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For revolutionary nonviolence

An open letter to the Brighton anti-arms trade group Smash EDO.

Dear Andrew,

Thank you for writing in last month’s PN on Smash EDO’s outlook on strategy and movement-building. As I’d thought, Peace News and Smash EDO have a great deal in common, much more than divides us. There are differences in our thinking, but, after reading your article, I’ve come to the conclusion that you/Smash EDO aren’t so much in disagreement with “the Peace News approach”, as unaware of the position that PN represents.

There are all kinds of mixes in the movement. There are avowedly revolutionary, un-nonviolent groups who in practice rarely if ever use confrontational tactics. There are folk whose politics are not particularly revolutionary, but who in practice are highly militant. One core audience that Peace News has represented and created a space for, at least as long as I’ve been reading it, are activists who are militant and nonviolent and revolutionary all at the same time.

These people are dissident parts of what you call the “established peace movement” and the “existing peace movement”, but why do you identify these entities with the (recently formed) Stop The War Coalition (STWC)? For all its contributions, the STWC is not the “established peace movement”, and at no point has it been the totality of the “existing peace movement”.

Three strands

You note that Smash EDO was born out of the mass outpouring of rage that took place the day after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when buildings were occupied, schools were emptied and traffic was halted across the country. On “Day X”, the day after the invasion, there were a huge range of furious actions initiated by the Stop The War Coalition.

On the same day, there were similarly militant actions by independent groups – including one by the Brighton folk who later went on to form Smash EDO.

Three days earlier, on 17 March, there was another day of action against the war, when hundreds of people carried out nonviolent civil disobedience in Aberystwyth, Birmingham, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Hastings, London, Norwich, Oxford, Penzance, Scarborough, Sheffield, Southampton, and at USAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire.

Those activists were protesting against the war before it happened, in a day of action initiated by a nonviolent direct action affinity group to which most of the current Peace News staff belonged. In 2002-2003, there was a mass movement against war, and it was largely made up of the Stop The War Coalition, but there was also another parallel movement, using creative street protests, using nonviolent direct action (at places like Fairford, a base for the B-52s which bombed Iraq), and using political messages that deviated from the STWC.

We could say there were and remain three overlapping currents in the British anti-war movement: the generally non-confrontational groups that do most of the work in the movement (local anti-war groups, established pacifist organisations such as Pax Christi, larger non-pacifist outfits such as CND, and more recent developments like STWC); the non-nonviolent line that includes Smash EDO; and the strand of militant nonviolence that has been a core part of Peace News for more than 50 years. This strand includes groups such as Aldermaston Women’s Camp(aign), Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases, Trident Ploughshares, Voices in the Wilderness UK, and the London and Oxford Catholic Workers and Faslane Peace Camp.

In your article, you criticise the approach of the STWC – without seeming to notice that there are other parts of the movement, and that Peace News is something quite different from STWC.

You criticise the strategic vision of building “bigger demos and more paper sales until a ‘mass base of opposition’ overcomes existing power structures” – as though this was the vision of either the “established peace movement” or of Peace News.

You criticise “inclusive” and “safe” demonstrations which are “coordinated with the police” – as though these are the only kind of demonstrations that Peace News supports. Not playing safe

To take one small example covered in PN, this May, when a remembrance march for Afghanistan refused to accept the police-designated route to the British military base at Northwood, and we started our die-in in the road when the police tried to force us onto the pavement, so that the police had to allow us to march on the road, on our chosen route, to within sight of the gates of Northwood, That was not “safe and co-operative”. The thoroughly nonviolent organising committee (mostly Peace News staff and contributors) had decided very precisely, politely but firmly, to disobey the police.

To get a gist of the editorial background, here are some more militant nonviolent actions, which I’ve experienced personally, which were far from being safe or co-ordinated with the authorities. When two of us went from the UK to Iraq on a peace and solidarity delegation in February 1998, when it was being confidently predicted that there would be airstrikes on Baghdad while we were there, that wasn’t safe or co-ordinated.

When ten more Voices in the Wilderness UK delegations then went out to Iraq, breaking the sanctions by taking medical supplies to Iraqi hospitals without official permission, and risking five-year prison sentences, that was not safe or co-ordinated.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of activists committed to nonviolence have broken into US bases in this country. For myself, breaking into USAF Fairford and approaching the B-52 runway in wartime, in February 1991; breaking into USAF Upper Heyford in December 1988, to paint a 100-foot-long disarmament message on the hangar of nuclear-armed F-111s; breaking into USAF Lakenheath to be met by tense heavily-armed US soldiers; more recently, climbing through razor wire into Aldermaston to protest against nuclear weapons production – these were not entirely safe or co-ordinated actions. Even going to prison four times (briefly each time) has not been entirely safe or co-ordinated.

Hundreds of other British nonviolent activists have done much more than I have. Previous PN staff have set a far higher standard of militant nonviolent action – and spent a lot longer in prison.

I think of the nonviolent activists who went to Iraq under bombardment in 1991 and in 2003 (in some cases the same people). The nonviolent activists from Peace Brigades International, Christian Peacemaker Teams and other groups who have acted as unarmed bodyguards to human rights activists and others under threat of assassination from right-wing gangs.

The nonviolent activists who’ve contributed to the International Solidarity Movement, the International Women’s Peace Service, the Free Gaza Movement, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel and other grassroots interventions in Palestine.

The nonviolent activists who have directly dismantled military equipment that had no right to exist. The first three “Ploughshares” actions in Britain were by people thoroughly committed to nonviolence: (former PN co-editor) Stephen Hancock and Mike Hutchinson in 1990 (alleged £200,000 damage to an F-111 at USAF Upper Heyford); Chris Cole in 1993 (alleged £475,000 damage to nosecones and other equipment at the British Aerospace arms factory in Stevenage); and Lotta Kronlid, Andrea Needham, Jo Wilson and Angie Zelter in 1996 (alleged £1.7m damage to a Hawk fighter jet at the British Aerospace arms factory in Warton, Lancashire).

This is some of the spectrum of militant nonviolence. These were not safe or co-ordinated actions. The three Ploughshares actions were precursors of the Raytheon Nine in Derry (see PN 2497) and the EDO Decommissioners in Brighton this January (PN 2506).

The Seeds of Hope Ploughshares acquittal in July 1996 (PN 2407) was a direct precedent for the Raytheon Nine acquittal in June 2008 (PN 2499-50).

All of which is to say that there is a tradition that PN is proud to champion, that Smash EDO doesn’t seem to be aware of – a tradition of militant nonviolence, and in fact of revolutionary nonviolence.

You put “defiance and resistance” on one side and “nonviolence” on the other. We see a more complicated picture. Nonviolence doesn’t just mean hammering warplanes and refusing police orders, but it includes these things.

An aside

One of the things I don’t understand about “diversity of tactics” is that invariably this call for tolerance and mutual respect between the nonviolent and the non-nonviolent is accompanied by expressions of contempt for particular nonviolent tactics.

In your article, you write: “We’re not wasting our time, petitioning the government, we’re out there, doing it in the road.”

When we turn to the Smash EDO website, however, we find on the home page two petitions to sign. One to Brighton council, urging the council to consider a motion condemning EDO ITT’s activities in Brighton; and another in support of the EDO Decommissioners, calling on the British government to stop its arms trade with Israel.

That’s perfectly healthy. Every serious social movement must have all sorts of activities going on at the same time, including leafleting, public meetings, private trainings, fundraising, petitions, letter-writing, and lobbying of various kinds.

Let us admit that most of the work of even the most militant movements is non-confrontational.

Muste & Deming

What does “revolutionary nonviolence” mean, and how does it relate to this dialogue we’re having? Personally, I have two touchstones: something that AJ Muste wrote; and pretty much everything that Barbara Deming wrote.

These two US pacifists gave us as co-editors of Peace News something solid to stand on. AJ Muste wrote, in his classic 1928 essay “Pacifism and class war”: “In a world built on violence, one must be a revolutionary before one can be a pacifist.”

Muste warned against the assumption that “violence is solely or chiefly committed by the rebels against oppression, and that this violence constitutes the heart of our problem”. Instead, he insisted on pointing out that “the economic, social, political order in which we live was built up largely by violence, is now being extended by violence, and is maintained only by violence”.

Muste said that the foremost task of someone committed to nonviolence was therefore: “to denounce the violence on which the present system is based, and all the evil – material and spiritual – this entails for the masses of people throughout the world; and to exhort all rulers in social, political, industrial life, all who occupy places of privilege, all who are the beneficiaries of the present state of things, to relinquish every attempt to hold on to wealth, position and power by force, to give up the instruments of violence on which they annually spend billions of wealth produced by the sweat and anguish of the toilers.”

Muste observed, rightly: “So long as we are not dealing honestly and adequately with this 90% of our problem, there is something ludicrous, and perhaps hypocritical, about our concern over the 10% of violence employed by the rebels against oppression.”

In her 1968 essay “On revolution and equilibrium” (excerpted in PN 2487-88), Barbara Deming, lesbian, poet and lifelong activist, wrote:
“When one is confronted with what Russell Johnson calls accurately ‘the violence of the status quo’ – conditions which are damaging, even murderous, to very many who must live within them – it is degrading for all to allow such conditions to persist.
“And if the individuals who can find the courage to bring about change see no way in which it can be done without employing violence on their part – a very much lesser violence, they feel, than the violence to which they will put an end – I do not feel that I can judge them.
“The judgements I make are not judgements upon men and women but upon the means open to us – upon the promise these means of action hold or withhold.
“The living question is: What are the best means for changing our lives – for really changing them?”

This is a question for avowedly nonviolent and explicitly non-nonviolent groups alike.

Strategy

I completely agree that none of the existing peace groups or publications can claim to “have the key to genuine social change”, or to know the route to overall victory.

All of us, whether committed to nonviolence or rejecting that commitment, are searching for the way forward. Those of us seeking revolutionary change cannot afford to fight among ourselves. Even so, we must have the capacity to ask questions of ourselves and of each other. We must be able to judge “the means open to us – upon the promise these means of action hold or withhold”.

Bringing hundreds of activists out onto the streets of Brighton on May Day for mass disobedience was a stunning success for Smash EDO, and no doubt raised both the financial and political costs of maintaining the EDO ITT factory for the authorities.

The question I asked in my earlier article in Red Pepper was, to put it crudely, whether street skirmishing with the police is going to help or hinder Smash EDO in its goal of closing down the EDO arms factory in Moulsecoomb:
“The strategic thinking at work in Smash EDO, and perhaps in the other groups, owes something to the long-term, sophisticated and confrontational approach of militant animal rights activism. As with the animal rights movement, the question is whether the tactics that can win particular battles contribute to larger successes, or whether they may be undermining the building of the mass base of opposition that is essential to overall victory.”

After reading your article carefully, several times, I still do not see how Smash EDO’s tactics are helping to build a mass base of opposition. One possible reading of the article would be that building a mass base is not a goal of the campaign, in which case, the question would be: how will Smash EDO exert enough pressure to close the arms factory if it does not involve wider sectors of society?

I hope you understand that I am asking these questions genuinely, on the basis that there may be answers that I’m not aware of. They aren’t “insinuations”, but honest questions.

In my original article, I said that: “No doubt the cost of policing such protests adds to the pressure on the government and on the company itself, as well as enthusing the rather narrow social base of Smash EDO. However, it is hard to see how this outweighs the political costs of the day.”

I am very sorry that in your article you interpreted my reference to “narrow social base” as meaning “the great unwashed”, something that I didn’t write and most certainly didn’t mean. Many (if not most) peace groups have a narrow social base. The question is whether the language and tactics and expressed values of the group are reaching out beyond their base to wider, uncommitted parts of society.

Virtually every political action worth doing has political costs of some kind. The Northwood “Die-in for NATO’s Victims in Afghanistan” in May, for example, disrupted a major road for several hours, no doubt annoying hundreds of local residents and workers. There is no point in pretending there are no political costs to our actions.

The question is whether the costs of acting in a particular way are outweighed by the likely benefits to the people whose interests we are concerned with. People being bombed in Afghanistan, people under siege in Gaza, people living in poverty in Glasgow or Brighton.

In all our activities, there are two judgements we have to make. Firstly, how these actions are likely to affect the people suffering most sharply from state and corporate violence and oppression. Secondly, how these actions are likely to affect the building of a radical movement powerful enough to put an end to state and corporate violence and oppression.

The differences between the revolutionary nonviolence of Peace News and the revolutionary non-nonviolence of Smash EDO are significant, but rather small, when compared to the vast scale of officially-sanctioned violence that we face together.

 

For reference, the exchange of articles between Milan Rai and Smash EDO were printed in PN 2515 and Red Pepper October 2009