The Pacifism Papers 1: Answering the Objections to Pacifism

In the last couple of years, I have been working on a project funded by the Marsden Fund of New Zealand about how pacifism is suppressed and subjugated as a theory and practice of politics. During this time, I have given lectures to different groups about my findings. Here, and in some following posts, I will upload a few of the talks. It should be noted that more “academic” versions of these talks, including all the relevant citations, can be found here, here and here. The following talk was given in November 2016 at a Study Day in Auckland, New Zealand, organised by the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.


In late 2015, a major public controversy erupted in the United Kingdom over Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent and his opposition to the bombing of Syria. Despite his assertion that he supported the use of military force under certain conditions, he was publicly labelled a “pacifist” by a great many critics from within the government, the media, and his own party. Moreover, the way that the criticisms were expressed suggested that the label “pacifist” was being used as a term of shame and insult. For example, he was accused of holding to a kind of “diehard pacifism”, and some of his own MPs claimed he was a “cheerleader” for an “angry, intolerant pacifism”. Another media commentator mockingly called him a “unilateralist ‘pacifist’”, and quoting George Orwell, referred to his foreign policy views as “squashily pacifist”. In other cases, Corbyn’s “pacifist” views were discussed as a key part of his “wacky foreign policy ideas”.

In addition, Corbyn’s “pacifist” views were considered by many to be naïve and unrealistic. One national newspaper referred to “his utopian principles”, while another commentator suggested: “Discussion is all very well until someone decides that it isn’t; and then pacifism leaves you as a bystander. Welcome to the real world…” Related to this, a former Labour shadow minister, Chuka Umunna, said: “Jeremy Corbyn’s pacifist views should disqualify him from office because he cannot keep Britain safe”. An article by a Labour activist, referencing the World War II narrative of appeasement, argued that Corbyn’s “pacifism” came from a position of “peace at any price”, while an article in the Telegraph argued that his position was dangerous because it “encourages our enemies to think us weak, encouraging them to act and makes war more, not less likely”. Lord West, a former Labour Minister, said he would “not tolerate a shift to waving the white flag… Because I don’t believe that being a pacifist – although it’s an admirable thing for an individual – I don’t believe it’s a way for someone to look after our nation because we are in a very, very dangerous and nasty world”.

I have recounted this incident in some detail because it illustrates the very low regard with which pacifism is held in our culture: the fact that the term “pacifist” can be used as an insult without any real objections tells us a lot about its abject status. More importantly, it illustrates some of the main objections that are frequently made against pacifism, such as that it is naïve, unrealistic, dangerous, immoral and so on. Here, I will address the most common objections to pacifism, and explain how we can answer them and defend the integrity and intelligence of pacifism.

Objections to Pacifism

The most common objections to pacifism, which you will find in the media, in academia, in political discourse, and in the conversation of friends, relatives and people you meet on the street, are as follows:

First, it is commonly argued that pacifism represents a single absolute moral position which, because it rejects any and all force and violence, makes it unsuitable for politics and society.

Second, it is not unusual to see pacifism described as a form of passivity which entails doing nothing in the face of violent attack: the most common form of this argument involves establishing a stark choice between using military force and “doing nothing”. Sometimes, this particular narrative is accompanied by the argument that pacifism is actually dangerous because it signals weakness and thereby encourages aggression, and that it is immoral because it is unwilling to protect endangered others in order to preserve personal principle.

A third analogy used to discredit pacifism is the so-called individual attacker analogy, in which a scenario involving a violent personal attack becomes the basis for arguing that pacifists are either immoral (because they would stand by and do nothing to protect themselves or their loved ones from an individual attacker) or inconsistent (because they would not extend an act of individual self-defence to the level of the nation).

A fourth, and probably the most common objection, is that pacifism is ineffective, especially in the face of overwhelming force wielded by an unprincipled foe. Nonviolence, it is argued, only worked in the past because it was employed against democracies. In particular, the historical experience of Hitler and the Nazis proves that nonviolence is hopelessly naïve and unrealistic, and military force is the only way to stop certain kinds of wrongs and threats.

A final objection is that pacifism is naïve and unrealistic about the perfectibility of human nature and the nature of evil, and cannot therefore contribute to serious discussions about how to deal with violence and threats in the real world.

So let me try and answer these objections one by one.

Pacifism is a single absolute moral position:

In answer to the objection that pacifism is a single kind of absolutist moral position, it can be argued that even a cursory reading of the existing pacifist literature reveals a continuum of ethical and political positions on force and violence, and, similar to other moral theories like just war theory or cosmopolitanism, there are a variety of different forms of pacifism, including: “absolute pacifism”, “collectivist pacifism”, “technological pacifism”, “nuclear pacifism”, “environmental pacifism”, and “pragmatic pacifism” – among others. Like other kinds of philosophies – realism, feminism, environmentalism, and so on – there are many different types of pacifists and pacifist positions.

Pacifism is a form of passivity:

In answer to the objection that pacifism is a form a passivity – that pacifists would rather “do nothing” in the face of violence – it is obvious that even a cursory reading of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Gene Sharp, among others, reveals, far from being a form of passivity, pacifism and nonviolence is rooted in a vigorous, practical opposition to violence, as well as a comprehensive political project aimed at constructing a nonviolent form of politics. As the political philosopher, Duane Cady puts it, “pacifists do not claim that it is wrong to resist violence. On the contrary, they claim that violence should be resisted. They just believe that there are strong moral grounds for preferring to do so nonviolently”. In fact, pacifists insist that, to quote Gandhi, pacifism “does not mean meek submission… it means pitting one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant.”

Pacifists also dispute the argument that pacifism is dangerous because it signals weakness and thereby encourages aggression. Although this is difficult to fully evaluate because there are so few truly pacifist states in the world and we don’t know whether such states would be attacked because they are perceived to be weak, it could be argued that unarmed states, posing no offensive threat, may in fact, be subject to less aggression. Certainly, we do know that armed states provoke a condition known as “the security dilemma” in which fears about the intentions of armed states creates suspicion, tensions and arms races.

Pacifists also argue that there are functional alternatives to the use of force for national security or the protection of vulnerable others, and that far from being immoral to employ nonviolence, it is in fact immoral to suggest that we should protect some people by killing others, or to engage in violent actions which will perpetuate the conditions for future acts of violence. In other words, it is not that pacifists reject violence merely in order to preserve personal principle, but rather they reject it as part of an effort to dismantle the conditions which perpetuate violence into the future.

The individual attacker analogy:

The individual attacker analogy in which pacifists are challenged as to what they would do if an armed criminal was trying to kill their loved ones is similarly easily rebutted. Apart from the substantive differences that exist between individuals and large social groups which prevent easy comparison, this analogy misses the obvious point that unlike a contained incident between a small number of individuals, the use of military force is a form of organized violence which requires extensive preparation, major social organisation, the maintenance of a permanent military force, a supporting economic base, the construction of a violence-supporting culture (including the cultivation of enmity sufficient for the mass killing of other human beings), and in practice, the organised and deliberate killing by and of people who have no direct involvement in the dispute itself.

While some forms of pacifism reject any and all forms of violence, including defensive personal violence, most pacifists would accept individual defensive violence, if necessary, and the use of force by the police to prevent wrong-doing. It is mass organized violence in the form of war that they are opposed to, given that there are viable and more ethical and successful alternatives.

Pacifism is ineffective, especially against groups like the Nazis:

The philosopher Duane Cady suggests that, “[w]hen faced with the objection ‘it won’t work’, the pacifist response must be, simply, that nonviolent action does work and has a history to document the claim.”  Specifically, there are a number of bodies of academic literature which speak to the success and potential of nonviolence. For example, there are growing case study and statistical literatures on:

  • The success of nonviolent movements in overthrowing authoritarian regimes, changing substantial policies, repelling occupations, and winning independence for subnational groups. This is the ground-breaking research based on Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s 2011 study on Why Civil Resistance Works where they examined 100 years of violent and nonviolent campaigns and found that nonviolent campaigns were more than twice as successful as violent campaigns, even under the most severe forms of repression. More importantly, this research clearly demonstrates that nonviolence produces better long-term outcomes than violence – even when it fails. Apart from the well-known cases of Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States, other examples of successful nonviolent movements include: the solidarity movement in Poland; the people power movement in the Philippines; the Iranian revolution; the singing revolution in the Baltic states; the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia; the peaceful revolution in East Germany; the bloodless revolution in Bulgaria; the colour revolutions in Ukraine, Serbia and Georgia; the third wave of democracy in Africa; the cedar revolution in Lebanon; the Arab Spring; and many more individual cases. There are even examples of successful nonviolent resistance to the Nazis during WWII.
  • There is another important literature on the success of unarmed peacekeeping and nonviolent accompaniment in situations of violent conflict, including in situations like Colombia and South Sudan. This literature includes cases where UN troops chose to be unarmed, as well as nonviolent peace-forces such as Peace Brigades International.
  • There is an emerging literature on the success of nonviolent community-led efforts to resist incursion by armed groups and protect communities, including in the midst of violent civil wars such as in Colombia, Somalia, and Syria. There are extraordinary cases of towns and communities successfully resisting ISIS, the Colombian militias, the Mexican narcos, Brazilian death squads, etc. While the cases are often small-scale, not always effective, and nascent, they nonetheless gesture towards potential alternative approaches to the use of violence as a form of security management.
  • Related to this, there is a longstanding literature on the possibilities of civilian-based forms of national defense. Rooted in both the realistic recognition that most states in the world would be unable to defend themselves from invasion by the most powerful states using military force (and such resistance would be very costly in terms of life and destruction), and some cases of successful nonviolent resistance to invaders (such as India and Lithuania), such approaches provide strategies for civil non-cooperation, raising the costs of occupation and coercing invaders.

It’s important to note that these literatures do not suggest that nonviolence works every time and in every case; there is no silver bullet for anything in politics; certainly, we know that violence doesn’t work every time and in every case. But, we do know that nonviolence works well in a great many documented cases and in different areas, and these literatures gesture towards the immense possibilities of nonviolent action. In fact, the probability is that we have greatly under-estimated how effective nonviolence is historically, especially if we look closely at local struggles which have so far been undocumented – such as the landless peasant movement in Brazil, environmental activism to stop dams, oil pipelines, the protection of habitats, etc, local efforts to prevent the building of industries such as smelters, etc etc.

On the other hand, an alternative approach is to admit with the ethical philosopher Robert Holmes that

“we simply do not know whether there is a viable practical alternative to violence, and will not and cannot know unless we are willing to make an effort, comparable to the multibillion-dollar-a-year effort currently made to produce means of destruction and train young people in their use, to explore the potential of nonviolent action.”

Holmes goes on to argue: “No one can foresee what the results might be if a country like the United States were to spend $300 billion a year in research on techniques of nonviolent resistance and on educating and training people in their use.”

The related objection here that pacifism would not work against an evil, unprincipled opponent, and that movements such as Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in America only succeeded because their opponents were democracies, is belied by both the evidence of the kind of brutality Gandhi and King’s movements faced, but also the empirical research demonstrating that the success of nonviolent movements is not limited to cases where they opposed democratic states, but holds under situations of severe forms of repression. The successes of these movements can be attributed to the combination of strategic actions, contexts, and attributes of the movements; that is, they cannot be dismissed as outliers.

Crucially, there are a number of possible responses to the Nazi analogy, which argues that some actors are so evil and ruthless that they can only be resisted through the adoption of greater counter-violence. Although this is a very challenging case for pacifists (as well as those who advocate violence), as the philosopher Robert Holmes reminds us, “we should remember that there need be no inconsistency in holding that the war against Nazi Germany was justified but that war today is unjustified” – given modern weaponry, nuclear weapons, the proportion of civilians killed in wars, and the many options to resolving international conflicts that currently exist.

In addition, it is critical to acknowledge the temporal aspects of the argument and the way in which it is most often framed. That is, as Robert Holmes once again puts it:

While nonviolence obviously could not have pushed back German armour on the battlefield once the institutions of militarism had been allowed to mature and the self-propelling mechanism of a military state put into motion, it might have been effective at an earlier stage in preventing the rise to power of those responsible. If the historical fact is that military means stopped Hitler once he began to march, it is also an historical fact that reliance upon such means on the part of the world’s nations did not prevent his rise to power in the first place. … [and] had military action not been taken, say, until 1943 (or if Germany… [had] perfected the atom bomb first), it is unlikely that Hitler could have been stopped this way either.

In responding to this particular case, it is also important to interrogate what the aims of employing violence against the axis powers were. If they were simply to defend against or repel foreign invasion by destroying the enemy’s will to continue fighting, then the military campaign, after much cost, succeeded. On the other hand, if its purpose was to protect civilians, save European Jews, end future military aggression, defeat the forces of fascism, or create a more peaceful world, then the allied use of force in World War II clearly failed.

Pacifism is naïve and unrealistic about the perfectibility of human nature and the nature of evil:

The philosopher Dustin Howes, reacting to the suggestion that pacifists are naïve and idealistic, and looking at the record of military violence, suggests instead that, “The weight of extensive empirical evidence demonstrates that the practitioners of violence are more often the tragic idealists than are pacifists.”  What he is referring to here is this profound failure of military force which is evident in, among others: (1) the total failure of more than 15 years of the global war on terror launched after 9/11 which has resulted in 1.4 million deaths, millions of refugees, the spread of torture, AND at the same time, a corresponding increase in the number of terrorist attacks and terrorist groups; (2) the history of the post-war period which has seen 300 plus wars, many of them lasting more than 20 years, with 30-40 million deaths; and (3) the history of the past century in which “the war system” has resulted in over 100 million dead, tens of millions displaced, truly vast scarce resources spent on the military, the spread of nuclear weapons – and with little to no directly correlated increase in security, peace, stability or democracy.

Dustin Howes is also referring to growing body of academic research which clearly shows how ineffective military violence is for achieving political and strategic goals. This research includes, among others:

  • the studies which show that states with greater material capabilities are no more likely to win wars than those with weaker capabilities, and these days are winning wars less often;
  • the studies which show how ineffective air campaigns are in achieving political results;
  • the studies which show that violent state repression of popular protest is ineffective;
  • the studies which show that the death penalty does not work to deter crime;
  • the studies which question the effectiveness of both torture and drone killings to reduce terrorism;
  • and the empirical studies which show how ineffective both terrorism and violent forms of counterterrorism are.

The fact is, any objective evaluation of the use of military violence over the past century reveals how seldom large-scale political violence works to achieve its aims, how unpredictable are its long-term consequences, and how the application of increasing force and the achievement of success (both strategic and political) bears little to no direct relation to each other.

So why is violence such a failure? What are the reasons for its abysmal record? I want to suggest four main reasons why violence most often does not work in the real world:

First, it doesn’t work because it misunderstands the relationship between violence and coercion, and between violence and power. That is, it misunderstands how actual, real violence functions in the real world, and instead assumes that the application of overwhelming and targeted force will compel people to submit or comply. In the real world, it is not possible to say that this much violence will result in this outcome. In the real world, the effectiveness of violence to deter or compel depends entirely on how people respond to the violence, not the violence itself. That is, the capacity to kill and destroy bears no direct relation to the ability to coerce; in the real world, the application of violence can provoke either deterrence or retaliation, intimidation or rage, submission or resistance, and the desired response can never be assured. This is why proponents of violence so often mistake the reliability of violence as a political instrument.

Related to this, the sociologist Stellan Vinthagen explains how power and violence are analytically distinct, and as a consequence, “the most extreme result of violence – the killing of a human being – is something that ensures that there will never again be subordination within that relationship. Killing results in an absolute absence of power. In fact, violence is a… failure of power.” In a sense, the use of violence is not a symbol of power and control, but a sign that one has lost all power over one’s opponent.

Second, the proponents of violence misunderstand the conditions and processes which make violence possible in the first place – in particular, how it requires an enabling set of beliefs and ideas which make it legitimate and meaningful to its perpetrators and its audience. What this means is that the deliberate use of violence as a political tool constitutes the conditions for its own practice. Thus, when the proponents of humanitarian intervention for example, argue that we should employ violence to protect people, or when politicians say that we should use violence to stop the violence of ISIS, those actions say clearly and loudly that: “it is legitimate to use violence against those who use violence against you or others, and violence is a legitimate tool of politics”. The most predictable consequence of this is to establish violence at the heart of all politics and make it a part of conflict.

A more realistic assessment of the nature of violence clearly shows that while it can achieve immediate things like dead bodies, screams, pain, suffering, and material destruction, and while it can sometimes achieve certain short-term goals like the destruction of an enemy’s means to fight, its longer term effects are by virtue of its constitutive and world-shattering nature, unpredictable and virtually always ends-destroying. As Gandhi put it: “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”

A third related reason why violence fails is because it can never be purely instrumental – it is not, and can never be just a tool of politics. Rather, violence is productive and constitutive; it makes the world as it is being used. At the very least, we know that military violence is not simply a tool because to even have the tool available to use, you first need to have (1) a well-armed, trained and maintained military institution; (2) economic processes designed to fund and supply the military; (3) a knowledge-producing and scientific system to train the members of the military and invent new weapons systems for them to use; (4) a supporting cultural and ideological system to normalize and make acceptable killing and dying for nation and the sacrifice of scarce resources for the military as an institution; and (5) a legal and ethical system which defines friends and enemies, worthy and unworthy victims, threats and dangers, and legitimate and illegitimate killing. The point is that all of these processes leave their mark on society both before, and long after, it has gone to war; they are all part of the building blocks and everyday practices of society – they make a world of violent actors and supporters who all believe that violence is sometimes necessary and justified. In other words, the idea that violence can be employed as a tool “misses the link between violence as doing and violence as being”, especially “when we take into account that our bodies themselves are prime instruments of violence.”

Fourth, and related to the misunderstanding of violence as a kind of tool, it does not work because it misunderstands the relationship between means and ends – which cannot be separated. The military can never be used as the means to a separate end because the outcomes of political actions – actually, of all social action – are prefigured in the means. That is, “[h]owever hard we try to separate means and ends, the results we achieve are extensions of the policies we live… Means and ends are aspects of one and the same event.” Gandhi argued this point by suggesting that the belief that we can separate means and ends would be the same as thinking “that we can get a rose through planting a noxious weed.” He goes on to say, “The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connexion between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree… We reap exactly what we sow”. Similarly, the philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that “[t]he practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”

From this perspective, it is in fact, implausible that peaceful ends (such as security, or democracy, or the creation of non-warring communities) can be achieved by violent, harmful means – just as it is implausible that trust can be built by deception, that love can be generated by fear, or that equality can be achieved through a system of privilege and domination.

In short, it is not pacifism which is naïve and unrealistic about human nature and the real world, but the believers in violence: it is they who operate with a naïve view of what violence can do. It is for this reason that a growing number of scholars are beginning to articulate a form of political theory which has radical nonviolence – pacifism – at its centre. Based on a realistic appreciation that difference and conflict is inherent to the human condition, and the need for humility and reversibility of action is crucial to politics, proponents of what Karuna Mantena calls “Gandhian realism” argue that only a kind of politics based on complete and total nonviolence can avoid violence in politics and the perpetuation of endless war. Or, as Stanley Hauerwas, reflecting on the events of 9/11, expressed it, “nonviolence is the necessary condition for a politics not based on death.”


I want to conclude by acknowledging what I know many of you are thinking: despite all the reasonable arguments and evidence I have presented in response to the objections here, it is nonetheless incredibly idealistic to think that pacifism and nonviolence could ever gain a wider acceptance and become part of our politics, our foreign policy, and our culture. After all, militaristic thinking (and all the objections to pacifism we have discussed) are embedded in all our institutions, in our common ways of thinking, our entertainment, our universities and our churches, and there are a great vested interests in maintaining the war system. There are too many people and corporations making too much money from war and violence for them to give it up without serious and sustained opposition.

However, I want to end by suggesting that there are reasons for maintaining a sense of optimism about the possibility of making our world more pacifist. The most obvious and profound reason for optimism is that, as the peace scholar Kenneth Boulding put it, “Anything that exists is possible”. Think about that for a second: anything that exists is possible

  • We know that peaceful, non-warring societies exist and have existed for thousands of years; anthropologists have documented at least 74 of them. Therefore, peaceful, non-warring societies are possible.
  • We know that peaceful, non-warring regions of the world exist; therefore, a peaceful, non-warring world is possible.
  • We know that countries exist which have disbanded their militaries and integrated unarmed civilian resistance into their national defence systems; therefore, getting rid of the military and adopting unarmed forms of defence is possible.
  • We know that nonviolent movements exist which have overthrown brutal repressive regimes, won independence, and changed unjust laws without the use of violence; therefore, making major political change without violence is possible.
  • We know that groups and organisations exist which have successfully protected innocent people without violence in the middle of brutal civil wars; therefore, unarmed nonviolent peacekeeping is possible.
  • We know that communities exist in places like Syria and Colombia which have nonviolently resisted terrorist groups and other armed actors and created zones of relative peace and safety; therefore, it is possible to create security without violence, even in the midst of appalling violent conflict.

I could go on and on. The point is that when you evaluate all the evidence and arguments, it is not at all unrealistic or naïve to think that pacifism could work to provide security, to protect the innocent, to provide national security, to win political concessions, and so on. There is no need for pessimism or defensiveness about pacifism. It is the proponents of violence who ought to be pessimistic and defensive, as all their efforts to create peace and security have failed. If war and military violence really did lead to peace and security, then we would have it already. Now is the time to stand up for pacifism, to take this argument forward, to challenge the war system, and to work hard to make pacifism the basis for our society and our way of life.

About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently Professor of Peace Studies and the Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of pacifism and nonviolence, terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: The Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies (Routledge, 2016); Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism. In 2014, I published a research-based novel entitled, Confessions of a Terrorist (Zed Books, 2014) which explores the mind and motivation of a terrorist.
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1 Response to The Pacifism Papers 1: Answering the Objections to Pacifism

  1. Ron says:

    Hello again, Richard, & thanks for sending this along. Stay tuned for comments.

    I’m pleased to see you citing members of my group, Concerned Philosophers for Peace. I dedicated my latest book to the organization.



    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

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