Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea
Book Review: Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea – by Mark Kurlansky (Modern Library Chronicles, 2008)
This was an interesting read giving unique perspectives of history. Much of the book focuses on nonviolence movements of the 17th through 20th centuries from the Quakers to abolitionists to Gandhi to Vietnam and later war protestors. The book begins with quotes from Mozi (5th century BC China) and Bertrand Russell and a forward by the Dalai Lama, where he notes non-violence as a way of life (as exemplified by Gandhi and King) rather than just in the political sphere. However, much of the book does focus on the political aspects of nonviolence in history. I think perhaps practicing nonviolence as a way of life would be good to explore in its own book. This book, however, is quite valuable history.
Kurlansky first points out that there is no word for nonviolence, ie. ahimsa is merely non-himsa. He thinks that is because it has always and everywhere been seen as a marginal point of view. I am not sure if I agree. One might simply employ the word “peace.” He thinks all societies, even if they did not like violence, have considered it necessary under certain circumstances. He calls nonviolence a “dangerous idea” because it has often threatened the established order – was seen as extreme. He thinks the efforts of pacifists and advocates of nonviolence have had more influence on events than history credits them. He distinguishes the terms pacifism and non-violence. Pacifism is passive and harmless, more of a state, he says, while nonviolence is active and often dangerous. He considers nonviolence as “a means of persuasion, a technique for political activism, a recipe for prevailing.” Advocates of nonviolence see it as a more effective political means than violence. Mahatma Gandhi coined the term satyagraha, or “truth force.” Gandhi, in line with Hinduism, Jaininsm, and Buddhism considered that humans were all working toward an ideal of nonviolence (ahimsa) and pure ahimsa (or as pure as is possible) would be perfection. This idea counters others that say it is human nature to be violent. Those religions advocated nonviolence as an ideal but in practice there were various interpretations, some that allowed (mostly) defensive war and killing animals for food. Confucius advocated a non-violent approach to politics as ideal but probably not practical. Mozi advocated “mutual love,” a form of the so-called Golden Rule, later advocated by Rabbi Hillel, Jesus, and many others. Jewish teaching was to love one’s neighbor and Christian teaching to love one’s enemy. In Taoism as well as many other religions, he says, is the idea that as humans evolve nonviolence will become more likely.
“Eastern religions, which Westerners tend to regard as ethereal and only workable for the dreamiest of idealists, actually have a pragmatic side. They recognize that violence is wrong, that nonviolence is the path that ought to be taken, but they also recognize that humans are weak and imperfect and that only a few of the most evolved and extraordinary among us will choose that path and stay with it.”
Judaism holds an ideal of nonviolence in the commandment “You shall not kill.” However, in its history there have been many violent episodes without due provocation, so while attitudes are peaceful there is ambivalence. When asked to recite the Torah Babylonian Rabbi Hillel gave his famous statement: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. The rest is commentary on this. Go and study.” His contemporary and fellow Jew, Jesus, taught unconditional love and turning the other cheek rather than eye for an eye so he was seen as a reformer. He was tortured to death for his radicalness and to discourage others but the effect was the opposite – his pacifism and nonviolence inspired his followers and others, although many “Christians” throughout history through the present could not be said to have followed his example. The early Christians were pacifists. He gives the story of Origen who castrated himself to show his own sincerity (one might argue that as a self-violent act) but held his precepts of nonviolence in the face of Roman militancy as Christian nonviolence was becoming problematic for Romans. He was tortured and executed in 254 CE. Christian conscientious objectors to warfare were martyred. But when Constantine had his war vision and accepted Christianity as valid and defended it, things changed. It later became the main state religion. Kurlansky notes that in general when a state embraces a religion, the nonviolent teachings lose importance as states are more prone to violence. There was still conscientious objection. Some were later branded as saints. Apparently, in the fifth century an Algerian bishop, Augustine of Hippo wrote a treatise on “Just War.” Saints were martyrs. Martyrs were those killed. Thus being killed (in warfare) could qualify one for sainthood. Martin of Tours, who in the past had declared that he would not fight but was willing to go unarmed between the two fighting armies. The battle did not come to pass so he was spared but he later became the first unmartyred Catholic saint. He became a symbol of military valor in a kind of flip-flop of non-violence to violence. Augustine’s “just war” idea continued to be developed and became the basis for many Christian military campaigns. Eventually the “Peace of God” had morphed into the crusades. Killing Muslims and other non-Christians became more acceptable, in part to stop aggression from them but eventually offensive wars were begun.
Early Islam, a word that means peace, was seemingly peaceful and nonviolence was an enforced ideal. Mohammed was not accepted as a prophet by a group of Jews in Medina and later his first military campaign was said to be defensive against an armed Jewish group that rose against him. Soon warfare became a mainstay of the prophet. At first it was necessary defensive warfare. He fought nineteen campaigns during his life utilizing an expanded definition of defensive warfare. After his death is when the spread of Islam really began. Despite such Quranic passages as “God grants to gentleness what he does not grant to violence” and “Whoever kills a human being should be looked upon as though he had killed all mankind,” the genii was let out of the bottle and conquest and conversion by the sword and attendant slavery became commonplace. The Quran can be interpreted peacefully but many clerics have put forth interpretations that favor violence against aggressors and apostates. The idea of jihad was split: “Greater jihad was the struggle to be a pure and good person, while lesser jihad referred to armed struggle.” But a few hundred years later the concept of jihad or holy war would be used in war propaganda and the model has remained. When Islamic power declined in the 11th century it was the Christians who waged jihad on them with the offensive Crusades. It was called a holy war to liberate Jerusalem from the Saracens as were previous holy wars between Christians, between Muslims, and between the two. Islamic and Christian concepts of holy war actually came from Old Testament accounts of Jewish campaigns ordained by God. War propaganda involves demonizing the enemy so that the offensive warriors will feel that their cause is just. Apparently it was the success of the first Crusade that altered the Islamic tenet of lesser jihad to become a duty and after the invasion of Baghdad by the Mongols (many had previously converted to Islam) the lesser Jihad became more important than the greater jihad. Sadly enough, these religions and their state sponsors are still caught in this web of demonizing other religions and justifying warfare and violence.
Kurlansky notes that in Medieval times those in the monasteries avoided the military campaigns and were not supported by the Church. The Franciscans kept vows of non-violence, as did the Cathars and the Bogomils, inspired by the 3rd century C.E. profit Mani who syncretized a religion with elements of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, and Buddhism. Along with the Manichaeans the Cathars and Bogomils were denounced as heretics, persecuted, many imprisoned and killed. They all strongly advocated nonviolence to humans and animals as well as vegetarianism. The Cathars were more active – they spoke out against the Church considering them a fraud. The Church spread obvious lies about them and their “perversions.” They were more Christian in orientation than the Manichaeans. In the 12th century the Waldensians, probably inspired by the Cathars, also rejected violence. Another movement in the 15th century was inspired by the Waldensians. They were the Taborites from Czech Bohemia, inspired by Jan Hus, a peasant priest from Prague. Unfortunately, the Cathars and the Taborites came to advocate violent revolution in defense. The Waldensians survived to become part of the Protestant reformation. The Anabaptists also rejected violence and some were executed. Basically, all of these “fringe” Christian sects interpreted literally Jesus’s teachings on love, pacifism, and patient endurance of persecution – perhaps the main teachings that were meant to be interpreted literally. Later, Mennonites also refused military service. Protestant mystics also preached nonviolence. The Quakers began in the 1600’s in England and came to reject violence. William Penn converted to Quakerism in 1667 and noted that a nonviolence movement could begin with one person rejecting it. Incidentally, Pennsylvania was not named after William Penn the Quaker pacifist but after his father William Penn the admiral and war hero.
Quakers began migrating to American in 1656. They were not well-received. Some were driven away and beaten, others executed. Towns passed anti-Quaker ordinances. William Penn, the Quaker, invited all manner of pacifists to his Pennsylvania. They shunned war and had open and favorable relationships with the Native Americans. There were small but significant numbers of American conscientious objectors, not all religious, in all the wars for which service was required before the American Revolution.
The author notes the Italian law professor, Alberico Gentili, who in the late 16th century advocated for just wars and the idea of pre-emptive strikes, such as the modern invasion of Iraq. He used examples of the Romans attacking Carthage since if they didn’t the reverse would eventually happen. He also invoked ideas that certain enemies were “inferior,” lewd, or primitive, and needed to be conquered. He used similar logic to justify slavery. This was an ancient argument made even by Aristotle. In the 17th century John Selden and Thomas Hobbes argued similarly. Even Thomas Jefferson, who said all men were equal, also said that the black slaves were less equal. Hobbes and Rousseau argued that warfare was natural to humans. John Locke also advocated that the rights of the colonialists superseded the human rights of the slaves. Later, Marx and Lenin would also say that taking up arms was necessary for a revolution. Meanwhile, William Penn proceeded with his “holy experiment” where Quakers and other pacifists came to live in Pennsylvania and surrounding colonies. Pennsylvania did not act in military solidarity with the other colonies and often made its own peace deals with Indians. In 1756 the Quakers were voted out of power and their influence began to wane. Although there were notable dissenters against the conquering of indigenous peoples that would probably have been slaughtered whether they resisted or not, they had little choice but to resist and the genocide happened. The Cherokee nation took a different approach by setting up a government similar to the American one and developing their own writing system. Even so, they were removed from their home area to a reservation in Oklahoma in a brutal march known as the “Trail of Tears,” and thousands died along the way. Nonviolence did not work for them unless perhaps one considers that it could have gone much worse.
In New Zealand the war-like Maori resisted colonialism. However, in 1869 after some years of struggle, a Maori leader named Te Whiti decided to claim the Islands peacefully and allow the Europeans to dwell there as well. Te Whiti’s group collected ploughs and began to plough the land vigorously to grow crops. They were arrested but continued to plough without resorting to violence. This group of Maoris were called Parihakas and wore a white feather. The British army sent many of them away to prisons but they continued to be nonviolent. They did protest their fate by refusing to pay taxes. Te Whiti died in exile in 1907 and was buried with a cloud of white feathers. He is credited with preventing the genocide of his people and today there are half a million Maori in New Zealand, about 20% of the population.
During the American Revolution it was realized that many Americans rejected warfare (but were also anti-British) but were called upon to contribute in other ways such as paying war taxes. But pacifists were still persecuted since they were a threat to growing the revolutionary movement. The author considers that the American Revolution could have been conducted without violence with the British giving up due to the unprofitability of the colonies, but that does not seem very plausible to me. Although there were some nonviolent “victories” in Massachusetts there was no other case of a successful nonviolent revolution against the British Empire, until Gandhi anyway. The Quakers favored negotiation, noting that some in the British Parliament favored their so-far peaceful revolution, but “patriots” like John Adams, Thomas Paine, and Ben Franklin saw violent revolution as the only real choice. People were forced to fight in some places – they were “lynched,” a practice named for Colonel Charles Lynch of Virginia who would hang war objectors by their limbs until they shouted “Liberty forever!” Kurlansky notes that the Revolutionary War was a brutal one with many civilian casualties and family members turned against one another even though it is considered a just war in history classes. Oaths of Renunciation and Allegiance were required of many of the war resisters who would lose land, homes, or be imprisoned if they didn’t comply. Ironically, the revolutionary leaders regarded their taxation without representation as slavery and yet they kept slaves. Eventually, groups of Quakers did volunteer to fight in the war. War brutalities were committed by the revolutionaries as well as the British.
The War of 1812 also brought war resistance for religious reasons. He mentions the tract of David Low Dodge who in 1815 founded the New York Peace Society. Apparently, he worked to discredit war in a business-like manner, pedaling his wares: knowledge of the non-virtues of war. By 1828 an umbrella group was formed to unite the various peace societies: the American Peace Society. They became an important intellectual voice. Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke at some of their events. By the late 1830’s William Lloyd Garrison, a working-class abolitionist activist joined forces with the peace society. His was a more secular voice. He strongly rejected both slavery and violence and called people to action. He was both admired and hated. After a few violent slave rebellions Garrison was unjustly accused of fomenting such activity by way of his adamant views. A mob almost tortured and hanged him but he was rescued by police. Lawyer Wendell Phillips observed him being dangled by rope out of a high building and was impressed by the way he kept his composure and eventually became one of his closest collaborators. He inspired many people in both the nonviolence and anti-slavery movements. But violent slave uprisings happened, including the successful one in Haiti where for about twelve years the Haitians fought back Napoleon’s attempts at racial extermination. It was very bloody on both sides. Napoleon lost 50,000 troops and Haiti became a sovereign nation but the effects of the violence would last centuries and may still be around today. After this the French and British decided to end their pursuit of slavery. Garrison did not support a war to end slavery as other abolitionists did and tried to dissuade those who sought to provoke it. He debated about it with fellow white abolitionist John Brown who provoked rebellion and was killed for it and called a hero by many. Garrison and others also praised his intentions but not his methods. Garrison was pragmatic in supporting Lincoln’s war but not happy about it. Many in the north were fighting to free the slaves but many also were not. Many in the north were anti-abolitionist, seeing them as instigators like John Brown. Lincoln was afraid to free the slaves for fear of resistance to the idea. After the war things were not so much easier for the African Americans as “black codes” were passed. The KKK rose in power. The blacks could stay there under oppressed conditions or go north were they could earn small sums of money working long hours and live in urban slums.
The 19th century also saw peace societies form in Europe. Some dreamed of a united Europe. People such as Victor Hugo, Alexis de Toqueville, the Archbishop of Paris, and the Grand Rabbi of France attended the Paris Peace Conference of 1849. Another group was the International League of Peace and Freedom, founded in 1867. Karl Marx was in opposition to the groups proposals. He did not advocate violence but like many he was distrustful of pacifists. Subjects like racism, militarism, and peace agreements were discussed at these conferences. “Civilization is peace, barbarism is war,” wrote Frederic Passy, the French economist and peace activist who won the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. Alfred Nobel’s secretary, Baroness Bertha von Suttner wrote a famous anti-war novel in 1889, Lay Down Your Arms. She is thought to have persuaded Nobel to add the Peace Prize which she won in 1905. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie set up a $10 million dollar fund to abolish war. Imperialism was the cause of many wars, skirmishes, and injustices. In America there were critics, anti-imperialists like Mark Twain. They spoke out against the Spanish-American War and the invasion of the Philippines.
British philosopher Bertrand Russell was also actively against imperialism and war. In 1917 he was denied a passport to give a lecture at Harvard and was stripped of his professorship at Cambridge. In 1918 he spent six months in prison where he was able to write some books. The horrors of World War I led to more anti-war sentiment. Even in 1917 when America entered the war, anti-war sentiments were spun as espionage. People went to prison and some were badly beaten. Some were even sentenced to be executed but none were killed. Propaganda was promoted to instill hatred of Germans. After World War I there was more consideration for peace. Authors like Hemmingway and scientists like Einstein spoke against the necessity for war. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was published in 1929 and read around the world. Also in the 1920’s came The Permanent Court of International Justice and the League of Nations to help prevent future wars. This worked OK until the rise of Hitler, who began to be aggressive, invade, and practice extreme racism and oppression overtly. After Pearl Harbor the U.S. had little choice but to join the war wholeheartedly. During World War II one in every six federal prison inmates was a conscientious objector. Gandhi noted in 1938 that he thought the Jews could help themselves most against the Nazis through nonviolent activism. That was not to be and their small attempts at uprisings were put down harshly or in their passiveness they were tortured and murdered. Denmark accepted German occupation but showed some passive resistance by working slowly, destroying equipment, and helping those the Germans pursued. They refused to pass anti-Jewish legislation and hid the 6500 Jews in the country from the Nazis and they escaped to neutral Sweden. Even though the Jewish population there was small very few were killed. Hundreds of thousands were taken and killed from the Netherlands and France. Millions were killed in Poland despite armed uprisings. In Hungary about a hundred thousand were given Swedish passports by Swedish businessman Raoul Wallenberg. Many hundreds of thousands of others in Europe risked their lives to save Jews as well. Kurlansky notes that in WWI there was much propaganda told so that people would hate the Germans but in WWII there was not, even though there were far more atrocities being committed and that the Allies goal was not to save the Jews as in the American Civil War the goal was not mainly to free the slaves. He thinks a nonviolent approach would have been better in both cases. Maybe he is right but it is hard to see the world ready for that and the question remains as to how else the aggressions could have been stopped without fighting back. Roosevelt was strongly criticized in 1936 for accepting a small amount of Jewish refugees. Many were turned away. Anti-Semitism was strong in America. Years later WWII was depicted as a just war to stop the Holocaust. PTSD was strongly repressed and it was much later when soldiers admitted that they committed atrocities that would have appalled them if committed by someone else. Some people spoke out against Allied bombings on German civilians and later on Japanese civilians. Truman cited Pearl Harbor as the justification for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as a desire to end the war sooner.
It was estimated that 187 million people died in warfare in the 20th century. That’s about 3.6 war killed humans per minute or 1 person every 16 seconds round the clock for a century (as my calculator showed). However, Kurlansky notes that from 1945 onward there were more victories for nonviolence than ever before. Mohandas Gandhi was the star of the idea. He admired Thoreau and Tolstoy and corresponded with Tolstoy. He was influenced not only by Hinduism but by Jainism, Buddhism, and Christianity. He was trained in Britain as a lawyer and yet ended up adopting Indian traditions, including a strong ascetic bent. He cut his teeth encountering racial discrimination against Indians while living in South Africa. He developed a method that combined nonviolence and pragmatism into a powerful force for change. He called it satyagraha, or “truth force.” In India he organized boycotts, strikes, protests, and symbolic marches to change unfair British rule. Kurlansky mentions the warlike Muslim tribe, the Pathans, who controlled the Hindu Kush area between India and Afghanistan. The British had been fighting them off and on for a century. When they joined Gandhi’s nonviolent movement they couldn’t believe it. They were tortured. Their leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan, or Badshar Khan (Khan of Khans) eventually assembled a nonviolent army of 80,000, the Khudai Khidmatgars, the Servants of God. They had to swear an oath to renounce violence and vengeance, to forgive oppressors, and lead a simple life. His vision of Islam would be a great and wise one to apply:
“That man is a Muslim who never hurts anyone by word or deed, but who works for the benefit and happiness of God’s creatures. Belief in God is to love one’s fellow men.”
Gandhi was disappointed in the terms of independence, the division of India and Pakistan along religious lines.
Gandhi’s methods were very influential and eventually were inspiring to the budding civil rights movement in America. A group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation founded by anti-WWI protestors adopted Gandhi’s methods. Their leaders, particularly A.J. Muste who studied under Gandhi, thought that Gandhi-style nonviolent activism could be applied to racial discrimination. In 1942 they (Muste, Rustin, Farmer, and Houser) formed the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). They started the “Journey for Reconciliation.” Black Quaker Bayard Rustin (in 1942) refused to ride in the back of the bus, was taken by police and beaten, while remaining passive. They called him “crazy” and that was considered the first “freedom ride.” Rustin went on to travel to India for six months and back for more protests and more beatings. A.J. Muste convinced Martin Luther King to adopt nonviolent methods.
Muste would also become an anti-nuclear protestor. Books and movies explored the implications of nuclear weapons as the ultimate weapons of violence or as the supreme deterent as children crouched under desks in Cold War drills. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also working on Civil Rights with many beaten and killed, both black and white, was somewhat critical of Dr. King. Soon they would be taken over by Stokely Carmichael and become the Black Panther Party. The black power movement now had a more aggressive posture and sometimes violent manifestations although they still advocated nonviolence on the whole. Meanwhile the student anti-Vietnam war movement was growing. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had gotten up to 100,000 war protestors but could barely contain a nonviolent stance. Just like the Black Panthers they had the Weathermen who flirted with violence or at least aggressive posturing. As Carmichael would later quip: “[nonviolence] is a very stern discipline.” While their views were rationalized in various ways a nonviolent activist could only say they failed to uphold the discipline. Infiltration of the nonviolence movement by thugs was recognized as a threat by Gandhi. Government spies were known to infiltrate and instigate as well.
In the 1980’s came the first open nonviolent protest of the Mexican government. Rigged elections were challenged. Fraud and embezzlement were confronted. In 2000 the first “fair” election is thought to have happened and the long-entrenched ruling party was displaced peacefully and without major incident. In the late 80’s came the Communist-bloc anti-Soviet movements. Several of these adopted nonviolent methods. In Poland the artists, students, and workers who had long lightly opposed Soviet rule, organized the Solidarity Movement, a coalition of workers and intellectuals as well as the Church. They adopted a method of nonviolent noncooperation. Adam Michnik argued from prison in 1985 in favor of nonviolence. His most poignant point was perhaps, “We have no guns.” Kurlansky notes that the combination of pragmatism and idealism is what has lead to successful nonviolent movements. Alexander DubCek, the leader of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia happened to also be a pacifist. He wanted not to revolt or overthrow, only to reform. When the Soviets came with tanks he urged nonviolence among the Czechs. Eventually, the successful strategy of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland would simply be to kindly refuse to cooperate.
Meanwhile in Argentina in 1977 it was a group of women who would take on the ruthless military dictatorship, protesting the frequent disappearance of their sons. They were the “Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo.” They formed larger networks. They were beaten but came back, and protested peacefully. By 1982 the regime came down as later did Marcos in the Philippines.
In South Africa there was racial inequality and violence. Nonviolence was advocated off and on to end apartheid. Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu urged people to pray for the police and to pray for the whites in South Africa. Boycotts were more effective than violence. Finally du Klerk and Mandela were brought together as they both came to realize that violence as in the past would not serve either of their ends. Reconciliation then became the focus.
Unfortunately, the Israel-Palestinian conflict has been raging violently on for many decades now, seemingly unfixable. Oddly, many Palestinians think that their violent campaigns have been successful when it is quite obvious that they have only produced suffering and so their pride is an illusion. While there are many peace movements amidst this conflict and many people on both sides long for peace, the leadership has not waned in its rhetoric. All sides in all conflicts are raging their “Just wars,” from the war on terrorism to wars of liberation from occupation to class conflicts and ethnic skirmishes. Human tribalism seems hard to break through. Rhodesian-born president of Zambia and advocate of nonviolence, Kenneth Kuanda said, “The issue is not whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side.” Clearly in the Israel-Palestinian conflict violence is not working. That much can be said without a doubt. The same could be said for the horrendous state of Syria and parts of Iraq.
How does one define success? The war in Vietnam became an unpopular war. Was that a success of the anti-war movement? Maybe so. Perhaps, he notes, because the Vietnam War was not celebrated, the traumas induced by the horrors could be openly dealt with. PTSD is now studied intently and treated carefully. The guilt and shame associated with killing can be addressed. War observers have long noted that many soldiers fail to kill – even when well-trained they do not want to kill. We know that behind the enemy combatant, however we were taught to hate them, is a real person that seeks happiness just like us. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan taught youngsters not to trust army recruiters. They too have been fairly unpopular wars, especially the invasion of Iraq. The effects of it still linger, perhaps throughout the world.
Kurlansky ends with a numbered list of 25 lessons. They are pretty general. Here are a few:
8. People who go to war start to resemble their enemy.
16. Violence does not resolve. It always leads to more violence.
18. People motivated by fear do not act well.
24. The miracle is that despite all of society’s promotion of warfare, most soldiers find warfare to be a wrenching departure from their own moral values.
Glad I read this book. Some of it might even apply to our everyday conflicts and arguments with our fellow humans in a less than war sense.