Peter Sedgwick

Non-Violence – Dogma Or Tactic?

(December 1961)

From Socialist Review, December 1961, p.6 & 7.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Committee of 100 is, for the most part, animated by a political approach which has been fairly accurately termed “anarcho-pacifism.” The presence of Russell on the Committee, and the inevitable publicity surrounding his name, has to some extent masked the dominance of the followers of the coupled slogans of Direct Action and Non-Violence. In what follows I shall try to assess the value of this approach as it has been expressed in personal discussion with pacifist-anarchists and in the weekly Peace News.

To begin with, a simply immense amount has to be conceded to the anarcho-pacifist cause, both as a set of ideas and as an actual movement. Direct-Action pacifism is part of the same family of beliefs as revolutionary Socialism: Peace News shares with Socialist Review a commitment to “permanent-revolutionary” politics, that is to say politics which see struggles on particular issues extending in a continuous dynamic to other and wider issues, and from particular places to other places and other countries, up to the point where an international revolution against the whole existing social order becomes the objective. The anarcho-pacifist and the revolutionary Marxist share a deep distaste for any form of “Popular Front” politics, in which incompatible allies muck in and shut up about their differences on the wider issues involved, and for any two-stage view of struggle: first get rid of the Bomb, then talk about socialism, first reduce international tensions, then deal with domestic issues, first unite with anybody and everybody against Fascism, then (when the war is over) start to think about dealing with capitalism. The all-embracingness of their approach helps to explain why so many pacifists are in social work, and why the only effective international in the world just now is the Pacifist International (using that label to cover War Resisters, San Francisco-Moscow marchers. and the host of contacts in different lands that fill the pages of Peace News every week).

And quite apart from the merits of the movement, a great deal of the ideology of non-violence deserves consideration and absorption on the part of thinking Socialists. What pacifists are largely saying is, after all, that violence is evil, that violence corrupts. One would have thought that these simple truths, after two World Wars and the experience of Nazism and Stalinism, would win home among the majority of people, but it seems not. Far too many people, and far too many Socialists, appear to take the view, not that violence is evil, but that violence, which achieves desirable ends, is good. Think of the flogging craze, boxing audiences, Stalin, the colonial policy of the last Labour Government, speeches about standing firm over Berlin, American war magazines, the Cheka, the crime figures: then you may see what the pacifists are getting at. Certainly one can think of very few historical heroes of the revolutionary Left who give any impression of really hating violence as such; Rosa Luxemburg is about the only one.

Certain techniques used in Direct Action demonstrations could well be examined by Socialists in general. I am thinking of the “shame-inducing” tactics of going limp and refraining from provocation, even of a verbal kind. Employed on the second Holy Loch sit-downs, these methods did have some effect on the police, who refused to manhandle demonstrators as ordered. (They were of course replaced by other policemen who did obey orders.) The importance of passive methods goes beyond their immediate effects. Most of us tend to write off the police as one reactionary mass when we think of long-term struggle and the transition to Socialism: we need too to combat the gratuitous and vengeful violence that tends to rise within us in the course of bitter struggle, and which is only one more form of emotional thinking.

However, even once so much has been agreed, it remains true that anarcho-pacifism is an absurd and defective political creed. The stock argument against pacifism is unanswerable: that while all violent action is evil, there are circumstances in which abstention from violence will lead to the commission of greater evil. In order to deal with this objection, pacifists are driven both to exaggerating the effects and importance of violence in itself, and to making ridiculously optimistic claims for the efficacy of non-violent methods of resistance. Social evils such as war and Stalinism are completely abstracted front their background of historical fact, and traced to sources in the violence-loving psychology of individuals. Once violent methods are initiated, we are assured, a chain-reaction of ever-increasing violence and counter-violence is set up. This is a fairly good description of the danger of nuclear war through “escalation”: it has very little further application. There are a great many examples of violent struggle with a non-violent aftermath, relations between Britain and Ireland being an obvious instance.

In attempting to prove the worth of passive methods, pacifists are fond of quoting such precedents as Indian Gandhism and the non-violent struggle of the Norwegian teachers against Quisling. It has already been pointed out on these pages (SR, May) that the Indian struggle included at times atrociously violent techniques. Norway, it will be remembered, was liberated by armed forces, not by pacifists: and even the Norwegian teachers’ leader quoted in the Peace News pamphlet on the incident, denied that passive resistance was a self-sufficient method against an invader. It was, he implied, a useful ancillary to armed might, and no more.

Such, in fact, would seem to be the role of non-violent resistance: either as a first line of defence in certain situations, in an attempt to win over an opponent, or else as a limited technique of opposition where armed combat is impossible, redundant or unwise. However, most pacifists will refuse to admit the applicability of any other method but their own. We are not even allowed to envisage violent methods as a second line of defence, to be reserved for use if non-violence fails to stop the enemy. No, even the reservation of violence, even the hint of its possible use at the back of our minds, would falsify and damn the deployment of the passive technique. All has to he staked on a single card, which is to be played again and again as long as there are players. The last player left may conclude that non-violence was after all a losing game, and sadly admit that he was wrong: or he may decide that pacifism is in any case absolutely and morally valid, irrespective of the consequences, unfortunate as these have been.

Quite apart from the lunacy of this logic (which in its wild carelessness of consequence resembles nuclear strategy), anarcho-pacifism is guilty of a more fundamental political vice. It makes no allowance for the spontaneous action of masses. The non-violent resisters must be minutely briefed and drilled in the spirit of active passivity. A few deviationists breaking a cordon, smashing a shop-window, shouting at the police or locking up the Prime Minister or even one such benighted idiot and the dreadful provocation will have been offered. If the attempt fails, it fails because of the undisciplined few.

It is difficult to know whether the total demandingness of this approach will interfere with the success of the present movement of disobedience. It should merely be noted that Gandhi had a habit of calling off his campaigns whenever they overflowed into violence. The Committee of 100 shows every sign of being more empirical than this. However, if anarcho-pacifist tactics are to be taken as applying to the whole long-run business of social transformation, it is hard to see any sense in them. Mass struggles are just not like that, especially mass struggles with a successful outcome in the overthrow of a ruling class. If the anti-nuclear campaign expands to include active working-class support as it must if we are not to be incinerated one may take it that not everybody will read their briefing very carefully, and there may not be enough marshals to go round.

None of these arguments are to be taken as opposing the tactic of the sit-down, or the practice of non-violence in the present situation, or the closest possible work with pacifists in the various Committees of 100. If anything, they imply that non-pacifist supporters of the Committees should get right in there. It is quite easy to prove yourself far more non-violent in argument than your pacifist opponent.


Last updated on 25.11.2004