Looking back at the previous one hundred years, it would be easy to think that pacifism and nonviolence has been a complete failure, and that it has had little if any influence or impact on our history. After all, following the mass slaughter of WWI, the world was plunged into the even greater conflict of WWII, with its accompanying genocide of European Jews, the carpet bombing of German cities, and the atomic attacks on Japan – among countless other atrocities. In the years after the end of WWII, the world experienced the Cold War, with its nuclear brinkmanship, as well as more than 290 major wars and conflicts in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and Oceania. The current 17-year long War on Terror has engulfed a number of Middle Eastern and North African countries, including the tragic war in Syria, and has killed in excess of a million people, with millions displaced and many others tortured, imprisoned and killed in drone strikes. In fact, the list of wars, conflicts, terrorist attacks, genocides, and government repression over the past century seems almost endless.
Looking at this history, and at the militaries and weaponry possessed by virtually every nation, the extent and reach of the global arms trade, and all the ongoing violent conflicts today, it would be tempting to think that pacifism and nonviolence has become an entirely irrelevant idea, and that perhaps war and violence is simply an inevitable part of human society and history.
However, such a conclusion would obscure the often hidden but important parallel history of thinkers, activists, groups, and even governments, who have employed nonviolence and pacifism to real effect over the past century. Missing from the history books, and often ignored by the media and popular culture, the reality is that pacifism and nonviolence has played a significant role in our history and continues to grow as a force for positive change in the world today. I don’t have time to talk in any detail about the role of pacifists before and after WWI who were conscientious objectors, who led disarmament campaigns, or worked to establish the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations), or who drew up international humanitarian laws and conventions, and established the international Court of Justice in the Hague. But the foundations of much international law today, as well as international institutions like the United Nations and international conventions to do with human rights and disarmament, were the result of a great many pacifists who struggled against the tide of militarism and war, particularly following WWI.
Nor do I have time to talk about the role of nonviolent resistance by countries like Denmark to the Nazi occupation of Europe during WWII, or the way in which nonviolent movements were able to save tens of thousands of Jews in places like Bulgaria.
Nor do I have time to talk about the influence of pacifists and pacifism on the anti-colonial struggles in places like India, where Mohandas Gandhi led a nonviolent movement, or Zambia where I grew up, and many other former colonies who won their independence through peaceful struggle – or, indeed, the nonviolent struggles of the Moriori, Waitaha, Parihaka and other indigenous movements who resisted colonisation in Aotearoa.
Related to this, I don’t have time to talk about the role of nonviolence in struggles for racial and social justice, such as Martin Luther King’s civil rights struggle in the United States, or the struggle by the church in places like South Africa, Poland and Latin America.
I don’t have time talk about the role of nonviolent movements in bringing down dictators or winning freedom and human rights – such as the People Power movement which brought the Marcos regime in the Philippines, or the Carnation Revolution which ended the military dictatorship in Portugal, or the peaceful revolutions in Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Mongolia, and the Baltic Republics which brought down the Iron Curtain and threw off Soviet domination.
I don’t have time to discuss the role of pacifists and nonviolent protestors in the anti-nuclear movement in Europe, America and New Zealand.
Nor do I have time to talk about the continuing influence of well-known pacifists such as Leo Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi, Bertrand Russel, Aldous Huxley, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Vera Brittain, Sophie Scholl, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, and many, many more – including our own Archibald Baxter.
Nor do I have the time to talk in any detail about the nonviolent movements which erupted across the Middle East and North Africa during the recent Arab Spring, or the recent Colour Revolutions across Eastern Europe.
Finally, I don’t have time to talk about the millions of pacifists and the pacifist traditions in all the major religions – Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and so on – or the way in which violence has come to be seen as having no part to play in family life, in education, in politics, in social life and in public institutions. In our everyday lives and relationships, we are now all convinced that violence is something negative and nonviolence is the healthiest and most ethical way to live together. In practice, every single day, we are in some respects all pacifists.
The point I am trying to make is simply that an objective look at politics and history over the past one hundred years reveals that pacifism and nonviolence has been just as influential, and has shaped our world in important and positive ways in equal measure, to war and militarism, even if this is rarely acknowledged or celebrated. In fact, there is little doubt that pacifism and nonviolence, particularly following the rise of Nazism and WWII, has occupied a marginal position in Western society, and is often viewed as naïve, unrealistic, out-dated, sometimes even as immoral and dangerous. When the term ‘pacifist’ can be employed as a term of abuse in public discourse, and used to mark someone as unfit for political office – as happened to Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party in 2015 – then you know that it is a thoroughly marginalised viewpoint.
My own research conducted as part of a three year Marsden funded project clearly shows that pacifist theory and practice – despite all the successes it has achieved, and the influence it has had on the modern world – is largely ignored or openly dismissed and denigrated in the academic field, in the political realm, in the media, and even among ordinary people. I would think pacifism also occupies a marginal place in the Anglican and wider Christian Church.
In any case, the main argument I want to make tonight is that not only is pacifism a credible doctrine, it is also an approach desperately needed today to deal with the problems that ongoing and persistent violence has created. Perhaps more importantly, I want to argue that there has not been a better historical moment in the past one hundred years to promote its cause.
First, if you examine its philosophical, empirical and ethical basis, as I will touch upon shortly, there is no question that pacifism and nonviolence stands up as the credible equal of any other philosophical and practical approach to politics, such as Realism, Socialism, Liberalism and so on. In relation to doctrines of war and the use of military force, I believe pacifism is much more credible than just war theory.
Second, the costs of violence today – the immense suffering and misery caused by wars, the spread of weapons, and repressive governments – and the opportunity costs of global military spending and the human and scientific resources currently going into weaponry, make finding peaceful ways of living together and resolving disputes and conflicts an urgent imperative. One hundred years of war have cost well in excess of a hundred million lives, and generated countless refugees and displaced people, as well as incalculable environmental costs, cultural costs, development costs, and the loss of opportunities to improve human welfare and well-being. This violence has become entrenched in our politics, our entertainment, our history, and our belief systems, and past wars – including WWI and WWII – continue to generate new wars and conflicts today.
This brings me to the main reasons why the situation in the world today presents the best opportunity we have had since the inter-war years – the years following 1918 when the “war to end all wars” created a widespread consensus that peace was a better alternative to war – to struggle for nonviolence and a pacifist future. I suggest that there are four reasons for optimism at the present moment in regards to the future of pacifism and nonviolence.
The first reason is that scholars in particular, but also the wider public, are beginning to better understand the limitations and failures of violence and the use of military force. Although it may seem obvious when looking at how two world wars, 290+ local wars and the most recent war on terror have all failed to bring about a more peaceful and secure world, academic research is starting to reveal more precisely how ineffective and unsuccessful violence is. We know from academic research that: states with powerful militaries don’t win wars any more often than states with small militaries, and that powerful states are winning less wars than they used to; that violent movements for social and political change hardly ever succeed; that terrorism rarely if ever achieves its goals; that using violent repression to suppress anti-government protest is largely ineffective; that torture and drone killings have little to no effect on stopping terrorism; that capital punishment does not deter crime; and so on. In short, we know with increasing certainty that violence doesn’t really work, particularly when it aims to achieve something positive. It does work well as a tool of destruction, chaos and for a time, oppression.
Added to this, we now know with greater certainty that the capacity and use of violence does not translate into power or the ability to coerce people into doing what you want them to do; actors like governments or terrorist groups don’t have or wield power because they have the capacity to kill, and using violence produces unpredictable results. The reality is that the use of extreme violence can provoke submission or resistance, despair or rage; the outcome cannot be predicted. Instead, we know that power through consent or persuasion is much more productive and predictable. This is because power flows from relationship, while violence destroys relationship. Violence actually destroys power.
We also know that military force can never be used simply as a tool of statecraft for a limited objective such as humanitarian intervention or toppling a government. This is because to use force in this way requires a whole range of other supporting structures, including arms suppliers and manufacturers, military scientists, trained soldiers, medical support, and social acceptance of state-sanctioned violence and sacrifice in war. It also cannot be used as a tool because means and ends are not separate, but the ends of action are always entwined in the means; all events occur in a never-ending, continuous chain of cause and effect. This is what Gandhi meant when he said “we cannot get a rose through planting a noxious weed… The means may likened to the seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connexion between the means and the ends as there is between the seed and the tree… we reap exactly what we sow.” This is why every war seems to sow the seeds of the next war; and it’s why peace needs to be built through peaceful means.
Further related to this, we know better now that violence is anti-democratic and the opposite of politics. The use of military force requires the centralisation of power, following orders, commanders and hierarchy, and the elimination of debate and dialogue. In contrast, nonviolent movements are radically democratic and participatory, and rooted in dialogue and debate – as all grassroots politics should be.
Finally, we know that the use of violence poses deep ethical challenges because: it treats people as means to an end rather than ends in themselves; it is irreversible and therefore requires moral certainty and absolute conviction to enact; it is dominating, humiliating and world-changing to its victims; and it requires the moral construction of enmity and what Judith Butler calls “grievable versus ungrievable lives”. That is, it requires the production of different categories of human beings – those who are worthy to be protected, and those who can be legitimately killed without grief or remorse.
A second reason for optimism about the prospects of pacifism today is the polar opposite of what I have just talked about – the failures and limitations of violence – and that is the strengths and successes of nonviolence. In 2011, two academics by the name of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen published a book entitled Why Civil Resistance Works. It contained the results of a major study comparing the success of nonviolent resistance movements with violent resistant movements over one hundred years. Some of its most important and surprising findings included: that nonviolent movements were twice as successful as violent ones in reaching their goals; that nonviolent movements were highly successful even when facing the most brutal and oppressive opponents, and even when making the most maximalist demands such as regime change or secession; and that nonviolent movements produced societies characterized by greater democracy and respect for human rights, even when they failed – while violent movements most often produced societies characterized by a lack of human rights and lack of democracy.
Other recent research has similarly demonstrated that nonviolent responses to terrorism are more effective at reducing levels of terrorism than violent responses; that unarmed peacekeepers can effectively protect civilians, even in the midst of brutal civil wars; and that communities can use nonviolent methods to create peaceful zones in the midst of violent conflict. In other words, scholars and researchers are beginning to accumulate a body of evidence which demonstrates that nonviolence can be highly effective for bringing about progressive political change, protecting vulnerable civilians, creating secure nonviolent communities, and even for national self-defence. From this perspective, we could also say that we understand more fully now how nonviolence can provide genuine alternatives to war and the use of force.
At the same time, we are starting to understand more fully that nonviolence and pacifism is also more ethical than the use of force because: it maintains consistency between means and ends, and it is the change it seeks to create; it treats people as ends in themselves and maintains their dignity; it is a reversible kind of action and is based on humility rather than moral certainty – it involves experimentation and the search for truth, rather than the certainty which accompanies killing; and it is democratic and empowering of ordinary people.
The outcome of this growing knowledge we have about the successes and strengths of nonviolence is that nonviolent movements are actually spreading around the world, and a number of formerly violent movements are choosing to give up armed struggle in favour of nonviolent resistance. The spread of this knowledge about how to bring about change through peaceful means makes it an ideal time to be working for a nonviolent world.
A third reason for optimism about the current historical juncture, and one which I don’t have time to go into, is simply that the Catholic Church, one of the most influential organisations in the world, has recently rejected the Just War Doctrine and is preparing to embrace nonviolence as its ethical stance. In my view, this is a significant development that provides real impetus to all who want to see an end to war.
Finally, I am optimistic about the potential of pacifism today because I perceive that there is a global wave of resistance to the current international order which rejects the domination of elites, militarism, neoliberal capitalism and the harm being done to the environment. This wave can be traced in some respects to the Occupy movement. While some expressions of this resistance have resulted in increased populism and the empowerment of xenophobia and neo-fascism in some places, elsewhere we are seeing large numbers of particularly young people who can see the connections between inequality, militarism and climate change, and who are looking for ways to contest and transform their own societies and the international system. In this moment of change and resistance, there is a great deal of space for discussing and exploring nonviolent and pacifist ideas of social transformation.
To conclude, I want to ask you to join me in two related endeavours aimed at ending militarism and war, and establishing a more pacifist world society. The first is that we must make a concerted effort to get states to not only give up their nuclear weapons, but give up all their weapons and completely de-militarise. Here, I believe that New Zealand could lead the way, as it did with its opposition to nuclear weapons, by following the example of Costa Rica, which abolished its standing army in 1949 after a violent civil war. Costa Rica’s military budget was subsequently re-allocated to security, welfare and culture, with extraordinary results. A recent article in the Guardian newspaper reported the following:
Every few years the New Economics Foundation publishes the Happy Planet Index – a measure of progress that looks at life expectancy, wellbeing and equality rather than the narrow metric of GDP, and plots these measures against ecological impact. Costa Rica tops the list of countries every time. With a life expectancy of 79.1 years and levels of wellbeing in the top 7% of the world, Costa Rica matches many Scandinavian nations in these areas and neatly outperforms the United States. And it manages all of this with a GDP per capita of only $10,000 (£7,640), less than one fifth that of the US. In this sense, Costa Rica is the most efficient economy on earth: it produces high standards of living with low GDP and minimal pressure on the environment.
The article went on to suggest that the reason for this extraordinary success was
all down to Costa Rica’s commitment to universalism: the principle that everyone – regardless of income – should have equal access to generous, high-quality social services as a basic right. A series of progressive governments started rolling out healthcare, education and social security in the 1940s and expanded these to the whole population from the 1950s onward, after abolishing the military and freeing up more resources for social spending.
It is not that Costa Rica is today some kind of utopia, but simply that dissolving the military is a viable and realistic goal that would result in a great many tangible benefits if the New Zealand people chose to do it. Most importantly, it would be an example to other countries to follow suit.
A second endeavor you might consider supporting is the effort to build a national peace memorial to New Zealand’s Conscientious Objectors in Dunedin. The Archibald Baxter Memorial Trust, which I sit on, is organising this effort. We have now reached the stage where we have a site, resource consent, a design and a project manager. We only need the financial resources to start work. Part of the task of ridding the world of war and militarism involves recognizing the importance and legitimacy of conscientious objectors and the alternative to war that they symbolize. Until we honour the peacemakers and war resisters as much as we honour the warriors and war makers, and until we can collectively remember the people and successes of nonviolence as much as we can remember the history of war, it will be an uphill struggle to promote the cause of pacifism. Today might be the best opportunity in a century to make pacifism and nonviolence the foundation of a more just, more equal and more sustainable society.
Rangimarie kia koutou
[This talk was given at the Christchurch Transitional Cathedral, Sunday 26 August 2018 as part of the Prophets in the Cathedral series.]