A DISCUSSION CONCERNING NONVIOLENCE
Thanks for your note raising the issue of nonviolence.
I think it is a great mistake to make the question of means primary over goals, as it seems you are doing by insisting on the principle of nonviolence. To make all possible social change depend on a commitment to nonviolence means, I think, that the movement has decided from the start that it is determined to take only what the ruling elite are willing to give.
We need to first ask what kind of society we are trying to achieve, and then decide what will it take to get there. To achieve a society based on real equality and solidarity, we will have to destroy the power of the elite. Obviously the ruling elite will use any means at its disposal to maintain its power, and obviously too it has a huge capacity for violence, which it has shown itself to be only too eager to employ.
We are in a war which we need to win. Our weapons in that war are primarily moral power and political discussion and persuasion, and the capacity for millions, even billions, of ordinary people to resist elite rule in whatever ways they can devise, small or large.
Of course we and the great majority of human beings prefer peace and change by peaceful means. But that does not mean that peaceful change is possible or that nonviolence is appropriate as a principle.
In my view the principle of nonviolence is morally wrong and politically destructive. It is morally wrong because it suggests that people who violently resist oppression become morally equivalent to their oppressors–a view which, I believe, is extremely elitist. There have been countless times throughout history where ordinary people, in their struggle to defend themselves from the depredations of the elite, have been forced to resort to arms. According to the principle of nonviolence, the Spanish working class was wrong to take up arms against the Fascists, the Warsaw Jews wrong to revolt against the Nazis, the Vietnamese wrong to take up arms against a long succession of colonial powers, the Palestinian Intifadah wrong to revolt with sticks and stones against the Israeli occupiers. The "above-the-battle" attitude of nonviolence is anti-people and inappropriate to a democratic movement.
The principle of nonviolence has terrible effects on people: it disarms them morally and politically by encouraging them to become "passive resisters," beseeching some more humane elite forces to come to their aid. It undermines the view of people which I consider to be the most needful both morally and politically to create a democratic movement–that is, for people to see and rely on themselves collectively as the conscious agents of change and the creators of a new society.
However much we and other people desire a peaceful transformation of society, at some point there will come a contest of power. To win this contest, we will have to win a substantial part of the military forces to our side, or at least get them to be neutral. To succeed in this we need to build a movement that is so broad and deep that the great majority of people become mobilized as an unstoppable force. What forms the battles will take which lead finally to the transformation of society into something more humanly satisfying and democratic it is impossible to foresee, but it is highly misleading to suggest that it can be done without force.
What we can see and do now is point out all the ways in which ordinary people are the force for what is good in this society and the source of the moral values of solidarity, equality, and democracy which should shape the next one. As the self-conscious movement for democracy grows, so too will people's vision of what society can be like and what it will take to get there. People will devise the means consistent with their goals.
Originally published in New Democracy Newsletter, March-April 1999.