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.