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 Philosophy of Nonviolence

by David McReynolds
from Nonviolence Web

 Part Six











Perhaps one more installment and we will have this finished. In Part Five I laid out how non-violence works. By creating social dislocation, it creates "new facts" that permit your opponent to change. There is an art to this kind of politics. It is not enough to say to your opponent, "I am a pacifist, I will not shoot you, but I sure as hell will make your life so difficult that, miserable bastard that you are, you will be forced to behave decently even though the whole world knows you are a sorry excuse for a human being".

It is our job not to make it harder than necessary for our opponent to change. Yes, Cesar Chavez forced the farm owners to bargain because the boycott of their produce hit them in the pocket book. Without that, the negotiations wouldn't begin. But it is hard to negotiate with a man you despise and distrust, and much easier to negotiate with an opponent whom you respect, whom you feel "fought fair". They respected Chavez.

Years ago in Greenwich Village, in the long-lost days when radicals sometimes spoke from "soap boxes", I was about to start a speech in Sheridan Square late one afternoon when a cop came up and told me to stop. I didn't say "Look, you wretched running dog of the imperialist state, I know the Constitution, I have a right to speak, and I defy you to arrest me". Instead I said "I think I have a right to speak, However I'll get down while you check with your captain. After fifteen minutes, when you've had a chance to check it, I'll get back up and speak - if your captain thinks it is legal to arrest me, then you can". The cop walked off, fifteen minutes later I got up and kept on talking - the cop never returned.



The person using nonviolence will seek to be absolutely open, honest and truthful.

The person using nonviolence will seek to overcome fear, so as to act not out of weakness, but from strength.

The person using nonviolence will never defame the character of the opponent, but always seek to find what the Quakers call "that of God" in those with whom we struggle.

We shall do our best to love those with whom we are in conflict.

All of these are much easier to say than to do. How can one love the employer who orders goons to beat up strikers? Or a govern- ment such as ours which murders people in distant lands?

How can we act without fear when we are terrified?

How can we be honest when admitting an error may make us look foolish?



There aren't tidy answers. During WW II in places such as Holland, which were occupied by the Nazis, what was the "honest, truthful answer" when the Gestapo came to the door and asked if you were hiding Jews, and you knew you had Jews in the attic? I hope you said "No, we aren't hiding Jews". Because the "absolute value" we place on each human life was in conflict with the "absolute value" of truth. And human life won out. There are times when "absolutes are in conflict".

However, there are times when honesty does mean being willing to look very foolish. (Christians can appreciate St. Paul's statement that he was "willing to be a fool for Christ"). In the early 1950's tensions between the Socialist Party and the Communist Party were extremely bitter - one could write a book just on that topic. The Communists had a tactic of infiltrating our groups and trying to take them over. All of us who had been in radical politics at UCLA (where this occured) were only too familar with the problem. In the course of fighting against McCarthyism, the Socialist Party's youth group and the youth section of the Fellowship of Reconciliation had joined forces to sponsor a state-wide conference on civil liberties, held at a Church in Los Angeles. My experiences with the Communists led me to paronoia - I thought I recognized an effort by the Communists to stall the conference and possibly take it over. I got up and announced that Communists were present, that we would have a short break to organize our forces, and then reconvene. We did a quick caucus on the sidewalk, came back in, and rammed through the agenda, cutting off debate.

Soon after, I learned that while one Communist had been present, he was the only one. The disruption was entirely in my imagination. I was horrified. I had slandered the Communists, who were already under legal attack. To the dismay of my friends in the Socialist Party - who put up with my pacifism but thought I was a bit of a nut - I wrote a letter to everyone that had been at the conference offering my apologies, saying that I had been wrong. I believe I hand-delivered the letter to the members of the Communist Party on campus. (They also felt I was a nut). This willingness to admit an error, even though it can be painful and deeply embarrassing, gives you credibility. It does, at times, also make you look a fool. Take the risk.

Our movement must be one that never lies.

And it must be a movement which never demonizes our opposition. This is very hard. We all fail at it. I think Henry Kissinger is a war criminal who should be tried by an international court of law (he is not the only Amercican in this category, but he is the one who leaps to mind). Yet if I argue that common criminals are human beings, how can I deny that to Kissinger? If I argue that prisons do very little good, then how can I be so eager to see him in one? Those of us who went through the Vietnam War, who had friends who committed suicide, died of drug overdoses, spent the best years of their youth in prison, etc., have a hard time forgiving - but if forgiveness was easy, it wouldn't be necessary. (And if I have a problem - think how blacks feel in this society).

For us, cops are never pigs. They may violate the law, and should be subject to arrest and trial for brutality - but they remain human beings. No human being - no matter whether they are Kissinger or Stalin, a bad cop or a serial killer - should ever be called a dog, a pig, a rat, partly because this is unfair to dogs, pigs and rats. But mainly because there is not one of you reading this who could not have been - given the background and circumstances - a guard at a Nazi death camp. When we look on the person we find it easiest to hate, we usually are looking at some trait within ourselves.

I don't have good advice to offer on how to overcome fear - I know that I have failed. The only advice I can offer from personal experience is that you should do only those things you feel just barely able to do. Don't try to do things you know you can't do. I can't walk along the edge of a building that is more than two stories high - so I don't try. But I was - just barely - able to walk into Red Square in 1978 for a WRL protest, along with Norma Becker, Jerry Coffin, Pat Lacefield, Steve Sumerford, Scott Herrick, and Craig Simpson. Of all the things I ever did, maybe that took the most courage. I found that just putting one foot in front of the other would carry me forward, into the Square.

But for real courage, what about Vicki Rovere, who, in 1968, volunteered for the teams that War Resisters International sent to Moscow and several East European capitals to protest the invasion of Czechoslovakia? Vicki couldn't find her English partner who was to join her in Moscow. (He was there but got mixed up on directions). Vicki, completely alone, unfurled her banner! And stood her ground until taken into custody. In each case, do what you can do, not what you can't. With luck you may find that next time, you can do what you couldn't do the first time.



The radical movement - socialist, pacifist, anarchist - needs cowards. It needs them because there are very few brave people around - not nearly enough to make a revolution. The non- violent movement, like any strong movement, must make room for those of us who just aren't very brave. One of the values of nonviolence is that you can be young or old, weak, sick or frightened, and still find a way to fit in - which helps make it a democratic movement. (Let me toss in something we sometimes forget, as we "measure our number of arrests" - it takes more courage, (or foolishness), to bring a child into this world, care for it, love it, than it does to get arrested. The people with the most guts are parents.

If we remember that we must try to be honest, and act with courage, we won't do things in the dark which we wouldn't do by day. We won't do things we aren't willing to be caught doing. Again, there are paradoxes - does this mean that there are times when we might not act in secret? Weren't the Moscow demonstsrations planned in secret? Yes, and I've tried to stress that there are always contradictions. If you try to make a set of rules for nonviolence you've already violated the spirit. Nonviolence is to dance in the midst of chaos. And do so with joy.



One of the things the late Igal Roodenko used to say was "I have to love everyone - thank God I don't have to like everyone." There are people we rejoice at seeing - and people we really wish hadn't phoned us. Love is tricky. There are all kinds of love, from the love we have for someone we are in love with, to the children we have and love, to the dogs and cats who may share their lives with us, to a few friends we truly do love. But there is, under this, a sense of compassion, a realization we are all headed for the grave, that we all grow hungry and thirsty and weary, and this realization helps us, even when we "despise" someone, to behave toward him or her with a sense of love that permits us to see past the surface to the pain and suffering within.

Not everyone can do this. But the movement will collapse if at least some of the leadership is not able to do it. A. J. Muste had it, Dorothy Day had it, Rosa Luxemburg had it, Martin Luther King Jr. had it. Debs had it. Che had it. Gandhi had it. I think Malcom X was moving toward it when he was killed. I don't have it - but you might. And with work, maybe we can all get it.


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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