This was written in the period after the Seattle anti G8 protests and fairly widely circulated on e-mail lists.
If one wants to bruise an ego or create a heated discussion on a fan or political e-mail list these days, the easiest way seems to be to suggest that violence is wrong. There will all too often be a flurry of responses that can be summarised as having one of three focuses:
(1) The writer is a white, male, euro-centric trying to impose a tactic on those involved with militant struggles for survival;
(2) Violence is essential for social change—there would have not been a French, America, Russian, Chinese, Cuban revolution without it;
(3) That Violence is essential to bring attention to an issue.
Responding to any of these criticisms is attacked in vehement fashion. And yet I still think my concerns do need to be addressed and considered and not summarily rejected.
My responses to the three basic criticisms are fairly straight forward.
To the first, the answer is clear—the primarily public faces of non-violence in the 20th century have been non-white (e.g. Ghandi, Martin Luther King) or women (e.g. Aung San Suu Kyi, Mothers of May Square). Material from non-European sources such as Non-violence to Animals, Earth and Self in Asian Traditions, are studied to help strengthen the theoretical underpinnings of non-violent resistance. It has been those involved with non-violence in revolutionary situations around the world that who influenced and inspired non-violent resistance in less repressive situations.
To the second criticism, that violence is essential to social change, I point out two things—first, that often massive non-violent resistance that occurred during under repressive regimes or in revolutionary situations, from anti-apartheid struggles to the general strike in Nicaragua, can be pointed to as the real challenge to authorities. Second, and more contentious, I suggest that the means used point to the end result. The more violence was a part of the revolutionary movement, the more it has been used to centralise power and create or recreate a repressive regime by a new elite.
The third critical point criticism, that violence is essential to bringing attention to an issue, is a key part of the ‘diversity of tactics’ debate. To respond requires considering what is and is not violence. I believe that property damage, under some circumstances, is not violence as it can be done in a way that does not cause or threaten to cause harm to others. However, the one-day general strike in Toronto during the Days of Action managed to get massive media coverage without violence. And there was more, sustained and more positive media coverage (or response to media coverage) for to such protests as the Queen’s Park Plant-in or the Hamilton War Show protests than for protests that have used force against property (i.e. the June 16th 2000 protest at Queen’s Park).
I think this speaks to points 2 and 3. And the appeal to violence also seems to be a denial of the really hard work essential to social change—the day to day organizing, networking, co-ordinating, encouraging, supporting and maintaining a spirit of resistance. If violence works, then I don’t need to work with my neighbour to find common ground. I, and a small elite, can obtain the same results with or without their consent if violence is sufficient.
Although I can acknowledge an emotional appeal of violence—the desire for revenge or a sense of urgency in light of a crisis—I can not as an anarchist ultimately accept the use of any tactic that is destructive and coercive. The use of power over anyone is ultimately evil—a term I am consciously using. And if I reject violence but desire social change, I must be an advocate of non-violent resistance. And if I advocate non-violent resistance, it is only logical that I am opposed to war and therefore a pacifist.
Advocating these positions becomes self-alienating from many forms of public dissent and resistance. As an anarchist, for example, the idea of asking the state for permission to dissent is anathema. Therefore I do not go to demonstrations where permits have been applied for.
Because I advocate non-violence, I will not participate in actions where tactics I am opposed to our are likely to be used. And because I am a pacifist, I will not go to demonstrations against military force that are not also against war itself.
Being self-alienated is far different than exclusion. Experience has lead me to believe that I am welcome to add my body to any mainstream protest—providing I agree to obey the marshals—or to more militant protests providing I do not interfere in the actions or, indeed, am willing to share in the risks. And, like most, I am welcome to take part in any public discussion up to the point where my views are felt to be beyond the acceptable. In one setting, this exceeding of tolerance could be raising the perspective that people of faith should be holding the churches accountable for the harm they have been and continue to be a part of. In another setting it can be suggesting that not everyone present supports violence for political purposes. But welcomes are extended and it is, I admit, stubbornness on my part that results in exclusion. All I would have to do is be silent.
I think I am troubled most by two things implicit in the comments that sparked this reflection. I am unable to understand why violence, indeed killing of one’s opponents, can be accepted by anarchists as a valid political tool. This ultimate negation of the value of individuals is a view I can understand being held by those that who advocate the value of a revolutionary state or a vanguard party, but I can’t reconcile it with core anarchist values.
And I can not understand why people opposed to war add their voices to those that who advocate political violence as if there is can be any common ground between pacifists and those trying to legitimise violence. Particularly in a struggles such as that in the Middle East, adding one’s voice uncritically or indiscriminately to the Palestinians or to the Israeli’s can only continue the use of violence. It is time for pacifists to seriously consider saying support for justice struggles is to be intimately linked to support for those actively involved in non-violent forms of resistance. This would include standing between Israeli tanks and Palestinian refugees, but also standing with Palestinian women threatened with ‘honour’ killings and non-violent activists threatened with torture and murder for ‘collaborating’ with Israelis. It would also mean sitting in cafes in Jerusalem and escorting Israeli children to and from school in Tel Aviv. If we want a revolution, we must try to build it in the here and now.
Decades ago I was accused of romanticising guerrilla struggles. Perhaps I have come to romanticise non-violence. But ongoing reading on the topic, experimenting with non-violent resistance, leading workshops on non-violence and creative dissent and talking with people from around the world that who have been putting their lives on the line for social change and who are still refusing to use violence against their opponents, has lead me to feel that only non-violent resistance can be anti-hierarchical.
In this time of overwhelming urgency, from wars to environmental degradation to continued racism, sexism and homophobia to hunger and homelessness, the need for action is obvious. But in our deliberations and considerations, let us not become like those we oppose. Instead, let us experiment with alternatives institutions and strategies and forms of relationships and decision making; let us advocate carnivals instead of conflict; let us all learn to say “NO!” when asked to co-operate with injustice and oppression; let us share in the risks by neither bearing arms nor being silent.
As communities can engage in armed resistance for generations without giving up, surely we can also engaged in militant forms of non-violent, public, inclusive resistance for years if necessary. We will, like those that who use violence, be subjected to harassment, arrests, jailing and the possibility of death. This is a reality with any movement for social change. But we won’t have to wait for the withering away of the state if we work in the here and now for the development of the type of world we’d like to see in place of the nation state, in place of all forms of hierarchical, institutional authorities.
And these alternatives will never come to birth if we mimic in the here and now those we oppose—and the use of violence is the most sincere form of mimicry we can adopt. Political violence is not the scalpel that assists with a caesarean to ensure a successful but difficult birth. Rather, it is the dioxin that crosses the placenta and damages the potential for a new and joyous life.
Note: This essay is strongly influenced by:
Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall. A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-Violent Conflict. St. Martin’s Press, New York 2000.
Albert, David H. People Power: Applying Nonviolence Theory. New Society Publishers, Philadelphia 1985.
Anderson, Shelley and Janet Larmore, ed. Nonviolent Struggle and Social Defence. War Resisters International, London 1991.
Bruckner, D. J. R., Seymour Chwast and Steven Heller. Art Against War: 400 Years of Protest in Art. Abbeville Press, New York 1997.
Chapple, Christopher Key. Nonviolence to Animals, Earth and Self in Asian Traditions. State University of New York Press, Albany 1993.
Harper, Clifford, Dennis Gould and Jeff Cloves, eds. Visions of Poesy: An Anthology of 20th Century Anarchist Poetry. Freedom Press, London 1994.
Herngren, Per. Path of Resistance. Margaret Rainey, translator. New Society Publishers, Philadelphia 1993.
Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid, third edition. Introduction by Paul Avrich. Penguin Press, London 1972
Lynd, Staughton, ed. Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History. Bobbs-Merrill Company Ltd., New York 1966. Library of Congress Number 65-23010.
MacQueen, Graeme, ed. Unarmed Forces. Science for Peace, Toronto 1992.
Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. HarperCollins, London 1992.
Martin, Brian. Strip the Experts. Freedom Press, London 1991.
Social Defense Social Change. Freedom Press, London 1993.
Mayer, Peter, ed. The Pacifist Conscience. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York 1966.
McCallister, Pam, ed. Reweaving the Web of Life. New Society Publishers, Philadelphia 1982.
McReynolds, David. We Have Been Invaded by the 21st Century. Grove Press, New York 1968.
Merton, Thomas. The Non-violent Alternative. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Toronto 1980.
Montessori, Maria. Education and Peace. Helen R. Lane, trans. Henry Regnery Company, Chicago 1972.
Moorehead, Caroline. Troublesome People: Enemies of War. Hamish Hamilton, London 1987.
Morgan, Robin. The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism. W.W. Norton, London 1989.
Penner, Kate, ed. Risking for Change: Stories of Ordinary People. First Freedom Foundation, Victoria 1999.
Powers, Roger S. and William B. Vogele, eds. Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action. Garland Publishing, New York 1997.
San Suu Kyi, Aung with Alan Clements. The Voice of Hope. Seven Stories Press, New York 1997. ISBN 01-888363-83-5.
Sharp, Gene. Exploring Nonviolent Alternatives. Porter Sargent Publisher, Boston 1970.
Teske, Robin L. and Mary Ann TŽtreault, eds. Conscious Acts and the Politics of Social Change. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia 2000.
Wehr, Paul, Heidi Burgess & Guy Burgess, eds. Justice Without Violence. Lynne Reinner Publishers, Boulder 1994.
Woodcock, George. Anarchism and Anarchists. Quarry Press, Kingston 1992.
Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Meridian
Books, New York 1962.
You Can’t Blow Up A Social Relationship: The Anarchist Case Against Terrorism. Libertarian Socialist Organisation, Brisbane 1980.
Groups and websites:
Ahimsazine. Affinity Place, Argenta British Columbia V0G 1B0 <email@example.com> www.ahimsazine.com.
Conscience Canada. 901-70 Mill Street Toronto ON M5A 4R1 <firstname.lastname@example.org> <www.consciencecanada.ca>
The Long Arc. P.O. Box 73620, 509 St. Clair Ave. W., Toronto, Ontario, CANADA M6C 1C0. email@example.com <www.homesnotbombs.ca>. Very sporatic.
More Than A Paycheck. National War Tax Resistance Co-ordinating Committee. P.O. Box 150553, Brooklyn, New York 11215. <firstname.lastname@example.org> <www.nwtrcc.org> 6/yr. $15.00 U.S./yr.
WIN Magazine. War Resisters League, 339 Lafayette Street, New York, New York 10012. <email@example.com> <www.warresisters.org>