Category Archives: War/Violence
"We are revolutionaries and communists in the belly of the beast. We are people with serious responsibilities and serious intentions.
"It is startling to see someone argue that communists and revolutionaries in the U.S. somehow can't oppose new U.S. crimes if someone on the ground in the Third World calls for them.
Of course we can... and do... and will."
“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Won’t Get Fooled Again. Pete Townsend.
Pham Binh, a critical thoughtful activist that I’ve respected for a few years for his involvement in Occupy Wall Street and his challenges to ossified Marxist thought, has come out with an uncompromising defense of Western intervention against the Syrian government. The reports of massacres coming from that nation are indeed horrific and would make anyone with a conscience demand immediate action. This is certainly true of a pacifist radical such as myself. While I do not condone Western intervention, I also do not condone any atrocities by any government.
Binh states his view most sharply with rhetorical questions: “If Syrian revolutionaries ask for Western airstrikes because they lack an air force to counter the Assad regime militarily, who are we to oppose those airstrikes? Who are we to tell them that all-out defeat is better than the triumph of a revolution “tainted” by an unavoidable compromise with imperialists powers? Who are we to tell them they must face Russian helicopter gunships without imperialist aid because “the revolution will be won by Syrians themselves or it won’t be won at all”? Do we really want our Syrian brothers and sisters to confront tanks with rocks and slingshots as so many Palestinians have?”
While I will criticize Binh’s views here, I wish to underline first of all that I entirely reject the current Syrian government’s actions. However, I cannot accept support of “Syrian revolutionaries” or Western intervention. Radicals, pacifist or not, are committed to ending dictatorial regimes worldwide, including putatively democratic ones. Binh links to an article on the rising calls among Syrian activists for intervention. I was shocked to read one of the posters in a photo on the page that states in English, for the benefit of the Westerners no doubt.
OBAMA’S PROCRASTINATION KILLS US. WE MISS BUSH’S AUDACITY. THE WORLD IS BETTER WITH AMERICA’S REPUBLICANS.
Once again it seems we don’t learn from the past and so are condemned to repeat it. Iraq and Afghanistan have certainly done much better since U.S. intervention, have they not? To answer my own rhetorical question directly, NO!
Now, Binh tries to make the case that Libya is much better off today after NATO’s intervention. He accuses those who now reject the “Syrian revolutionaries” as betraying the entire “Arab Spring” uprisings. Let’s take that apart a little bit. In Egypt, we just witnessed the election of an outright Islamist president. Granted, Mosri is one of the more moderate voices within the Muslim Brotherhood, and I certainly believe moderate and progressive Muslims do exist. However, the MB is to the right of the Republican Party by any objective criteria, never mind its anti-imperialism.
What about Libya? I wrote a blog post quite critical of NATO intervention there at the time it began, though I knew it was a futile complaint. I hoped more democratic and progressive forces could do better in Libya with Qaddafi gone, but the bald truth is that the world situation is not favorable to a genuinely revolutionary transition. This is even more true in Syria. Opposition to Qaddafi was massive and widespread spanning all classes and regions. In Syria, the wealthy ruling class and its middle class allies are more deeply entrenched than nearly any other regime in the region except perhaps Saudi Arabia. As in Egypt, a regime change will doubtless be co-opted by regressive social forces. Would it be more democratic than al-Assad? There seems to me to be scant reason for optimism on that score.
Those who argue for Western intervention in nations like Syria and Libya seem to think that somehow these nations can be lifted into some semblance of modernization by overthrowing the regimes that oppress them with Western complicity. While I don’t believe that today’s Syrian or yesterday’s Libyan regimes were purely the puppets of Washington DC, winning democratic freedom is simply not possible in the world constructed by American global hegemony. Democracy is under direct attack in the US as the ruling class prepares to buy yet again the best government money can this November. The racist, capitalist, authoritarian ruling class that holds the entire planet hostage are not going to give up a shred of their power without massive popular resistance. A few isolated “revolutionaries” smuggling weapons into their countries and forming guerrilla armies do not have any chance of changing this situation.
Even as I write the above words, my eyes well up with grief. If I had any hope that NATO bombing the Syrian government would free the people in any real way, I’d support it. I can’t shake the terrible feeling that this planet is headed straight into World War Three, but this time it will be the top against the bottom, as the ruling classes unite to crush even the minimal freedoms that we Westerners now enjoy.
“When we look at societies via any monist theory, most dimensions of differences among people are reduced to peripheral concern.”
Albert, Michael, et al. Liberating Therory
I’ve been a pacifist since a child. I remember discussing the Vietnam War with my Pentecostal father during the election of 1972, when I was 9 years old. As an adult, I deepened my commitment to Christian pacifism through the incomparable theology of John Howard Yoder and joined a Mennonite church.
My initial religious pacifism led me to question the legitimacy of all systems of violence, whether economic, gendered, racial, or political; thus my first political philosophy was anarchist. This leap from opposing violence to using violence as the foundation for an entire system of political philosophy is the exact logic that the book Liberating Theory identifies as “monism.” The concern with violence reduced other dimensions of social problems to secondary concerns.
This way of thinking seems to me very widespread among pacifists. Recently, during a planning meeting with some Quakers around the Occupy Chicago Spring April 7th events, one member of the group objected to the word “struggle” as potentially violent language. I insisted that some of us do embrace the “struggle.” It never got heated in this instance, but this sort of thing happens on a regular enough basis in Quaker and pacifist circles to be troubling. Words like “impact,” or “confront” become suspect. Tinkering with language somehow becomes viewed as reducing actual violence.
Although in some respects organizations like the Center for Nonviolent Communication do good work in many settings, I am concerned that focusing on communication and “the ability to translate from a language of criticism, blame, and demand into a language of human needs” begs the question of whether criticism, blame, and demand is often an appropriate response to systemic human injustices.
The cure for monistic philosophies is to develop what Albert calls “holistic theory” or what I term on this blog as “integrative methodology.” To focus on the question of violence as systemic – and it absolutely is – to the exclusion of other systems of domination leads to tunnel vision. Instead of viewing capitalism as a complex system of economic exploitation, the vulgar pacifist will narrowly focus on violence and seek to eliminate the violence of capitalism, but leave unexamined and “uncriticized” important features of the capitalist system.
Integrative methodology begins by identifying multiple interconnected social systems. Violence pervades all of society institutionally and culturally, but focusing on violence to the exclusion of other seemingly non-violent yet exploitative and oppressive systemic dynamics is a constant pitfall for many pacifists. I propose eight categories of social systems including economics, politics, gender, sexuality, race, community, violence, and ecology as each having both their own internal structure that must be understood on their own terms, and also interconnections to the other systems that must be taken into account.
About a year ago I changed my email signature to “Peace, Love, & Revolution!” to reflect my radical views on social change, which I’d begun to try and articulate more thoroughly via this blog. Before that point, I’d just had “Peace!” as my tag. One of my pacifist friends asked me if “revolution” meant nonviolent revolution. I assured him that I still believe that most of the revolutionary work will be by definition nonviolent, rebuilding and reshaping our social institutions and dismantling the death-systems that rule us today.
However, I am not a dogmatic pacifist, but would label my view as pacifist radicalism. Dogmatic pacifism tends to begin with a moral position on violence as a violation of an immutable absolute.
As a Quaker, I have identified with a historical legacy of nonviolence, but as a liberal Quaker, I have the freedom to reinterpret the classic Quaker stance. Many are aware of the roots of Quaker pacifism in the Christian Scriptures, such the Sermon on the Mount’s injunctions to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.” A grand tradition of religious non-violence can be traced from these commands through the early Church fathers, medieval sectarians, Anabaptists, Quakers, Tolstoy, Gandhi, to Dr. King.
Of course, the majority of Christians have not been pacifists. Augustine of Hippo developed the first Christian account of the “just war,” borrowing from Roman and Greek precedents. During the Reformation, pacifism was declared by Luther and others to be a heresy, despite its ancient pedigree.
Do I believe that violence or armed struggle can play a constructive role in social revolution? I consider that an open question, which I provisionally answer by considering the evidence of previous revolutions. Most of that evidence seems to support my skeptical sense that most revolutions that relied on violence were short-lived and have limited lessons for contemporary revolutionary politics.
Beginning with the Paris Commune of 1871, through the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949, Cuban Revolution of 1959, Sandinista Revolution of 1979, and many others, I find that all of them failed to be long-term successes at truly being revolutionary alternatives to capitalist democracy. There were some partial victories in each case, but how much of those partial victories might have been accomplished without violence?
If one argues the case for violence more formally, then the premises are clearer, but still unresolved. The formal case might go something like this:
The social problems of our day produce mass suffering for billions of people. A revolution to significantly reduce that suffering may require violence, perhaps as many as a billion fatalities. If 6 billion lives can be dramatically improved at the expense of 1 billion, does a utilitarian calculus make violence justifiable? The number of fatalities would include members of the ruling class, their armies, and the revolutionary opposition. I would say that provisionally, the long-term benefit for future generations of a stable social revolution make violence a justifiable risk.
However, that simple utilitarian calculus oversimplifies important questions. A justifiable armed revolution would have to meet similar criteria as for any justifiable war. For example, the Roman Catholic Catechism lists four criteria: 1) there must be a threat of lasting, certain, and grave violence from the aggressor, 2) all other means of ending the threat must be shown to be ineffective and or impractical, 3) there must be serious prospects of success, & 4) the use of arms must not produce graver evils than those threatened. Our present world order – with its racist, male-dominated, capitalist systems – is a grave enough threat to billions the world over, in terms of diminished life conditions. The other three conditions are where the rub comes for an armed revolution.
Creating a new world order that will provide a sustainable, generous living for all, free of unjust repression and violence, will take decades of dedicated labor and struggle. There isn’t some simple formula for revolution. Will violence be necessary at some point? I still consider that an open question, but I tend to think the evidence suggests that armed revolutions have negative consequences.
The success of capitalist democracy the world over wasn’t nonviolent. In fact, that’s part of why so many of us hate this system. It rules by force, not by humane and just means. There seems to me to be a lot of truth in the old anti-slavery proverb, “you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.”
For some years now, social movements like the WTO protests and now “Occupy Wall Street” and related groupings have had internal debates over whether to allow “diversity of tactics.” That term refers specifically to groups like “Black Bloc” who use property destruction and street-fighting (usually with police) as tactics, but also more generally to the possibility of force and violence.
I would suggest that using force, property destruction, and violence in a movement for social change today is premature. We aren’t in a situation – yet! – where the ruling class is trying to exterminate the movement. There have been significant police repression of OWS, and to counter that we need a nonviolent movement to organize appropriate pushback, including legal challenges to the arrests.
To move to property destruction – not to mention armed violence – as a tactic will invite an escalation of police force and trigger a massive public withdrawal of support. As a revolutionary, I don’t think the overall goals of empowering the 99% against the 1% can be accomplished within the existing social order. The struggle will be long and drawn out, as we seek to mobilize the majority of our society to take power into their own hands. At some point, as the legitimacy of the existing social powers is challenged on a large scale, some violent confrontations may be unavoidable.
To get to that point, we need to convince the majority that it is in their interest to take power away from the banks, police, corporations, and our undemocratic governments, and mobilize them to action. Such mobilization should focus on tactics that are available to the majority and nearly all of these tactics are nonviolent, such as marches, civil disobedience, petitions, and boycotts. Such mobilization demands the creation of counter-institutions, such as mass organizations and an independent political party.
In short, the work of building a modern revolutionary movement to change the world and liberate us from the death-systems of capitalism, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism has to proceed along an almost wholly nonviolent course. Simply pointing to the existing and massive violence of the death-systems as justification for armed struggle, entirely ignores the fact we simply do not have any sort of capacity to wage and win a violent struggle.
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power as well as the precision of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
As a lifelong religious pacifist, the recent intervention in Libya offers me an opportunity to re-examine my convictions. I will immediately state that on grounds other than pacifism, I suspect that Western intervention in Libya will likely result in the installation of a new puppet government in Libya subservient to U.S. and European interests. If recent history is any guide, the Libyan intervention will likely lead down the road well-traveled in Iraq, the Philippines, Haiti, and many others.
If I have political grounds for rejecting Western intervention, why would I consider the broader question, “is humanitarian intervention ever justified?” One reason I want to explore this larger question is because it will actually clarify and extend the initial skeptical presumption. As John Howard Yoder, Mennonite pacifist theologian, has argued in several places, the Just War Theory didn’t arise as simply a wholesale abandonment of the Sermon on the Mount and primitive Christian pacifism, but rather as a serious attempt to deal with the new political responsibilities that were thrust upon the Christian church in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire’s legitimacy.
Working through the classic Just War criteria listed above from the point of view of a skeptical presumption against the legitimacy of violence is something I’ve wanted to do for some time. As a post-Christian radical Quaker, one piece of unfinished business in my political evolution demands that I examine with fresh eyes the questions of war and violence. If my objections to war are not directly derived from an obedience to Jesus, what substance do they have?
The Case for Humanitarian Intervention in Libya
My approach will be to examine the arguments for Libyan intervention according to each of these criteria, followed by examining counter-arguments point-by-point. The arguments for intervention must satisfy all four Just War conditions and must reinforce each other. Once that argument is constructed, it will be possible to probe the weaknesses of the total argument.
The first “strict condition” listed above to justify “legitimate defense by military force” is whether “the damage inflicted on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.” In the case of Libya, the claim is made that without intervention Libya’s democratic uprising will be crushed. As Juan Cole has recently put it, “the prospect loomed of a massacre of committed rebels on a large scale.”
In other words, Libya’s freedom and establishment of a democratic government depends on immediate Western intervention. Cole argues that “If the Left opposed intervention, it de facto acquiesced in Qaddafi’s destruction of a movement embodying the aspirations of most of Libya’s workers and poor, along with large numbers of white collar middle class people.” The question asked by the first condition is answered in the affirmative by Cole and others.
The next condition to be satisfied is that “all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective. Again citing Cole, “Libyans were being crushed inexorably.” He makes the point that the opposition to Qaddafi is not militarily organized due to the decades of dictatorship.
The third condition is “serious prospects for success.” This condition means that if a military force action cannot succeed, even if justified, it should not be done. Cole again argues, “aerial intervention by the world community could make a quick and effective difference.”
Finally, the condition that “use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” Cole addresses a few of the commonly argued evils that accompany intervention and dismisses concerns about them. He doesn’t address some of the more significant ones, which I will take up in constructing my counter-argument.
The Case Against Intervention
Immanuel Wallerstein argues the skeptical case very well, “in the relatively short run, [intervention] can prevent what would otherwise be a slaughter of people. But in the longer run, does it really do this? To prevent Saddam Hussein’s short-run slaughters, the United States invaded Iraq. Have fewer people been slaughtered as a result over a ten-year period? It doesn’t seem so.”
Even further, Wallerstein points out that both Arab and Western leaders want to “slow down, channel, co-opt, limit the second Arab revolt and prevent it from changing the basic political realities of the Arab world.” Wallerstein sees the wave of rebellions sweeping from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Bahrain, as part of an historic shift forward in the region.
This argument relies on the final condition, Wallerstein is arguing that the likelihood of “graver” evils and disorders following in the wake of the Libyan intervention is high, given recent historical precedent. This argument also implies a negative judgment on the second condition, “serious prospect of success.” If Libya becomes a new Iraq or Afghanistan, meaning years of military quagmire, then it may not be a lesser success to allow Qaddafi to remain in power.
If this argument holds, that intervention will not succeed in its stated humanitarian aims over the long run and inaction means Qaddafi remains in power and crushes his internal opposition, then the second conditions comes back into play. What other means of removing Qaddafi and protecting his democratic opposition haven’t been tried?
To take the first condition last, is there an argument that the seemingly inevitable “certain” massacre of the democratic opposition to Qaddafi wouldn’t have been a lasting and grave evil? Some have pointed out the ambiguous nature of the opposition. According to one analysis by Mahmood Mamdani, the opposition included Islamists, educated middle class activists, royalists, and tribalists. Only the Islamists have the military experience to mount any effective armed resistance.
To summarize the counter-argument, Qaddafi’s intended crushing of his opposition may not have been lasting, grave, nor certain. Other non-military means of removing Qaddafi and supporting democratic opposition have not been exhausted. The prospect of succeeding in even the minimal long term goal of limiting human suffering seems doubtful, if the conflict becomes protracted. Finally, the prospect of graver evils and disorder following in the wake of Western Intervention seems very high.
The opposition to Qaddafi is part of a chain of rebellions that began in Tunisia in late December 2010. The Arabic nations affected have all been dominated for decades by authoritarian regimes. The oppositions to these dictators are a mix of elements ranging from pro-Western, anti-Western, to more neutral.
It is a fundamental value of a progressive philosophy to support democracy over dictatorship. Most Western nations have been guilty of selectively supporting dictators until such support proved counter-productive. At such a point, military powers like the U.S. would move to uproot the newly undesirable leader and replace him with someone more congenial to its interests.
In such a regressive situation, with the majority population being drawn and quartered by the forces of dictatorship, Western imperialism, Islamist terrorism, and mass poverty, there is no one single intervention that can bring democracy and peace. The long road to world peace remains the perennial challenge for progressives.
The Radical Democratic Imperative
The main focus of progressives within nations like the U.S. must be to oppose their own governments in the name of global peace and justice. Going back to at least the Vietnam War, movements for social justice have rejected the claims of the U.S. to be acting in the interests of global democracy. Whether the U.S. government itself is legitimately democratic is in question. At no point in our history has any government been elected by anything approaching a majority of Americans.
Over the past century, barriers to voting have been lifted, for women, for blacks, and others. However, each person’s single vote has been systematically devalued by the influence of corporate capitalism within elections. A government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich is not a democracy, nor can it pretend to be advancing democracy when it systematically colludes with dictators to prevent democratic outcomes.
Qaddafi is doubtless an evil dictator and deserves to be forcibly removed from power. However, this single act does not occur in a vaccuum, anymore than the collapse of the U.S.S.R. did not lead to prosperity and democracy in Russia. We must ask what will replace Qaddafi and what non-military actions can be undertaken to create a more constructive outcome.
(This is a slightly edited version of a posting I did on ZNet on 9/20/09. It has some relevance in these times.)
Not too long ago, I attended a panel discussion on Marxism vs. Anarchism. As someone with sympathies with both philosophies, I wanted to see if I would learn anything new by listening to what each side had to say. The panelists were all younger folks than myself, so I thought maybe some newer ideas had come into the discussions since I studied these ideas in depth over a decade and half ago.
While each panelist was serious and worked at sharing their view without hostility (not always a given at these sort of things), I found myself unable to embrace either viewpoint. One of the anarchists spoke affirmatively about the anarchist militias of 1930s Spain. The Marxists spoke approvingly of Lenin’s 1917 revolution. As a lifelong pacifist, one reason I have never bought into either viewpoint entirely is that I can’t see any scenario where an armed revolution would have any positive role in the United States or other modern nation. I might allow for some small-scale revolution in a very repressive nation, but even in many of those situations, nonviolent rebellions have won important victories.
Each side in the panel could recount a history of armed revolutions that they considered important events in their respective traditions. Pacifist radicals can point to another stream of uprisings which showed unarmed nonviolent tactics could win victories with less onerous consequences. Gandhi’s campaigns for Indian independence, Dr. King’s civil rights campaigns, the Phillipine People Power Revolution, and several others. None of these uprisings resulted in an entirely new society as pacifist radicals, anarchists, and Marxists desire, but that is also true of all, repeat that, all anarchist and Marxist uprisings.
Of course, what makes a nonviolent uprising different is that it never creates a cadre of armed fighters who become a power to themselves should the revolution actually topple the government. For anarchists and Marxists who each claim to be abolishing either classes or hierarchies, armed cadres are both of these things. One of the panelists tried to describe the anarchist militias of Spain as non-hierarchical, but I remain unconvinced. Militias have guns while the majority do not. Militias are trained in deadly weaponry, the majority are not so trained. Unless we want to mimic the National Rifle Association and put a gun in every household, lethal weaponry, by its very character as a commodity, product of unjust social production, specialized training requirements, and moral ambiguity cannot be an integral component of a democratic, classless, egalitarian revolution.
That does not mean that a pacifist radical can’t learn anything from the history of anarchist and Marxist revolutions. All of these uprisings had constructive aspects and did introduce into history important new possibilities. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t rule out every single armed revolution. Some political regimes are so repressive and inhumane that there is almost zero chance of a nonviolent uprising doing much good. Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge seems to have been one such regime, and they were ostensibly Marxist.
Politics ain’t beanbag, and violence always accompanies social change. However, just as anarchists desire to put an end to the persistent presence of social hierarchies, and Marxists desire to put an end to the persistent presence of economic exploitation, so do pacifist radicals seek to put an end to the persistent violence that underlies hierarchies and economic exploitation.
A basic assumption of a pacifist radical philosophy is that violence and warfare are not limited to the actions of established militaries and their enemies. Violence and warfare are pervasive in our world, from our workplaces to our living rooms to our houses of worship. Every systemic injustice in our world is an injustice in significant measure because every injustice is also a form of violence.
The exploitation of capitalism is a form of violence. The power of political domination relies on threatened violence. Male domination has its only justification in the perceived superior physical ability of men to commit violence. Overcoming systemic domination, oppression, repression, and exploitation within our world relies on overcoming the violence that is a fundamental aspect of these systems.
Pacifist radicalism goes beyond nonviolence as a personal ethic, though it is not opposed to such an ethic. Pacifist radicalism is a strategic philosophy of nonviolent revolution. A nonviolent revolution promises the most complete success of any alternative form of revolution, in that it does not rely on the inherently violent bases of the systemic injustices against which we are all struggling.
In contrast to an armed revolution, the nonviolent revolution does not require the wealth to acquire weaponry, as each person already possesses the necessary tools. Armed revolutions require extraordinary skillsets in constructing, deploying, and engaging the conflict. A nonviolent revolutionary strategy does require a cooperative, educational, and disciplined movement to succeed. Such requirements are in fact themselves the basis of the very justice, freedom, equality, and wholeness that is sought by the revolution.
The nonviolent revolution builds into its very fabric the institutional seeds of the new order. By rejecting any method that relies on domination, exploitation, and violence, a new social reality is already embryonically present within the revolutionary nonviolent organization. The ends being sought on a global scale are already present in the means adopted by the movement.
It has been objected that pacifist radicalism assumes saintliness. It is argued that people are naturally aggressive, or that our already violent society makes nonviolence unrealistic. Dr. King and Gandhi were quite explicit that the power of nonviolence did not rely on eliminating every vestige of aggression. In fact, nonviolent tactics give one a new and constructive focus for one’s aggressive tendencies.
Dr. King stated that the choice that faces us is not violence vs. nonviolence, but rather nonviolence or nonexistence. In a world of weapons of mass destruction, only a mass movement of constructive opposition to injustice can begin the difficult task of overcoming the self-destructive course of humanity. We are not merely struggling to end warfare in a narrow sense, but to realize a global reality of peace and justice.