Paul D’Amato Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Paul D’Amato

Pacifism and War

(July 2002)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 24, July–August 2002.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

After the 1999 Columbine massacre, when two heavily-armed teenagers killed 12 fellow students, President Bill Clinton made a speech to the parents and students of Columbine, in which he called for “a culture of values instead of a culture of violence.”1 As he made this speech, the former Commander-in-Chief was in the midst of leading a systematic bombing campaign against Serbian cities. Vonda and Michael Shoels, parents of Isaiah Shoels, a Black student gunned down in the massacre, penned a letter to Clinton that Michael Shoels read aloud at Clinton’s speech, saying, “Those who made pipe bombs may well have cheered your bombs dropping over Kosovo and Yugoslavia. There is a connection.”2 The Shoel’s hit upon a central hypocrisy of capitalist politicians. They make a lot of noise about the impermissibility of violence–except when it is the violence they employ in pursuit of their own interests. Then everything from blockades that murder hundreds of thousands of children to the use of tactical nuclear weapons is permissible. “The most ‘humane’ governments, which in peaceful times ‘detest’ war,” wrote the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in his brilliant essay Their Morals and Ours, “proclaim during war that the highest duty of their armies is the extermination of the greatest possible number of people.”3

Rulers make general appeals to nonviolence in order to cover up the fact that they are seeking to retain their state’s monopoly of force. “The appeal to abstract norms,” continued Trotsky, “is not a disinterested philosophical mistake but a necessary element in the mechanics of class deception.”4 Each national ruling class reserves for itself the right to use any and all means of violence, but denounces the violence of the oppressed, as well as that of other states with which it goes to war. Meanwhile, it describes its own military deployments as “peacekeeping,” “upholding democracy,” “combating terrorism,” and “helping victims of ethnic cleansing.” The current war-driven administration reduces everything to cartoon caricatures or a “cowboys and Indians” movie, where a whole string of states are deemed part of an “axis of evil,” and enemies are described as “the bad guys” and where “our side,” the “good guys,” is blessed by God.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, for example, has condemned Palestinian suicide bombers, but supports Ariel Sharon’s use of force to maintain its 35-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In short, like most pundits, Friedman makes a distinction between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed–and he sides with the oppressor.

This doesn’t mean the ruling classes wouldn’t prefer to obtain their ends as peacefully as possible. As Trotsky pointed out in the late 1930s on the eve of a new world war,

Hitler also works in the sweat of his brow for peace. They are all for peace: Priests, bankers, generals. But what does the pacifism of the bourgeois governments and parties mean? Vile hypocrisy. Every robber prefers, if possible, to take away his victim’s purse “peacefully” without taking his life. Mussolini would naturally prefer to pocket Ethiopia “peacefully,” that is, without the expenses and sacrifices of war. England and France would like to enjoy their plunder “in peace.” But woe to whoever hinders them! That is the meaning of capitalist love for peace.5

What is pacifism?

So much for the fake pacifism of the ruling class. For genuine pacifists, however, nonviolence is a serious commitment, not a hypocritical cover. A pacifist can be on the more liberal or more radical end of the political spectrum. And the distinction is important. Left-wing pacifists oppose the system, whereas mainstream, or bourgeois, pacifism is only critical of aspects of it. But all forms of pacifism, in essence renounce all violence, on the moral grounds that all life is sacred. Since war is the most supreme human act of violence, naturally pacifists are, at least in theory, principled opponents of war. In more sophisticated political terms, it is expressed in the idea that violence degrades those who use it. A 1955 document written by Quaker pacifists, and reprinted in a recent issue of Peacework, newsletter of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), summed up this idea:

We do not end violence by compounding violence, nor conquer evil by destroying the evildoer. Evil cannot overcome evil, and the end does not justify the means. Rather, we are convinced that evil means corrupt good ends; and we know with a terrible certainty demonstrated by two world wars in our time, that when we undertake to overcome evil with evil, we ourselves tend to become the evil that we seek to overcome.6

Note that the framework of this passage is no different in its terminology than the framework of the Rumsfelds and the Bushes of this world. There are “evildoers” in the world, only violence isn’t the best way to deal with them. As we shall soon see, the more conservative, bourgeois pacifist accepts the ruling classes’ view of the world, and simply exhorts them to achieve their goals without resort to violence. To the violent competition of the world’s nations, they propose peaceful competition. The more radical pacifist, on the other hand, sees through the hypocrisy of the ruling class–that as exploiters and oppressors, they are themselves evildoers, but focuses their pacifism on convincing the exploited and oppressed not to resort to violence to resist oppression because it will in turn make them “evil.”

War Resisters League leader and Socialist Party presidential candidate David McReynolds put it more bluntly: “The more certain you are that Pinochet is unique, and you’d like to get in line to hit him with a club, the more certain it is that there is ‘a little Pinochet’ in you.”7

Pacifists thus deal in moral absolutes. They do not appeal to the class struggle, but to humanity. Whether in its more conservative or radical forms, pacifism is premised on the idea that all killing is wrong because all life is sacred. The most extreme expression of this was Gandhi’s advice to the Jews of Germany just before the Second World War:

If I were a Jew and were born in Germany ... I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German might, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon ... If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now ... The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary sacrifice, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of a tyrant.8

Pacifism’s role is that of reconciliation of all conflict, its moderation in order to prevent it from becoming violent. McReynolds defines nonviolence, for example, in this telling way: “Nonviolence is a theory of managing social conflict in order to achieve social change.” George Orwell, in an essay on Gandhi, argued that this, too, was Gandhi’s role in the Indian independence movement:

Strictly speaking, as a Nationalist, he was an enemy [of the British], but since in every crisis he would exert himself to prevent violence–which, from the British point of view, meant preventing any effective action whatever–he could be regarded as “our man.” In private this was sometimes cynically admitted. The attitude of the Indian millionaires was similar. Gandhi called upon them to repent, and naturally they preferred him to the Socialists and Communists who, given the chance, would actually have taken their money away.9

Pacifism accepts the bourgeois idea of “norms” of behavior expressed by Clinton in his Columbine speech, only they would like him to abide by it. The way to end war is to convince all mankind to follow certain moral imperatives, certain norms of human behavior that stand above history and society: Be nice to strangers, love they neighbor, thou shalt not kill, and so on. So, for example, the Hague Agenda for Peace and Justice for the 21st Century declares, “Society now has the means to cure disease and eliminate poverty and starvation. The 20th century has also seen the creation of a set of universal norms which, if implemented, would go a long way toward making war unnecessary and impossible.”10 Surely the endless horror of war in the 20th century would have convinced the writers of this declaration that these norms are worth less than the paper they are written on. These norms, peddled in schoolbooks, the press, and the pulpit, are merely a cover for a society divided by class, riven by war for loot–a society where lying, deception, bribery, and large-scale killing are truly the norm.

In the period after the Second World War, pacifism regrouped and developed a view, know then as “nuclear pacifism,” that the sheer destructive power of nuclear weapons might produce a peaceful outcome. When the anti-nuclear weapons movement revived in the early 1980s across Britain, the U.S. and Europe, these old ideas were repackaged in a new form. The Marxist historian E.P. Thompson developed a theory he termed “exterminism,” which argued that nuclear weapons were so destructive that their use had become irrational for all mankind, regardless of class interest.

”Exterminism,” wrote Thompson, “is not a ‘class issue’: it is a human issue.” The task, therefore, was not to organize the class struggle so as to eliminate the system which gives rise to war, but to win over all sectors of society, top to bottom, to an “alternative logic.”11

But like economic competition, military competition imposes itself upon rivals as an external compulsion. Each capitalist must grow or die, must therefore try to drive its competitors from the field. The same logic (however irrational) is at work in military competition. The same conditions which give rise to economic competition in the world market also give rise to military competition. If “rationality” were the criterion, capitalism should have been abandoned some time ago, when it became clear that people starved in spite of an abundance of food, were unemployed in spite of an abundance of machinery and materials, and that world war would devastate entire nations and lead to mass extermination of entire peoples. Sadly, an appeal to the ruling classes of the world on the basis of saving the planet from destruction is about as realistic as asking a transnational corporation to abandon profit. But Thompson’s argument had the merit of revealing most clearly the class basis of pacifist ideology. It is the logic of the middle class–the rejection of class society and class division on the grounds that it is irrational, in the name of a common “humanity.”

Marxism, pacifism, and war

Lenin summed up the fundamental distinction between pacifism and Marxism in his pamphlet, “Socialism and war”:

Socialists have always condemned wars between nations as barbarous and brutal. Our attitude towards war, however, is fundamentally different from that of the bourgeois pacifists (supporters and advocates of peace) and of the anarchists. We differ from the former in that we understand the inevitable connection between wars and the class struggle within a country; we understand that wars cannot be abolished unless classes are abolished and socialism is created; we also differ in that we regard civil wars, i.e., wars waged by an oppressed class against the oppressor class, by slaves against slaveholders, by serfs against landowners, and by wage-workers against the bourgeoisie, as fully legitimate, progressive, and necessary.12

Marxists, for example, considered the U.S. defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese historically progressive, as were the North’s war against the Confederacy and the revolutionary struggle of Russian workers in 1917 against Tsarism. Trotsky, for example, said of the U.S. Civil War:

Lincoln’s significance lies in his not hesitating before the most severe means once they were found to be necessary in achieving a great historic aim posed by the development of a young nation. The question lies not even in which of the warring camps caused or itself suffered the greatest number of victims. History has different yardsticks for the cruelty of the Northerners and the cruelty of the Southerners in the Civil War. A slave-owner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains, and a slave who through cunning or violence breaks the chains–let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality!13

Lenin, Trotsky, and Polish-born German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, on the other hand, had a very different view of imperialist wars, that is, wars between rival world powers jockeying for control of the world’s wealth and resources.

Politics is concentrated economics, and (as Lenin often said, quoting the famous 19th century tactician Carlton Clausewitz) “war is a mere continuation of policy by other means.”14 So, for example, our criterion isn’t “who fired the first shot” or “who was the aggressor,” but who is fighting and for what purposes. Japan fired the first shot in the Second World War, but the war was not one of Japanese aggression and American defense, but of rivalry between Japan and the U.S. over the control of the Pacific region. One pacifist made this cogent analysis of U.S. war aims. The U.S. did not

go to war with the Japanese fascists because their purpose was fascism. Far from it: We abetted their purpose for profit, and when we went to war with them it was not because their purpose was fascism; it was because they tried to steal from us what we had stolen 43 years earlier from Spain.15

War and violence, as I have argued, is endemic to capitalism, and especially its modern form, imperialism. “The way the governments propose to solve this problem of imperialism is not through the intelligent, organized cooperation of all of humanity’s producers,” wrote Trotsky in 1917, “but through the exploitation of the world’s economic system by the capitalist class of the victorious country; which country is by this War to be transformed from a Great Power into the World Power.”16 While there certainly have been changes in the character of imperialism since Trotsky penned these words, which this article hasn’t the space to explore, it is certainly the case that in essence, the U.S. today is seeking, arms in hand, to ensure that in the new millennium it retains its position as the “Word Power,” and deters all other challengers to this role.

The pacifists, either due to confusion or by shutting their eyes to this truth, premise their approach to preventing or ending war in just the opposite view: that war is unnecessary, that world conflicts can be resolved peacefully, that ruling classes can be convinced, somehow, to disarm. That is why Marxists have always argued that pacifism, whatever its intentions, ends up providing cover for the existing system. Bourgeois, or middle class pacifists want “peace,” but believe, as Lenin pointed out, that it can be achieved on the grounds of the world system as it exists today. Lenin therefore sharply criticized pacifists for failing to see that peace within the existing arrangement of world imperialism merely meant a cessation of open hostilities in preparation for future wars:

War is the continuation, by forcible means, of the politics pursued by the ruling classes of the belligerent Powers long before the outbreak of war. Peace is a continuation of the very same politics, with a registration of the changes brought about in the relation of forces of the antagonists as a result of military operations. War does not change the direction in which politics developed prior to the war; it only accelerates that development.17

All talk of disarmament under imperialism, therefore, is completely utopian. And all efforts to paint as promising developments various agreements by competing states to reduce armaments, sow dangerous illusions. Rosa Luxemburg outlined this position in her article “Peace utopias”:

The friends of peace in bourgeois circles believe that world peace and disarmament can be realized within the framework of the present social order, whereas we ... are convinced that militarism can only be abolished from the world with the destruction of the capitalist state. From this it follows the mutual opposition of our tactics in propagating the idea of peace. The bourgeois friends of peace are endeavoring–and from their point of view this is perfectly logical and explicable–to invent all sorts of “practical” projects for gradually restraining militarism, and are naturally inclined to consider every outward apparent sign of a tendency toward peace as the genuine article, to take every expression of the ruling diplomacy in this vein at its word, to exaggerate it into a basis for earnest activity. The social democrats, on the other hand, must consider it their duty in this matter, just as in all matters of social criticism, to expose the bourgeois attempts to restrain militarism as pitiful half measures, and the expressions of such sentiments on the part of governing circles as diplomatic make-believe, and to oppose the bourgeois claims and pretenses with the ruthless analysis of capitalist reality.18

Trotsky was also unsparing in his criticism of pacifism as the idea that an appeal to “reason” can blunt the antagonisms that are built into the very nature of capitalism. He also pointed out that “pacifism has just the same basis as the doctrine of social harmony between different class interests ... If we are ready to assume the possibility of a gradual toning down of the class struggle, then we must also assume the gradual toning down and regulation of nationalistic conflicts.”19

In a later piece written in the 1930s, Trotsky explained the way in which a pacifist appeal for the ruling class to disarm itself disarms the movement against war:

The pretense of “disarmament” has and can have nothing in common with the prevention of war. The program of “disarmament” only signifies an attempt–up to now only on paper–to reduce in peacetime the expense of this or that kind of armaments. It is above all a question of military technique and the imperialist coffers. The arsenals, the munitions factories, the laboratories, and finally, what is most important, capitalist industry as a whole preserve all their force in all the “disarmament programs.” But states do not fight because they are armed. On the contrary, they forge arms when they have to fight. In case of war, all the peace limitations will fall aside like so much chaff ... . It is pure charlatanism to attempt to distinguish between defensive and offensive machine guns, tanks, aeroplanes. American policy is dictated in this also by the particular interests of American militarism, the most terrible of all. War is not a game which is conducted according to conventional rules. War demands and creates all the weapons which can most successfully annihilate the enemy. Petty-bourgeois pacifism, which sees in a 10 percent, or 33 percent, or 50 percent disarmament proposal the “first step” towards prevention of war, is more dangerous than all the explosives and asphyxiating gases. Melinite and yperite can do their work only because the masses of people are poisoned in peacetime by the fumes of pacifism.20

Trotsky’s point is made clear when we recall that yet another world war was fought after the unthinkable destruction of the first, in spite of the League of Nations and various disarmament conferences that followed. Moreover, in the period of the nuclear arms race after the Second World War, test-ban treaties and arms reduction agreements failed completely to prevent the U.S. and Russia from developing and producing ever-greater numbers of thermonuclear weapons, nor did it stop new nations–China, Israel, Pakistan, and India, for example–from acquiring them.

Yet pacifists have put, and continue to put, faith in various international organizations, treaties, and conferences to prevent or mitigate the tendencies toward war.

Marxism, pacifism, and revolution

No ruling class voluntarily cedes power to the class that is below it. On the contrary, it is willing to unleash, in the form of police, army, and paramilitary gangs, the utmost violence when it feels that it can no longer maintain power through some degree of consent of the oppressed. If this were not true, then how can one explain the social revolutions that have heralded the end of one society and the dawn of another throughout history? Even protests that do not immediately threaten the survival of the system are often met with the most brutal repression. The history of capitalism is full of peaceful mass protests attacked viciously by the forces of the state, from the workers’ procession to the Tsar’s palace in 1905 (which sparked the revolution of 1905) to civil rights protests in the 1960s, to the antiglobalization protests of late.

Of course, if a ruling class does not feel its power threatened by a particular movement or protest (and the system has some economic wiggle-room in the form of abundant profits), it may handle it with kid gloves and allow a great deal of lattitude. But this is merely proof that the degree of violent response by the ruling class is in direct proportion to the degree of perceived threat to its own “order.” Therefore, those who maintain that the movement must always remain peaceful as a matter of principle are in reality asking that the movement remain within the bounds of what is acceptable to the ruling class. And if the working class is called upon to seize control, democratically, of the factories, hospitals and schools, that is, to go beyond what is acceptable to the capitalists, but at the same time are urged to remain peaceful while the ruling class prepares its bloody response, then the pacifist is merely preaching to the workers that they must be prepared for defeat. This may seem a digression in an article about pacifism and war, but capitalism and its wars are intertwined, so that the fate of one hinges on the other.

Trotsky put it succinctly: “The bourgeoisie is incapable of organizing the division of the booty amongst its own ranks without war and destruction. Can it, without a fight, abandon its booty altogether?”21

For Marxists, the end–a society free of class oppression, war, and injustice–justifies the means: mass revolutionary action, up to and including the use of force, of the exploited and oppressed majority. For pacifists, the end–a society free of war and all violence–must be prefigured by the means. In his biography of Lenin, British socialist Tony Cliff writes:

As the revolution is a product of a class society it necessarily bears the traits of this society. It reflects capitalism rather than socialism, the present and the past, not the future. As the proletarian dictatorship has to fight bourgeois counterrevolution, it inevitably has to be symmetrical with it, in order to inflict blows on it. However, with all the diversion of means from ends, unless there is a central core connecting them, the means will not lead to the supposed end. “Seeds of wheat must be sown in order to yield an ear of wheat,” to use Trotsky’s words about the relation between means and ends in his pamphlet Their Morals and Ours. The plough breaking up the hard soil may help the seed of wheat to germinate and grow, but the plough does not prefigure the wheat. 22

And Trotsky also argued elsewhere:

That the aim of socialism is the elimination of force, first in its crudest and bloodiest forms, and then in other more covert ones, is indisputable. But here we are dealing not with the manners and morals of a future communist society but with the concrete paths and methods of struggle against capitalist force. When fascists disrupt a strike, seize a newspaper’s editorial offices and its safe, and beat up and kill workers’ deputies while the police encircle the thugs with a protective ring, then only the most corrupt hypocrite would advise workers not to reply blow for blow, on the pretext that force would have no place in a communist system. Obviously in each particular case it is necessary to decide, with respect to the whole situation how to answer the enemy’s force and just how far to go in one’s retaliation. But that is a matter of tactical expediency which has nothing to do with the acknowledgement or denial of force in principle.23

Engels and Marx argued that violence also has a progressive historic role:

That force, however, plays yet another role in history, a revolutionary role; that, in the words of Marx, it is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one, that it is the instrument with the aid of which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilized political forms–of this there is not a word in Herr Dühring. It is only with sighs and groans that he admits the possibility that force will perhaps be necessary for the overthrow of an economic system of exploitation–unfortunately, because all use of force demoralizes the person who uses it. And this in spite of the immense moral and spiritual impetus which has been given by every victorious revolution!24

Violence does not necessarily degrade those who use it. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass believed that when an escaped slave used force to prevent a slave-catcher from forcibly returning him to bondage, he or she was helping to lift slaves up from both their physical and mental bondage. It was the persistent lack of resistance in the face of unremitting oppression that had the most morally degrading influence on the oppressed. “We cannot but shudder as we call to mind the horrors that have ever marked servile insurrections–,” Douglass wrote in 1857,

we would avert them if we could; but shall the millions forever submit to robbery, to murder, to ignorance, and every unnamed evil which an irresponsible tyranny can devise, because the overthrow of that tyranny would be productive of horrors? We say not. The recoil, when it comes, will be in exact proportion to the wrongs inflicted; terrible as it will be, we accept and hope for it. The slaveholder has been tried and sentenced, his execution only waits the finish to the training of his executioners. He is training his own executioners.25

Trotsky, writing in 1934 about the growing danger of fascism in France, insisted that, far from debasing the workers’ movement, armed defense militias would give it the tools, and therefore, the confidence, to confront and defeat the fascists, as well as showing the disaffected middle class that were drawing toward fascism that it offered an alternative. “Nothing increases the insolence of the fascists as much as ‘flabby pacifism’ on the part of the workers’ organizations. Nothing destroys the confidence of the middle classes in the working class as temporizing, passivity, and the absence of the will to struggle.”26

Pacifism today

The ongoing “war on terrorism” unleashed by Bush after September 11 produced a response from pacifist organizations little different from pacifists in the past. In their call for “alternatives” to war, which has been so commonplace (that is: bringing the perpetrators of September 11 to “justice,” trying them in an international court; international cooperation between states to fight terrorism, increasing the role of the UN, and so on) they accept all the premises of imperialism, and sow illusions in the idea that there is something called an “international community” that isn’t simply various coalitions of the most powerful ruling states, jockeying for power. An organization calling itself, which produced a popular antiwar petition after September 11, states on their Web site: “We support President Bush’s resolve to end terrorism, but not his military agenda for doing it.”27

Modern day bourgeois pacifists like the AFSC accept the premises of the Bush administration, fuelling the illusion that Bush’s war aims are the elimination of terrorism, and that the government who created al Qaeda and that has committed far worse crimes against humanity should be entrusted with bringing war criminals to justice. It makes a separation between military and legal/diplomatic means, when in reality they are just two sides of the same policy (war is a continuation of politics). But in a more general sense, all these proposals are predicated on the idea that imperialism can be tamed, that ruling classes can be made to renounce violence and war, based upon letters appealing to reason and morality, a candlelight vigil, or in some instances, nonviolent protest. Take this letter from AFSC member John Dear to President Bush:

Dear Mr. President,

I am writing to you to ask you to stop immediately the bombing of Afghanistan, to stop your preparations for other wars, to cut the Pentagon’s budget drastically, not increase it; to lift the sanctions on Iraq, end military aid to Israel, stop U.S. support of the occupation of the Palestinians, lift the entire third world debt, dismantle every one of our nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, abandon your Star Wars Missile Shield plans, join the world court and international law, and close our own terrorist training camps, beginning with Fort Benning’s “School of the Americas.”28

The absurdity of this request requires no comment. This completely utopian stance can serve only to sow illusions in the nature of the world system in general, and of the U.S. ruling class and the Bush administration in particular.

Moreover, international law is not a democratic expression of the world’s people but of the world’s ruling classes. Conventions regulating the conduct of war, in any case, are not worth the paper they are written on. Rules of engagement are systematically flouted by all sides in any real war. The 1991 Gulf War should offer proof enough that international coalitions with real teeth are only those initiated and sanctioned by the world’s leading powers–in particular, the United States. All other expressions by the “international community,” such as numerous UN resolutions condemning Israel’s occupation, are simply ignored. International criminal courts, moreover, are invariably victors’ courts, and therefore are not alternatives to war, but a component of it. The U.S. is turning its back on the current court, the International Criminal Court, because it isn’t convinced it won’t be used against U.S. personnel. It is therefore a toothless court.

Though he was writing about the precursor to the UN–the League of Nations–the historian E. H. Carr’s insights, written in 1939 were not only cogent for the period he was writing, but are still valid today:

Throughout the nineteen-twenties, this fallacy of the power of international opinion was being gradually exposed. That it survived at all was due to the persistent use by League enthusiasts of slogans like peace and disarmament which were capable of a universal appeal precisely because they meant different, and indeed contradictory, things to different people. Every country wanted to achieve the aims of its policy without war, and therefore stood for peace. Every country wanted disarmament of other countries or disarmament in those weapons which it did not regard as vital to itself. After the collapse of the Disarmament Conference [in 1937–ed.], it became apparent to all that the League of Nations could be effective only in so far as it was an instrument of the national policy of its most powerful members.29

This is clearly true today of the UN and of all international institutions that many pacifists look to as some kind of solution to war. In fact, they are bodies that only function insofar as they act as “an instrument of the national policy of the most powerful members,” and are therefore, to the extent that they have any role at all, not instruments for peace, but instruments for war.

There are, of course, left-wing pacifists. There are pacifists that have presented excellent analyses of Bush’s real war aims, how oil and strategic advantage drives U.S. policy, not “fighting terrorism.” How it is a hypocritical snare for a state that harbors terrorists, funds terrorists, and itself commits atrocious state-sponsored terror, to set itself up as the chief fighter of terrorism. That in reality, fighting “terrorism” is really about creating a conformity of fear around Washington’s own war program, and that any war crimes tribunal should put Kissinger or Bush on the docket ahead of Osama bin Laden. These writings have been extre mely useful in providing the antiwar movement with vital ammunition as it challenges Bush’s war. But many of these trenchant criticisms conclude with an argument for a UN solution, or with appeals to a mythical international community–which are, as I have argued, not really solutions at all. Moreover, no matter how radical, pacifism, if it is consistent, fails to answer satisfactorily the question: Are those who use force to resist American imperialism, such as the Vietnamese, morally justified or morally bankrupt?


At the beginning of this article, I tried to show the hypocrisy of the ruling class toward the question of violence and war, whereby the oppressed are exhorted to “not go too far,” to show nonviolent restraint in the face of countless violent outrages by capitalism. Sadly, this view of the oppressed isn’t limited to the ruling class. Liberal, middle-class pacifists also criticize the violence of the oppressed.

The German reformist socialist Karl Kautsky denounced the Bolsheviks’ conduct in the Russian civil war, arguing that socialists should believe in the “sacredness of life.” This was Trotsky’s reply:

What is the meaning of the principle of the sacredness of human life in practice, and in what does it differ from the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” Kautsky does not explain. When a murderer raises his knife over a child, may one kill the murderer to save the child? Will not thereby the principle of the “sacredness of human life” be infringed? May one kill the murderer to save oneself? Is an insurrection of oppressed slaves against their masters permissible? Is it permissible to purchase one’s freedom at the cost of the life of one’s jailers? If human life in general is sacred and inviolable, we must deny ourselves not only the use of terror, not only war, but also revolution itself. Kautsky simply does not realize the counter-revolutionary meaning of the “principle” which he attempts to force upon us ... As long as human labor power, and, consequently, life itself, remain articles of sale and purchase, of exploitation and robbery, the principle of the “sacredness of human life” remains a shameful lie, uttered with the object of keeping the oppressed slaves in their chains.

As for us, we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the “sacredness of human life.” We were revolutionaries in opposition, and have remained revolutionaries in power. To make the individual sacred we must destroy the social order which crucifies him.30

Ending war, as we have argued here, cannot be separated from ending capitalism. The two are intertwined. To preach peaceful international relations without ending imperialist conflict is no different from preaching peace between worker and boss, peace between exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed. Therefore, by accepting pacifism in principle, ironically, one ends up holding up the system which perpetuates violence and war, that is, achieving the opposite result. This is the exact opposite of the pacifist dictum that in opposing violence we must renounce violence. We Marxists say instead: To destroy war and violence we must forcibly wrest the weapons of oppression from the ruling class and create a new society in which the economic and social conditions make systematic violence no longer part of human life. We know that individual violence is a dead end, and that collective mass struggle is the key, but we also know that power concedes nothing without a demand, and slavery was not eliminated in the U.S. by prayers and petitions.

We make this argument not because we believe pacifists are insincere in their beliefs, but because the belief in the inherent goodness of the ruling class can disarm a movement at decisive moments. Moreover, we do not equate all pacifism. There is the pacifism of the oppressed, seeking justice, who learn in the struggle the relative merits of this or that form of struggle as the struggle progresses. Most abolitionists began as pacifists, believing in moral suasion of the slaveholders. But experience taught them that John Brown, who believed that slavery must by ended by the use of force, was, in the end, right.

As Trotsky wrote:

It is necessary to differentiate strictly between the pacifism of the diplomat, professor, journalist, and the pacifism of the carpenter, agricultural worker, and the charwoman. In one case, pacifism is a screen for imperialism; in the other, it is the confused expression of distrust in imperialism.31

As socialists opposed to imperialism and militarism, we work in every movement against U.S. intervention alongside pacifists, but along the way we try to win them away from the ideas of liberal pacifism, whose politics are a dead end.

”To condemn war is easy,” wrote Trotsky,

to overcome it is difficult. The struggle against war is a struggle against the classes which rule society and which hold in their hands both its productive forces and its destructive weapons. It is not possible to prevent war by moral indignation, by meetings, by resolutions, by newspaper articles, and by congresses. As long as the bourgeoisie has at its command the banks, the factories, the land, the press, and the state apparatus, it will always be able to drive the people to war when its interests demand it. But the propertied classes never cede power without a struggle.32

An advocate of principled nonviolence–that is, one who rejects all forms of violence under all circumstances–must make a choice between the success of the movement and the inviolability of the principle. To commit in principle to non-violence is to preach peace to the movement whenever it is in danger of breaking the sacred principle of nonviolence. In practice, therefore, even the principled nonviolent activist who opposes capitalism and is committed to a different world must strive to prevent not only revolution against the social order, but the simple right of armed self-defense against racists or fascist gangs. The militant pacifist therefore comes to a breaking point where they must decide whether they are committed to a struggle for a new society, or, to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, for the surface modification of the old. They must decide whether they are for managing conflict or for fundamental change.

* * *


1 Mark Obmascik and Patricia Callahan, “Clinton meets Columbine,” Denver Post, May 21, 1999.

2 “Shoel’s letter to the president,” Denver Post, May 21, 1999.

3 Leon Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1992), p. 22.

4 Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours, p. 22.

5 Leon Trotsky, “To young communists and socialists who wish to think,” Writings of Leon Trotsky [1935–1936] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), pp. 49–50.

6 “Speak truth to power,” Peacework, December 2001/January 2002, online at

7 David McReynolds, “Philosophy of nonviolence,” online at

8 Quoted in Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1983), p. 346.

9 George Orwell, “Reflections on Gandhi,” K-1 Internet publishing, online at

10 “The Hague Agenda for Peace and Justice for the 21st Century,” Preamble, online at

11 Chris Harman, “Marxism and the missiles,” Socialist Review (London), 17 October–14 November, 1980; 9, p. 18.

12 V.I. Lenin, “Socialism and war,” Collected Works, Volume 21 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1980), p. 299. Lenin draws attention here to the similarities between pacifism and anarchism, which this article doesn’t have the space to develop. Anarchism opposes all “authority,” and pacifists all “violence.” But in both cases, the question boils down to a rejection of coercion, and therefore, of revolution, which is by definition the overthrow, by coercive methods, of one social class by another.

13 Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours, p. 38.

14 Carl von Clausewitz, On War (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 119.

15 Clausewitz, p. 51.

16 Leon Trotsky, The Bolsheviki and World Peace (Boni & Liveright, Inc., 1918), p. 22. It was originally published as “The war and the International” in 1914.

17 V.I. Lenin, “The peace program,” Collected Works, Volume 22 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), p. 163.

18 Rosa Luxemburg, “Peace utopias,” Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1980), p. 251.

19 Leon Trotsky, “Pacifism as the servant of imperialism,” Trotsky Internet archive, online at

20 Leon Trotsky, “Declaration to the antiwar congress at Amsterdam,” Writings of Leon Trotsky [1932] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1981), pp. 150, 151–52.

21 Leon Trotsky, Terrorism & Communism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), p. 67.

22 Tony Cliff, Lenin: Revolution Beseiged, 2nd Edition (London: Bookmarks, 1987), p. 110. This edition combines volume 3 and 4 of Cliff’s original edition.

23 Leon Trotsky, Trotsky’s Writings on Britain (London: New Park, 1974), p. 61.

24 Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, p. 61.

25 Frederick Douglass, “Peaceful annihilation of slavery is hopeless,” in Philip S. Foner, ed., abridged and adapted by Yuval Taylor, Selected Speeches and Writings (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), p. 344.

26 Trotsky, Whither France? (London: New Park, 1974), p. 18.

27 “Why peace?” online at

28 John Dear, “Open letter to George W. Bush,” February 8, 2002, online at

29 E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939 (New York: Harper & Row, 1946), p. 140.

30 Trotsky, Terrorism & Communism, pp. 62, 63.

31 Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), pp. 89–90.

32 Trotsky, “Declaration to the antiwar congress at Amsterdam,” p. 150.

Paul D’Amato Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 16 August 2022