King, to be infallible. But its virtues are significant.


is humane - it seeks to detach supporters of the ‘enemy’ rather than destroy them.

is subversive - it undermines the legitimacy of the state’s authority: it attacks the sources of state power in social conformity and respect for authority, mobilising deeper social values and building new institutions.

is politically creative - it cuts across entrenched barriers of race, class and party allegiance to build broad alliances which isolate the tyrant.

is a civilian method - which involves politicising the population and relying on their strength of will, rather than their physical prowess: it allows popular participation by the elderly, the poor, women and children, all groups generally excluded in violent and especially military struggle.

is voluntary - in nonviolent struggle people are not conscripted: discipline is not maintained by fear.

is radical - its very methods of consultation and popular participation help shape the society which will result.

fits the Third World’s needs - it favours investment and technology appropriate to rural settlement and industry and local self-reliance, rejecting the Western centralised model which concentrates development with big capital in the cities.

restricts and subtly inhibits violence -it prevents conflict getting out of hand and escaping political control: because nonviolent activists do not use violence, they are disposed of less easily as a threat to society.

is dignifying and powerfully rational - it depends on people standing up for themselves and refusing to let go of their argument whatever the provocation.

Nonviolence, then, is not just a pragmatically useful tactic - it actively promotes popular participation and decentralised structures. We need to be aware that the way struggle is conducted - the new forces mobilized, the new institutions built - will help determine the nature of the society which emerges in the end.

As ideas about Third World development become more respectful of existing cultural patterns, as they recognise the need to conserve and modernise rather than uproot what has existed for generations, so they are likely to pay more attention to means of rooting out injustice which are less abrasive, less cataclysmic. Nonviolence need not be seen simply as a conflict technique to be added on to the general programmes of groups working for change. Identified with its particular vision of a good society, it is an emerging ideology in its own right.

How to protect your body

You can still be hurt in nonviolent protest the police sometimes use force to provoke a response; and political opponents may not share your abhorrence of violence. So it’s important to know how to protect your body - especially the temples, the liver and the vital centres at the base of the brain.

Keep your head down

Protect the base of your skull with clenched hands (thumbs outside)

Protect your temples with your elbows

Fall to the right to protect your liver from kicks

Don’t kick out with your feet

MARTIN LUTHER KING: ‘The choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence, but between nonviolence and non-existence.

RABINDRANATH TAGORE: ‘Not hammer strokes, but dance of the hater sings the pebbles into perfection.’

CESAR CHAVEZ: ‘Once people understand the strength of nonviolence - the force it generates, the lore it creates, the response it brings from the total community - they will not easily abandon it.’

MAXIM GORKY: ‘What can you do by killing? Nothing. You kill one dog, the master buys another - that’s all there is to it.’

ALDOUS HUXLEY: ‘Peace and social justice are only obtainable by means that are just and pacific. And people will behave justly and pacifically only if they have trained themselves as individuals to do so, even in circumstances where it would be easier to behave violently and unjustly.’

GANDHI: ‘In nonviolence the masses have a weapon which enables a child, a woman, or even a decrepit old man to resist the mightiest government successfully.’

Wind of change
Saul Alinsky describes a tactic that
might seem more terrifying than gunfire.

‘I have emphasized and re-emphasized that tactics means you do what you can with what you’ve got, and that power in the main has always gravitated towards those who have money and those whom people follow. The resources of the Have-Nets and (I) no money and (2) lots of people. All right, let’s start from there. People can show their power by voting. What else? Well, they have physical bodies. How can they use them?

I suggested that we might buy one hundred seats for one of Rochester’s symphony concerts. We would select a concert in which the music was relatively quiet. The hundred blacks who would be given the tickets would first be treated to a three-hour pre-concert dinner in the community, in which they would be fed nothing but baked beans, and lots of them; then the people would go to the symphony hall ‘- with obvious consequences. Imagine the scene when the action began! The concert would be over before the first movement! (If this be a Freudian slip - so be it!)

First the disturbance would be utterly outside the experience of the establishment, which was expecting the usual stuff of mass meetings, street demonstrations, confrontations and parades. Not in their wildest tears would they expect an attack on their prize cultural jewel, their famed symphony orchestra. Second, all of the action would ridicule and make a farce of the law for there is no law, and there probably never will be, banning natural physical functions. Here you would have a combination not only of noise bat also of odor, what you might call natural stink bombs. Regular stink bombs are illegal and cause for immediate arrest but there would be absolutely nothing here that the Police Department or the ushers or any other servants of the establishment could do about it. The law would be completely paralyzed.

People would recount what had happened in the symphony hall and the reaction of the listener would be to crack up in laughter. It would make the Rochester Symphony and the establishment leek utterly ridiculous. There would be no way for the authorities to cope with any future attacks of a similar character. What could they do? Demand that people not cat baked beans before coming to a concert? Announce to the world that concerts must not be interrupted by farting? Such talk would destroy the future of the symphony season...

The one thing that all oppressed people want to do to their oppressors is shit on them. Here was an approximate way to do thIs.’

Wouldn’t you give way In the face of tactics like these?

From Rules for Radicals, by Saul D. Alinsky, Copyright © 1971 by Saul D. Alinsky.
Printed by permission of Random House, Inc.

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