Sunday, October 14, 2007

Philosophy of Nonviolence: Why Nonviolence Works

Here is another brilliant article that I found at

Its sad to me that one of the greatest if not THE greatest proponents of non- violence in history was Jesus Christ and yet the modern voice of Christian non- violence is seriously marginalized and squelched by the more popular positions of "Christian" militarism. I have had a lot to say about both Christian non- violence and "Christian" militarism on this blog. If you are interested... just look around and you will find it.

Meanwhile, enjoy the article:

Part Five. By David McReynolds

Having tried to give some of the background of nonviolence - and I am just going to have to assume you have read the four earlier installments - how is it possible that unarmed people can hope to liberate themselves? First, there is no guarantee nonviolence will work in every case.

This puts nonviolence in precisely the same place as violence. No one picks up a gun to liberate their country - as the Vietnamese did - with a guarantee of victory. History is a bleak record of countless valiant battles for justice - ending in defeat. One case worth mentioning was the struggle in South Africa led by Gandhi’s son, Manilal Gandhi, in the 1950’s in an effort to force a change in policy by the regime. The struggle ended in violence and defeat. In our own country there are thousands of cases where oppressed people have tried to deal with injustice peacefully and have lost.

The first instinct of every sane person is to find a “safe” way to resolve a conflict. The closer you are to a serious conflict - racial, labor, human rights - the more aware you become that people who are already hurting would prefer not to get hurt still more. So a peaceful - nonviolent - solution is almost always the first way chosen. People turn to violence when they feel the oppressor “only understands violence.” As this is being written there is a tragic situation unfolding in Kosovo, where a long and remarkably nonviolent struggle by the Albanian ethnic majority (about 90% of the population of Kosovo, which is a province under Serbian control in former Yugoslavia) is turning violent because a handful of courageous, angry young Albanians started killing Serbian police, the Serbs in turn have killed a number of them, and hopes for a nonviolent resolution may be fading as both sides in this conflict take the position “they only understand violence.”


Pacifists try to create conditions under which the opponent is “free to try different behavior”. There are three examples that can be used (and a lot more waiting for the history student, all the way from Finland to Cambodia). One is India. A second is the Montgomery Bus Boycott which began the Civil Rights Revolution in this country. The third is the Farm Workers under Chavez.


Mahatma Gandhi did two things which were crucial to victory. The first was to give the Indians a pride in themselves, a sense that they were not weaker than the British. (It is common when you are in an oppressed group to feel that perhaps the reason you are oppressed is because you deserve it - the old pattern of self- hatred or a lack of self-respect common to the oppressed, whether black, gay, women, etc.). When Gandhi led the famous Salt March to the sea (to protest the British tax on salt). This simple act - so simple it would have made the British look foolish to try to stop it - let all of India see this man with a handful of followers walk from his “Ashram” across India to the sea. With every step he took all India began to feel a new pride. When he reached the sea and began the process of collecting the salt (which could be had at low tide when the salty sea water had evaporated and left deposits of “raw salt”), he was arrested and jailed. But not before some of his followers had begun to send the collected salt across India where it was auctioned for money for the Congress Party.

At every auction new arrests were made until thousands were in jail. A foreign correspondent talking to a high caste Indian asked if he didn’t find it embarrassing that someone of his social standing faced prison, to which he responded “Oh no, all the best people are in prison.” That was the first step - an open, public defiance of the law. A proof that Gandhi and his followers were not afraid of the British prisons.

The second step - both in this campaign and in the many others Gandhi led - was to create such disorder that the British were forced to negotiate. One of the actions Gandhi urged on his followers was the weaving of their own cloth, so that they would not depend on the British for imported cotton. (Up to that point the British bought the Indian cotton at a low price, then milled it and made garments in England, which were sold back to the Indians at a much higher price).


For Gandhi, it was important to have a “Constructive Program” which would involve all Indians in the movement. His use of the spinning wheel was a symbol of “self reliance”. Gradually the British mills began to face bankruptcy as their exports to India fell. As we will see in looking at the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Gandhi was creating a new reality, was “changing the political facts” so that the British either had to engage in massive violent repression, or negotiate. There were many ways in which Gandhi created such facts - massive sitdowns in front of trains, general strikes, the famous “passive resistance” which so fascinated the West in the 1930’s. Here was a little man in a loin cloth, unarmed, and yet able to bring the British Empire in India to a standstill. He could, simply by issuing the call, stop trains from running. (There is an interesting, little known bit of history from the early Bolshevik Revolution, when the Revolution was saved not by force of arms - in the early days after October 25 the Bolsheviks had no armed forces - but by a “battle of the trains”. The White Russians were trying to move their troops to Petrograd, the center of the Revolution, but because the Bolsheviks had the support of the workers running the railroads, the trains carrying the White Russian troops kept having mysterious delays, or were shunted down the wrong tracks. Hannah Arendt documents similar actions by the Italians when, late in World War II, Hitler tried to deport all the Jews from Italy to make sure they were killed - he had lost confidence in the Italians to do the job properly. It was, again, a battle of trains, with the Jews never arriving at the same place as the Nazi transport. (It would have been funny - if the whole event had not been so horribly tragic).


When the Montgomery Bus Boycott began in December of 1955 it seemed hopeless, but it was all the black community could risk. They had no support from the Federal government at that point, and they faced the armed force of the local (and state) police. No one had successfully defied the white power structure in the South - resistance was suicidal. But the black community felt the police would have a hard time coping with something as simple as … NOT riding the bus. What could the police do if people chose to walk instead of ride? And in Montgomery that winter, and that spring, black folks walked. They walked if they were young, they walked if they were old. They walked if they were tired and they walked if they were sick. If they couldn’t walk, the Montgomery Improvement Association arranged for some transport by car.

At first the whites laughed. They weren’t threatened by black people walking!! But King and his co-workers were creating new facts. One of the first facts was that blacks were learning that, even if they were still afraid, they could act. Every step they took was seen as a step forward to a new goal. One of the white women asked her maid, who was arriving at work by walking a great distance, if she weren’t tired to which the maid said “my feet are tired, but my soul is rested”. A change began to occur within the white community, similar to the change Gandhi had been able to achieve in the British community - people who had looked on the Indians or the blacks as barely human, suddenly saw them emerge as people with dignity. With each passing day, the white community grew more restless and uneasy. No bullets had been fired by King’s people. Yet the community in the heart of the capital of the Confederacy sensed something was changing forever. One of the changes was that the bus company said it was losing so much money it would have to go bankrupt - and this meant that no one, black or white, would have public transportation. Faced with this fact, the white community negotiated a a settlement. Long weeks after it had begun, blacks and whites were no longer segregated on the buses. Glenn Smiley (an old friend and mentor, who ran the Fellowship of Recon-ciliation office in Los Angeles when I was a student at UCLA), was the first white man to board the buses arm in arm with Dr. King, as they sat together on a day of victory.


In 1962 Cesar Chavez, himself a migrant worker, began organizing largely Mexican farm workers in California. As with Gandhi and King, Chavez was struggling with the sense of defeat the farm workers had. Migratory, many unable to speak English and illiterate in Spanish, some illegal aliens, the Mexican community in California was considered impossible to organize - a source of cheap, compliant labor. Chavez did what the powerful AFL-CIO had failed to do - he gave the farm workers a sense of dignity and showed them it was possible to struggle and win. At great cost, and against the prejudice of the police and the public, he made the grape boycott into such a powerful symbol that he forced the growers to the bargaining table. In the face of beatings and shootings, he responded with fasts, boycotts, and peaceful marches.


This will have to go to a sixth and perhaps seventh “chapter”, so I will close this “why it works” by emphasizing that nonviolence succeeds because through organized disruption of the existing social structure (sit downs, sit ins, boycotts, etc.) the old order cannot continue to function. It must choose between violent repression and negotiation. Nonviolence doesn’t work because it appeals to the “best in the enemy”, (though it certainly always does make that appeal). It works because the “enemy” is not only treated as a brother or sister, but also because our tactics absorb the pain and suffering even as we create social disorder so great that something must yield. By behaving, always, with dignity we compel our opponent to see us in new ways, making it hard for him to use violence (though violence will be used — nonviolent social changes does not mean no violence — it means we will not use violence but it is certain it will be used against us).

And it works because it changes how the oppressed think of themselves — it gives them pride and confidence. And nonviolence empowers the whole community — it can be used by old and young, weak and strong, professors and those still illiterate. This is in contrast to armed struggle which is usually limited to the young and healthy.

NEXT: PART6: The Basic Rules of Nonviolence

“If we remember that we must try to be honest, and act with courage, we won’t do things in the dark which we wouldn’t do by day. We won’t do things we aren’t willing to be caught doing. Again, there are paradoxes - does this mean that there are times when we might not act in secret?.. Yes, and I’ve tried to stress that there are always contradictions.”

Parts: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

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David McReynolds was a long-time staffperson for the War Resisters League. He writes: “There is not a single original idea in this material. Some of the ideas may be new to you, or may be arranged in ways that seem novel. They lack the power to kill, but contain the power to change. Read with caution. They have not been approved by any government authority. You are free to reprint, giving the source.”

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