A Radical Peace
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.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.