On Nonviolence


I recently posted some comments to an article regarding non-violence and revolution which seemed to argue that “good” revolutions are non-violent and “bad” revolutions use terrorism. It seemed a tad simplistic so I posted some criticisms regarding this and the author’s rather haphazard use of the term karma. The author did not take this is in a positive light. I didn’t think I said anything too harsh but apparently I can be more rude than I realize. So I apologized and moved on.

But then I read this post by Sultan Knish and realized I could have stated things much more stridently than I did:

Gandhi’s tactic of non-violence is often foolishly credited with the peaceful liberation of India. This claim would be more impressive if the British Empire hadn’t expired but was still around with a large retinue of colonies, instead of having disposed of its colonies, many around the same time as India. And considering the bloodshed of Partition, despite Gandhi’s best attempts at appeasing Muslims it was hardly peaceful. Yet despite the hypocrisies that have dotted Gandhi’s life, his ideas continue to have a powerful hold on the Western imagination.

Few would seriously argue that had Gandhi been facing Imperial Japan (whose brutal conquest of Asia he briefly supported) or Nazi Germany or even the British Empire of the 19th century, that non-violence would have been nothing more than an invitation to a bullet. Yet that is exactly what first world nations are expected to do when confronted with terrorism. Not long after 9/11 slogans were already appearing on posters challenging, “What would Gandhi do?”

We can hazard a guess at what the man who urged Britain to surrender to Hitler and told the Jews to walk into the gas chambers, would do. We can do better than guess at the outcome. The same outcome that surrender to tyranny always brings, whether in the name of non-violence, cowardice or political appeasement, a great heap of skulls shining in the sun.

[read it all]

Thanks, Sultan. You made my day.

5 responses »

  1. I think Sultan Knish goes too far. If one is talking about non-violence as an absolutist ideology, then of course much of this criticism is justified. But non-violence can more usefully be used as a strategic or tactical option, to be assessed alongside other options and used where appropriate.

    I would be interested to see the original post which got you thinking about this. I also disagree with the notion that an action carried out by non-violent means is automatically morally superior to an action carried out by violent means. As well as the point Sultan Knish makes, that non-violent actions can also involve casualties, and could in some cases lead to far higher casualties than a violent response to murderous aggression, there is also the fact that just causes don’t have exclusive rights to non-violent tactics. It is perfectly possible for aggressors, reactionaries, bigots, terrorists, whoever, to use non-violent tactics on occasion.

    The peace campaigner John Runnings was very influenced by non-violence theorist Gene Sharp, and in his pamphlet Discovering the Obvious quotes Sharp’s argument that non-violence, rather than being exclusively a higher form of human behaviour, is actually a category of tactic commonly used by children and animals! I haven’t read Sharp yet, but he’s moving higher on my list. Chavez doesn’t like him, which is a point in his favour.

    I’ve got a longer post on this here.

  2. Kellie, thanks for the comments.

    You write:

    “But non-violence can more usefully be used as a strategic or tactical option, to be assessed alongside other options and used where appropriate.”

    I agree completely. But nonviolence is often fetishized by those who think it is the only appropriate response to oppression.

    Also, some of my political allies would rather have us forget that the Irgun and other revisionist Zionist groups resorted to terrorism. So did the leftist Haganah. Granted, it was not the preferred tactic, terrorism was used as a last resort, but I think it is important to address these facts head on rather than claiming these activities never happened.

    I suggest posting your comments/critique directly to SK. He’s more than willing to discuss his ideas with people. At least that has been my experience.

    Lastly, I am not familiar with Runnings in any detail but am extremely skeptical of anyone advocating a single world law that would “outlaw war” and make passports obsolete. It seems like a dangerous fantasy to me. And people who write about grandiose social change while engaging in “Global Pee-Ins” are a bit too out there for my taste. My general rule is the more utopian the prescription the more dystopian the outcome. In democratic polities, the more radical the politics, the more removed from the political process one becomes.

  3. A slow response as I am on holiday… what I find interesting about Runnings is that he moved away from those who make a fetish of non-violence. There were still massive gaps in his proposals, but they were more engaged with the wider realities of the world than the selective half-reality preferred by most peace campaigners. I cannot see his ideal world being practicable in my lifetime, but as a theory I find it stimulating, especially compared with the barren opposition politics of most supposedly anti-war types.

  4. There are given situations where non-violence is key to furthering a cause and/or movement. I disagree with the Gandhi claim, his influence in the liberation of India was tremendously useful (and though the British empire was at the end of the road, it still had a degree of control). The problem was that non-violence is not a governing philosophy, nor can it effectively mediate between violent factions. Competing views of Muslims and Hindus, each with their own extremist elements, broke off after the non-violent overthrow took place. They then took advantage of the situation, something non-violence can’t prevent.

    Yet the key here is that non-violence can’t take place in every society, there needs to be a level of solidarity with the cause (MLK is a figure who had this, plus being in a more democratic society helped). In Nazi Germany, non-violence wouldn’t work and didn’t work. In Algeria, it should have taken place and didn’t, instead it was replaced by violent actions by both the French and extremist revolutionaries. So non-violence is an effective tool in certain situations and societies, though shouldn’t be thought as an absolute.

    The only problem is I would rather have these “anti-war” like code pink preaching non-violence (though that is not always the case) than running around with Molotov cocktails in hand like those pesky anarchists.

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