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Violence vs. Nonviolence

The issue of violence has become rather divisive within our growing movement. In our struggle to bring about fundamental social change is nonviolence a more viable and effective option than violence, and vice versa?

The arguments of anti-pacifist Ward Churchill and nonviolent activist George Lakey are presented and critiqued...
Strategy for Social Change:
"Violence vs. Nonviolence"

By Matt Dineen

"It is the obligation of every person who claims to oppose oppression to resist the oppressor by every means at his or her disposal. Not to engage in physical resistance, armed resistance to oppression, is to serve the interests of the oppressor; no more, no less. There are no exceptions to the rule, no easy out... "
-Assata Shakur

"You cannot successfully fight them [the Big Powers] with their own weapons. After all, you cannot go beyond the atom bomb. Unless we have a new way of fighting imperialism of all brands in place of the outworn one of violent rising, there is no hope for the oppressed races of the earth."
-Mahatma Gandhi

The 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle gave birth to a new social movement in the industrialized West against capitalist globalization. Since Seattle there have been several similar, historic actions against global financial institutions including the Washington DC meetings of the IMF and World Bank in April 2000 and the G8 meeting in Genoa, Italy during the summer of 2001, among others. These recent demonstrations have drawn thousands of participants from all over the world, and unlike movements of the past century they have addressed a wide range of issues while focusing on the fundamental concern of global inequality and injustice. The demonstrations have also generated an important dialogue in regard to the strategy and tactics employed by the movement. While the vast majority has remained nonviolent there have been some elements, such as those prevalent in Genoa, that have opted for more violent tactics including property destruction and combat with armed forces.

This issue of violence has become rather divisive within this growing movement and this is the issue that I seek to explore. In our struggle to bring about fundamental social change is nonviolence a more viable and effective option than violence, and vice versa? The most prominent contemporary spokesmen on both sides of this question are Ward Churchill, outspoken critic of pacifism and advocate of armed struggle, and George Lakey, firm believer in the transformative potential of nonviolent action. Both seek a new global order free of exploitation and oppression, but have different approaches to achieving such revolutionary change. To illustrate their positions I will draw from Churchill's controversial book Pacifism as Pathology (Arbeiter Ring, 1997) which includes an engaging afterward by Mike Ryan, and Lakey's online response to the book:  http://www.trainingforchange.org/reports_0103_pacifismR.html
To begin this examination it is essential to have a common understanding of the terms 'pacifism' and 'nonviolence' and the ability to make the distinction between the two. Churchill defines pacifism as, "the ideology of nonviolent political action" (Churchill, p.29) and, as Ryan later reiterates, "a belief that precludes infliction of violence upon others, but which does not bar the absorption of violence by adherents." (Churchill, p.132) Churchill sees nonviolence as a synonym for pacifism. Lakey is critical of this interchangeable use of these terms since, as he argues, they differ in practice. Lakey explains:

"Nonviolence or nonviolent action, is used mostly on a grassroots level ... Demonstrations, sit-ins, occupations, strikes, boycotts: there are many methods of nonviolent action... and people use them because they often work better than more conventional means such as lobbying and petitioning. Pacifism on the other hand, is an ideology, a belief system that holds that it is immoral to injure or kill people to achieve your goals. Pacifists believe that good ends can't justify killing. Also, their understanding of cause and effect is that good ends come out of good means... They believe that both morality and good sense require that we 'live the change we want to see.' A huge majority of those who engage in nonviolent action in the U.S. are not pacifists. And there are many pacifists who rarely if ever engage in nonviolent action. So mixing up 'pacifism' and 'nonviolence,' as Ward does, confuses more than it clarifies." (Lakey)

The term pacifism is inadequate for this analysis and cannot be used as a synonym for nonviolence because of these points that Lakey has articulated.

Within this context of revolutionary strategy and tactics it is more complex than a matter of 'violence vs. nonviolence.' A closer look reveals a plethora of issues that arise, that Churchill and Lakey attempt to address, including armed self-defense and armed struggle, the division between Third World struggles and those in the industrialized world in terms of violence, and the importance of historical context. Before these issues are further examined and the arguments of Churchill and Lakey are presented, the question 'violence vs. nonviolence' must be modified. The side represented by Churchill ("violence") is rather an approach to social change that advocates the utilization of a 'diversity of tactics,' which may include armed self-defense and armed struggle, not ruling out the option of violence. The other side, represented by Lakey ("nonviolence") believes that nonviolent action, for various reasons is the most effective means of creating fundamental social change, excluding the use of violence pragmatically rather than morally. The debate is now reframed as 'diversity of tactics vs. nonviolent action.'

In Pacifism as Pathology Churchill maintains that nonviolent action is not a viable revolutionary strategy and that 'nonviolent revolution' is a contradiction in terms. He claims that nonviolence "promises that the harsh realities of state power can be transcended via good feelings and purity of purpose rather than by self defense and resort to combat." (Churchill, p. 30) According to Churchill, the successes of historical nonviolent movements (i.e., the American civil rights movement and India's struggle for national independence) that have been presented by contemporary 'pacifists' as evidence of the power of nonviolence is inaccurate and must be reevaluated: "There has never been a revolution, or even a substantial social reorganization, brought into being on the basis of the principles of pacifism. In every instance, violence has been an integral requirement of the process of transforming the state." (Churchill, p.45) This assertion will be further addressed, and contradicted, by Lakey who relies heavily on historic examples to argue in favor of nonviolent action.

From these points revealing the ineffective nature of nonviolence Churchill goes on to further illustrate the "two possible outcomes" of a strictly nonviolent force:

1. To render themselves perpetually ineffectual in the face of state power, in which case they will likely be largely ignored by the status quo and self-eliminating in terms of revolutionary potential.

2. To make themselves a clear and apparent danger to the state, in which case they are subject to physical liquidation by the status quo and are self-eliminating in terms of revolutionary potential. (Churchill, p.45)

The next topic that Churchill addresses is the politics of "the comfort zone" associated with nonviolence. Here he criticizes the conventional nonviolent demonstration as being more of a ritual than an agent for change and that its participants are above all concerned for their own safety. Churchill believes that they opt for a nonviolent approach primarily to avoid the violent state repression that is applied to those who employ tactics of armed struggle or self-defense. He explains:

"The preoccupation with avoiding actions which might 'provoke' violence is thus not based on a sincere belief that violence will, or even can, truly be avoided. Pacifists... are quite aware that violence already exists as an integral component in the execution of state policies and requires no provocation... What is at issue then cannot be a valid attempt to stave off or even minimize violence per se. Instead, it can only be a conscious effort not to refocus state violence in such a way that it would directly impact American pacifists themselves. This is true even when it can be shown that the tactics which could trigger such a refocusing might in themselves alleviate a real measure of the much more massive state-inflicted violence occurring elsewhere... " (Churchill, p.61)

Finally, in his assault on pacifism Churchill illustrates the paradox of North American activists that are committed to nonviolence in their actions but support Third World liberation struggles that are violent in nature. He attributes this phenomenon to the aforementioned American comfort zone and "white skin privilege" (Churchill, p.74), as he believes the vast majority of pacifists are white. This point is further elaborated when he declares that, "pacifism is racist" as it displaces "massive state violence onto people of color both outside and inside the mother country, rather than absorbing any real measure of it themselves." (Churchill, p.79) Churchill's declaration that "pacifism is racist" is one element of his analysis of it as pathology. The other two descriptions of this pathology he provides are as follows: "pacifism is delusional" and "pacifism is suicidal," which have already been explained.

Although he spends the rest of the essay describing the need for the development of a "liberatory praxis" Churchill's central focus is to debunk nonviolence as a revolutionary practice. He does, however, briefly discuss a strategy that would be an alternative to the dominant one of nonviolence:

"What is at issue is not... the replacement of hegemonic pacifism with some 'cult of terror.' Instead, it is the realization that, in order to be effective and ultimately successful, any revolutionary movement within advanced capitalist nations must develop the broadest possible range of thinking/action by which to confront the state. This should be conceived not as an array of component forms of struggle but as a continuum of activity stretching from petitions/letter writing and so forth through mass mobilization/ demonstrations, onward into the arena of armed self defense, and still onward into the realm of 'offensive' military operations (e.g., elimination of critical state facilities, targeting of key individuals within the governmental/corporate apparatus, etc.). All of this must be apprehended as a holism, as an internally consistent liberatory process applicable at this generally-formulated level to the late capitalist context no less to the Third World. From the basis of this fundamental understanding—and, it may be asserted, only from this basis—can a viable liberatory praxis for North America emerge." (Churchill, p.92)

In his afterward to Pacifism as Pathology Mike Ryan provides a more condensed and arguably more coherent critique of nonviolence. He outlines the two basic arguments for nonviolence: "ideological" and "strategic." (Churchill, p.132) The ideological argument, Ryan believes, claims a moral superiority in abstaining from violence. He warns of the danger of being "morally bound" to nonviolence under the pretense that it is inherently 'good' and violence is inherently 'bad.' Ryan is also critical of the practical arguments for nonviolence or, more accurately, arguments against violence. He has identified four basic arguments:

1. There is the ever-popular assertion that the time is not right.

2. It is contended that violence alienates people.

3. It is suggested that violence brings down repression (a kind of practical reworking of the old moral argument that violence begets violence).

4. Lastly, we are told that violence will get us bad press. (Churchill, p.133)

In response to the first argument Ryan presents a quote describing the frightening immediacy of our current global situation is. He follows, "Given this reality, I am prompted to ask how bad conditions must become before we recognize that the time is right for any and all forms of resistance that can be effectual in putting an end to this madness, before it puts an end to us." (Churchill, p.134)
Ryan is very critical of the second contention that "violence alienates people." He feels that this mentality has caused our movements to go unnoticed by the government and the people that we seek to organize. This approach has reduced the potential for "revolutionary consciousness and activity." (Churchill, p.135)

The suggestion that "violence brings down repression" is answered by pointing out that if a nonviolent method of overturning the ruling power structure was attempted it would also be met with repression. Finally, Ryan illustrates the faulty logical of the fourth argument that "violence will get us bad press." He replies, "One wonders how it could be believed that any kind of consistent good press can be expected from media owned by the same corporate interests we are attacking."

Ryan then examines the role that social privilege contributes, namely racial privilege, in the formation of the arguments for nonviolence in North America. "When nonviolence is proposed as the only acceptable form of resistance by white militants, it is not, for me, a statement of moral depth, but a statement regarding the depth of their white skin privilege." (Churchill, p.137) Here he also connects two concepts raised by Churchill: the comfort zone and the issue of the Third World. Ryan brings attention to the fact that "nonviolence is often a white movement response to forms of repression which do not directly affect them." (Churchill, p.141)

He concludes with his revolutionary vision and critique:

"We must recognize that [this] movement can win because it has the capacity to meet the violence of the state with a counter-violence of sufficient strength to dismember the heartland of empire, liberating the oppressed nations within it. In sum, we must recognize the validity of violence as a necessary step in self-defense and toward liberation when the violence of the system leaves the victim(s) with no other viable option. And it is here the logical inconsistency lies. We recognize the right of oppressed peoples to respond to their oppression with violence, but we abstain from engaging in violence ourselves. Thus we recognize our own participation in the oppression of other peoples while we also attempt to deny the critical situation in which we ourselves are found today... " (Churchill, p.161)

In his response to Pacifism as Pathology entitled Nonviolent Action As 'The Sword That Heals' (www.trainingforchange.org) George Lakey presents his argument for nonviolence and critique of Churchill's analyses. Lakey begins by outlining the agreements that he and Churchill share, namely a worldview that seeks to eliminate the roots of oppression. He agrees with Churchill's criticism of pacifists in terms of the "moral smugness" that prevents them from engaging in a "genuine pragmatic debate" about courses of action. Lakey also agrees with the charge that many nonviolent protests "have contented themselves with polite witness and ritualized arrests, minimizing risk and minimizing impact." (Lakey)

He is also critical of what Ryan labeled ideological nonviolence, or "excluding armed struggle from consideration dogmatically." Finally he states, "I agree with Ward that a great way to think about struggle is pragmatically: what are the means that have the best chance of reducing suffering, increasing justice, and creating a new society?" (Lakey) The essay illustrates how although they agree on this point, they disagree on the question of which "means" to utilize. Lakey then argues that a "persuasive strategy" for armed revolution is necessary before one can argue against nonviolence. That strategy, he points out, does not yet exist.

Lakey spends a great deal of time questioning Churchill's interpretations of history and offers his own to support his argument. This begins by reassessing the role of nonviolent action in the American civil right's movement and India's struggle for independence from the British Empire. However, Lakey proceeds to give historical examples of movements from around the world throughout various phases of history that have successfully used nonviolence.
"The underlying assumption in Ward's book is that violence is the most powerful political force in the world." (Lakey)

Lakey challenges this assumption, asserting that the power of organized masses, or what he calls "people power," is the strongest political force that exists. He puts it this way: "the foundation of political rule is the compliance of the people, not violence." Lakey provides historical examples of "people power" that have succeeded in defeating authoritarian governments, etc.

Lakey opposes the use of armed self-defense. He feels that it is pragmatically not an effective measure because it will be met with increased state repression. He gives the Black Panther Party as an example to illustrate this point: "Their effort to create the capacity for armed self-defense gave the racist federal government the opening it needed to destroy at least one of its enemies... The government often needs movements to be violent in order to be able to repress them effectively." (Lakey)

Churchill makes the assumption throughout his book that most nonviolent activists today are white and middle-class. This is a point that Lakey disputes. "A far, far higher proportion of people of color have engaged in nonviolent action in the U.S. than have white people, and continue to do so year in and year out." He continues, "Not to mention the role of nonviolence in the anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Asia." (Lakey) In regard to the assertion that nonviolent action is inherently a middle-class phenomenon, a claim Lakey finds even more outrageous, he responds: "A far higher proportion of working class people have engaged in nonviolent action than middle class people." This is evidenced, he says, in the labor history of the U.S. as unions have repeatedly utilized nonviolent action.

In response to Churchill's emphasis on employing a diversity of tactics, namely violent ones, Lakey provides historical examples in which the tactics used by the movements undermined each other in the end. He argues that the strategy must be "internally consistent" and that the tactics must "support each other instead of subtracting from each other."

Finally, Lakey challenges Churchill's claim that 'nonviolent revolution' is a contradiction in terms. Here he reemphasizes the power of non-cooperation and provides more historical examples to prove that nonviolence, more so than violence, has revolutionary potential.

Churchill and Lakey both present thought provoking ideas about effective strategies for social change. Their arguments for and against nonviolence are equally persuasive. However, the basis for both of their sides is flawed in many ways. I will attempt to address some of these problematic points, although there are undoubtedly many others.

Churchill offers some useful criticisms of nonviolence, namely challenging the actual effectiveness of nonviolent action and the issues of privilege associated with taking a pacifist position. However, as Lakey points out, in order to seriously consider a 'diversity of tactics' there must be a comprehensive strategy presented for revolutionary violence within a North American context. Perhaps if Churchill were to attempt to formulate such a detailed strategy he might question some of his assumptions about the virtues of "offensive military operations" such as the "elimination of critical state facilities."

This has become particularly clear since the recent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These
"offensive military operations" that targeted the nuclei of American militaristic and economic hegemony on September 11th, 2001 succeeded only in illuminating the most reactionary elements of the state: increased domestic repression, racial and ethnic hatred, and brutal war abroad, along with disastrous effects on working people.

Churchill's response to the 9/11 attacks, entitled "Some People Push Back": On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, counters the idea that the terrorists who hijacked the 3 planes that day targeted "innocent civilians." He states:

"There is simply no argument to be made that the Pentagon personnel killed on September 11 fill that bill. The building and those inside comprised military targets, pure and simple. As to those in the World Trade Center... Well, really. Let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break."
(Churchill,  http://www.escribe.com/culture/native_news/m17327.html)

Churchill concludes: "If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it." (Churchill) There is much to be said about these strong words. Joel Kovel, radical author and professor, summed up Churchill's response as, "twisted out of shape by hatred engendered in moral outrage" (e-mail correspondence, 11/15/01)

Another problem with Churchill's critique of nonviolence, and this will be applied to Lakey as well, is the way in which he presents social history to back up his arguments against pacifism. There is truth to his assertion that other factors, often violent, contributed in creating the changes that nonviolent movements are credited for bringing about. However, it is problematic that he uses this as a basis for discrediting nonviolent movements. Besides the obvious reasons, this discounts any potential for a new revolutionary nonviolent movement to emerge with different aims than its predecessors.

Lakey's interpretation of history is arguably even more problematic. He provides example after example from history as evidence of "people power" defeating the violence of the state. The problem lies in the simplistic nature of his interpretations of history. For example, when replying to the contention that 'revolutionary nonviolence' is a contradiction in terms Lakey presents the 1968 uprisings in France. He contends that the workers and students were close to making revolution but when they turned violent and began to destroy property they alienated their "middle-class allies" and the result was defeat. He states, "If the French students had known that their real chance to win was based on the power of non-cooperation, they would not have needed barricades and property destruction." (Lakey) Again, there may be some truth to this assessment, but in general its simplicity denies other essential historical factors that helped shape the events.

When one side is exclaiming the nonviolent victory of Gandhi's struggles in India to prove that it can happen anywhere and the other highlights the decline of the British Empire, due to global violence, in accounting for India's independence (Churchill, p.42) who can we believe? In both cases, the use of historical examples is rather inadequate in arguing the pragmatic virtue of either approach to social change.

In this overview of nonviolent action versus a revolutionary diversity of tactics merely providing the views of Churchill/Ryan and Lakey has its limitations. In order to comprehensively survey this subject it would be necessary to provide the wealth of ideas on both sides from Gandhi to Mao Tse-Tung, from Leo Tolstoy to Che Guevera, etc. However it is quite a vast subject and I chose to focus on the prospects for contemporary revolutionary change, primarily within the context of the U.S. In this respect, Churchill and Lakey have succeeded in at least starting a dialogue about these pressing issues.

Another contemporary activist and radical theorist that has offered useful contributions to this debate over violence is Michael Albert, founder of Z Magazine. Even as a ruthless critic of 'fundamentalist pacifism' Albert favors a non-violent approach to social change, like Lakey, on pragmatic grounds. In his latest book The Trajectory of Change (South End Press, 2002) he states:

"It's really quite simple. The state has a monopoly of violence. What that means is that there is no way for the public, particularly in developed First World societies, to compete on the field of violence with their governments. That ought to be obvious. Our strong suit is information, facts, justice, disobedience and especially numbers. Their strong suit is lying and especially exerting military power. A contest of escalating violence is a contest we are doomed to lose. A contest in which numbers, commitment, and increasingly militant nonviolent activism confronts state power is a contest we can win." (Albert, p.26)

Albert continues with his vision of an appropriate revolutionary strategy:

"Our tactical sense must be combined with strategic plans carefully aimed at winning. We can have teach-ins. We can have rallies. We can have marches. We can have strikes. We can build our own blockades. We can utilize all manner of creativity and playfulness in our dissent. We can go out and talk to people. We can obstruct. We can destroy property when doing so sends a clear and coherent message. We can hurl back tear gas canisters in self-defense, and tear down walls and other obstacles to remain mobile.
But to attack the police with the intent of doing bodily harm, whether with stones or with Molotov cocktails, simply invites further escalation of their violence. It does nothing to hinder elite agendas. Instead, it propels and legitimates them. Anger-fed violence is hard to avoid in some situations. But avoid it we must." (Albert, p.27)

Hopefully, this has provided a challenging overview of the subject. Many activists today tend to fall on the side of nonviolence but have failed to critically address the foundation of this position. This is where Churchill's writings, however flawed, can be useful as it at least forces us to be more conscious of our beliefs and strategies for change. Is nonviolent action truly the most effective means at our disposal or are we simply taking advantage of the comfort zone that it provides us? What are the implications of supporting the violent struggles of Third World liberation movements, but denying the option of violence in our own struggle? These questions are very uncomfortable to face, but this necessary if we do commit ourselves to nonviolent action.

In conclusion I present a quote from Barbara Deming. It could be applied to either side of this debate and it reminds us that we must keep our focus, in solidarity, on the common goal of fundamentally changing the world:

"There is a sense in which we do share the same faith. When we define the kind of world we want to bring into being, our vision and theirs too is of a world in which no person exploits another, abuses, dominates another—in short, a nonviolent world. We differ about how to bring this world into being: and that's a very real difference. But we are in the same struggle and we need each other. We need to take strength from each other... I think it is very important that we not be too sure that they have all the learning to do, and we have all the teaching. It seems obvious to us right now that the methods they are sometimes willing to use are inconsistent with the vision we both hold of the new world. It is just possible—as we pursue that vision—that we are in some way inconsistent, too, for we have been in the past." (Churchill, p.164)
Property Destruction is Not Violence 15.Aug.2002 13:29

Militant Pacifist

Would people please stop conflating the ideas "violence" and "property destruction." These are not the same. There are many in the movement who thoughfully oppose every argument for armed struggle yet believe in and practice active resistance, including property destruction.

belief 15.Aug.2002 15:01


'"There has never been a revolution, or even a substantial social reorganization, brought into being on the basis of the principles of pacifism. In every instance, violence has been an integral requirement of the process of transforming the state." '

of course, IMO, the process of transforming the self is a bit more vital than the above mentioned one. whether you strike/strike back or raise not even your voice, a revolution occurs either way. which makes a "better" person (considering a revolutionary process should have a "positive" outcome)?

if i know fighting is worthless--as Gandhi would contend--why would i do it, especially considering that i have more to lose by 'fighting back' than if i just stand there and take a beating? i was thinking this morning about how, if Gandhi through fists even once, his detractors (enemies) would be the first to cry "hypocrite" despite all of his good efforts to bring peace to humanus. this is what the "neo-cynic" will do, let alone bastards like donald rumsfeld or chief kroeker: they will welcome the fact that you have decided to "go to the darkside" and have chosen to share their tactics of warfare. in the end, defense of a position is the same as the 'offense' of this position--what if what we want is an entirely different position?

what if "the battle" is not over the trees, the air, our personal freedom, but instead, what if this battle ends up taking on a more transcendental tone?

(don't get me started on the political in/fighting. all the while *the enemy* employs the old strategy of divide-and-conquer, though it is *us* allowing ourselves to be divided, and conquered)

Civilization as an answer to war 08.May.2005 12:07

Law of Civilization

Gandhi once said that peace was the law of civilization. I think that civilization is therefore the answer to war. The creation of an international society will bring an end to war. Just as within the United States the states of New Hampshire and Alabama would not engage in war over their obvious political differences, as members of a supranational organization it would be absurd for the nations of the world to engage in war.

It is the natural evolution of human civilization. From our beginnings as small hunting and gathering tribes our communities have grown through cooperation in order to accomplish more and advance through the ages. This cooperation of different people is what formed the nations of today, people with differences but who were united under common goals and the mutual benefits that society brings. The end of war will come with the end of Nationalism. Nationalism is an outdated and irrational view of the world. The idea that these nations have some sort of permanence and meaning. In reality they are artificial borders created by mankind to divide us. The lines of who is our enemy and who is our ally are forever changing, thus the whole idea of competing nations is pointless.

It is an inevitable step in the progress of humanity. We serve to gain more through cooperation then competition and destruction. The globalization of the world economy, and the impact of mass media and mass communication will make these borders obsolete. Just as it is preposterous for two residential neighborhoods to go to war in the middle of Cleveland, Ohio it is just absurd for nations to attempt to solve their problems through violence.