Ward Churchill has argued that pacifism is pathological. I would say that, at the least, the advancement of nonviolence as a revolutionary practice in the present context is dependent on a number of delusions. Where to begin?
Often, after showing that the victories of nonviolence were not victories at all, except for the state, I have encountered the simplistic counterargument that because some particular militant struggle or act of violence was unsuccessful, “violence” is equally ineffective. I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say that the use of violence ensures victory. I hope everyone can see the difference between showing the failures of pacifist victories and showing the failures of militant struggles that no one ever claimed as victories. It is not controversial to assert that militant social movements have succeeded in changing society, or even becoming the prevalent force in society. To restate that: everyone must admit that struggles using a diversity of tactics (including armed struggle) can succeed. History is full of examples: revolutions in North and South America, France, Ireland, China, Cuba, Algeria, Vietnam, and so forth. It is also not terribly controversial to assert that anti-authoritarian militant movements have succeeded for a time in liberating areas and creating positive social changes in those areas. Cases in point include collectivization in the Spanish Civil War and in Makhno’s Ukraine, the autonomous zone in the Shinmin Province created by the Korean Anarchist Communist Federation, and the temporary breathing room won for the Lakota by Crazy Horse and his warriors. What is debatable, to some, is whether militant movements can win and survive in the long term while remaining anti-authoritarian. To convincingly argue against this possibility, pacifists would have to show that using violence against an authority inevitably makes one take on authoritarian characteristics. This is something that pacifists have not done and cannot do.
Often, pacifists prefer to characterize themselves as righteous than to logically defend their position. Most people who have heard the arguments of nonviolence have witnessed the formulation or assumption that nonviolence is the path of the dedicated and disciplined, and that violence is the “easy way out,” a giving in to base emotions. This is patently absurd. Nonviolence is the easy way out. People who choose to commit themselves to nonviolence face a far more comfortable future than those who choose to commit themselves to revolution. A prisoner of the black liberation movement told me in correspondence that when he joined the struggle (as a teenager, no less), he knew he would end up either dead or in prison. Many of his comrades are dead. For continuing the struggle behind prison walls, he has been locked up in solitary confinement for longer than I have been alive. Compare this with the recent comfortable, commemorated deaths of David Dellinger and Phil Berrigan. Nonviolent activists can give their lives to their cause, and a few have, but, unlike militant activists, they do not face a point of no return after which there is no going back to a comfortable life. They can always save themselves by compromising their total opposition, and most do.
Aside from reflecting an ignorance of the reality of the different consequences of certain political actions, the belief that non-pacifist struggle is the easy way out is often tinged with racism. The authors of the essay “Why Nonviolence?” do their best throughout the entire essay to avoid mention of race, but in the question-and-answer section they provide a veiled response to criticisms that pacifism is racist by painting “oppressed people” (black people) as angry and impulse-driven. “Q: Demanding nonviolent behavior from oppressed people toward their oppressors is senseless and unfair! They need to act out their anger!”! The authors’ “answer” to this contrived criticism of nonviolence includes many of the typical and deluded fallacies already discussed: the authors counsel people who are far more oppressed than they are to have patience with conditions they couldn’t possibly comprehend; the authors advise people of color to act in a way that is “ennobling and pragmatic”; the authors forestall criticisms of racism by dropping the name of a token person of color; and the authors conclude by tacitly threatening that militant activism on the part of people of color will result in abandonment and betrayal by powerful white “allies.” To wit:
As for unfairness, if the oppressed could wish it away, they would no longer be oppressed. There is no pain-free road to liberation. Given the inevitability of suffering, it is both ennobling and pragmatic to present nonviolent discipline and suffering (as did Martin Luther King, Jr.) as imperatives. “Acting out anger” in a way that costs a group allies is a luxury serious movements cannot afford.
Pacifists delude themselves in thinking of revolutionary activism as being impulsive, irrational, and coming solely from “anger.” In fact, revolutionary activism, in some of its manifestations, has a pronounced intellectual streak. After the Detroit riots of 1967, a government commission found that the typical rioter (in addition to being proud of his or her race and hostile to white people and middle-class black people) “is substantially better informed about politics than Negroes who were not involved in the riots.” George Jackson educated himself in prison, and emphasized in his writings the need for militant black people to study their historical relationship to their oppressors and learn the “scientific principles” of urban guerrilla warfare. The Panthers read Mao, Kwame Nkrumah, and Frantz Fanon, and required new members to educate themselves on the political theories behind their revolution. When he was finally captured and brought to trial, revolutionary New Afrikan anarchist Kuwasi Balagoon rejected the court’s legitimacy and proclaimed the right of black people to liberate themselves in a statement many pacifists could learn volumes from:
Before becoming a clandestine revolutionary i was a tenant organizer and was arrested for menacing a 270 pound colonial building superintendent with a machete, who physically stopped the delivery of oil to a building i didn’t live in, but had helped to organize. Being an organizer for the Community Council on Housing i took part in not only organizing rent strikes, but pressed slumlords to make repairs and maintain heat and hot water, killed rats, represented tenants in court, stopped illegal evictions, faced off City Marshals, helped turn rents into repair resources and collective ownership by tenants and demonstrated whenever the needs of tenants were at stake....Then i began to realize that with all this effort, we couldn’t put a dent in the problem...
Legal rituals have no effect on the historic process of armed struggle by oppressed nations. The war will continue and intensify, and as for me, I’d rather be in jail or in the grave than do anything other than fight the oppressor of my people. The New Afrikan Nation as well as the Native American Nations are colonialized within the present confines of the United States, as the Puerto Rican and Mexicano Nations are colonialized within as well as outside the present confines of the United States. We have a right to resist, to expropriate money and arms, to kill the enemy of our people, to bomb and do whatever else aids us in winning, and we will win.
In comparison, the strategic and tactical analysis of nonviolent activism is rather simplistic, rarely rising above the regurgitation of hackneyed clichés and moralistic truisms. The amount of studious preparations required to successfully carry out militant actions, compared with the amount required for nonviolent actions, also contradicts the perception that revolutionary activism is impulsive.
People willing to acknowledge the violence of revolution — it is misleading to talk about choosing violence because violence is inherent in social revolution and the oppressive status quo that precedes it, whether we use violent means or not — are more likely to understand the sacrifices involved. Any knowledge of what revolutionaries prepare themselves for and go through demonstrates the cruelly ignorant farce, of the pacifist proclamation that revolutionary violence is impulsive. As already mentioned, the writings of Frantz Fanon were among the most influential for black revolutionaries in the United States during the black liberation movement. The last chapter of his book The Wretched of the Earth deals entirely with “colonial war and mental disorders,” with the psychological trauma incurred as a matter of course from colonialism and the “total war” waged by the French against the Algerian freedom fighters (a war, I should note, that makes up a large part of the textbook used by the US in counterinsurgency warfare and wars of occupation up to the present moment). People who fight for revolution do know what they are getting into, to the extent that the horror of these things can be known. But do pacifists?
A further delusion (expressed by pacifists who want to appear militant and powerful) is that pacifists do fight back, only nonviolently. This is rubbish. Sitting down and locking arms is not fighting, it is a recalcitrant capitulation. In a situation involving a bully or a centralized power apparatus, physically fighting back discourages future attacks because it raises the costs of oppression incurred by the oppressor. The meek resistance of nonviolence only makes it easier for the attacks to continue. At the next protest, for instance, see how reluctant the police are to fence in militant groups such as the black bloc and subject them all to mass arrest. The cops know that they’ll need one or two cops for every protester and that some of them are going to end up badly hurt. The peaceful, on the other hand, can be barricaded in by a relatively small number of cops, who can then go into the crowd at their leisure and carry off the limp protesters one by one.
Palestine is another example. There can be no doubt that the Palestinians are an inconvenience to the Israeli state, and that the Israeli state has no concern for the well-being of the Palestinians. If the Palestinians hadn’t made the Israeli occupation and every successive aggression so costly, all the Palestinian land would be seized, except for a few reservations to hold the necessary number of surplus laborers to supplement the Israeli economy, and the Palestinians would be a distantmemory in a long line of extinct peoples. Palestinian resistance, including suicide bombings, has helped ensure Palestinian survival against a far more powerful enemy.
Nonviolence further deludes itself and its converts with the truism “Society has always been violent. It is nonviolence that is revolutionary.” In practice, our society honors and commemorates both pro-state violence and respectable, dissident pacifism. The very activist who claimed that our society is already pro-violence can drop the name of Leon Czolgosz (the anarchist who assassinated President McKinley) in a guest op-ed in the local corporate newspaper and know that a mainstream audience will respond to that violent personage with condemnation. Meanwhile, the same activist references pacifists like King and Gandhi to give his beliefs an aura of respectability in the mainstream eye. If society is already in favor of violence across the board, and pacifism is revolutionary enough to fundamentally challenge our society and its ingrained oppressions, why does Czolgosz warrant hatred while Gandhi warrants approval?
Pacifists also harbor delusions about the decency of the state and, subconsciously, about the amount of protection their privileges will afford them. Students leading the occupation of Tiananmen Square in “Autonomous Beijing” thought that their “revolutionary” government would not open fire on them if they remained a peaceful, loyal opposition. “The students’ nearly complete misunderstanding of the nature of legitimacy under bureaucratic power and the illusion that the Party could be negotiated with, left them defenseless both in terms of the theoretical means of describing their undertaking and in regards to the narrow practice of civil disobedience it led them to adopt.” Thus, when the students who had put themselves in control of the movement refused to arm themselves (unlike many in the working-class suburbs, who were less educated and more intelligent), the whole movement was vulnerable, and Autonomous Beijing was crushed by the tanks of the People’s Liberation Army. The students at Kent State were similarly shocked, even as the same government that killed a paltry number of them was massacring millions of people in Indochina without consequence or hesitation.
In the end, nonviolence has all the intellectual depth of a media sound bite. Pacifism requires a very vague, broad, loaded, and non-analytical term — violence — to take on a scientific precision. After all, not racism, not sexism, not homophobia, not authoritarianism, but violence, must be the critical axis of our actions. Why would we take pledges of anti-racism before a march, or make participation in a movement contingent on being respectful of women, queer people, and trans people, when we can take far less divisive pledges of nonviolence? The likelihood that most supporters of nonviolence codes have never even asked this question goes a long way toward demonstrating the limitation of pacifist thinking. So pacifists ignore real divisions such as white privilege and instead make baseless and potentially racist/classist distinctions between cutting a lock during a pre-announced demonstration so that protesters can conduct a die-in on a military base and smashing a window under cover of a riot so that a ghetto dweller can get food and money to take care of her family. Significantly, pacifists do not make the critical distinction between the structural, institutional, and systemically permitted personal violence of the state (the state being understood in a broad sense to include the functions of the economy and patriarchy) and the individualized social violence of the “criminal” sort or collective social violence of the “revolutionary” sort, aimed at destroying the far greater violence of the state. Pretending that all violence is the same is very convenient for supposedly anti-violence privileged people who benefit from the violence of the state and have much to lose from the violence of revolution.
Sneaking onto a military base, pouring one’s blood on things, and hammering missiles, we are told, is nonviolent, but blowing up the Litton Systems plant (where cruise missile components were made) would have been violent even if no one had been injured. Why? The usual response is either that a bomb threatens people, whereas old white nuns with hammers do not, or that when activists use a bomb, they cannot ensure that people will not get hurt. The first argument ignores two facts: what is considered threatening is largely determined by preexisting prejudices against certain races and classes, and to the majority of the world’s population outside North America, a nonfunctioning missile is far less threatening than a functioning missile, no matter how many bombs had to blow up in the Global North to achieve that end. There is certainly no doubt that bombing can destroy missiles better than hammering. The second argument, as I have noted, ignores the possibility of victims outside of North America. A bomb ensures that a factory will not be able to produce missiles far better than a hammer does, and missiles in the possession of imperialist states kill far more people than bombs (or hammers) in the possession of urban guerrilla groups. But this consideration is so far from the minds of pacifists that the nuns to whom I allude based much of their trial defense on the contention that they had not caused any real damage, only symbolic damage, to the missile facility they had infiltrated. Can they even truly be considered nonviolent, after deliberately wasting an opportunity to decommission a major instrument of warfare?
At a workshop I gave on the flaws of nonviolence, I conducted a little exercise to demonstrate how vague this idea of violence actually is. I asked the participants, who included supporters of nonviolence and supporters of a diversity of tactics, to stand up and, as I slowly read a list of various actions, to walk to one spot if they considered the action violent, and to another spot if they considered the action nonviolent. The actions included such things as buying clothes made in a sweatshop, eating meat, a wolf killing a deer, killing someone who is about to detonate a bomb in a crowd, and so on. Almost never was there perfect agreement among the participants, and several of the actions that they considered violent they also considered moral, while some also considered certain nonviolent actions to be immoral. The concluding lesson of the exercise: Does it really make sense to base so much of our strategy, our alliances, and our involvement in activism on a concept that is so blurry that no two people can really agree on what it means?
Efforts to actually define violence lead to two outcomes. Either violence is defined literally as something that causes pain or fear, and it cannot be considered an immoral thing because it includes natural activities such as giving birth or eating other living beings to stay alive, or violence is defined with a moral concern for outcomes, in which case inaction or being ineffective in the face of a greater violence must also be considered violent. Either definition excludes nonviolence — the first because violence is inevitable and normal, and the second because nonviolence must be considered violent if it fails to end a system of violence, and also because all privileged people must be considered complicit in violence whether or not they consider themselves pacifists. But pacifists still delude themselves into thinking that violence is sufficiently defined that we can pretend the use of violence has certain, inevitable psychological consequences.
Todd Allin Morman, writing in Social Anarchism, draws on Erich Fromm to make a tidy distinction between “rational authority” and “irrational authority.” Morman asserts that “anarchism is against all forms of irrational authority and favors rational authority in its place.” Irrational authority is based on holding power over people, while rational authority is defined as influence voluntarily granted on the basis of experience and competence. “[I]t is impossible to employ violence to promote a higher anarchist order because violence necessarily reproduces psychological attitudes that are antithetical to the ends of anarchist revolution.” Quite typically, he argues that we should go into revolution peacefully, because if we do not, we will only “reconstitut[e] the state in a new...form.” But why is it possible to stop being violent now, before the revolution, but not afterward! Why are we told that we would inevitably and powerlessly become authoritarian after a violent revolution, even as we are encouraged to break the psychological patterns of our violent society and forswear militant struggle! Morman does not answer how he can see humans deterministically at the end of a sentence, while treating humans as free agents in the beginning of the same sentence. I suspect it is because academics like Morman are afraid of what would happen to them if they did not give up militant revolution (which is to give up on revolution as a whole); instead, they prefer to assert their “rational authority” and pretend they are contributing to a process that will somehow make the state obsolete. Of course, our major theoretical contribution as anarchists is that the state was obsolete from its inception, but it holds and gains power nonetheless. Fromm’s syllogism, or at least Morman’s interpretation thereof, misses the point that to an “irrational authority,” “rational authority” is irrelevant, meaningless, and powerless.
It seems to me that it would be much easier to end the psychological patterns of violence and domination once we had destroyed the social institutions, political bodies, and economic structures specifically constituted to perpetuate coercive domination. But proponents of nonviolence boldly sound the call to retreat, declaring that we should treat the symptoms while the disease is free to spread itself, defend itself, and vote itself pay raises. Morman says, “Violence is only capable of attacking the physical manifestations of the social relations that perpetuate the state. One cannot kill these social relations by a physical assault.” Leaving aside the fact that this point is blatantly false in relation to indigenous cultures’ fighting off foreign invasion and imperialism (in which cases, killing or evicting the colonizer is indeed killing colonialism, if it can be done before Westernization has taken place), let us accept Morman’s narrow Eurocentrism and focus on societies in which oppressor and oppressed belong to the same nation or culture. He has just established that violence can destroy the physical but not the psychological manifestations of oppression. Any reasonable person would proceed by recommending a revolutionary struggle that contains both destructive and creative activities — violence against the oppressors and their machinery accompanied by simultaneous caretaking and healing of one’s community. Morman and the thousands of pacifists who think like him instead declare that we should focus on psychological liberation while avoiding physical struggle. How they fail to see the concomitant parallel to the argument they have just made, that psychological actions cannot destroy the physical manifestations of the state, is baffling. Perhaps they believe that the social relationships of oppression are independent and create the physical structures of oppression out of whole cloth, but this is simplistic. The social relationships and physical structures cannot be fully separated (in reality, rather than in philosophy, for these terms are only analytical devices that make it easier to talk about different aspects of the same thing), and they clearly evolve in tandem. Physical structures and social relationships are mutually dependent, and mutually reinforcing.
Morman also holds on to a totalitarian idea of revolution. “The revolutionary is promoting one set of social relations and destroying old ones, not by teaching, example, or well-reasoned argument, but by power, fear, and intimidation: the buttresses of irrational authority.” This argument suggests that a non-pacifist revolution must be waged against people who are philosophically deviant or politically incorrect — people who believe the wrong things (this is how a political party views revolution). But there is more than one axis for liberation struggle. It can be cultural, to fight for the expulsion of a foreign colonizer and the bourgeois political parties that have taken on the characteristics of that colonizer (as described by Fanon), or it can be structural, to destroy centralized power structures and hierarchical institutions without targeting any actual people, other than those who choose to fight on the side of power. After a revolution that destroys all of the structures of capitalism — seizes all of the factories, redistributes all of the land, burns all of the money — people who are philosophically capitalist need not be purged or intimidated with irrational authority. Lacking a military apparatus to implement capitalism or a police apparatus to protect it, they — as people — are quite harmless, and will either learn to do something creative with their lives or starve to death without realizing that they can no longer pay someone to slave for them. Morman’s typical pacifist-anarchist construction relies on a Eurocentric, political vision of revolution, in which a revolutionary party seizes power and enforces its vision of freedom on everyone else in the society through some centralized apparatus. In fact, it is society itself — as it stands now, an artificial binding together of people with no non-coerced common interests in working together — that needs to be destroyed. A militant revolutionary movement can destroy the central gravity of government that holds together mass polities in a single nation-state. After that point, we will not need some rational, “well-reasoned” ideology to hold everyone together, because societies will divide into smaller, organic units. Revolutionaries will not need to use violence to convince everyone to behave in a certain way because there will be no need for conformity across an entire country.
Morman’s reasoning is also based on Western cultural assumptions that fail to appreciate any reason for violence not in the service of domination. These assumptions have much to do with the inherent totalitarianism of Western culture (which is also evident in the statist inclinations of pacifism, privileging state violence while actively ostracizing the violence of rebellion). The idea that the use of “violence” automatically constitutes an irrational authority does not make sense from the perspective of cultural values that do not necessarily portray violence as a tool in the service of domination. According to the Mande, Mangala the creator killed Farrow as a sacrifice in order to save what was left of creation. On the contrary, in Greek mythology, Cronus tried to kill his son, and later Zeus devoured his lover, Metis, to maintain their power. This dynamic is a pattern throughout Western mythologies. The use of violence is either calculated, to win power and coercive control, or impassioned, in which case the motivation is nearly always jealousy born out of the desire to possess another being. These patterns are not universal to all cultures.
They are also not universal to all situations. Collective, coordinated violence to establish and enforce a new set of social relations that must be preserved through violence, or revolution by way of taking over centralized institutions, does constitute the creation or preservation of a coercive authority. But these are not the only two options for social change. We have already seen Frantz Fanon describe violence as a “cleansing force” when used by people ground down and dehumanized by colonization to liberate themselves. (And the dynamics of colonialism apply today to indigenous populations, to outright colonies from Hawaii to Samoa, and to occupied areas from Kurdistan to Iraq, while similar dynamics apply to the populations of the neocolonies of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and to the “internal colonies” descended from slave populations in the US. In short, these dynamics still apply to hundreds of millions of people and are not at all obsolete.) Fanon aided the FLN (National Liberation Front) in Algeria and worked in a psychiatric hospital, specializing in the psychology of the colonized and the psychological effects of their liberation struggles. In other words, he is somewhat better positioned than Erich Fromm to evaluate the psychology of violence in pursuit of liberation from the perspective of the majority of the world’s population — not the vantage of an educated political party seeking to remake the world in its image, but the vantage of people subjugated to a system so violent that they can either forcefully fight back or displace that violence sociopathically against one another. Speaking of colonization and resistance to it, Fanon writes, “It is a commonplace that great social upheavals lessen the frequency of delinquency and mental disorders.”
To add to what is becoming a long list, nonviolence is deluded in repeating that means determine ends, as though never before has a transformation occurredin which end conditions were fundamentally different from the means that brought them about. After Red Cloud’s War in 1866, for example, the Lakota did not descend into an orgy of violence because they had committed some moral/psychological transgression by killing white soldiers. On the contrary, they enjoyed nearly a decade of relative peace and autonomy until Custer invaded the Black Hills to find gold. But instead of fitting the means (our tactics) to the situation we face, we are supposed to make our decisions based on conditions that are not even present, acting as though the revolution has already occurred and we live in that better world. This wholesale renunciation of strategy forgets that neither of the lauded figureheads of nonviolence, Gandhi and King, believed that pacifism was a universally applicable panacea. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged that “[T]hose who make peaceful revolution impossible only make violent revolution inevitable.” Given the increased consolidation of the media (the presumed ally and moralizing tool of the nonviolent activist) and the increased repressive powers of the government, can we really believe that a pacifist movement could overcome the government on a matter where compromise was unacceptable to ruling interests?
Closing out the list of common delusions is the all-too-frequent claim that violence alienates people. This is glaringly false. Violent video games and violent movies are the most popular. Even blatantly false wars win the support of at least half the population, often with the commentary that the US military is too humane and restrained to its enemies. On the other hand, self-righteous candlelight vigils are alienating to the majority of people who don’t participate, who hurry by and smirk to themselves. Voting is alienating for the millions of people who know better than to participate and to some of the many people who participate for lack of better options. Showing a supposed “love” for “thy enemy” is alienating to people who know that love is something deeper, more intimate, than a superficial smiley face to be given out to six billion strangers simultaneously. Pacifism is also alienating to the millions of lower-class Americans who silently cheer every time a cop or (especially) federal agent gets killed. The real question is who is alienated by violence, and by what kind of violence? One anarchist writes:
[E]ven if they were, who cares if the middle and upper classes are alienated by violence? They already had their violent revolution and we’re living in it right now. Further, the whole notion that the middle and upper classes are alienated by violence is completely false...they support violence all the time, whether it is strikebreaking, police brutality, prisons, war, sanctions or capital punishment. What they really oppose is violence directed at dislodging them and their privileges.
Reckless violence that subjects people to unnecessary risks without even striving to be effective or successful will most likely alienate people — especially those who already have to survive under the violence of oppression — but fighting for survival and freedom often wins sympathy. I have recently been fortunate enough to come into correspondence with Black Liberation Army prisoner Joseph Bowen, who got locked up after the cop who tried to kill him ended up dead. “Joe-Joe” won the respect of other prisoners after he and another prisoner assassinated the warden and deputy warden and wounded the guard commander at Philadelphia’s Holrnesburg Prison in 1973, in response to intense repression and religious persecution. In 1981, when a mass-escape attempt he helped organize at Graterford Prison was foiled and turned into a hostage situation, a huge amount of media attention was paid to the horrible conditions of Pennsylvania’s prisons. During the five-day standoff, dozens of articles came out in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the national press, shedding light on the prisoners’ grievances and underscoring the fact that these people who had nothing to lose would continue to fight against the repression and the bad conditions. Some corporate-media articles were even sympathetic toward Joe-Joe, and in the end, the government agreed to transfer a dozen of the rebels to another prison, rather than storm in shooting — their preferred tactic. In fact, in the aftermath of the siege, Bowen had so upset the scales of political power that politicians were on the defensive and had to call for investigations of conditions at Graterford Prison. In this and many other examples, including the Zapatistas in 1994 and the Appalachian miners in 1921, people humanize themselves precisely when they take up arms to fight against oppression.
Since the first edition of this book came out, I have been approached by many people who were not activists who told me how much they appreciated the sentiments herein. While activists might assume these people are apathetic to the current social movements because they have never participated, I was told time and again that they wanted to get involved but didn’t know how because the only organizing efforts they saw revolved around peaceful protests, which didn’t feel inclusive to them and obviously wouldn’t accomplish anything. One working-class man told me how upon the US invasion of Iraq he jumped in his car and drove two hours to DC to take part in a protest, knowing no one else involved. When he arrived and saw a peaceful crowd herded by the police into a protest cage, he turned right around and drove home.
The frequent role of nonviolent activists in controlling or sabotaging revolutionary movements, and their failure to protect revolutionary activists from state repression, as well as their appeasement with the most hollow of “victories,” suggests an ulterior motive to nonviolent activism. It seems to me that the most common motive is for pacifists to avail themselves of moral high ground and alleviate the substantial guilt they incur by recognizing the many systems of oppression they are tied up in but fail to deal with in a meaningful way. Ward Churchill suggests that white pacifists wish to protect themselves from repression by consigning their activism to posturing and formulating the social organization of a post-revolutionary world while people of color across the world incur all the fatalities fighting for that world. This is a far cry from the solidarity role white pacifists imagine themselves to be playing.
Nonviolent activism targeting the School of the Americas (SOA) provides a good example. Organizing against the SOA includes one of the largest sustained campaigns of civil disobedience in recent history, and it has drawn the participation and support of a number of leading pacifists. During my involvement with anti-SOA activism, I conceived of the civil disobedience and prison sentence as a means of demonstrating the farcical and authoritarian nature of the democratic process, and fostering the escalation toward a truly revolutionary movement targeting all aspects of capitalism and imperialism, not just the SOA. How ridiculous would it be to campaign for the closure of a single military school when numerous other institutions, indeed the whole capitalist state structure, work toward the same ends? But after the conclusion of my prison sentence, I saw that to the pacifist majority within the anti-SOA “movement,” civil disobedience was an end in itself, used for leverage in lobbying Congress and recruiting new participants, and for alleviating privilege-induced guilt and accessing the moral righteousness of those who have put their money where their mouth is, so to speak. It enabled them to claim that, by incurring a relatively easy prison sentence of six months or less, they were “bearing witness” and “standing in solidarity with the oppressed” in Latin America.
For all its fanfare, nonviolence is decrepit. Nonviolent theory rests on a large number of manipulations, falsifications, and delusions. Nonviolent practice is ineffective and self-serving. In a revolutionary sense, not only has nonviolence never worked, it has never existed. Driving a car, eating meat, eating tofu, paying rent, paying taxes, being nice to a cop — all of these are violent activities. The global system and everyone in it are soaked in violence; it is enforced, coerced, involuntary. For those suffering under the violence of colonialism, military occupation, or racial oppression, nonviolence is not always an option — people must either fight back violently against their oppressor or displace that violence into anti-social violence against one another. Frantz Fanon writes:
Here on the level of communal organizations we clearly discern the well-known behavior patterns of avoidance. It is as if plunging into a fraternal blood-bath allowed them to ignore the obstacle, and to put off till later the choice, nevertheless inevitable, which opens up the question of armed resistance to colonialism. Thus collective autodestruction in a very concrete form is one of the ways in which the native’s muscular tension is set free.
Peace is not an option until after the centrally organized violence that is the state is destroyed. Exclusive reliance on building alternatives — to sustain us, make the state obsolete, and heal us from this violence to prevent “auto-destruction” — is also not an option, because the state can crush alternatives that cannot defend themselves. If we were allowed to live the change we wish to see in the world, there wouldn’t be much need for revolution. Our options have been violently constrained to the following: actively supporting the violence of the system; tacitly supporting that violence by failing to challenge it; supporting some of the existing forceful attempts to destroy the system of violence; or pursuing new and original ways to fight and destroy that system. Privileged activists need to understand what the rest of the world’s people have known all too long: we are in the midst of a war, and neutrality is not possible. There is nothing in this world currently deserving of the name peace. Rather, it is a question of whose violence frightens us most, and on whose side we will stand.