Is pacifism appropriate for today’s world?

Thou shalt not kill. It seems simple enough. But can pacifism work as a strategy against violence and injustice? Tim Gee and Rahila Gupta go head to head.

A woman holds up painted hands at a New York protest against the acquittal of the police officer who shot and killed an unarmed man, Michael Brown. November 25, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Making the case for YES is Tim Gee, a writer and activist based in the UK. He is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen and You Can’t Evict an Idea. His third book, Why I am a Pacifist is published this autumn.

Arguing NO is Rahila Gupta, a freelance journalist, writer, activist, longstanding member of Southall Black Sisters and a patron of Peace in Kurdistan. Her articles are published in the Guardian, New Humanist and openDemocracy among other magazines, journals and websites. She and Beatrix Campbell are collaborating on a book, Why Doesn’t Patriarchy Die?

TIM: I am a pacifist, first and foremost, because I don’t think I could kill another person. Although it’s an old moral code, I think the guidance not to kill other people still stands. Many of today’s armed conflicts have their roots in histories of colonialism and are intensified by competition for control of extractive industries like oil. All too often they are intensified by weapons imported from abroad and are extended through ideas that connect manhood with being willing to fight. This can combine into a deadly spiral, where each act of violence prompts a response.For me, to be a pacifist means a lifetime commitment to taking action that helps undo the systems that result in violence, including the arms trade, racism, patriarchy and environmental destruction, in order to reverse this cycle.

More practically, I’m concerned that when social change is sought through violence – even when the cause is just – it has often led either to long-running civil wars that kill many people or the installation of new governments which continue with the violence through which they came to power.

RAHILA: Does the moral code of ‘thou shalt not kill’ leave any room for the support of abortion and euthanasia?

I share your analysis of the systems that have done violence to humanity. I have spent a lifetime using nonviolent means to fight patriarchy and racism and support campaigns against the arms trade and environmental destruction, but that does not make me a pacifist. I oppose military aggression but that does not make me a pacifist.

Pacifism is an ideal to which one should aspire but as a strategy it is mostly inadequate in dismantling the very systems that you mention.

We live in a world where there is a growing threat from fascist and ultra-nationalist movements. A blanket rejection of the use of violence for legitimate self-defence risks turning pacifism into passive-ism. Self-defence is a widely accepted principle in international law. For dispossessed people, armed struggle is sometimes the only solution.

Whatever has been achieved by ‘peaceful’ non-co-operation movements owes its success partly to the ‘violence’ on the fringes or the threat of violence contained within an angry mass of people.

I examine those conflicts in which I support the uptake of arms through the prism of where power lies. I find ‘power’ a useful guide in working out where I stand on most issues.

TIM: There is certainly space within pacifism for a pro-choice position.  On euthanasia – I don’t think I could assist another person in their suicide.

I am also very concerned about the rise of the far right, which combines a worship of the military with racism, swaggering masculinity and a dismissal of concerns for the environment. One way to counter their rise is to promote the anti-militarist values that inform the pacifist position.

The idea of self-defence needs approaching with care. In the First World War, which killed and wounded tens of millions of people, most countries believed they were fighting to defend either themselves or others. The long-term route to security is surely through active peacebuilding and disarmament, but this receives a tiny fraction of the funding committed to preparing for war. There are, of course, both effective and ineffective nonviolent strategies, but I’m encouraged by the comparative research of scholars which shows that principally nonviolent campaigns are nearly twice as likely to succeed as principally violent ones. The observation that in practice there is usually a mix goes both ways – there were also significant nonviolent aspects to those campaigns often cited as evidence of the efficacy of violence. 

RAHILA: To believe that fascism can be defeated by pacifism is a very dangerous form of idealism.

Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), who holds a similarly purist position, opposed the Kurdish battle against ISIS in Syria and argued it was simply a question of waiting it out as tensions between the various ethnicities in ISIS would lead to its implosion. Meanwhile, not only hundreds would have been killed but the violence of enforcing extreme religious precepts would impact thousands. But older members of WILPF who had lived in Hitler’s times recognized that Nazism could not be defeated by blockades and negotiations.

Take the battle for Kobane in 2014-15, a region of northeastern Syria, where the Kurds have been running an autonomous administration which is experimenting with an anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist, anti-state, ethnically inclusive and ecologically sustainable democratic society. They were invaded by ISIS. They took up arms in self-defence. Today, the ‘caliphate’ has been wiped out.

What the fightback saved was not just human lives but an idea, an experiment, a beacon of hope for all of us who are fighting for that other, inspirational world which is struggling to take breath. 

TIM: For me, pacifism is about laying the foundations for a society based on those values that we both support, sustained through peace. It isn’t about condemning those who bear arms in defence – especially if I don’t share their situa­tion. Indeed, peace work such as conflict resolution can often mean working closely with people who have decided to fight. 

Pacifism is about tackling the causes of wars. The rise of ISIS was catalysed by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The past and present sale and supply of arms by global powers to different sides of the war in Syria has made the conflict bloodier, as has their active involvement. 

As a result of the civil war in Syria, hundreds of thousands of people are dead – a significant number of whom are civilians. Around half of the population has needed to flee their homes. 

I recognize that neither of our positions are simple, and, of course, the format of this is for us to debate with one another. We have some common ground though: neither of us has any time for passive-ism. Could we agree too that the world would become more just if there were more people dedicated to actively making peace? 

RAHILA: Your last sentence contains the kernel of our essential difference of opinion. It is not about individuals coming together to make peace, it is about toppling systems. Militarism and aggression are key to the success of capitalism and imperialism in maintaining a competitive edge, in acquiring markets, territories, in selling arms. The inequalities of capitalism wreak their own special kind of violence. Hunger and poverty are a form of violence. In the face of this massive onslaught, peace work will only skim along the surface.

This doesn’t mean that peace work shouldn’t be done. It just means we should recognize its limitations.

Isn’t it a bit of a cop-out to say that you don’t condemn those who bear arms in self-defence because you haven’t found yourself in that position? Does that mean that pacifism is a principle that does not need to be upheld in all circumstances? I could agree with that. But I would go further and offer the Kurds, as that is the example I have chosen, my full-blooded support. Not just because their political goals chime with mine but because their sacrifice has reduced the ‘caliphate’ of ISIS to rubble. And although ISIS is by no means vanquished, it has been slowed down.