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More Reflections on Pacificism

[Yeah, still haven't written anything about Syriza.  Partisan had a small article about it, which would probably be a summary echo of whatever longer thing I would say, but the truth is I'm stuck between some gap of caring and not-caring, particularly since I know what I will say and the readers of my blog shouldn't be surprised by what I say, but that I probably would say it in way that has at least enough nuance to piss off a bunch of people on all sides of the debate and guarantee flaming.  Also, I enjoyed reading the response to Curtis Cole's terrible article about PPW that has recently been posted on the PCR-RCP website.  But instead of writing about either of those issues, I've got this rambling post instead…]

As an ethos pacifism is compelling because it banks on the moralistic assumption that in any given war both sides are equally wrong.  Hence those committed to a pacifist politics are ethically superior to those embroiled in these wars because they exist beyond politics, at the level of abstract morality, having transcended the militaristic concerns of those who cannot realize that the world would be a better place if they just chose to stop fighting.  While it is correct to recognize that the politics of pacifism was originated by those who recognized that there was an unequal deployment of power in both sides of the conflict (i.e. Gandhi recognized that Britain was oppressing India, Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that white power was oppressing African Americans), this politics still bases its moral superiority on an assumption that violence is equally wrong, whether it is practiced by the oppressor or the oppressed.  Indeed, according to this analysis, the oppressed becomes identical to the oppressor if and when the former chooses to behave like the latter––by resisting violently––and becomes morally tainted.

By treating violence as ethically homogenous, whether it is performed by the oppressor or oppressed, we end up with the eventual reification of the conflict's meaning in and of itself: if the moral dilemma is over acting violently or not, then the moral dilemma of who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed is not the focus of the ethical dilemma… this reality, though (to be fair) recognized as significant by the originators of pacifism, vanishes bases on the fact that the ethical and moral focus is on violence and only violence.  Both sides, regardless of which side has more power and has initiated the violence, are equalized because they both engage in violent activity.  Pacifism thus attempts to create an alternate camp in every conflict that distinguishes itself primarily by condemning the violence of this conflict.

Hence we end up with a politics of pacifism, the telos of its originators, that assumes the primary contradiction is between war and peace––between the war-mongers and those who reject violence altogether.  A laudable politics in an abstract moral sphere, but a very naive politics in the sphere of the concrete.  The hippy movement and its successors: give peace a chance, the commonality of humanity, and those who always argue that, in every violent conflict, "both sides are wrong."  And though it is true that we need to recognize that every class struggle politics must begin by defining what side is on the side of total war and what side will lead to peace, this does not mean that we should pretend the primary contradiction is between war and peace in a context of uncompromising class and imperialist war where the oppressed need to resist so as to prevent their obliteration.


But this banal politics of pacifism has resulted in a common sense analysis of conflict that, even in its progressive fictions, pretends as if war is primarily a state where both sides are equally wrong.  The radical position, based on this narrative, is some "fuck both sides" position, where the heroes are war-resistors from both sides of the conflict who unite and demonstrate a solution to the conflict in their peaceful resolution.  Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staple's Saga recently reminded me of this pacifist narrative where, perhaps in an attempt to comment on the violence of contemporary conflict, created a tale of equally powerful forces in a long war that are both challenged by two individuals from opposing sides who reject this war by, well, fucking (indeed, a character even claims that "fucking" is the "opposite of war"), having a child, and embrace pacifism so as to demonstrate the problem of the war narratives of their respective sides.  Human sentiment conquers violence, all is good in the world.  Saga notwithstanding (and, to be fair, it is very well written and drawn), this is pretty much the narrative of the radical anti-war camp that bases its rejection of war on the moral rejection of violence.

Here is a myth: that wars are generally theatres in which all sides are equal.  Here is the truth: in the modern era those wars where all sides are equal (whether equally reprehensible or equally powerful) are the exception and not the rule.  Even in antiquity this is the case, though it is harder to prove and prone to the application of modern ethics upon a past that would have resisted a moral perspective wrenched from the jaws of history.  Point being: it becomes extremely difficult to prove that war in general is a state where all sides are equal, that some if not one side is responsible for the violence existing in the first place, and that there are not oppressors and oppressed.  An equal war where both sides are to blame?  Maybe World War One, when it comes to the level of nation states, and this is why it was such a confusion.  Otherwise, beyond these far-and-few-between situations where imperialist nations are entering into an arcane conflict about carving up the world (which is just an expression of the warfare the bourgeois wages upon the proletariat), it is difficult to find a situation where war is a state of equal conflict between two sides.  Instead we discover situations where war only exists because one nation wants to expand into the territory of another, where a nation thinks it has the right to claim the resources of the world, where oppressors seek to make others oppressed.  That war is mainly a decision between two equal powers to violently duel for resources on an equal playing field is rather uncommon. While there is such a thing as intra-imperialist rivalry, its manifestation in the killing fields of wars is an exception: politics is war by other means, it has other bodies in which to indulge its competition.

But the pacifist rallying cry is "a pox on both houses" and this is taken as some critical rejection of war itself.  In the early 90s I saw this pseudo-radical line applied to the situation of Israel-Palestine where it was considered supremely moral to declare that "both sides were equally wrong" and thus disappear the reality of oppression.  Both sides were "wrong" because they both engaged in violence and that was all that mattered: not the inequality of these sides, not the fact that oppression produced violence in the first place, and definitely not the fact that the violence of the oppressed was either a desperate attempt to persist in survival or to get rid of the basis of its oppression altogether.

Even when the pacifist recognizes this inequality (as Gandhi did, as Martin Luther King Jr. did) it is a secondary concern. For the pacifist, as noted above, the primary contradiction is between violence and non-violence, and thus when violence is being used by both (or all) sides this is what designates these sides as equal: they are united in their lack of morality, their collaboration in making, to riff off off Gandhi, the entire world blind.  We can, of course, add other pacifist moralisms, most of which are cliches: you become the enemy when you use their methods, the oppressed becomes the oppressor when they resort to violence, revolutions are monsters that eat their children (which was, it must be said, a reactionary slogan about the French Revolution), and even that adage about not dismantling the master's house with his tools.

By treating violence and non-violence as a primary contradiction, the material basis upon which violence and war rests becomes reified.  The fact of the matter is that war is a necessary part of any class-based society since every social formation to date is determined by class struggle.  And the wars launched by the ruling class are not threatened by large-scale rejections of violence, no matter what those liberals committed to keeping the class war of capitalism operating eternally might believe about India, the Civil Rights movement, or what have you.  The ethics of pacifism might seem less morally reprehensible than armed resistance but the same argument they use to justify their moral status doesn't help their cause very much: if violent revolutions "eat their young"––that is, perpetuate the same violence upon the former oppressors or some other oppressed camp––then what can we say of those non-violent movements that also led to a continuation of violence?  That the people involved in these movements were more morally advanced than those involved in violent resistance?  Gandhi's non-violent movement––if it was actually primarily responsible for pushing out the British, which is dubious at best––was also a movement of the Indian upper caste who are more than happy to keep the violence implicit in the caste system (and it is a very brutal violence) in place.  They may have acted peacefully towards their national oppressors but they are complicit in a very violent system, like any class based social formation, where the violence is a structural fact.

 And yet the moral magnetism of pacifism is strong.  Indeed: anyone who possesses any ounce of sanity (which means anyone who doesn't think according to what capitalism and imperialism designates as "sane") will prefer peace to war, violence to non-violence.  This is why, in an old post, I discussed how violent resistance is necessarily "tragic"––if a better world truly was possible through non-violence, if those in power would exit the historical stage without struggle, this would be preferable but it is clearly not the case.  Their institutions do need to be smashed and they will fight to prevent such a smashing.

But since pacifistic morality is strong it possesses a certain level of ideological hegemony amongst those who want the violence of the current order to end.  This is why the fables about the perils of war tend to locate their narratives in stories about wars where both sides are equally wrong and the heroes are resistors on both sides.  Or why we should achieve revolution through the ballot box––why Syriza (forgetting the brutal class struggle that led to Syriza's victory and that will continue despite this victory) is the model we should follow [and yes, I know I promised an article about that but like I said before, I just don't have the mental energy]––which is the opportunist thesis of "peaceful co-existence with capitalism."  Or why cops and soldiers aren't really our class enemy because they're just people who, regardless of their position in maintaining the power of the ruling camp, can be won over to the side of peace.

We really want to believe that everyone is equally responsible for their violence, that the humanity of the oppressor and the oppressed can be discovered once both sides put aside their violent proclivities that unite them inhumanity, and that the contradiction between war and peace is reducible to the contradiction between violence and non-violence.  But as Mao once quipped, with his typical and cutting dialectical insight, "We are advocates of the abolition of war, we do not want war; but war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun."  Why?  Because the peace of capital is not peace for those who are exploited and oppressed to maintain this peace; those responsible for perpetuating this peace (which means war on the wretched of the earth at all times and in all ways) will not recognize a shared humanity beyond what is considered humane by their social order––an acceptance of business as usual, a refusal to complain about one's lot in life, and so the wars continue regardless of pacifist moralism.  Capitalists can be pacifists too when they are short-sighted enough to reject those military interventions that are designed to protect their power… and when their workers resist exploitation then these liberal capitalists will preach pacifism and the morality of non-violence, refusing to recognize that the very act of exploitation is violence incarnate.


  1. Once again, great article JMP!

    While you are on the topic of supposedly radical ideas that are actually liberal platitudes, what do you think about the recent "Love: the ethics of communism" ( essay that has been making the rounds?

    1. Haven't read it. If I did read it and disliked it, though, I wouldn't bother making many comments here since these days I generally only respond to people picking fights rather than instigating them myself. Why? What was liberal about it? I mean, the title does sound like the nonsense Hardt was spouting years back, though it seems from my cursory glance they're riffing off of Che Guevera…

  2. violence is like a genie, once it is out of the bottle, it is very difficult to get it back in again.
    while violence may sometimes be necessary, yet the way Maoists in particular glorify violence is unbalanced.
    i think it is impossible to be a modern western state through violence. therefore, non-violence is the best way.
    i look at the rhetoric of groups such as the shining path and the nepali maoists, and i wonder how many peasants were sacrificed for next to nothing.

    1. The claim about violence being like a genie in a bottle is another pithy cliche, and one that was already countered by this post. Thus, it is rather rhetorical to quote it as a dismissal. It is doubly problematic to claim that Maoists "glorify" violence since this relies on a very particular discourse, which is generally sanctioned by states that monopolize violence and thus have the ideological hegemony to declare that any challenge to their monopoly is abhorrent.

      You wonder how many peasants "were sacrificed for next to nothing" by revolutions but refuse to recognize that this next to nothing sacrifice of peasants was part of the everyday violence of the state of affairs that declares an all out war on people as part of its day to day operations. That there were organizations that tried to mobilize the victims of the system to fight back and challenge this sacrifice, the normative violence of the system, is something you treat as the primary act of violence when in fact it was a challenge to the dehumanizing violence of everyday existence. Or do you really believe that capitalist imperialism was treating these peasants fine and dandy and that their resistance to their subordination was worse? Point being: these revolutionary situations emerged to challenge the "next to nothing" sacrifice that the most oppressed were making day in and day out, mobilizing them to fight against this state of affairs, and yet you have the gall to shit on this resistance because you seem to think that resistance is a "sacrifice" as opposed to non-resistance of the daily obliteration waged by capital.

      The truth is that your view is unbalanced and you should really do some reading about how and why global capitalism's business as usual functions to violently destroy the most wretched of the earth before shitting on those moments when and where these masses have tried to resist.

    2. [continued]

      Point being, you should think through the arguments presented in this post, and those linked to this post, before writing such an asinine comment. You should also read the "comment policy" before commenting, considering that you have violated it with your anon account, which speaks to your unwillingness to take responsibility for your comments. The fact that you have based an argument upon a cliche, relied on ruling class ideology as justification for your premises, made an uninformed claim about maoism, and decided that two people's wars were more violent than capitalism and imperialism demonstrates a significant poverty in thought––particularly a willingness to take bourgeois ideology at its word.

  3. i do not take 'bourgeois ideology at its word'. i condemn all violence, especially that done by 'our' governments. Yet neither do i take Marxist Leninist ideology at its word.

    exploitation is very bad, of course, but i dont see it as 'violence'. working in Mcdonalds may be exploitation, but the people working there are not being beaten or shot. it is you who equate economic exploitation and physical violence as one. I dont, they are different things, though both bad.

    communists have the same binary manichean view of reality, just like GW Bush, you are either with us or against us....

    In India, the Gandhian movements have done much more for the poor peasants than the Naxalite movement, which can never win against the state, and has brought down the wrath of the state on the peasants, who are trapped in a crossfire.

    i also dislike the atheism of communism. non violence derives its power from the spirit, and prayer and love for your enemies is also important.

    you should read Leo Tolstoy, and learn from this great man.

    1. First of all I have read Tolstoy. So what? Some aristocrat who waxed eloquent about the simple lives of the peasants he exploited is not someone who I would take seriously as a philosopher, even if he wrote important fiction. Maybe you should read a lot of thinkers that challenge your worldview.

      Secondly, you're completely wrong when you say the Gandhian movement has done much more for the poor peasants in India than the Naxalite movement. You should really read Arundhati Roy's journalistic account of this: she was a Gandhian who ended up being forced to critique her understanding of things because of this encounter. The Gandhians have done absolutely nothing. Moreover, they support the caste system… or do you not think this is violence?

      Thirdly, it is simply rhetoric to claim that exploitation is not violence. So it is not violent that people die because they cannot afford to eat? It is not violent that the system of exploitation produces, necessarily, police? You choose to separate these things demonstrating you really haven't thought them through. I'm sure I cannot convince you, but you're the one who has chosen to think that it is not violent for people to die in mass numbers because human needs have been privatized.

      Fourthly, your claim about "binary manicheaism" is laughable at best, considering you have done the same thing: either you accept my position on non-violence or you're wrong. What do you know of class struggle, what do you know of those mass movements that have actually led to the social change you most probably enjoy? Do you call the French Revolutionaries "manichean", and thus dismiss them, when it is because of them and the Terrors you must despise that we even have the modern concepts of equality and liberty? Even Gandhi understood this, but you apparently don't care.

      Finally, your claims about "spirit", "prayer" and "love for your enemies" are empty platitudes. History has changed, and more brutal societies have fallen, because of class struggle and not because of prayer. This is a material fact. You might like to believe otherwise, but you are sincerely deluded. Did the Civil Rights movement in the US succeed because of prayer and spirit? Read your history rather than some common sense wisdom promoted by the bourgeois media: it succeeded because of mass struggle, particularly because of the war zone in the southern states (far more than the peace movement of MLK), which was waged against the violence of the state of affairs as is.

      Truth be told: you don't care about the violence that faces the most wretched of the earth. You think that any struggle they embark upon to end this violence is immoral, and thus you condemn them, because it does not fit your moral high-ground. And thus, point being, you really didn't understand a word that I wrote.

      You should read Marx, "and learn from this great man."

  4. Agreed on the fact that South Asia was not freed by non-violence, although the non-violent tactics certainly played a critical part. Mass non-violence movements had petered out by the mid '30s, and the freedom struggle was mostly carried on by bands of insurrectionists like communists in Bengal and leftist groups like the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) who robbed trains and killed cops. And then the '40s saw full-blown, consistent counter-violence against British imperialism, first in the Quit India Movement (which I've written about in length here: which saw mobs of thousands blow up police stations, kill colonial officials, burn down train stations, and loot post offices; and a subsequent rural insurgency that was especially potent in Bengal and Karnataka (in Bengal workers and peasants seized major cities and formed popular assemblies, some of which the British never recaptured). And then riots sparked up again when the British put Indian National Army cadres on trial, and they were forced to essentially let them go (in stark contrast to how they executed radicals through the '20s and '30s); and then working-class sailors of the Royal Indian Navy mutinied in 1946 and lead violent street protests in all of the major coastal cities, like Mumbai and Karachi. So small wonder that the British abruptly decided that they would officially leave in 1947.

    I would point out that the role played by Gandhi played by all of this was more complicated than we communists tend to think; he steadily moved away from having a hard "violence vs. non-violence" binary in the 1920s (hence why he freaked out and called the Non-Cooperation movement off when some cops were killed by an angry mob) to a stance that violence was better than remaining docile and oppressed (hence why he refused to condemn the rioters and militants of 1942-44, even when British officials came to him in prison and begged him to condemn them on grounds of "non-violence"). Also, in interviews he gave during the early 1940s, he talked a surprising amount about how peasants should seize land from landlords, and shrugged off the fact that this would be a necessarily violent process by saying that if the landlords just cooperated by running away, it wouldn't have to be violent.

  5. Hello,

    Love your posts/articles - is there a function in your website where I can subscribe so I can get it an alert when you write a new post/article?

    1. I think there's an RSS feed, but I'm not computer savvy enough to set up alerts and such.


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