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 Philosophy of Nonviolence

by David McReynolds
from Nonviolence Web


Part Three








First the bad news". The slogan "No justice, no Peace" is popular. But it is a risky slogan. It could well be turned around to read "No peace, no justice". Too much of the discussion of social change is conducted by people who are not, themselves, oppressed, and who think life should be fair. Life isn't fair. The process of social change is flawed and profoundly unjust.

The good news is that justice can be won - but at a very unfair cost. This is the beginning of wisdom for all revolutionaries, violent or nonviolent. The whole concept of "deep social change" rests on the reality that only the oppressed will do a damn thing to change society - only they have an interest. Men won't liberate women. Straights won't liberate gays and lesbians. Whites won't liberate blacks. Capitalists won't organized trade unions. Militarists won't lead the disarmament movement.

This isn't to say that some men, or some whites, etc., won't be involved in struggles for liberation. But collectively, the British didn't liberate India - the Indians did. The whites in the South didn't end Jim Crow - the blacks did. Where there is injustice, God does not come down, wave her hands, and create justice. We do it or it doesn't get done.

No fair, you say! And right, it isn't. Why should Southern blacks, who had suffered so deeply and so long from racism, have to carry the main burden of social change? The only reason is that no one else really has an interest.



If you followed the first two parts of this exploration of nonviolent philosophy, you remember that society is always in the process of change, and that change always involves suffering. The creation of the capitalist system - which we hope some day to replace with something better - brought enormous suffering to the vast majority of people. (Though fair is fair, we have to admit that life before capitalism was no picnic - few would trade "where we are now" for "where we were then").

The institution of slavery created, in this country, an enduring set of injustices with which, in some ways, we are only beginning to grapple.

If we want to change this situation - the militarism, racism, economic exploitation of our present - we must accept the fact that such a change will also bring pain. If workers organize strong trade unions, that will diminish the profits of the employers. To avoid that pain they will use the full power of the State and the media (and often the church) to discredit the trade union movement.

Since we have grown up in a society that sees trade unions as legitimate, it is easy to forget how recently there were violent battles, not only in the coal fields, but in the factories in the North, between workers and employers. Closer to our time - but increasingly distant - is the history of the Civil Rights movement. Still closer was the Vietnam movement. In every case the record is clear - those who sought justice had to pay the highest price. Unfair, but that is life.

Martin Luther King Jr. is dead. One of a long line of resisters, including NAACP leaders, students, church leaders, who were gunned down, lynched, vanished in the night. Very few Southern sheriffs were killed (I can't recall one). If life were fair, those who died would be alive, and their killers would be dead.

Those of us who, for whatever reason, have chosen to try to change society must accept the fact that (a) change means suffering and (b) we will get more than our fair share of it. We have our choice between "getting revenge or getting change" - we can't have both.

This is true whether we are pacifists or believe in violence. Look at Vietnam, where on the scales of justice the cause of the Vietnamese are monumentally more just than that of the Americans. Yet we suffered 55,000 some dead , while the Vietnamese suffered over a million dead. And those who led us into this war have either died natural deaths or, like Robert MacNamara, have visited Vietnam.

The revolutionist knows the goal is deep change, not settling old scores. Thus the Vietnamese welcome Americans who fought against them. Like them, our goal is a new society, and that must include those who were yesterday our enemies. The goal of a successful revolution is a reconciliation after the social change. (The South Africans are giving us a startling lesson in this, as they handle those who had committed crimes under the old regime - amnesty is being granted).

For pacifists all of this is not abstract. It means that, because we know our opponent is also a member of our family - often, in civil conflict, literally a member of our family - we are more willing to suffer than to inflict suffering.

I am not trying to make a fetish out of suffering, I am not a masochist. Life is good, we want to keep the pain as contained as possible, and enjoy the best in life. (My God! That is why we are working for social change in the first place!!). What I am suggesting is that the effort to avoid that pain - the determination to carry a gun so that "if push comes to shove, I'd rather shoot him than be shot" - is not the answer. In Vietnam where the gun was used, society was laid waste. In our own country, where the division between black and white was so deep, but nonviolence was chosen, the society was not laid waste. We have enough wounds from slavery and racism - we hardly needed to compound them with a new civil war. (Our Civil War is an excellent lesson in the dreadful effect of violence as an agent of change - it delayed beginning to deal with the reality of racism until the middle of this century, and it brought appalling suffering to both Southern whites and blacks - suffering and starvation not recorded in the history books).



One of the issues that keeps surfacing is how to deal with the issue of police brutality. We can make the same mistake here that a handful of middle class "leftists" made at the start of the Vietnam War when they targeted our own troops as the enemy, or we can learn from history.

If you want to change, you have to cope with things as they are. Lenin, the Bolshevik leader of the Russian Revolution, and no pacifist, didn't encourage his people to call the Czarist troops names - no, he encouraged a political dialogue with them, knowing that the armed forces of the old Russian regime were only "agents" employed by the ruling class. If you wanted to make sure the Czar could hold power, then you threw rocks at the troops, which made them hate you. If you wanted to overthrow the Czar, then you did what Lenin's people did - you took every chance to have political dialogue with the police and troops so that, finally, at a moment of crisis the police refused to obey the orders of the Czar.

Shift forward in time to the great demonstrations in Washington D.C. against the Vietnam War, and the day the Vietnam Veterans came to throw their medals of honor over the fence of the White House to show their contempt for the war.
They were very careful, several days before that action, to leaflet the police stations in Washington D.C. with "A letter to our Brothers in Blue" explaining what they war was about, and why they would be risking arrest. This diminished the ability of the police to brutalize the demonstrators.

My own experience was that most of those who called the cops "pigs" during the Vietnam period were either police agents trying to provoke confrontations, or were new in the movement.

These arguments have not been put forward because they are "nonviolent" but because they work, they are practical. And that, of course, is what nonviolence should be about - a practical, workable way to change society, not an abstract set of theories.

The injustice of all movements for social change is that they require those of us committed to change to endure the pain of the change rather than to try imposing it on the oppressed. There is a profound psychological lesson here. If those who are oppressing you see you as someone throwing rocks and slogans, treating them as objects of hate, this confirms in them their belief you merit every bit of pain they can inflict on you. Every blow, every prison term, if necessary every bullet.

But it is when we stand our ground, suffering without retaliation, accepting blows but not inflicting them, that the way is open for the opponent to see us as human, and to question their own behavior.



The "trick" to nonviolence is to find a way to divide your opposition , while keeping our side united. Had Martin Luther King Jr. used violence, it would have divided the black community in different ways - between those fearful of using it, those too weak to use it, etc. - and it would have united the white community against him. But nonviolence was something every Southern black could do, no matter how weak, how old, how ill. It took courage, but it didn't take military training.

And it divided the white community. It divided the nation.

If the Southern Black movement had been violent (which they had every moral right to be) the nation as a whole would have panicked. Because they were nonviolent, they created a massive national pressure on the White House to intervene. The "trick" is, of course, not a trick at all. Where your opposition had expected anger and hatred you offer love (or as close to it as you can get). Where the opposition insists on seeing you as an object, you insist on treating the opposition as consisting of unique individuals who merit compassion. In short, we can change the terms of the struggle, can transform it - and in the process, while we must often "unjustly suffer", out of that comes the hope of justice. There is no justice in history except as we create it. And the creation of justice demands we accept a large part of the pain of conflict and change. Why would we do this? Because, by the grace of God or accident, we have stumbled on a truth which has taught us that our opposition is our brother, our sister, and we will pay a very high price, if necessary, before inflicting the pain on others which history has inflicted on us. Our goal is transformation and reconciliation, and that is what a revolution is about.


The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part One ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Two ] [ The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Three ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Four ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Five ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Six ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Seven ]

 ] 비폭력/무저항 주의자 ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence ] Nonviolent Action Handbook ] 악한 자를 대적치 말라 ] Kingdom of God Is Within You ] Ahimsa ] 시민 불복종 ] 양심적 병역 거부 ] 사이버스페이스  독립선언문 ] 미국 독립 선언문 ] 삼일독립선언서 ] Satyagraha ] Last Message to Mankind ] Nonviolence Web Links ]


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