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Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America

Whether you agree with all of Churchill's arguments or not (and personally I have a few problems with the therapy stuff) his analysis of the pacifist doctrine is both eloquent and truly eye-opening. I spent some time involved in explicitly non-violent activism in the UK without really thinking through the ideological implications - it was simply the first direct action scene I came across. I only wish that I had read this book 7 years ago and hastened the learning process that has led me to many of the same conclusions as the author. Don't be put off, however, if you are happily involved in non-violent action; this book will shed new light on your activities. In short, I can't recommend this book highly enough - if you, your friend, your flatmate or your mum hasn't read this book then get a copy quick!
Book Reviews (Do or Die)

Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America

by Ward Churchill

Arbeiter Ring Publishing, Canada, 1999 / ISBN 1-894037-07-3

Pacifism as Pathology - Notes on an American Pseudopraxis is the title of Ward Churchill's well-argued and persuasive essay criticising the form and ideology of non-violent political action in North America. The essay was first published in 1986, and is reprinted in this book alongside an essay by Mike Ryan who further develops the arguments in the context of the Canadian peace movement. Though Churchill's essay was written in response to the political scene of well over a decade ago, his arguments are (perhaps worringly) equally thought-provoking and relevant to the contemporary manifestations of non-violent political action that purport to have revolutionary methods and goals.

Churchill's main argument is that philosophical non-violence/pacifism - which promotes the idea that the violence of the State can be transcended through purity of purpose, moral superiority and non-violence - is a delusional and counter-revolutionary political movement. Despite recognising the fact that many adherents to non-violence have sincere revolutionary aspirations (i.e: that they reject the present social order and wish to see its total abolition and replacement) Churchill claims that their non-violent methods serve to constrain them to the realm of 'pseudo-praxis' which, at best, is utterly ineffectual and, at worst, maintains and reinforces the hierarchical and exploitative status quo.

Churchill argues that this pseudo-praxis of pacifism is rooted in an ideology rife with internal contradictions and limitations and for its internal logic depends upon "fostering a view of social conflict as a morality play." (p.38) In this 'play' the State and its violence are "bad" or "negative", their pacifist opponents "good" or "positive" and it is through the triumph of morality alone that revolution will come about. Hence, "Pacifists, with seemingly endless repetition, pronounce that the negativity of the modern corporate-fascist state will atrophy through defection and neglect once there is a sufficiently positive social vision to take its place." (p.30) Such a view is clearly the stuff of pure idealism rather than realism, for the state is not a moral adversary, it cannot be persuaded to 'wither away'. As Churchill rightly points out; "Absurdity clearly abounds when suggesting that the state will refrain from using all necessary physical force to protect against undesired forms of change and threats to its safety." (p.44)

Taking the experience of the Jews in the Holocaust as an in-depth (and highly controversial) example, the author illustrates the ultimate futility of non-violent resistance. He suggests that the pacifist response of the Jews which was intended to promote "social responsibility" and not further exacerbate their persecution, in fact did the opposite and led to the Jews effectively colluding with the genocidal aims of their Nazi oppressors. Whilst not suggesting that the Holocaust could have been prevented by armed struggle on the part of the Jews, Churchill, quoting Bruno Bettleheim (a former concentration camp inmate), says: "Rebellion could only have saved either the life they were going to lose anyway, or the lives of others...Inertia it was that led millions of Jews into the ghettos that the SS had created for them." (p.36)

Churchill recognises that this example is extreme yet he suggests that: "it is precisely this extremity which makes the example useful; the Jewish experience reveals with stark clarity the basic illogic at the very core of pacifist conceptions of morality and political action." (p.38) The illogic to which he is referring is the idea that moral superiority can overcome state oppression; the moral superiority being based upon an unwillingness to take up arms and use violence as a tactic. This notion is so central to the 'pathology' of pacifism that the dichotomies between good (non-violent) and evil (violent) are found throughout. Of course, in order to sustain a belief in the ideology examples of good (non-violence) triumphing over evil (violence) are vital. Here, Churchill argues that pacifists are guilty of considerable revisionism in order to make history compatible with their beliefs.

Churchill looks in particular at the popularly quoted 'successes' of the movements headed by MK Gandhi in India, and Dr. Martin Luther King in North America. In both these instances he argues that the 'success' of the movements in gaining their demands depended massively upon the threat of violence from other sources against the British and American governments respectively. In the case of North America, the pressure came from "the context of armed self-defense tactics being employed for the first time by rural black leaders...and the eruption of black urban enclaves...It also coincided with the increasing need of the American state for internal stability due to the unexpectedly intense and effective armed resistance mounted by the Vietnamese against US aggression in Southeast Asia." (p.43)

The importance of the misappropriation of history by pacifists becomes clear when we delve a little deeper into the psychology of it all. Clearly, as Churchill points out, these people do believe in the need for revolution, indeed they pronounce solidarity with those engaged in armed struggles in the Third World.

However, if they concede the historical fact that "there simply has never been a revolution, or even a substantial social reorganisation, brought into being on the basis of the principles of pacifism. In every instance, violence has been an integral requirement of the process of transforming the state" (p.45) then pacifists must begin to realize that there is not just an option to accept violence as a method of social change, but an imperative.

In the author's view the fact that pacifists are so reluctant to get to this point in their reasoning has much to do with the fact that for most, struggle against the state is not a daily reality. Indeed, their whole concern stems from a moral objection to the 'wickedness' of the state, rather any personal threat to their lives and communities. From such a privileged position, pacifists can espouse non-violent revolution and engage in political action without the risks most political dissidents take. Churchill does recognise that some pacifist practitioners have run real risks for their beliefs - such as the followers of Gandhi beaten to death in pursuit of non-violent revolution and those who have immolated themselves or incurred long prison sentences taking action for their cause. However, in the main, Churchill argues that North American pacifists are caught up in a politics of 'the comfort zone' based on the guiding question of "What sort of politics might I engage in which will both allow me to posture as a progressive and allow me to avoid incurring harm to myself?" (p.49) Not surprisingly, the political practice which ensues from this underlying concern is not - and never can be - revolutionary, since if it were the state would respond with force. Pacifist praxis is therefore necessarily ineffectual and unthreatening.

Churchill's description of the kind of praxis pacifists do engage in will seem all too familiar to most of us who have been involved in non-violent activism. The protest march, sit-down blockade, rally etc. is revealed as the charade it really is. I found myself cringing at this point, recognising situations in which I had participated in the spectacle of symbolic action. Crucial aspects of this spectacle include the representatives of the state - the cops - invited to be there by the protest organisers, the elite band of stewards who ensure non-violence and 'responsible' conduct, and the protesters there to take part in a mass arrest for transgressing some minor law. The whole thing is conducted in such a way as to cause minimum disruption to the workings of the state (the police are warned in advance to expect an estimated number of arrests) and to make sure that no-one (cops or protesters) gets hurt. As Churchill comments: "in especially 'militant' actions, arrestees go limp, undoubtedly severely taxing the state's repressive resources by forcing the police to carry them bodily to the vans...(monitored all the while...to ensure that such 'police brutality' as pushing, shoving, or dropping an arrestee does not occur)." (p.54) The farcical ineffectuality of this symbolic protest is further emphasized when we remember that many of these demonstrations - especially in this country - are in protest at the use of state violence in the form of invasions of other countries (resulting in the loss of thousands of lives), production of nuclear weapons and other arms (potentially genocidal), or destruction of the environment (potentially ecocidal).

Churchill is also highly critical of the condemnation that non-violent activists make of the 'violent minority' who refuse to play the game of merely symbolic protest. He points out the blatant hypocrisy surrounding the willingness of non-violent activists to 'stand in solidarity' with armed groups in the Third World who are resisting Western imperialist aggression, whilst simultaneously distancing themselves from anyone who dares to suggest a violent response in their own country! Churchill argues that this is more evidence of 'comfort zone' politics which not only leads to ineffective action but is actually racist: "Massive and unremitting violence in the colonies is appalling to right-thinking people but ultimately acceptable when compared with the unthinkable alternative that any degree of real violence might be redirected against 'mother country radicals'." (p.62) By intentionally avoiding any degree of state violence themselves, non-violent activists ensure that the brunt of it is borne by both Third World communities and minority communities in the West.

Churchill's argument that the 'comfort zone' practise of symbolic non-violent action is easily accommodated by the State, is further developed in the follow on essay by Mike Ryan. He suggests that far from challenging State power, non-violent action is a valuable means by which the State can reinforce its legitimacy: "The message of civil disobedience as it is now practiced is this: There is opposition in society. The state deals with this opposition firmly but gently, according to the law. Unlike some countries, Canada is a democratic society which tolerates opposition. Therefore, it is unnecessary for anyone to step outside the forms of protest accepted by this society; it is unnecessary to resist." (p.140) Such recuperation clearly has implications for those whose actions go beyond the accepted boundary by allowing the State to simply divide and rule. As 'the violent minority' are isolated and crushed, the State can claim the tacit (or sometimes explicit) support for its actions from those who remain (unbruised and morally superior) within the permitted boundaries of dissent.

Having thoroughly and convincingly dispensed with any notion that pacifism represents a serious and revolutionary challenge to the state, Churchill takes his analysis a step further. He argues that pacifism is actually pathological with delusional, racist and suicidal tendencies, and bears more hallmarks of a religious, rather than political, ideology. This makes it very difficult to argue people out of this mindset, as Churchill suggests; "hegemonic pacifism in advanced capitalist contexts proves itself supremely resistant - indeed virtually impervious - to mere logic and moral suasion." (p.93) He claims that the only way to overcome this 'illness' is through a therapeutic process designed to take the non-violent advocate "beyond the smug exercise of knee-jerk pacifist "superiority," and into the arena of effective liberatory praxis." (p.93) He proposes a strategy in which individuals are forced to challenge their ideas through a therapeutic discussion of values (to determine whether the subject really understands the bases of need for revolutionary social transformation), followed by 'Reality Therapy' (time spent living with oppressed communities to get the subject out of the comfort zone) and 'Demystification' (where the subject is taught to handle weapons and lose their psychological fear of guns.) All this should "have the effect of radically diminishing much of the delusion, the aroma of racism and the sense of privilege". (p.101)

It is probably right to accuse Churchill of consciously formulating a training programme to create revolutionaries, in fact he concedes that he is trying to aid in the development of "a strategy to win". Indeed I think if the proponents of non-violence were to enter the therapeutic process en masse the state would have more cause for concern than at any time in the preceding decades of pacifist "action". However, it would not be right to accuse the author of attempting to glorify violence and armed struggle, rather he is at pains to emphasise that "the desire for a non-violent and cooperative world is the healthiest of all psychological manifestations." (p.103) Rather the essay is written to provoke discussion and to get to the point where pacifists stop believing that their 'purity of purpose' will achieve the world we want.

Churchill's alternative to the pacifist strategy is made clear in a chapter entitled Towards a Liberatory Praxis. Defining praxis as "action consciously and intentionally guided by theory while simultaneously guiding the evolution of theoretical elaboration" (p.84) he argues that in advanced capitalist contexts far more emphasis has been placed on the theory and analysis of revolutionary struggle at the expense of the physical tactics which could be employed. It is partly for this reason that the doctrine of 'revolutionary non-violence' as a theory and practice has taken such a hold. In contrast, in the Third World "...it is considered axiomatic that revolution in non-industrialized areas all but inherently entails resort to armed struggle and violence." (p.85) With the immediacy of State violence to contend with, those engaged in liberatory struggles in the Third World have had to innovate a whole range of tactics - hence the highly developed art of guerrilla warfare. Churchill suggests that we learn from this example, though he is not advocating some 'cult of terror'. Rather we must recognise that "...in order to be effective and ultimately successful, any revolutionary movement within advanced capitalist nations must develop the broadest range of thinking/action by which to confront the state." (p.91) In this 'continuum of activity' non-violent action - crucially divorced from its delusional ideological trappings - has a role to play, but then so too does "armed self-defense, and...the realm of 'offensive' military operations." (p.91) In this situation, rather than non-violence being seen as the antithesis of violence and morally evaluated, both become useful tactics to be used as necessary in the revolutionary strategy.

Whether you agree with all of Churchill's arguments or not (and personally I have a few problems with the therapy stuff) his analysis of the pacifist doctrine is both eloquent and truly eye-opening. I spent some time involved in explicitly non-violent activism in the UK without really thinking through the ideological implications - it was simply the first direct action scene I came across. I only wish that I had read this book 7 years ago and hastened the learning process that has led me to many of the same conclusions as the author. Don't be put off, however, if you are happily involved in non-violent action; this book will shed new light on your activities. In short, I can't recommend this book highly enough - if you, your friend, your flatmate or your mum hasn't read this book then get a copy quick!
 
 


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