Challenging nonviolence - part 1

IssueJuly - August 2007
Feature by Milan Rai , Derrick Jensen

Over the last few years there has been a growing critique in the West of committed nonviolence (see the G8 article on the Wales page). There are now at least three English-language books whose main purpose is to criticise nonviolence.

The key text is Ward Churchill's Pacifism as Pathology (1986) which has had a number of responses, including by George Lakey (available online).

The latest addition is Peter Gelderloos's How Nonviolence Protects the State (partially reviewed by Chris Cole on p18).


Then there is the massive two volume 900-page Endgame by Derrick Jensen, an award-winning author and environmentalist, who I've just interviewed by telephone for 90 minutes. Derrick opened by revealing that while he's only had two pieces of hate mail from rightwingers, he's had over 100 pieces of hate mail from “pacifists” (a term he uses loosely).

He also stated that “pacifists” are continually misrepresenting him. I hope he won't regard what follows as an addition to either category.

Dogmatic nonviolence

I first asked Derrick to summarise his critique of nonviolence. He clarified that he had no problem with nonviolence as such, which is a perfectly valid option: “My problem is with dogmatic nonviolence... dogmatic pacifists who would not only not consider fighting back [against oppression], but also attempt to disallow anyone else from fighting back.

”I found that very peculiar. It seemed to give people who are committed to nonviolence some kind of power over the Black Bloc and others wanting to use physical force.

When I asked Derrick to explain, he gave the example of those “pacifists” who allegedly assaulted Black Bloc activists during the Seattle actions in 1999 (when protesters shut down the World Trade Organisation negotiations) in order to stop them damaging shop fronts and other corporate property.

While that was definitely a case of “disallowing” property damage (which you might or might not regard as violent), I'm still left puzzled by the way in which Derrick, Ward Churchill and Peter Gelderloos appear to feel that their political tendency is oppressed or “disallowed” by some “dogmatic” group holding power, when it seems to me that they are just out of tune with the judgement and mood of the overwhelming mass of activists in the many and diverse movements for justice and peace.

Eroding inhibitions

I put it to Derrick that one thread underlying much of Endgame vol II, is an attempt to loosen or erode activists' inhibitions about the use of physical force, including lethal force.

This suggestion he rejected very vigorously: “What I'm asking is that people think and feel for themselves. They ignore Gandhi and they ignore me.”

Derrick also pointed for example to the paragraphs at the end of the book (pp 886-887) urging readers to come to their own conclusions about what to do.

Yes, there are several passages along these lines, but I was still surprised to hear his disavowal.

To take just one example of what I would see as inhibition-erosion, at one point in the book (p758), Derrick records that he asks audiences at his talks to picture someone, living or dead, whom they “really hate”, and to imagine what they would do if they knew for sure that they could kill that person and get away with it.

Would they kill that person? Derrick writes: “When I ask this question, about half the people in the audience nod yes.” In the next paragraphs, he goes on to urge activists not to allow “the enemy” to choose “the battlefield”: “Choose your battlefield wisely.

”Derrick says he asks the question to see what the starting point of discussion will be.

When I read this passage, my strong impression was that it was trying to get activists thinking from the point of view of an assassin.

The starting point

In his review of Peter Gelderloos's book (on p18), Chris Cole rightly cites AJ Muste, the extraordinary North American revolutionary pacifist.

Muste also said that pacifists (and this must include “people committed to nonviolence”, such as myself) have to recognise the massive violence on which the present system is based.

Muste argued: “So long as we are not dealing honestly and adequately with this ninety percent of our problem, there is something ludicrous, and perhaps hypocritical, about our concern over the ten percent of violence employed by the rebels against oppression.”

On this, Derrick and I agreed - though on little else.

Coincidentally, I interviewed Zoughbi in Palestine in the morning, and Derrick in California in the evening.

In some ways, there was a connection between the two conversations, in that they both discussed the relationship between those committed to “nonviolent struggle” against injustice, and those using (or advocating the use of) armed action.

However, Westerners are in very different strategic circumstances, something that Derrick and I touched on in our conversation.

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