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 Philosophy of Nonviolence

by David McReynolds
from Nonviolence Web

 Part Four










At some point all pacifists face this classic question, stated in many different ways. "Yes, but what about Hitler" can also be "Yes, but what about Arafat . . . Netanyahu . . . Criminals . . . Fascists . . . Racists . . . Serbs . . . Croatians . . . Muslims".

At first glance nothing is stranger than the notion that a people without weapons could take defeat an occupying force (India), or an oppressive and unjust racial structure (the U.S.). But then some dismiss these triumphs by saying the same tactics wouldn't work against Hitler - that "nonviolence really needs a humane, Christian, decent, democratic opponent . . . such as the white Southerner or the British . . . or it won't work".

Part of the problem here is myth. There was very little "nice" about the British. I will come back to that in a moment. But first there is a "terrible truth" we all have to face, whether we are pacifists or the most dedicated of violent terrorists - not all battles can be won. There are times when nothing will work. (This does not mean we shouldn't try - we never know when the tide of history is about the change). Racism was not less evil in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began than in 1915. Nor was this the first resistance. Blacks had risked their lives and lost their lives during their entire "American experience".



In South Africa, decades ago there had been nonviolent campaigns led by Gandhi's son, Manilal - they failed. So far - let's be blunt - we have failed in this country at the task of "turning America around". In some ways our job is harder than Gandhi's - the Indians knew they were militarily weak compared to the British and were willing to examine alternatives, while Americans think they are strong because of the weapons they possess - and are reluctant to consider alternatives.

But back to the British and those "nice Christian Southerners". The British were imperial rulers, repressive, violent when necessary, and if there were paradoxes to their rule in India, they were less from some decency inherent in British Imperialism than from self interest. The tropical climate of India did not attract large numbers of English. To rule the vastness of India, the colonizers relied on "natives" trained to manage the courts, police, transportation, postal services, etc. From a Marxist point of view there were contradictions built in. The British trained the Indians in the skills of running India. But the result was to create precisely that educated elite which led the independence movement.

Gandhi studied for the law in London, went on to South Africa, one of the many lawyers, and civil servants the British had trained to run their Empire. There was nothing about the English that was uniquely nicer than the Germans. Germany was the most civilized nation in Europe in the 1930's. Hitler was a monster, yes, but not an alien. Second, because the Holocaust was documented, and happened in the midst of Europe (and because "our side" won) we know a great deal about it - and may think it was unique. Unhappily it was not. Records of the slave trade suggest far higher numbers of Africans died during that trade, and the evidence of Belgian rule in the Congo is shocking - in a short period after the Belgians took over in the last century, they killed several million more Africans than the Germans did the Jews. Evil in human affairs is universal, the Nazis had no monopoly on it.



Americans need to pay attention to our own history. I am not trying to downgrade the Holocaust. I hope WRL Locals take note of April 22nd, Yom HaShoah, and arrange an observance in your community. No pacifist should be in the business of arguing "my pain is greater than your pain". But we are charged to be honest about what we ourselves, or our nation, has been complicit in. The pain of 400 years of slavery is of the same level of evil as the Holocaust. In reading a New York Times Magazine piece about the Vietnam War (8.10.97), the figure accepted for Vietnamese deaths was 3.6 million. Their sole crime was defending their nation against a foreign invader - us. (As the Times noted, that many dead is equivalent, on the basis of the relative populations, to 27 million Americans). When someone says "pacifism is fine but it wouldn't have worked against Hitler" they should consider that to the Vietnamese, Lyndon Johnson was Hitler, and to Black America Jim Crow was Hitler.

We will never know if nonviolence would have worked against Hitler (or if it might have worked against the Americans in Vietnam if the Vietnamese had chosen that method). The history of the Holocaust shows little resistance of any kind to Hitler from the Jews ( this is not surprising - they could not believe anything as terrible as the "final solution" was contemplated. Historically the Jews survived anti-Semitism by keeping a low profile). Some have said "The Jews were pacifists and look what it got them!" Sorry, they were passive - there is a world of difference. There is no way of knowing if active pacifism would have had any chance of working - we only know it was not tried. I remember the chilling deduction of Hannah Arendt in her book on Eichmann, in which she concluded it was the passive cooperation of the Jews of Europe with the Nazis which helped make the Holocaust possible. If you think about this for a moment it is, unhappily, true. To track down, arrest, transport and kill six million people who are resisting - even by not showing up when ordered, would, at the very least, have caused massive public disorder. (Nothing is easier than saying "I would have resisted" - a cheap sentiment expressed by people who weren't there. Documents show some resistance, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Violent or nonviolent, radicals honor resistance).



But within Occupied Europe there were well documented victories for nonviolence. In Norway there was a successful teachers' strike against being forced to teach Nazi ideology. In Denmark the opposition to the Nazis was led by the King, who said that if the Jews had to put on the "Yellow Star of David", then he, the King, would be the first man in Denmark to put one on. When the Nazis moved to arrest the Danish Jews, members of the Gestapo leaked this news to the Danish authorities and in 48 hours virtually all the Jews in Denmark were gotten to safety in Sweden. In Bulgaria, which had no history of anti-Semitism, spontaneous civil resistance (including crowds sitting on train tracks) prevented the Nazis from shipping any Jews out of the country.


Of all the places Americans thought resistance to Jim Crow would begin, Montgomery, Alabama, heart of the Confederacy , was the last. I remember a bus ride through the Deep South in 1951, coming back from my first trip to Europe (a pacifist youth conference in Denmark). Inspired by Bayard Rustin and the Journey of Reconciliation I took the Greyhound bus's Southern route back from New York to Los Angeles. My challenges to Jim Crow were timid - I was alone and not very brave even in a crowd. But I had a good chance to see and feel what it was like to move through the Deep South in the early 1950's. So much time has now passed - nearly a half century - that Alabama is as far removed from us as Nazi Germany. But the incredible mass opposition to racism began there, in the Deep South, where the greatest danger a civil rights worker faced was not from the Klan but from the Sheriff, where there was no appeal to law, where Blacks could not vote, where night was a time of terror, not rest. Don't tell older Black Southerners about how safe nonviolence was then!

Nonviolence cannot win every struggle - there are defeats. This is no more reason to abandon nonviolence than the military would give up its weapons if it lost a battle. (Philosophic note: it ever y military struggle there is a winner and a loser, so half the time violence fails, and half the time it wins. But in nonviolent struggle the objective is not to have a victor but to change the situation itself - a radically different concept).



Having admitted our approach cannot win all battles, why does it work at all? Why did it work against the Nazis in Norway and Denmark, or against the power structure in the American South? Or against the British in India?

Let us concede that all human events have "plural explanations". It takes nothing from the Vietnam Peace movement in our country to see that while our nonviolence was effective, so, too, was the pain of the body bags coming home as a result of the military struggle the Vietnamese waged against our troops. Let us concede that while the British in India weren't terribly nice, Britain had a democratic society which permitted an anti-colonial politics to develop. Let us admit that the violence of Southern racists was limited by fear of federal intervention, due to strong Northern support for Martin Luther King Jr.

Looking farther back in history, to times before any "civil society", there are two examples of movements which spread in the face of great oppression. Buddhism is a totally non- violent philosophy which, despite hardship and persecution, spread throughout Asia, finally subduing the Mongols, who had so savaged Europe and China. Christianity, which did not make an alliance with the State until three hundred years after the death of Jesus, became the dominant religious force in the West, triumphing over the total power of Roman Emperors.

Neither Christianity nor Buddhism was a philosophy of social change - that awaited the teachings of Gandhi in this century.

But the fact remains like a stubborn rock - both Western and Eastern civilization are founded on the basis of ideologies that were nonviolent, and which for some time in their early period faced extreme persecution. Thus, when Gandhi began "to experiment with truth" in this century, and see if nonviolence could be used to challenge social injustice, he was working on a foundation that was not entirely new. Nonviolence is older than the Christian era.

Next issue: the dynamics of why nonviolence works.

A plug for a leaflet that does in one page what I have not done in eight. Robert Seeley, author of The Handbook of Nonviolence, has brought out a leaflet titled "Peace Begins With Us", to explain nonviolence in one page. Write him at: 141 W. Harvey St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19144, send a dollar for a copy and information on bulk rates. Web: Email info:


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 ]

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