The moral incoherence of non-violent philosophy and strategy

by · April 30, 2011

The Egyptian state responds to peaceful prayers in Cairo

One of the most stunning results of the Arab revolutions has been the exposure of the mechanisms of coercive control endured by the ordinary people of the region for decades. Far from the West’s backing of authoritarian regimes leading to a benign order, it was always predicated on the most horrific apparatuses of repressive violence.

It is no wonder, then, that the rapid removal through street protests of two entrenched dictators (in Tunisia and Egypt) has led to a celebration of the success of “peaceful revolution” and non-violent direct action. It has also led some supporters of the revolutions to feel despair as regimes have narrowed the space for such protest by cracking down with increasing brutality, including a bloody civil war and NATO intervention in Libya.

But how much have events really reflected the success or failure of non-violent strategy, and how useful is it as a guide for the Left?

Myths of non-violent revolution

In a recent guest post, Boris Kelly referred to the influence of non-violent direct action philosophies in the Egyptian Revolution, particularly those of Mahatma Gandhi and the American thinker Gene Sharp. There is no doubt that among sections of the April 6 Youth Movement the past experience of movements like Serbia’s Otpor! was a significant factor, especially in terms of how street tactics were developed.

Boris was right to point to the controversies surrounding Sharp’s ideology, which sees “revolution” as a limited activity to replace authoritarian regimes with liberal-democratic ones, thoroughly conducive to market capitalism. In that sense, Sharp’s work refuses to countenance the possibility (or wisdom) of social revolution — and the historical examples he cherry-picks to make his case to reinforce this view. That some on the Left have adopted Sharp’s thesis reflects the ambiguous way he presents his ideas, divorced from wider social processes, as well as deep intellectual pessimism in the wake of the collapse of Stalinism, which apparently confirmed the impossibility of alternatives to capitalism.

Hossam al-Hamalawy has rightly dismissed the notion that there was anything “peaceful” about the Egyptian Revolution, noting that even the authorities now admit at least 846 people were killed and 6400 injured in the process. In places like Suez people forcibly stole arms from security forces and turned them against the state. The illusion of “non-violence” comes in part from the Western media’s focus on events in Tahrir Square and Twitter, but in part from the same ideological frame afflicting Sharp — the attempt to shoehorn complex social movements into a narrow, US State Department sanctioned view of “colour revolutions”. The Arab revolution has already broken well past such formulas in its richness and radicalisation, with much more at stake than the introduction of limited democratic reforms with Western consent.

Indeed, in the case of Egypt, from 25 January onwards anyone paying attention would’ve seen that the key transformation was the “loss of fear” among ordinary people, which led to police being completely overwhelmed by the massive numbers of protesters surging towards them. Even in the pattern of mobilisations that marked the 2000s, a street protest numbering in the low thousands was a massive achievement and subject to severe repression — to have tens and hundreds of thousands demonstrating was unthinkable. Around the country offices of Mubarak’s ruling NDP were burnt to the ground in the first days of the uprising. In these actions and many others (like the defence of the Revolution around Tahrir Square from armed pro-Mubarak thugs), there is no question that significant physical force was needed to repel the regime’s attempts to restore control.

The point of this is not to celebrate violence — the fact we live in a world where war, repression, torture and brutality are on the news every night is a key reason to seek fundamental social change. But to imagine the same powers that establish control through violence to give it up when confronted by a non-violent response abstracts physical force from the social functions and interests it serves.

At one level such a response seems at least ethically tenable in that those seeking change are convinced the oppressed must not replicate the horrors they are fighting. The argument for non-violence is, in effect, that to build a peaceful future one must prefigure it with one’s own actions today. Or, borrowing (somewhat out of context) from US feminist Audre Lord, many argue that, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.

Domenico Losurdo challenges non-violent philosophy head-on in the latest issue of Historical Materialism, arguing it is based on a false counter-position that we can choose between violence and non-violence. Instead, historical crises repeatedly force people to choose between two different forms of violence, that of the rulers and the ruled.

He sees the popularity of non-violence as in part drawing on exasperation with “wars and revolutions that all promised to achieve a state of perpetual peace by implementing their different methods. In other words, violence was used to guarantee the eradication of the scourge of violence once and for all.” The First World War was greeted by mass enthusiasm to enlist in “the war to end all wars”. It was described by sociologist Max Weber as a “great and wonderful war” while the liberal Italian philosopher “Benedetto Croce expected it to lead to ‘a regeneration of present social life’.” Similarly, the revolution in Russia was expected to overcome the brutality of capitalist exploitation and war.

Historical contradictions of non-violent action

The multiple terrors of the 20th century crushed all such excitement so that even ruling classes came to utilise opposition to violence as a key ideological bulwark. Yet Losurdo shows that non-violence as a philosophy runs deeper than these developments.

For example, the American Peace Society of the 19th century was set up to campaign for the end of all violent conflicts, but soon suffered internal ructions when confronted with actually occurring wars and uprisings. So when the 1848 revolutions effectively ended slavery in the French colonies, the APS celebrated abolition but disowned the violent revolts that had caused it. Later it condemned the anti-colonial Sepoys uprising in India despite recognising that it had been provoked by British violence — now arguing that the British Empire was guaranteeing “law and order”. The American Civil War brought the philosophical crisis to a head as it became clear that only force would break slavery in the southern states. While sections of the movement hoped in vain for a peaceful resolution (some suggesting that slave states should be allowed to secede to continue their barbaric practices), in the end most activists redefined the war as not a war but a police action against the criminality of the Confederacy, even want to deny the Confederate President clemency. As Losurdo puts it, “Nonviolence had somehow been turned around, transformed into an even worse, extended form of violence.”

Mahatma Gandhi’s reputation is for building a non-violent struggle to end British control of the subcontinent, promoted as a counter to nasty, violent national liberationists of the same era like Mao and Castro. But his strategy was more reflective of his general political outlook — to convince the British they should grant independence. Thus he backed England in the Boer War, although he managed to heap praise the fighting abilities of both sides. When the First World War broke out he “undertook to recruit five hundred-thousand men for the British army and went about it with such fervour that he wrote to the Viceroy’s private secretary: ‘I have an idea that, if I became your recruiting agent-in-chief, I might rain men on you’.” Gandhi saw willingness to join in battle as separating “the brave and the effeminate”. By the end of the war a million Indian volunteers had travelled to fight on Britain’s side, for which they were rewarded with the Amritsar Massacre. This finally pushed Gandhi towards outright hostility to the British. Despite Gandhi’s importance to the independence movement, it was the post-WWII weakness of the British Empire, the general wave of anti-colonial struggles sweeping the Third World and (frequently violent) mass action from below that finally tipped the British out.

Losurdo also takes a quick detour to consider the multimedia spectacle that is the 14th Dalai Lama, whose backing by the United States saw him transformed into an apostle of non-violence. When he fled Tibet in 1959 it was during a period of American military assistance to the Tibetan rebellion, part of US efforts to undermine Mao’s China. The image to the world was of a non-violent Tibetan Buddhism as ideological counterweight to a brutal Chinese Communism. While the Dalai Lama publicly professed commitment to peace and love, he was by the mid-1970s complaining of US withdrawal of paramilitary support. This is not to downplay the justness of the Tibetan national liberation struggle, but to put the history of particular ideological propositions around “non-violence” in context.

The primacy of politics

Losurdo’s point is that non-violence as a principle ends up being pulled asunder when its leading protagonists are forced to make acute political choices, and that these choices are usually governed by wider ideologies and interests. It can also lead its most principled advocates into supporting state or imperial violence against resistance movements, as happened when sections of the Western Left who had opposed the Iraq War turned around and condemned the Iraqi insurgency. Similarly, it can lead a party like the Australian Greens — whose commitment to “peace and non-violence” is enshrined as one of its four principles — to both condemn riots by immigration detainees and to actively campaign for NATO bombing of Libya. Of course they also condemn the violent treatment of asylum seekers and oppose United States led wars elsewhere, but the moral compass clearly cannot be reduced to questions of violence versus non-violence.

The key to understanding the limits of non-violent philosophy is in its voluntaristic commitment to an abstract good within a society run on coercion. Gramsci’s point that capitalist rule through the creation of consent (“hegemony”) was tied to his understanding that this was always interweaved with state violence, or its ever-present threat. An absolute commitment to non-violence thereby inadvertently legitimates the way our rulers relentlessly preach against violence from below just as they systematically practice it from above.

Understanding violence as a social practice embedded in a wider social order, but also shaped by the balance of contesting forces within that order, provides a better ethico-political grounding for any political strategy for the Left. The consequence of such an approach is to consistently take sides with ordinary people against the mechanisms of coercion imposed from above, to challenge the idea that the state can deliver peace through its claim to be the only entity permitted to legitimately exercise violence.

This cannot primarily be a question of whether to use physical force or not, rather a political question of how to build the strongest possible alternative to existing relations of domination and violence.