POV: how nonviolence protects the state
May 14, 2007 08:56 PDT
| ||POV: how nonviolence protects the state
Arms and the Movement
Utne Reader May / June 2007
By Peter Gelderloos,
How Nonviolence Protects the State
Pacifism equals pacified to this activist
I could spend plenty of time talking about the failures of nonviolence.
Instead, it may be useful to talk about its supposed successes. Frequently cited
examples are India's struggle for independence from British colonial rule, the
U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the peace movement during the war
in Vietnam. Though they have not yet been hailed as a victory, the massive
protests in 2003 against the United States' invasion of Iraq also have been
applauded by nonviolent activists. In claiming these as victories for nonviolence,
however, pacifists have engaged in a pattern of historical manipulation and
In India, the story goes, people led by Mahatma Gandhi built up a massive
nonviolent movement over decades and engaged in protest, noncooperation, economic
boycotts, hunger strikes, and other acts of disobedience that made British
imperialism unworkable. The movement suffered massacres and responded with a
couple of riots, but on the whole, the movement was nonviolent and eventually won
independence, providing an undeniable hallmark of pacifist victory.
The actual history is more complicated. Many violent pressures also
influenced the British decision to withdraw. The British had lost the ability to
maintain colonial power after losing millions of troops and resources during two
extremely violent world wars. The armed struggles of Arab and Jewish militants in
Palestine from 1945 to 1948 further weakened the British Empire, and these
conflicts served as a clear threat of what might result if the Indians gave up
civil disobedience to take up arms en masse.
India's resistance to British colonialism included enough militancy that the
Gandhian method should be viewed most accurately as one of several competing
forms of popular resistance. Pacifists white out those other forms of
resistance, ignoring important militant leaders such as Chandrasekhar Azad, who fought
in armed struggle against the British colonizers, and revolutionaries such as
Bhagat Singh, who won mass support for bombings and assassinations as part of
a struggle to accomplish the "overthrow of both foreign and Indian
capitalism." The pacifist history of India's struggle cannot make any sense of the fact
that Subhas Chandra Bose, the militant candidate, was twice elected president
of the Indian National Congress, in 1938 and 1939.
Ultimately, the liberation movement in India failed. The British were not
forced out. Under pressure from a diverse resistance, they chose to hand power
over to the parts of the resistance they felt would best uphold their interests,
shifting from direct colonial rule to neocolonial rule. What kind of victory
allows the losing side to dictate the time and manner of the victors'
ascendancy? The British continued to fan the flames of religious and ethnic separatism
so that India would be divided against itself, prevented from gaining peace
and prosperity, and dependent on military aid and other support from
Independence from colonial rule has given India more autonomy in a few areas,
and it has certainly allowed a handful of Indians to sit in the seats of
power. But the exploitation and the commoditization of the commons and of culture
have deepened. Moreover, India lost a clear opportunity for meaningful
liberation from a foreign oppressor. Any liberation movement now would have to go up
against the confounding dynamics of nationalism and ethnic/religious rivalry
in order to abolish a domestic capitalism and government that are far more
The U.S. civil rights movement is one of the most important episodes in
pacifist history. Across the world, people see it as an example of nonviolent
victory. In truth, it was neither nonviolent nor a victory.
On the contrary, though pacifist groups such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s
Southern Christian Leadership Conference had considerable power and influence,
popular support, especially among poor black people, gravitated toward militant
revolutionary groups such as the Black Panther Party. According to a 1970
Harris poll, 66 percent of African Americans said the activities of the Black
Panther Party gave them pride, and 43 percent said the party represented their own
The nonviolent segments of the civil rights movement cannot be distilled and
separated from its revolutionary parts. Pacifist, middle-class black
activists, including King, got much of their power from the specter of black resistance
and the presence of armed black revolutionaries.
To cite one example: In the spring of 1963, King's Birmingham campaign was
fixing to be a repeat of the dismally failed action in Albany, Georgia, where a
nine-month civil disobedience campaign that began in 1961 had demonstrated the
powerlessness of nonviolent protesters against a government with seemingly
bottomless jails. Then, on May 7, after continued police violence in Birmingham,
3,000 black people began fighting back, pelting the police with rocks and
bottles. Just two days later, Birmingham -- up until then an inflexible bastion
of segregation -- agreed to desegregate downtown stores, and President Kennedy
backed the agreement with federal guarantees.
Within days, after local white supremacists bombed a black home and a black
business, thousands of black people rioted again, seizing a nine-block area,
destroying police cars, injuring several cops (including the chief inspector),
and burning white businesses. Within weeks, Kennedy ended several years of
stalling and called for Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. As King himself
said, "The sound of the explosion in Birmingham reached all the way to
In short, the largest victory of the civil rights movement came when black
people demonstrated that they would not remain peaceful forever. Faced with the
two alternatives, the white power structure chose to negotiate with the
pacifists, and we have seen the results: The movement was successful in ending de
jure segregation and expanding the minuscule black petty bourgeoisie, but fell
far short of full political and economic equality, to say nothing of black
liberation from white imperialism. People of color still have lower average
incomes, poorer access to housing and health care, and poorer health than white
people. De facto segregation still exists. Political equality is also lacking.
Millions of voters, most of them black, are disenfranchised (from voting for
white candidates in a white political system that reflects a white culture) when
it is convenient to ruling interests, and only three black senators have served
The claim that the U.S. peace movement ended the war in Vietnam contains the
usual set of flaws. With unforgivable self-righteousness, peace activists
ignore the fact that 3 million to 5 million Indochinese died in the fight against
the U.S. military; tens of thousands of U.S. troops were killed and hundreds
of thousands wounded; other troops were demoralized and had become ineffective
and openly rebellious; and the United States was losing political capital (and
going fiscally bankrupt) to a point where pro-war politicians began calling
for a strategic withdrawal.
Some pacifists claim that the huge number of conscientious objectors who
refused to fight points to a nonviolent victory. But far more significant than
passive conscientious objectors were the active rebellions by black, Latino, and
Native American troops. The government's plan, in response to black urban
riots, of taking unemployed young black men off the streets and into the military,
backfired. Fragging, sabotage, refusal to fight, rioting in the stockades,
and aiding the enemy contributed significantly to the decision to pull out
ground troops. The Pentagon estimated that 3 percent of officers and
noncommissioned officers killed in Vietnam from 1961 to 1972 were killed by their own
troops. In many instances, soldiers in a unit pooled their money to raise a bounty
for the killing of an unpopular officer.
"By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a
state approaching collapse," wrote Marine Corps Colonel Robert D. Heinl in
the Armed Forces Journal in June 1971, "with individual units avoiding or having
refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers,
drug-ridden and dispirited where not near mutinous. Elsewhere than Vietnam, the
situation is nearly as serious."
Although they were less politically significant than resistance from within
the military, bombings and other acts of violence in protest of the war on
white college campuses should not be ignored in favor of the pacifist whitewash.
In the 1969-70 school year (September through May), a conservative estimate
counts 174 antiwar bombings on campuses and at least 70 off-campus bombings and
other violent attacks targeting ROTC buildings, government buildings, and
corporate offices. Additionally, 230 campus protests included physical violence,
and 410 included damage to property.
In conclusion, what was a very limited victory -- the withdrawal of ground
troops after many years of warfare -- can be most clearly attributed to two
factors: the successful and sustained violent resistance of the Vietnamese, and
the militant and often lethal resistance of the U.S. ground troops themselves.
The domestic antiwar movement clearly worried those in power, but it had
certainly not become powerful enough that we can say it "forced" the government to
do anything, and in any case, its most forceful elements used violence.
Perhaps confused by their own false history of the peace movement during the
Vietnam War, pacifist organizers against the invasion of Iraq seemed to expect
a repeat of a victory that never happened. On February 16, 2003, as the U.S.
government moved toward war with Iraq, Agence France-Presse hailed weekend
protests as "a stinging rebuke to Washington and its allies." The protests were
the largest in history; excepting a few minor scuffles, they were entirely
nonviolent. United for Peace and Justice and some other antiwar groups even
suggested that the protests might avert war.
As we now know, they were totally wrong, and the protests were totally
ineffective. The invasion occurred as planned, despite the millions of people
nominally, peacefully, and powerlessly opposed to it. The antiwar movement did
nothing to change the power relationships in the United States. President Bush
received substantial political capital for invading Iraq, and was not faced with a
backlash until the war and occupation effort began to show signs of failure
due to the effective armed resistance of the Iraqi people.
A good case study regarding the efficacy of nonviolent protest can be seen in
Spain's involvement with the U.S.-led occupation. Spain, with 1,300 troops,
was one of the larger junior partners in the "Coalition of the Willing." More
than a million Spaniards protested the invasion, and 80 percent of the Spanish
population was opposed to it, but their commitment to peace ended there; they
did nothing to actually prevent Spanish military support for the invasion and
occupation. Because they remained passive and did nothing to disempower the
leadership, they remained as powerless as the citizens of any democracy. Not
only was Prime Minister Aznar allowed to go to war, he was expected by all
forecasts to win reelection.
Until the bombings. On March 11, 2004, just days before the voting booths
opened, multiple bombs planted by an al-Qaida-linked cell exploded on Madrid
trains, killing 191 people and injuring 1,755. Directly because of this, Aznar and
his party lost in the polls, and the Socialists, the major party with an
antiwar platform, were elected to power. The U.S.-led coalition shrunk with the
loss of the Spanish troops. Whereas millions of peaceful activists voting in the
streets like good sheep have not weakened the brutal occupation in any
measurable way, a few dozen terrorists willing to slaughter noncombatants were able
to cause the withdrawal of more than a thousand occupation troops.
So much for the victories of pacifism.
The Madrid bombings do not present an example for action, but rather, an
important paradox: Do people who stick to nonviolent tactics that have not proved
effective in ending the war against Iraq really care more for human life than
the Madrid terrorists? From India to Birmingham, nonviolence has failed to
sufficiently empower its practitioners, whereas the use of a diversity of tactics
got results. Put simply, if a movement is not a threat, it cannot change a
system that is based on centralized coercion and violence.
Time and again, people struggling not for some token reform but for complete
liberation -- the reclamation of control over our own lives and the power to
negotiate our own relationships with the people and the world around us -- will
find that nonviolence does not work, that we face a self-perpetuating power
structure that is immune to appeals to conscience and strong enough to plow
over the disobedient and uncooperative.
We must reclaim histories of resistance to understand why we have failed in
the past and how exactly we achieved the limited successes we did. We must also
accept that all social struggles, except those carried out by a completely
pacified and thus ineffective people, include a diversity of tactics.
Peter Gelderloos is an activist and community organizer who has worked with F
ood Not Bombs and against the School of the Americas. Excerpted from his book
How Nonviolence Protects the State (2007), published by South End Press, an
independent, collectively run publisher dedicated to the politics of radical
social change; www.southendpress.org.
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