Book review review

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Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America (2nd edition) by Ward Churchill, introductions by Ed Mead and Derrick Jensen afterword by Mike Ryan.
AK Press pb ISBN: 9781904859185

Just what we don't need. I hope the book would do better, but I'm disgusted by Derrick Jensen's conflating of nonviolence with inaction– a willful misrepresentation no serious activist (whatever their views on the use of violence) would ever make, unless trying to start a fight!

Pacifism, the ideology of nonviolent political resistance, has been the norm among mainstream North American progressive groups for decades. But to what end? Ward Churchill challenges the pacifist movement's heralded victories--Gandhi in India, 1960s anti-war activists, even Martin Luther King's civil rights movement--suggesting that their success was in spite of, rather than because of, their nonviolent tactics. Pacifism as Pathology was written as a response not only to Churchill's frustration with his own activist experience, but also to a debate raging in the activist and academic communities. He argues that pacifism is in many ways counterrevolutionary; that it defends the status quo, rather than leading to social change. In these times of upheaval and global protest, this is a vital and extremely relevant book.

"This extraordinarily important book cuts to the heart of one of the central reasons movements to bring about social and environmental change always fail. The fundamental question here is: is violence ever an acceptable tool to bring about social change? This is probably the most important question of our time, yet so often discussions around it fall into clichés and magical thinking: that somehow if we are merely good and nice enough people, the state will stop using its violence to exploit us all. Would that this were true."--Derrick Jensen, author of Endgame

With the huge amount of violence and neglect, and the lack of action by so many, frustration is understandable. But substituting the action of many with the violent action of a few does not make for a revolution that benefits all. Most likely it makes for failed strategy, at best it makes for an undemocratic victory by a few.

Power is organization. Violence, on the level of police powers, warfare, executions, and guerrilla warfare is a way of exercising the power of organization, but it is not a tool strategically appropriate for we, the many, on the side of justice and liberty.

To be clear: property destruction is not violence. Destroying useful goods and materials is itself generally not a good idea, but it's not the same as taking a life or even causing injury-- although destroying or taking someone's livelihood or home can be close.

All serious acts of nonviolent resistance risk the frighteningly likely response of violence from the established powers. Blockading a road, surrounding a government or corporate headquarters, growing food on vacant land– all have brought, and likely will bring again, unjustified use of force from government and private security personnel.

Renouncing violence as a strategy in revolution does not mean force should not be used in self defense. At the minimum it means violence cannot be a tactic of attack.

Our first challenge must be constructive. We must be prepared to defend the alternatives we begin to build with nonviolent action and the solidarity of others.

This does not mean we should not be prepared to physically fight back in direct self-defense, but it must be defensive and not pre-emptive. Not, they're destroying the world and we must stop them by any means necessary so violence is justified. Not, the U.S. government is supporting a military dictator who is killing people so we should attack the registry of motor vehicles. Violence against an individual person or animal (which all violence is) is never justified except in direct defense of oneself or others. Direct. As in happening directly in front of you. Drop this basic rule of morality, fair play and common sense, and one can rationalize violence in any situation. (Militarized violence changes the equation quite a bit, in the need to defend oneself and others from direct violence coming from bombs, sniper rifles, and missiles, but even in wartime . The real goal is to be sufficiently organized as humanity that no society can become the aggressor without internal nonviolent resistance and noncompliance, and the same in occupied areas. We are clearly far from this goal but these were still important factors, more so the non-military resistance of occupied areas, in reining in Nazi Germany – especially Denmark and Italy – and the U.S. today, as there is a powerful nonviolent movement in Iraq.)

The point isn't categoric nonviolence, personal and communal self-defense and a militarized warfare situation of collective self-defense may necessarily be violent, although even here where killing can be avoided it should be for both strategic building-a-better-world and the basic moral reasons. The point is that violence as a revolutionary strategy is practically and morally flawed.

Most fundamentally, violence is largely a subset of the most discredited route to revolution: seizing government power. You don't have to be an anarchist (and anarchists' observations on the tendencies of governments to do evil have been proven by an amazing cross-section and historical study known as reality) to come to the conclusion that the path for sustained, positive change must be forged and primarily maintained by building organizational power that stays outside of government, and with the people.

Violence is probably the more commonly seen strategy for change today (passivity seen in most places, especially the U.S., is not a strategy) because it consolidates power in one leader. (The same goes for forming nonprofit organizations and running for president.) There is no such individual aggrandizement incentive for strategies that truly build our collective power. Mutual aid and self-sufficiency (or rather the inter-reliance of the two), horizontal lines of communication, and directly democratic organization do not make for a leader who gets to have a nicer car than other folks.

Yes, we are failing utterly as a movement for justice, liberty, better lives for all, and – most concretely – the power to control things that affect us. But it's painfully clear that the failure isn't due to an alleged refraining from violence, but due to not doing enough period. Not building alternatives. Not supporting radical service organizations– people who directly help others while being honest about the real problems we face, which cannot and should not be addressed with charity. Underlying everything we have a failure of organization, a failure of communication. To turn to violence because we have failed to use the tools available would not be a solution, it would be a final admission of failure.

Send your gun money to people who give a damn, which I hope will help solve the underlying communication problems by building ways to collectively communicate. Or perhaps more to the point of my diatribe here, Food Not Bombs; and start a chapter yourself and make sure there is noone anywhere who has not personally heard from, and eaten from the bowl of, someone who militantly believes no one should go hungry and no one should be harmed or killed.