Pacifism as Pathology

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To be on the Left in the US is to support gun control at home and to oppose military actions abroad. Thus the strangeness of Ward Churchill's Pacifism as Pathology, an attack on Left pacifism motivated by the author's chilly reception at the Midwest Radical Therapy Association when trying to acquaint his colleagues with the workings of a Heckler & Koch assault rifle.

Ward Churchill

Reviewed by J.C. Myers

Sunday, June 9 2002, 4:57 PM


In The Prince, Machiavelli counseled those who were interested in ruling to study only war. On the one hand, this was surely meant to imply that certain elements of warfare and political life were fundamentally analogous: troops who believe in their cause are likely to hold their ground under fire, just as citizens who believe in the legitimacy of the state are likely to remain loyal when times are tough. On the other hand, Machiavelli was also keenly aware that at the end of the day, sovereign power was upheld by force. Thus, the Florentine diplomat offered advice to revolutionaries as well as autocrats: armed prophets conquer, while unarmed prophets fail.

Today, however, it would seem more than odd for anyone associated with Left politics in the US to give any serious consideration to the concept of armed struggle. To be on the Left in the US is to support gun control at home and to oppose military actions abroad. Thus the strangeness of Ward Churchill's Pacifism as Pathology, an attack on Left pacifism motivated by the author's chilly reception at the Midwest Radical Therapy Association when trying to acquaint his colleagues with the workings of a Heckler & Koch assault rifle.

Churchill's opening salvo against pacifism centers on the well-trodden example of Nazi Germany: against a state that is willing to kill millions, a pacifist Left is forever condemned to defeat. Yet, in building his case, Churchill breaks some new ground by giving voice to a hypocrisy many have felt, but few have openly discussed: the North American Left vigorously supports armed struggles in Africa and Central America, but cringes in horror at the notion of politics going beyond pure pacifism at home.

The rise of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany certainly offers the clearest and most emotionally gripping evidence against the pacifist position. While it is by no means certain that German fascism could have been quickly and easily stopped in its tracks, the Social Democratic Party's decision to disarm its paramilitary organization (the Reichsbanner) rather than confront Nazi aggression unquestionably smoothed Hitler's road to power. But while the case of European fascism is the easiest situation in which to justify the Left's use of arms, it is also the most difficult to see repeated in our own time and place. The strongest case for pacifism, by contrast, is much closer to home. The Civil Rights Movement's use of non-violent protest actions achieved dramatic and lasting results, becoming a model for Left activists around the world.

Yet, it is worth remembering that for Gandhi and King, non-violent actions were intended to place direct pressure on the state: the jails were to be filled in order to clog the system, eventually bringing its coercive power to a halt. Churchill contrasts this vision of non-violence with contemporary actions that have become increasingly symbolic: protestors offer themselves for arrest only to be processed and released by an efficient police apparatus long inured to civil disobedience. A sense of personal purity may be won by those who gently cycle from demonstration to police station to living room, but genuine political gains are more difficult to see.

What Churchill's essay neglects, however, is perhaps the most important point to be made by the Left with regard to violence: armed struggle is a tactic, and tactics are useless in the absence of a mobilized mass movement. Considering armed struggle when the Left is unable even to make an impact on an election (let alone actually contest one) is pointless and dangerous, encouraging the Hollywood illusion that political change is made by the actions of lone, armed heroes. Barring a dramatic constitutional change, the tactics of armed struggle would do the current US Left no good and much harm.

There is one somewhat more foreseeable circumstance in which Churchill's suggestion that we demystify arms and violence might become more relevant. As both the assassination of activists during the Civil Rights Movement and the organization of coups against elected leaders such as Salvador Allende and (more recently) Hugo Chavez suggest, an ascendant Left will undoubtedly face a violent reaction from the Right. Should that day come in the US, the questions Churchill raises will need to be considered. Until then, the US Left should study, rather than war, the true subject of Machiavelli's text: the rebuilding of tradition.

Arbeiter Ring, Winnipeg (1998) 

Copyright © 2002 by J.C. Meyers. All rights reserved.
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