Arms and the Movement

Pacifism equals pacified to this activist

| Utne Reader May / June 2007

I could spend plenty of time talking about the failures of nonviolence. Instead, it may be useful to talk about its supposed successes. Frequently cited examples are India's struggle for independence from British colonial rule, the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the peace movement during the war in Vietnam. Though they have not yet been hailed as a victory, the massive protests in 2003 against the United States' invasion of Iraq also have been applauded by nonviolent activists. In claiming these as victories for nonviolence, however, pacifists have engaged in a pattern of historical manipulation and whitewashing.

In India, the story goes, people led by Mahatma Gandhi built up a massive nonviolent movement over decades and engaged in protest, noncooperation, economic boycotts, hunger strikes, and other acts of disobedience that made British imperialism unworkable. The movement suffered massacres and responded with a couple of riots, but on the whole, the movement was nonviolent and eventually won independence, providing an undeniable hallmark of pacifist victory.

The actual history is more complicated. Many violent pressures also influenced the British decision to withdraw. The British had lost the ability to maintain colonial power after losing millions of troops and resources during two extremely violent world wars. The armed struggles of Arab and Jewish militants in Palestine from 1945 to 1948 further weakened the British Empire, and these conflicts served as a clear threat of what might result if the Indians gave up civil disobedience to take up arms en masse.

India's resistance to British colonialism included enough militancy that the Gandhian method should be viewed most accurately as one of several competing forms of popular resistance. Pacifists white out those other forms of resistance, ignoring important militant leaders such as Chandrasekhar Azad, who fought in armed struggle against the British colonizers, and revolutionaries such as Bhagat Singh, who won mass support for bombings and assassinations as part of a struggle to accomplish the 'overthrow of both foreign and Indian capitalism.' The pacifist history of India's struggle cannot make any sense of the fact that Subhas Chandra Bose, the militant candidate, was twice elected president of the Indian National Congress, in 1938 and 1939.

Ultimately, the liberation movement in India failed. The British were not forced out. Under pressure from a diverse resistance, they chose to hand power over to the parts of the resistance they felt would best uphold their interests, shifting from direct colonial rule to neocolonial rule. What kind of victory allows the losing side to dictate the time and manner of the victors' ascendancy? The British continued to fan the flames of religious and ethnic separatism so that India would be divided against itself, prevented from gaining peace and prosperity, and dependent on military aid and other support from Euro/American states.

Independence from colonial rule has given India more autonomy in a few areas, and it has certainly allowed a handful of Indians to sit in the seats of power. But the exploitation and the commoditization of the commons and of culture have deepened. Moreover, India lost a clear opportunity for meaningful liberation from a foreign oppressor. Any liberation movement now would have to go up against the confounding dynamics of nationalism and ethnic/religious rivalry in order to abolish a domestic capitalism and government that are far more developed.

Kirby Cosine
11/1/2011 9:58:54 AM

How can violence be excused on moral grounds? In my case, my objection to violent forms of protest is not due to my fear of their inefficacy, but due to my strong belief that violence is intrinsically wrong. Is there a way to excuse this? Moreover, does the excuse amount to more than "They started it"?