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Philosophy of Nonviolence (2 of 2)

David McReynolds



Having admitted our approach cannot win all battles, why does it work at all? Why did it work against the Nazis in Norway and Denmark, or against the power structure in the American South? Or against the British in India?

Let us concede that all human events have “plural explanations”. It takes nothing from the Vietnam Peace movement in our country to see that while our nonviolence was effective, so, too, was the pain of the body bags coming home as a result of the military struggle the Vietnamese waged against our troops. Let us concede that while the British in India weren’t terribly nice, Britain had a democratic society which permitted an anti-colonial politics to develop. Let us admit that the violence of Southern racists was limited by fear of federal intervention, due to strong Northern support for Martin Luther King Jr.

Looking farther back in history, to times before any “civil society”, there are two examples of movements which spread in the face of great oppression. Buddhism is a totally non-violent philosophy which, despite hardship and persecution, spread throughout Asia, finally subduing the Mongols, who had so savaged Europe and China. Christianity, which did not make an alliance with the State until three hundred years after the death of Jesus, became the dominant religious force in the West, triumphing over the total power of Roman Emperors.

Neither Christianity nor Buddhism was a philosophy of social change—that awaited the teachings of Gandhi in the 20th century.

But the fact remains like a stubborn rock—both Western and Eastern civilization are founded on the basis of ideologies that were nonviolent, and which for some time in their early period faced extreme persecution. Thus, when Gandhi began “to experiment with truth” in the 20th century, and see if nonviolence could be used to challenge social injustice, he was working on a foundation that was not entirely new. Nonviolence is older than the Christian era.


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 sit-downs 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 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 Reconciliation 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.


Perhaps one more installment and we will have this finished. In Part Five I laid out how non-violence works. By creating social dislocation, it creates “new facts” that permit your opponent to change. There is an art to this kind of politics. It is not enough to say to your opponent: “I am a pacifist, I will not shoot you, but I sure as hell will make your life so difficult that, miserable bastard that you are, you will be forced to behave decently even though the whole world knows you are a sorry excuse for a human being.”

It is our job not to make it harder than necessary for our opponent to change. Yes, Cesar Chavez forced the farm owners to bargain because the boycott of their produce hit them in the pocket book. Without that, the negotiations wouldn’t begin. But it is hard to negotiate with a man you despise and distrust, and much easier to negotiate with an opponent whom you respect, whom you feel “fought fair”. They respected Chavez.

Years ago in Greenwich Village, in the long-lost days when radicals sometimes spoke from “soap boxes”, I was about to start a speech in Sheridan Square late one afternoon when a cop came up and told me to stop. I didn’t say: “Look, you wretched running dog of the imperialist state, I know the Constitution, I have a right to speak, and I defy you to arrest me.” Instead, I said: “I think I have a right to speak. However, I’ll get down while you check with your captain. After fifteen minutes, when you’ve had a chance to check it, I’ll get back up and speak—if your captain thinks it is legal to arrest me, then you can.” The cop walked off, fifteen minutes later I got up and kept on talking—the cop never returned.


The person using nonviolence will seek to be absolutely open, honest and truthful.

The person using nonviolence will seek to overcome fear, so as to act not out of weakness, but from strength.

The person using nonviolence will never defame the character of the opponent, but always seek to find what the Quakers call “that of God” in those with whom we struggle.

We shall do our best to love those with whom we are in conflict.

All of these are much easier to say than to do. How can one love the employer who orders goons to beat up strikers? Or a government such as ours which murders people in distant lands?

How can we act without fear when we are terrified?

How can we be honest when admitting an error may make us look foolish?


There aren’t tidy answers. During WWII in places such as Holland, which were occupied by the Nazis, what was the “honest, truthful answer” when the Gestapo came to the door and asked if you were hiding Jews, and you knew you had Jews in the attic? I hope you said: “No, we aren’t hiding Jews.” Because the “absolute value” we place on each human life was in conflict with the “absolute value” of truth. And human life won out. There are times when “absolutes are in conflict”.

However, there are times when honesty does mean being willing to look very foolish. (Christians can appreciate St. Paul’s statement that he was “willing to be a fool for Christ”.) In the early 1950’s tensions between the Socialist Party and the Communist Party were extremely bitter—one could write a book just on that topic. The Communists had a tactic of infiltrating our groups and trying to take them over. All of us who had been in radical politics at UCLA (where this occurred) were only too familiar with the problem. In the course of fighting against McCarthyism, the Socialist Party’s youth group and the youth section of the Fellowship of Reconciliation had joined forces to sponsor a state-wide conference on civil liberties, held at a Church in Los Angeles. My experiences with the Communists led me to paronoia—I thought I recognized an effort by the Communists to stall the conference and possibly take it over. I got up and announced that Communists were present, that we would have a short break to organize our forces, and then reconvene. We did a quick caucus on the sidewalk, came back in, and rammed through the agenda, cutting off debate.

Soon after, I learned that while one Communist had been present, he was the only one. The disruption was entirely in my imagination. I was horrified. I had slandered the Communists, who were already under legal attack. To the dismay of my friends in the Socialist Party—who put up with my pacifism but thought I was a bit of a nut—I wrote a letter to everyone that had been at the conference offering my apologies, saying that I had been wrong. I believe I hand-delivered the letter to the members of the Communist Party on campus. (They also felt I was a nut.) This willingness to admit an error, even though it can be painful and deeply embarrassing, gives you credibility. It does, at times, also make you look a fool. Take the risk.

Our movement must be one that never lies.

And it must be a movement which never demonizes our opposition. This is very hard. We all fail at it. I think Henry Kissinger is a war criminal who should be tried by an international court of law (he is not the only American in this category, but he is the one who leaps to mind). Yet if I argue that common criminals are human beings, how can I deny that to Kissinger? If I argue that prisons do very little good, then how can I be so eager to see him in one? Those of us who went through the Vietnam War, who had friends who committed suicide, died of drug overdoses, spent the best years of their youth in prison, etc., have a hard time forgiving—but if forgiveness was easy, it wouldn’t be necessary. (And if I have a problem—think how blacks feel in this society.)

For us, cops are never pigs. They may violate the law, and should be subject to arrest and trial for brutality—but they remain human beings. No human being—no matter whether they are Kissinger or Stalin, a bad cop or a serial killer—should ever be called a dog, a pig, a rat, partly because this is unfair to dogs, pigs and rats, but mainly because there is not one of you reading this who could not have been—even the background and circumstances—guard at a Nazi death camp. When we look on the person we find it easiest to hate, we usually are looking at some trait within ourselves.

I don’t have good advice to offer on how to overcome fear—know that I have failed. The only advice I can offer from personal experience is that you should do only those things you feel just barely able to do. Don’t try to do things you know you can’t do. I can’t walk along the edge of a building that is more than two stories high—so I don’t try. But I was—just barely—able to walk into Red Square in 1978 for a WRL protest, along with Norma Becker, Jerry Coffin, Pat Lacefield, Steve Sumerford, Scott Herrick, and Craig Simpson. Of all the things I ever did, maybe that took the most courage. I found that just putting one foot in front of the other would carry me forward, into the Square.

But for real courage, what about Vicki Rovere, who, in 1968, volunteered for the teams that War Resisters International sent to Moscow and several East European capitals to protest the invasion of Czechoslovakia? Vicki couldn’t find her English partner who was to join her in Moscow. (He was there but got mixed up on directions.) Vicki, completely alone, unfurled her banner! And stood her ground until taken into custody. In each case, do what you can do, not what you can’t. With luck you may find that next time, you can do what you couldn’t do the first time.


The radical movement—socialist, pacifist, anarchist—needs cowards. It needs them because there are very few brave people around—not nearly enough to make a revolution. The non- violent movement, like any strong movement, must make room for those of us who just aren’t very brave. One of the values of nonviolence is that you can be young or old, weak, sick or frightened, and still find a way to fit in—which helps make it a democratic movement. Let me toss in something we sometimes forget, as we “measure our number of arrests”—it takes more courage (or foolishness) to bring a child into this world, care for it, love it, than it does to get arrested. The people with the most guts are parents.

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 act in secret? Weren’t the Moscow demonstrations planned in secret? Yes, and I’ve tried to stress that there are always contradictions. If you try to make a set of rules for nonviolence you’ve already violated the spirit. Nonviolence is to dance in the midst of chaos. And do so with joy.


One of the things the late Igal Roodenko used to say was: “I have to love everyone—thank God I don’t have to like everyone.” There are people we rejoice at seeing—and people we really wish hadn’t phoned us. Love is tricky. There are all kinds of love, from the love we have for someone we are in love with, to the children we have and love, to the dogs and cats who may share their lives with us, to a few friends we truly do love. But there is, under this, a sense of compassion, a realization we are all headed for the grave, that we all grow hungry and thirsty and weary, and this realization helps us, even when we “despise” someone, to behave toward him or her with a sense of love that permits us to see past the surface to the pain and suffering within.

Not everyone can do this. But the movement will collapse if at least some of the leadership is not able to do it. A. J. Muste had it, Dorothy Day had it, Rosa Luxemburg had it, Martin Luther King Jr. had it. Debs had it. Che had it. Gandhi had it. I think Malcom X was moving toward it when he was killed. I don’t have it—but you might. And with work, maybe we can all get it.


Nonviolence does not set itself against the basic concept of law. I agree with the Marxists that the “State is the Executive Committee of the ruling class”, but there is, as I’ve tried to note before, a difference between our quarrels with the abstract “State,” and that sense of community all of us seek.

If we violate the laws of the State, it is on behalf of a deeper sense of law, one that more fully embraces the whole of community. Yes, many laws are arbitrary—we stop at red lights and go at green lights because that was, however we came by it, the original decision. It could as easily have been the reverse. In Great Britain cars drive on the left-hand side of the road, so what it illegal here becomes legal there. There is no inherently “correct and moral” side of the road on which to drive. But it is desperately important, in order to avoid accidents, that all of us abide by the consensus—in this country, we drive on the right-hand side of the road.


A few months ago some animal liberationists in Great Britain set at liberty a number of caged mink, which were being held to make mink coats. This was a foolish act because the mink were likely, as they sought food, to feast upon pet cats, and cause havoc to the natural chain of wild life in the area into which they were released. The act was “nonviolent” only in the sense no human got killed. It was typical of those acts which seem to be non-violent but are missing a key element. There was no one willing to stand trial, to say: “I felt called by conscience to set your mink loose and here I am—arrest me.” Rather, so certain of the “rightness” of their cause were those who loosed the mink that they took none of the steps nonviolence would call for. They did not meet and negotiate with the “mink ranchers”, they did not explain their intent to act if the mink continued to be bred and killed, and of course, they were nowhere to be found after they released the animals.

Nonviolence does not mean that, so long as we don’t shoot the person we disagree with, we can break laws with moral impunity.


Socrates remains an example of an individual who loved the community, understood the importance of the rule of law, and understood also that there were times when the conscience of the individual must be set against that of the State, and that, when such a conflict happened, the “wholeness” of the community required not only the violation of an unjust law, but also the willingness to accept the punishment (in his case the fatal drinking of hemlock). It should be noted that Socrates could have fled, that those who sentenced him assumed he would flee, but by his refusal to flee he forced those who judged him to live with the results of their decision. He refused to accept their laws, and refused to flee the punishment.

Jesus also met this test. He set himself against the rigid orthodoxies of his community, was brought to trial, refused to deny or evade the charges, and was executed.

We are neither Socrates nor Jesus. We would be quite human if we sought to do good (as we understood it) and also to evade the penalty. My point is not to preach sainthood to a community of mortals, but to remind us that we cannot simply act as if the community had no meaning. There are those—and they will be found in every group, whether it calls itself Marxist, Anarchist, or Pacifist—who insist their truth is so perfect they can ignore the most basic elements of community. The most tragic example of this is among a handful in the “Right to Life” movement who feel they are justified in murdering doctors who provide abortions.

Whenever your “truth” is seen as so “profound” that it exempts you from the sense of community, and of nonviolence toward others in your community, you are on the wrong path. Actions are not nonviolent simply because no guns are in play. Nonviolence is much deeper than “not violent”. The loving mother who spanks her child when it has broken away and run into a heavily trafficked street, is far less “violent” than the mother who coldly withholds love to punish the same child for the same act. Nonviolence is much more than the refusal to hit—it is a reaching out to the opponent. That, of course, is the very hard part. It is enormously easier for us to demonize the opponent. For us, that might be Newt Gingrich, or Kenneth Starr. For others, at various times, it has been abortionists, Jews, Blacks, Communists, gays and lesbians.


Let me just underline this point. The hardest part of nonviolence isn’t breaking a law, or going to jail—it is insisting on the humanity of our opposition. Nonviolence means both seeing the full truth of what racism does, or what American capitalism does (or what Soviet Communism did), and still seeing our opponent as part of our own family. Nonviolence is an effort to restore a sense of “the beloved community”. If it was easy to do this, then it would be no big deal. It is very hard to do it, and much harder in our atomized society where we encounter one another not as living beings, but as bits and pieces transmitted by the media or the Internet. Do we have to love Pinochet? Yes. We don’t have to like him, but we must not hate him. We should be delighted he has been arrested and faces trial (and we can wish someone would extradite Kissinger) but we still need to think how his children feel, and realize that he, himself, charged with such dark and terrible crimes, has shown the darkness which hides in each of us.

To illustrate this last point, when we wonder what is behind the crimes of violence against gays, we will find the attackers almost always have a fear of being, themselves, homosexual, and have often had homosexual relationships. The more angry a man is about “queers”, the more likely he is struggling against this aspect of himself.

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.

One of the things which the American pacifist movement has not inherited from Gandhi—and needs to!—was Gandhi’s conviction that the main work of his movement was not the nonviolent resistance campaigns, but his “Constructive Program”. In our country—and generally in the West—there has developed an unhappy split between nonviolent resistance, and a positive program.

Gandhi, in his struggle to defeat the British, counted the various non-resistance campaigns as being of very secondary value. An essential tool, but not his main focus. Without trying to recapitulate the history of the Gandhian movement let’s note some of the key factors. Gandhi was dealing with peasants who lacked basic education, and lacked skills in sanitation. They also lacked a history of acting on their own, for their own interests.

Gandhi stressed education, literacy, sanitation, health measures—all at the village level. If we examine the success of the Communists in Vietnam we find very much the same pattern—the military struggle was as secondary as, for Gandhi, the satyagraha campaigns were. The Communists went to the village level in Vietnam, taught literacy, gave medical care, and gave the villagers a sense of “empowerment”. The method of struggle—violent or nonviolent—was quite different, but not the consistent stress on a “Constructive Program”.

What is our constructive program? We are good, certainly, at saying no, at protesting, but where is the pacifist program that would provide an alternative sense of community?

The socialist movement, both in Europe and here, during the time it was a mass movement, did much the kind of thing which Gandhi did in India. There were youth organizations, cultural programs, credit unions, trade unions, programs for the elderly—in short, the socialists were not waiting for their triumph at the ballot box but had already begun to establish some of the key elements of the “new society” (including their own media—something which was also true in India).

It is impossible to expect one organization, the War Resisters League, to develop and project such a positive program. But it is not impossible to realize the need for it.


One task for the 21st century might well be a serious effort for the pacifist movement to examine how to build a program for youth (Youth Peace is one example of such an outreach), or how to build a true alternative media, so that we are not at the mercy of the talking heads on the networks.

Too much of our work is “anti”—anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-death penalty, anti-sexist, anti-ageist, that I think a lot of folks take one look and say: “Hey, life is far too short for this. I’m looking for some fun.”

It was easier for Gandhi to develop a constructive program because in his struggle against British rule he sought to create an “alternative society” so that gradually, and deliberately, the framework of a new society could begin to grow inside the shell of the old. Gandhi’s movement organized a system of education that was an alternative to that offered (to a few) by the British. There was an effort by Gandhi to set up Indian courts through the Congress Party, so that Indians that felt they needed legal remedies in some dispute could take their cases to these courts, ignoring the British ones.

In our own time very much this pattern had been developed by the Albanian population in Kosovo—until an outbreak of violence (for which both sides share blame) broke down the authority of this “alternative” framework. In Vietnam, also, the Vietnamese Communists did much more than wage guerilla battles (or provide health and educational aid). They collected taxes, arbitrated disputes, and in every way possible “displaced” the authority of the US-backed government operating out of Saigon. Much more than Americans understood at the time, a very large part of South Vietnam was governed by the Communists even though the maps showed it as controlled by Saigon and US military forces.


It is very difficult, if you live in a society where there is no foreign occupation, where control is accepted as legitimate, to organize a Constructive Program which can operate in the way Gandhi’s did (or the Communists in Vietnam). Where the general public can see, clearly, that they are ruled by an invader (India) or by a puppet army created and trained by a foreign power (Vietnam) it is relatively easy to organize an opposition. Where “we” are already in control, where the domination is harder to pin down, then organizing a parallel government is much harder. (The Black Panthers tried this in some areas but for a variety of reasons this failed—and the issue of whether the resolution of the problem of racism can be solved by integration or by separatism is one I am leaving aside for reason for space. I personally come down for integration—but the argument is long, complex, and needing more space.)

This problem of organizing an opposition where the people seem in control was true in Europe during the Nazi period—in Germany, the people, while deprived of all real freedom, accepted Hitler as more or less legitimate. But in those countries which had been militarily defeated by the Nazis and occupied by them, it was much easier to organize some kind of resistance, and the various “Quisling” or collaborationist governments the Nazis imposed never acquired legitimacy.

To create a real “Constructive Program” here will mean a fascinating engagement in “real politics”, in building coalitions of different groups. I do not think the solution will rest in trying to create communities outside of the existing society—though the drive toward communal living was appealing during the 1960’s and has, in fact, a long and honorable history in this country. But such communes, while they may provide an alternative to the people living in them, do not transform the society as a whole.


Let me try in the few paragraphs that remain to bring these notes to a close.

I hope those who have read them will realize that nonviolence does NOT have an answer to all problems. It is, in the words of Barbara Deming, an experiment that has just begun.

Nonviolence is not an academic exercise—it is a matter of testing theories in practice, asking what went wrong and trying again.

Nonviolence is a theory of managing social conflict in order to achieve social change. It is not a theory of generating social chaos, except in brief periods. It is an effort to bring the full community within the framework of compassion.

Nonviolence is a search for truth—not a search for ways to prove your opponent wrong. If you are not ready, as you examine the facts, to realize you may be wrong and your opponent right, you aren’t ready for nonviolence.

You must not be attached to your theories, but only to the method. The method is the theory. We create the path by walking. The ends will be determined by the means—they do not exist separate and apart from the means.


Nonviolence certainly needs men and women with courage, but if it must count only on the courageous, it will lose. Nonviolent actions are not a test to see how many times you can be arrested, how often you can be beaten up, or how long a jail term you can serve. Any of those things may happen (they can happen if you are violent, also).

But our goal is a good life, it is happiness. It is not the glorification of suffering. We need a movement of ordinary people who, sometimes, can behave in extraordinary ways. We need to honor those whose nonviolence may be the most effective and challenging of all—the nonviolence, the love, the compassion, of the parent who risks everything to give life to a child, and to nurture it. The nonviolence of the teacher, who may never be arrested, but whose life as a teacher can transform so many children. Dorothy Day should not be remembered for her various arrests—which were relatively easy to bear. She should be remembered for housing the homeless and feeding the hungry—her own “Constructive Program”.

I have been hesitant throughout these notes because my own life is not a long and heroic record, and I am aware of that. While I’ve been arrested more than a dozen times, I’ve never been beaten by the cops. My times in jail have been brief—not the long prison terms many have undergone. And as a “peace bureaucrat” it is much easier to be “outspoken” than if I held a job where being outspoken could also mean being out of work. So let what I’ve written stand on its own merits, not on mine.

There is always about nonviolence the need to see ourselves in those we hate. In 1951, I took my first trip to Europe, to a pacifist conference in Denmark. I traveled through Germany to get there and saw the destruction left by the war. In Hamburg whole blocks in the center of the city had been leveled, the gravel neatly swept so no trace of buildings remained. (I thought: “How strange that in the center of such old cities there are vacant lots!”—and then I realized they had once been filled with buildings.) At first, all my views were traditional—that this destruction had been caused by the righteous struggle between the Nazis and the West. Then, in Bremen, the damage was more overwhelming, not yet tidy. A church, broken by bombs, its roof gone, a tree growing in its very center among what had been the pews. I remembered in High School my intense interest in current events. The headlines have never left my mind: ONE THOUSAND BOMBERS MAKE HAMBURGER OF HAMBURG and SIX HUNDRED BOMBERS BLAST BREMEN (in the Bremen attack 60 bombers were lost to anti-aircraft fire). I had rejoiced reading those headlines, sitting in High School, my father in the Army Air Force in India.

And now I was here, in Bremen, in the ruins which so recently I had rejoiced to read of. In one of two genuine religious experiences in my life I suddenly realized that I was a bomber of Bremen, that nothing the civilians there had done justified the horror of the fire and blast so randomly scattered on their homes... that their killing of the Jews could not be undone or made right by our killing of the Germans. It is when we realize that we can will the act of murder, that we at last can begin to choose the alternative. So long as we think we are exempt, that we could never have been a death camp guard, we have not yet begun our journey.

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