David Cortright, 'Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas'

IssueDecember 2008 - January 2009
Review by Keith Lucas

The title of this book, and the reputation of its author, suggests it could be a welcome addition to a peace activist’s bookshelf. However for anyone interested specifically in pacifism, rather than just peace, it is a profoundly annoying and disappointing book. Perhaps the stark use of a nuclear disarmament symbol on the cover, when much of the book is nothing to do with nuclear weapons specifically, should have been a warning of the muddle inside.

Another clue – for people who approach a book like this by starting with a brief overview – is the way that “pacifism” doesn’t have its own entry in the index, being relegated to “peace and...”.

The key problem is only with a small proportion of the book: however the author makes it clear that, for him, this small proportion is crucial.

The main part of the book is a reasonable enough – and in places quite thoughtful – gallop through the development of peace movement ideas and organisations since the 19th century. But the author sets this in the context of an attempt to redefine what is meant by pacifism.

On page 1, he says that the book “is a response to the charges against pacifism”; yet he defends only a perversion of it. He repeatedly contrasts “absolute pacifism” with “realistic pacifism”; yet for nearly a century now, qualifying pacifism with “absolute” has been irrelevant (if not misleading), because for most pacifists it is precisely the absolute nature of its rejection of warfare and its unconditional war resistance which sets it apart from more general pro-peace ideologies.

He also invents a nonexistent distinction between pacifism and nonviolence by suggesting that pacifism means withdrawing from the struggle against oppression. This is a common mistake made by those who know nothing about the subject, but he has no such excuse.

This stance is even more puzzling since, elsewhere in the book, there is recognition (and approval) of people such as the influential Dutch pacifist Bart de Ligt who argued for a revolutionary – and transnational and nonviolent – anti-militarism.

His lack of sympathy with the pacifist perspective of personal responsibility and individual rejection of warfare shows in his approval of the adoption of a patriotic “support the troops” position by most of the (non-pacifist) US groups opposed to the invasion of Iraq.

And at the end of the book, he invents his own version of “realistic” pacifism, which allows the use of force providing it’s “constrained by rigorous ethical standards”! As the author himself says in this last chapter: “the meaning of pacifism has been distorted”. He should know.

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