Mark Kurlansky, 'Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea'

IssueFebruary 2008
Review by Chris Cole

I very much enjoyed reading this book, although its title is something of a misnomer, as it is mostly a history of war resistance and anti-war thought. Another slight irritant is the amount of pages devoted to events within the US, compared to the rest of the world. But that is more than enough criticism, for this is an excellent little book.

Starting with a review of anti-war thought within the main religions - and arguing strongly that each was fundamentally anti-violence and anti-war before being corrupted by becoming powerful - the book continues by galloping through a history of anti-war resistance from the middle ages to the present day. A particularly fascinating few pages examines indigenous nonviolent resistance to British colonialism in New Zealand between 1845 and 1872, “credited with stopping a war of genocide that would have meant the end of the Maori people.”

Curiously Kurlansky sees a significant difference between pacifism and nonviolence. “Pacifism is passive” he says, “but nonviolence is active”. I, for one, knowing the history of many extremely active pacifists, would dispute this difference.

Towards the end of the book , Kurlansky makes the key point that those of us committed to nonviolence need to know our history in order not to repeat past mistakes. He draws, for example, an interesting comparison between the Cathars (aka the Albigensians) from 13th century France and the SDS/Weathermen from 20th century America and their respective failures to remain committed to nonviolence. “Only if the nonviolent side has the discipline to avoid slipping into violence does it win,” Kurlansky argues.

This is a well written, non-academic book, aimed at those new to the subject. Whilst much that the book contains will be known to longstanding members of the peace movement there is still, I think, something here for everyone.

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