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Philosophy of Nonviolence (1 of 2)

David McReynolds


These notes are an effort to summarize the basic philosophy of nonviolence. We write and talk about nonviolence as if it were simply a technique. I believe it is much more, that it is a “one-edged philosophy” which cannot easily be used to defend or advance injustice, and which is of value only if tested in the real world.

When I came into the pacifist movement in 1948 the concept of nonviolence as a method of change was new to the United States, the direct result of Gandhi’s teachings and actions in India. Historically nonviolence had been seen either as an expression of the Gospels, or as a variant on the stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. But neither the Christian nor the stoic teachings gave us a method to deal with injustice except through endurance. This was fine if I was the one suffering, but it did not provide a way to stop you from inflicting injustice on a third party. The Christian could choose to endure great injustice—but what of the non-Christian who had done nothing to merit the suffering, and sought relief from it?


Particularly after World War II with the horror of the mass killing, there was a sense that pacifism alone—the refusal to kill—was not good enough. Communism offered one answer but, as expressed by Lenin and Trotsky, it was an answer in which the end justified the means and by 1945 it was clear that, at best, Communism was a “lesser evil” than Fascism. Into this vacuum, this “historic place” where we found ourselves confronted by the reality that men such as Hitler and Stalin existed, that the atom bomb was possibly a final step in human history, the pacifist movement embraced what we call today “Nonviolence” as opposed to the earlier word “pacifism”.

And it was here that I entered the pacifist movement, as old ideas and new ones were explored and tested. It was one of the twists of history that when nonviolence did re-enter American life, it was returning home. Henry David Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience had been read by Tolstoy, Tolstoy had been read by Gandhi, and Gandhi had been read by Martin Luther King Jr. It was an ideology which had been around the world, affecting and being affected by all it encountered.


In trying to understand the philosophy of nonviolence, it is important to keep in mind there is no living, vital philosophy which does not have “holes” in it. Let me give two examples. Marxism (and I am heavily indebted to Marx) has an inherent contradiction in that it argued “history is on our side, socialism is inevitable, the result of contradictions which will lead to the collapse of capitalism”. Fine, if socialism is inevitable, then why not sit back and wait for it? Why risk one’s life—as so many courageous socialists and communists did—in a struggle, the end of which was already certain?

Buddhism, to which I am also personally indebted, tells us that Buddha sat under a tree, meditated, and discovered the truth, a large part of which was non-attachment. Why then did he bother to teach it? If Buddha had gained the answer, why was he still so “attached to the world” that he taught at all? In both cases I have heard the answers—they do not persuade me. Philosophies, those which can change the course of lives, and alter history, are marked by contradictions. Only minor ideologies have all the answers.

Nonviolence does not answer all questions. It is filled with contradictions. My own grasp of nonviolence is a blend of things I have read in Gandhi, heard from Bayard Rustin and A. J. Muste, from reading Eastern philosophy, the gospels, Karl Marx, etc. This is an effort to outline what I have learned, knowing there is not a single idea here which is original with me.


Let’s begin with a basic assumption of nonviolence. There is an absolute reality, but none of us are absolutely certain what it is. Each of us sees part of it, none of us can grasp all of it. Let’s think of reality—the “real world”—as the earth itself. If we ask a handful of widely scattered people what the “reality of the earth is,” the man who lives on a small island in the Pacific will say it is almost entirely water, except for the patch of land on which he and his family live. A woman in Kansas will say it is flat, dry except when it rains, and is covered by wheat. The nomad in the Sahara desert will say the earth is dry, sandy, constantly moving with the wind, and there is little vegetation. The hunter in the Brazilian rain forest will insist the earth is wet with water, the air is thick with moisture, the day is filled with the sounds of birds and insects, and the vegetation so dense that it is hard to move.

Each statement is true—as a part of the truth. None of the statements is true of the whole. Yet we often believe the partial truth we perceive is the full truth. Put it another way—each human being perceives “reality” in different ways. For most of us that difference is so slight we don’t notice it. But the matter is important when a person is color blind and cannot distinguish between red and green—which is why STOP signs say STOP and do not just flash red (it is also why the red is the top color of traffic lights, and green the bottom one—a person who is color blind can still tell the difference by their position). Someone who, from birth, is deaf or blind lives in a world as “real” as the one you live in, but their “reality” will be profoundly different.

We are, each of us, finite beings in a universe which, so far as we can know, is infinite. Whether the universe had a beginning and an end we are not sure—but we are certain we had a beginning and we all know we will have an end. There is a limit to the time during which we can learn things—and there are far too many things to learn for any of us ever to be sure we are an authority except—at best—in small and limited ways.

We may be absolutely certain—as I am—that behind the illusions of a solid world (an illusion, because the solid world is made up of impossibly small ticks of energy bound together in such a way as to give the illusion of being chairs, tables, people, etc.) there is some “reality.” But I am absolutely certain, because I am finite and the true reality is infinite, that I can never be absolutely certain of anything being absolutely true. I believe there is truth, but I do not believe I will ever be certain of it.


This all seems terribly convoluted but let’s look at Gandhi, who said: “Truth is God, God is Truth.” His Autobiography was titled “My Experiments with Truth”. It is easy to miss the edge of what Gandhi was saying, because it was so obvious. Asked by a Westerner if he believed in God, Ghandi replied: “God is even in these stones,” tapping a stone. This is part of a Hindu belief that God is not, as in the West, separated and apart from us, personal and yet distant—rather, God is impersonal and pervades everything. The line between this belief and a kind of religious atheism is hard to draw. In the Hindu sense: “God is all things.” So that when Gandhi said: “God is Truth” it was a statement a scientist might understand with greater immediacy than the rest of us.

For me there has always been a link between this and Marx’s thought, in which the entire body of Marxism was built up by observation of the material world, by a search for the facts, by a determination that theories had to reflect the “material reality”. Both Karl Marx and Mohandas Gandhi spent a great deal of time trying to find out what the concrete facts were about situations.

Marx did his work among stacks of books in the British Museum. Gandhi looked over reports, read statistics, listened to peasants, sought the truth before reaching a conclusion. Neither man sat alone, meditated, and waited for truth to arrive on the wings of pure logic. No—truth was determined by observation. There is to Gandhi something of the pure scientist, the physicist, willing to test his observations.


And if Gandhi’s search for truth saw “God as Truth,” then it is possible for the “non-believer” to approach Gandhi, with the search for truth as a common ground. But—and we will return to this again and again—because Gandhi was aware that he could not be certain that he was right, he was not willing to destroy others in his test of truth. Himself, yes, but not others. He was aware (and Marxists tend not to be) that his perception of reality was always, and by the nature of things, “partial and incomplete”. And he knew that his opponent also saw a part of the true reality. This is terribly hard for us to admit or recognize. The General sees a part of reality? Nixon saw a part of reality? Yes.

Let me close this first “chapter” by noting that one of the things which most deeply impressed me about the late A. J. Muste was his ability to listen with respect to those with whom he deeply disagreed, not as a tactic but because he hoped to catch in their remarks some truth he himself had missed. Most of us, in arguing, can hardly wait for our “opponent” to finish so that we can “correct” him (or her). A. J. was in no hurry to “correct” his opponent, nor was Gandhi. Nonviolence is many things, but if it is not a search for truth—a search that is never ended—it will fail.


Nonviolence assumes conflict is inevitable because change is inevitable, and with change comes conflict. If there has been a traditional view of seeing pacifists as “peaceful” (overlooking the fact we usually cause a good deal of trouble, being non-conformists by nature), Gandhian philosophy assumes that the “reality” we see is transitory, that change and struggle is the rule, not the exception.

This view of the world is very old—Heraclitus (the Greek philosopher who lived about 535-475 B.C.) taught there was no permanent reality except the reality of change—illustrated by his maxim: “You cannot step twice in the same river”. This is also, in many ways, the essence of Marxism—everything we observe is in a state of change. It may help if we think of the world “of reality” as if it were water in the process of becoming either steam or ice—no change seems to be taking place until, suddenly, there is a great change. (Remember how the institution of Jim Crow suddenly cracked beginning in December, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama.)

For Gandhi, as a Hindu, this was an easy assumption, since for Hinduism all the reality we see is an illusion, covering a deeper, changeless, unknowable reality. In thinking of Gandhi we should understand the role of the Bhagavad-Gita (meaning “Song of God”) in his life and thinking. The Gita is very old—perhaps the 5th to 2nd century B.C. It is relatively short—the paperback copy I have is just 140 pages. (Printed in 1954, a “Mentor Book by the New American Library,” its pages brown and fragile, proof of the instability of matter!) The most popular work in Hindu religious scripture, it was as well known to Gandhi as the Gospels would be to a devout Christian.

I want to quote one passage which concerns a great battle in which Arjuna, the warrior, is about to take part. As he looks on the scene of what is to become a bloody battlefield he turns to Lord Krishna, an incarnation of God, and says:


Krishna, Krishna, / Now as I look on / These my kinsmen / Arrayed for battle, / My limbs are weakened, / My mouth is parching, / My body trembles, / My hair stands upright, / My skin seems burning, / The bow Gandiva / Slips from my hand, / My brain is whirling / Round and round, / I can stand no longer: / Krishna, I see such / Omens of evil! / What can we hope from / This killing of kinsmen? / What do I want with / Victory, empire, / Or their enjoyment? / O [Krishna], / How can I care for / Power or pleasure, / My own life, even, / When all these others, / Teachers, fathers, / Grandfathers, uncles, / Sons and brothers, / Husbands of sisters, / Grandsons and cousins, / For whose sake only / I could enjoy them / Stand here ready / To risk blood and wealth / In war against us?

Knower of all things, / Though they should slay me / How could I harm them? / I cannot wish it: / Never, never, / Not though it won me / The throne of the three worlds / How much the less for / Earthly lordship! / Krishna, hearing / The prayers of all men, / Tell me how can / We hope to be happy / Slaying the sons / of Dhritarashtra? / Evil they may be, / Worst of the wicked, / Yet if we kill them / Our sin is greater, / How could we dare spill / The blood that unites us? / Where is joy in / The killing of kinsmen? / What is this crime / I am planning, O Krishna? / Murder most hateful, / Murder of brothers! / Am I indeed / So greedy for greatness? / Rather than this / Let the evil children / of Dhritarashtra / Come with their weapons / Against me in battle: / I shall not struggle, / I shall not strike them. / Now let them kill me, / That will be better.

Khrisna responds, explaining that since Arunja is a warrior the battle is his duty—“If you refuse to fight this righteous war, you will be turning aside from your duty. You will be a sinner and disgraced… The warrior-chiefs will believe it was fear that drove you from the battle.”


Krishna goes on to spell out for Arjuna the path of “Karma Yoga” which is the “yoga of action”. (We are familiar with yoga as a form of exercise—in Hinduism there are various forms of the discipline of yoga—one is “Karma Yoga,” which is seeking unity with God through good actions, rather than meditation. Gandhi, if we are to understand him, must be seen as a Hindu who took the path of Karma Yoga.)

For orthodox Hindus, the text of the Gita is hardly an invocation to nonviolence. On the contrary it seems an apologia for doing one’s military duty. But Gandhi, unorthodox in so many ways, was unorthodox here, as well, and saw nonviolence—the path of loving resistance, of “soul force” or Satygraha—as the way out of the pain of engaging in the slaughter of his brothers. Yes, he would accept his duty as if he were in the warrior caste, but he would transform the very nature of battle itself.

I have drastically condensed what should be read whole—if the translation by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood is still available, it is much worth reading. [Eds. Note: It is and you can. One can’t grasp the philosophy of nonviolence as Gandhi developed it without looking at this source.]

For Gandhi, the hope was that if each conflict could be resolved through nonviolence, the next conflict would occur at a “higher level”—an echo, arrived at by a Hindu, of Marx’s thought that the dialectic would lead to positive change. In practical terms there is not much difference between Marx’s “material dialectic” and Gandhi’s thought, though one was rooted in the rejection of religion and other rooted in it. For Marx, all history was the process of a “material dialectic” between the human race in conflict with its environment, with the cultures that emerged from that conflict reflecting it—thus, the “Gods” of nomadic tribes were different from the “Gods” of early city life. The concept of God evolves from that of the Torah, in which the God of the Jews was one of many Gods—but the only one the Jews should worship—to the God spoken of by Jesus, who was one, and universal. Of course, primary to Marx’s thought was that social structures reflected the power of those who owned the means of production.


There is one remarkable line from the Gita that is central to nonviolence: “Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most wonderful?… That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.”

Death is a given. Our own life is supremely important to us—our only experience of consciousness—yet we must come to terms with its inevitable end. At least for those of us who are atheists, there is no afterlife. Part of what makes nonviolence so powerful is its respect for the unique nature of every person. Not one of us has existed before, or will exist again. Each of us contains a kind of “private universe” of experience. It is good to live, good to experience life, good to enjoy that experience, good to rejoice in the wonders of life. All the more urgent, if we are here but once, and briefly, to feel entitled to experience the delights.

It is this extraordinary uniqueness of being that makes the pacifist so absolutely unwilling to destroy another person, for with each death a universe ends, and can never be replaced. How wonderfully we are made, how different from one another. To respect and understand the uniqueness of each person may make it possible also to sense what we have in common, even if what we have in common is only the certainty of our own end. Yet we must be reconciled with the fact that we must die. What we do not have to do is kill—that alone is our choice.

We come in different sizes, shapes, sexes, colors, each of us bearing different cultural and family memories. Nonviolence is about a society in which, far from having people conform to some standard, each person is able to realize, during his or her life, their greatest potential.


Yet... it is certain that at some point our life must end. To enjoy life it is, oddly, necessary to realize the dimension death gives it. If we were to live forever, each day would be of less value—our days being endless. (Just as a person with only a single ten dollar bill values it far more highly than the person who has a room jammed full of them.) It is precisely the “finite nature” of our chance to experience life that makes it so wonderful. And it is our willingness not to be “attached” to the material world, to realize death will take from us all we have, that gives daily life its savor. The popular saying “He who dies with the most toys wins” sums up the wrong position—what can a dead man do with his toys? How much more joyous if we say: “The one who has given away his toys before the deadline wins.” I remember Bayard Rustin once remarking that whatever clothes you had in your closet that you had not worn in the past year no longer belong to you—clearly you didn’t need them, and must give them to someone who did. The Christian Gospels contain a parable about the rich man who had gathered great wealth to insure his security and God says “You fool! Tonight you will die—what good will your riches do you?”

So, nonviolence is a philosophy based on the assumption of change, and on the realization that change will cause pain and injustice. It is an effort to deal with that one certainty of existence—nothing remains stable. (Think of Gimbels, Woolworth’s and the Soviet Union!)

More seriously think of the Industrial Revolution, with its monstrous suffering. (If you compare the horror of Stalin’s short time in power and the millions who died under him as Russia industrialized with the agony of the century and more of the Industrial Revolution, the suffering is not so different—only the time frame.) The struggle against racism in which good people find themselves trapped by old concepts. Think of the struggles of labor, where union organizing often divided families—the old union song “Which side are you on?” Nonviolence means an effort “to do battle with injustice” without risking the destruction of our opponents, both because we cannot be absolutely certain we are right (dealt with earlier), and because those we oppose are as unique as we ourselves.

Part of the philosophy of nonviolence has to confront the issue of “non-attachment” to materialism and also even to life—a paradox, because we place so high a value on life. Next I want to take up the paradox of how, to achieve justice we have to accept injustice.


First the bad news. The slogan “No justice, no Peace” is popular. But it is a risky slogan. It could well be turned around to read “No peace, no justice”. Too much of the discussion of social change is conducted by people who are not, themselves, oppressed, and who think life should be fair. Life isn’t fair. The process of social change is flawed and profoundly unjust.

The good news is that justice can be won—but at a very unfair cost. This is the beginning of wisdom for all revolutionaries, violent or nonviolent. The whole concept of “deep social change” rests on the reality that only the oppressed will do a damn thing to change society—only they have an interest. Men won’t liberate women. Straights won’t liberate gays and lesbians. Whites won’t liberate blacks. Capitalists won’t organized trade unions. Militarists won’t lead the disarmament movement.

This isn’t to say that some men, or some whites, etc., won’t be involved in struggles for liberation. But collectively, the British didn’t liberate India—the Indians did. The whites in the South didn’t end Jim Crow—the blacks did. Where there is injustice, God does not come down, wave her hands, and create justice. We do it or it doesn’t get done.

No fair, you say! And right, it isn’t. Why should Southern blacks, who had suffered so deeply and so long from racism, have to carry the main burden of social change? The only reason is that no one else really has an interest.


If you followed the beginning of this exploration of nonviolent philosophy, you remember that society is always in the process of change, and that change always involves suffering. The creation of the capitalist system—which we hope some day to replace with something better—brought enormous suffering to the vast majority of people. (Though fair is fair, we have to admit that life before capitalism was no picnic—few would trade “where we are now” for “where we were then”.)
The institution of slavery created, in this country, an enduring set of injustices with which, in some ways, we are only beginning to grapple. If we want to change this situation—the militarism, racism, economic exploitation of our present—we must accept the fact that such a change will also bring pain. If workers organize strong trade unions, that will diminish the profits of the employers. To avoid that pain they will use the full power of the State and the media (and often the church) to discredit the trade union movement.

Since we have grown up in a society that sees trade unions as legitimate, it is easy to forget how recently there were violent battles, not only in the coal fields, but in the factories in the North, between workers and employers. Closer to our time—but increasingly distant—is the history of the Civil Rights movement. Still closer was the Vietnam movement. In every case the record is clear—those who sought justice had to pay the highest price. Unfair, but that is life.

Martin Luther King Jr. is dead. One of a long line of resisters, including NAACP leaders, students, church leaders, who were gunned down, lynched, vanished in the night. Very few Southern sheriffs were killed (I can’t recall one). If life were fair, those who died would be alive, and their killers would be dead.

Those of us who, for whatever reason, have chosen to try to change society must accept the fact that (a) change means suffering and (b) we will get more than our fair share of it. We have our choice between “getting revenge or getting change”—we can’t have both. This is true whether we are pacifists or believe in violence. Look at Vietnam, where on the scales of justice the cause of the Vietnamese are monumentally more just than that of the Americans. Yet we suffered 55,000 some dead, while the Vietnamese suffered over a million dead. And those who led us into this war have either died natural deaths or, like Robert MacNamara, have visited Vietnam.

The revolutionist knows the goal is deep change, not settling old scores. Thus the Vietnamese welcome Americans who fought against them. Like them, our goal is a new society, and that must include those who were yesterday our enemies. The goal of a successful revolution is a reconciliation after the social change. (The South Africans are giving us a startling lesson in this, as they handle those who had committed crimes under the old regime—amnesty is being granted.)

For pacifists all of this is not abstract. It means that, because we know our opponent is also a member of our family—often, in civil conflict, literally a member of our family—we are more willing to suffer than to inflict suffering.

I am not trying to make a fetish out of suffering, I am not a masochist. Life is good, we want to keep the pain as contained as possible, and enjoy the best in life. (My God! That is why we are working for social change in the first place!!) What I am suggesting is that the effort to avoid that pain—the determination to carry a gun so that “if push comes to shove, I’d rather shoot him than be shot”—is not the answer. In Vietnam where the gun was used, society was laid waste. In our own country, where the division between black and white was so deep, but nonviolence was chosen, the society was not laid waste. We have enough wounds from slavery and racism—we hardly needed to compound them with a new civil war. (Our Civil War is an excellent lesson in the dreadful effect of violence as an agent of change—it delayed beginning to deal with the reality of racism until the middle of the 20th century, and it brought appalling suffering to both Southern whites and blacks—suffering and starvation not recorded in the history books.)


One of the issues that keeps surfacing is how to deal with the issue of police brutality. We can make the same mistake here that a handful of middle class “leftists” made at the start of the Vietnam War when they targeted our own troops as the enemy, or we can learn from history.

If you want to change, you have to cope with things as they are. Lenin, the Bolshevik leader of the Russian Revolution, and no pacifist, didn’t encourage his people to call the Czarist troops names—no, he encouraged a political dialogue with them, knowing that the armed forces of the old Russian regime were only “agents” employed by the ruling class. If you wanted to make sure the Czar could hold power, then you threw rocks at the troops, which made them hate you. If you wanted to overthrow the Czar, then you did what Lenin’s people did—you took every chance to have political dialogue with the police and troops so that, finally, at a moment of crisis the police refused to obey the orders of the Czar.

Shift forward in time to the great demonstrations in Washington D.C. against the Vietnam War, and the day the Vietnam Veterans came to throw their medals of honor over the fence of the White House to show their contempt for the war. They were very careful, several days before that action, to leaflet the police stations in Washington D.C. with “A letter to our Brothers in Blue” explaining what they war was about, and why they would be risking arrest. This diminished the ability of the police to brutalize the demonstrators.

My own experience was that most of those who called the cops “pigs” during the Vietnam period were either police agents trying to provoke confrontations, or were new in the movement.

These arguments have not been put forward because they are “nonviolent” but because they work, they are practical. And that, of course, is what nonviolence should be about—a practical, workable way to change society, not an abstract set of theories.

The injustice of all movements for social change is that they require those of us committed to change to endure the pain of the change rather than to try imposing it on the oppressed. There is a profound psychological lesson here. If those who are oppressing you see you as someone throwing rocks and slogans, treating them as objects of hate, this confirms in them their belief you merit every bit of pain they can inflict on you. Every blow, every prison term, if necessary every bullet. But it is when we stand our ground, suffering without retaliation, accepting blows but not inflicting them, that the way is open for the opponent to see us as human, and to question their own behavior.


The “trick” to nonviolence is to find a way to divide your opposition, while keeping our side united. Had Martin Luther King Jr. used violence, it would have divided the black community in different ways—between those fearful of using it, those too weak to use it, etc.—and it would have united the white community against him. But nonviolence was something every Southern black could do, no matter how weak, how old, how ill. It took courage, but it didn’t take military training. And it divided the white community. It divided the nation.

If the Southern Black movement had been violent (which they had every moral right to be) the nation as a whole would have panicked. Because they were nonviolent, they created a massive national pressure on the White House to intervene. The “trick” is, of course, not a trick at all. Where your opposition had expected anger and hatred you offer love (or as close to it as you can get). Where the opposition insists on seeing you as an object you insist on treating the opposition as consisting of unique individuals who merit compassion. In short, we can change the terms of the struggle, can transform it—and in the process, while we must often “unjustly suffer,” out of that comes the hope of justice. There is no justice in history except as we create it. And the creation of justice demands we accept a large part of the pain of conflict and change. Why would we do this? Because, by the grace of God or accident, we have stumbled on a truth which has taught us that our opposition is our brother, our sister, and we will pay a very high price, if necessary, before inflicting the pain on others which history has inflicted on us. Our goal is transformation and reconciliation, and that is what a revolution is about.


At some point all pacifists face this classic question, stated in many different ways. “Yes, but what about Hitler” can also be “Yes, but what about Charon... Bin Laden... Criminals... Fascists... Racists... Serbs... Croatians... Islamists…”

At first glance nothing is stranger than the notion that a people without weapons could take defeat an occupying force (India) or an oppressive and unjust racial structure (the U.S.). But then some dismiss these triumphs by saying the same tactics wouldn’t work against Hitler—that “nonviolence really needs a humane, Christian, decent, democratic opponent... such as the white Southerner or the British... or it won’t work”.

Part of the problem here is myth. There was very little “nice” about the British. I will come back to that in a moment. But first, there is a “terrible truth” we all have to face, whether we are pacifists or the most dedicated of violent terrorists—not all battles can be won. There are times when nothing will work. (This does not mean we shouldn’t try—we never know when the tide of history is about the change.) Racism was not less evil in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began than in 1915. Nor was this the first resistance. Blacks had risked their lives and lost their lives during their entire “American experience”.


In South Africa, decades ago, there had been nonviolent campaigns led by Gandhi’s son, Manilal—they failed. So far—let’s be blunt—we have failed in this country at the task of “turning America around”. In some ways our job is harder than Gandhi’s—the Indians knew they were militarily weak compared to the British and were willing to examine alternatives, while Americans think they are strong because of the weapons they possess—and are reluctant to consider alternatives.

But back to the British and those “nice Christian Southerners”. The British were imperial rulers, repressive, violent when necessary, and if there were paradoxes to their rule in India, they were less from some decency inherent in British Imperialism than from self-interest. The tropical climate of India did not attract large numbers of English. To rule the vastness of India, the colonizers relied on “natives” trained to manage the courts, police, transportation, postal services, etc. From a Marxist point of view there were contradictions built in. The British trained the Indians in the skills of running India. But the result was to create precisely that educated elite which led the independence movement.

Gandhi studied for the law in London, went on to South Africa, one of the many lawyers, and civil servants the British had trained to run their Empire. There was nothing about the English that was uniquely nicer than the Germans. Germany was the most civilized nation in Europe in the 1930’s. Hitler was a monster, yes, but not an alien. Second, because the Holocaust was documented, and happened in the midst of Europe (and because “our side” won) we know a great deal about it—and may think it was unique. Unhappily it was not. Records of the slave trade suggest far higher numbers of Africans died during that trade, and the evidence of Belgian rule in the Congo is shocking—in a short period after the Belgians took over in the 19th century, they killed several million more Africans than the Germans did the Jews. Evil in human affairs is universal, the Nazis had no monopoly on it.


Americans need to pay attention to our own history. I am not trying to downgrade the Holocaust. I hope WRL Locals take note of April 22nd, Yom Ha Shoah, and arrange an observance in your community. No pacifist should be in the business of arguing: “My pain is greater than your pain.” But we are charged to be honest about what we ourselves, or our nation, has been complicit in. The pain of 400 years of slavery is of the same level of evil as the Holocaust. In reading a New York Times Magazine piece about the Vietnam War (8.10.97), the figure accepted for Vietnamese deaths was 3.6 million. Their sole crime was defending their nation against a foreign invader—us. (As the Times noted, that many dead is equivalent, on the basis of the relative populations, to 27 million Americans.) When someone says “pacifism is fine but it wouldn’t have worked against Hitler” they should consider that to the Vietnamese, Lyndon Johnson was Hitler, and to Black America Jim Crow was Hitler.

We will never know if nonviolence would have worked against Hitler (or if it might have worked against the Americans in Vietnam if the Vietnamese had chosen that method). The history of the Holocaust shows little resistance of any kind to Hitler from the Jews; this is not surprising—they could not believe anything as terrible as the “final solution” was contemplated. (Historically the Jews survived anti-Semitism by keeping a low profile.) Some have said: “The Jews were pacifists and look what it got them!” Sorry, they were passive—there is a world of difference. There is no way of knowing if active pacifism would have had any chance of working—we only know it was not tried. I remember the chilling deduction of Hannah Arendt in her book on Eichmann, in which she concluded it was the passive cooperation of the Jews of Europe with the Nazis which helped make the Holocaust possible. If you think about this for a moment it is, unhappily, true. To track down, arrest, transport and kill six million people who are resisting—even by not showing up when ordered, would, at the very least, have caused massive public disorder. (Nothing is easier than saying: “I would have resisted”—a cheap sentiment expressed by people who weren’t there. Documents show some resistance, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Violent or nonviolent, radicals honor resistance.)


But within Occupied Europe there were well documented victories for nonviolence. In Norway there was a successful teachers’ strike against being forced to teach Nazi ideology. In Denmark the opposition to the Nazis was led by the King, who said that if the Jews had to put on the “Yellow Star of David,” then he, the King, would be the first man in Denmark to put one on. When the Nazis moved to arrest the Danish Jews, members of the Gestapo leaked this news to the Danish authorities and in 48 hours virtually all the Jews in Denmark were gotten to safety in Sweden. In Bulgaria, which had no history of anti-Semitism, spontaneous civil resistance (including crowds sitting on train tracks) prevented the Nazis from shipping any Jews out of the country.

Of all the places Americans thought resistance to Jim Crow would begin, Montgomery, Alabama, heart of the Confederacy, was the last. I remember a bus ride through the Deep South in 1951, coming back from my first trip to Europe (a pacifist youth conference in Denmark). Inspired by Bayard Rustin and the Journey of Reconciliation I took the Greyhound bus’s Southern route back from New York to Los Angeles. My challenges to Jim Crow were timid—I was alone and not very brave even in a crowd. But I had a good chance to see and feel what it was like to move through the Deep South in the early 1950’s. So much time has now passed—nearly a half century—that Alabama is as far removed from us as Nazi Germany. But the incredible mass opposition to racism began there, in the Deep South, where the greatest danger a civil rights worker faced was not from the Klan but from the Sheriff, where there was no appeal to law, where Blacks could not vote, where night was a time of terror, not rest. Don’t tell older Black Southerners about how safe nonviolence was then!

Nonviolence cannot win every struggle—there are defeats. This is no more reason to abandon nonviolence than the military would give up its weapons if it lost a battle. (Philosophic note: it ever y military struggle there is a winner and a loser, so half the time violence fails, and half the time it wins. But in nonviolent struggle the objective is not to have a victor but to change the situation itself—a radically different concept.)


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