Brian Martin, 'Nonviolence versus Capitalism'

IssueMarch - June 2002
Review by Brian Burch

To my mind, Brian Martin is one of the most important theorists currently linking anarchism and nonviolence. His books, from Social Defense Social Change to Challenging Bureaucratic Elites, serve as manuals, histories and encouragement for activists concerned with developing effective, nonviolent movements for positive radical social change.

With the rise of the anti-globalisation movements and the current responses to a western-based revenge war, Nonviolence versus Capitalism is a timely addition to his work, albeit an outgrowth of an article published in 1999.

I read this book in a slightly different order than the material was presented in. I started with chapter six, Nonviolence Strategy. This is an area that is all too often overlooked in discussions about nonviolence and has become more important at a time when advocacy of diversity of tactics, ie acceptance of violence as an expression of dissent, challenges nonviolent activists to be clear about what is demanded and how theory can be applied.

In this chapter, principals and guides for assessment of nonviolent strategies focused to oppose capitalism are explored and do serve, I think, as the real framework for appreciating the rest of the book.

In light of the current diversity of tactics argument, the chapter Sabotage is a very important addition to the debate. Looking at a tactic in light of long-term objectives is an important part of any movement for social change. There does seem some urgency as the numbers and strength of grassroots anti-capitalist dissent has grown dramatically over the past few years.

Moving from dissent to actually achieving social change does demand serious reflection on the methods of achieving social change. As sabotage has a long history in movements for social change from the Luddites to the ploughshares movements, to Earth First! monkey-wrenching to the current black bloc, considering the impact of this tactic on long-term objectives is an important but difficult task. My only concern was that the chapter was too short.

My two favourite chapters were practical ones Nonviolent Alternatives to Capitalism and Economic Alternatives as Strategies. The first looks at existing theoretical or practical alternatives to the current economic model that are decentralised and cooperative in nature. The latter looks at proposed alternative institutions and structures as strategic options for movements in opposition to capitalism. The use of questions to help evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of any option are key tools. The same set of questions are used throughout the work, helping to show how to use these tools in response to different strategic concerns.

Brian Martin is careful to situate his ideas within broader contexts, both in terms of previous work on the topic and in terms of specific struggles against specific expressions of capitalism. In his chapters Workers Struggles and Environmental campaigns, for example, specific actions are examined in the light of strategic concerns, helpful bibliographies are provided, and analysis is provided from a specifically anti-capitalism, nonviolence perspective.

Brian Martin, although a university professor, doesn't come across in Nonviolence versus Capitalism as an academic except as expressed through his research and careful identification of sources. Rather, his work seems to arise from the perspective of a long-time activist seeking ways to share insights that have been gained through experience.

He is not preachy, but open to the possibility that he might be wrong. Like Gandhi, he seems to experimenting with the true essence of nonviolence rather than asserting its truth. This recent book of his is essential for all those connected in any way to the current movements for social change.

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