Volume 3, Number 65
21 February 2003

Violence for a "Good Cause"?

Dear Friends,

Four members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) have just been sentenced for the murder of Myrna Opsal in a bank the SLA was robbing to finance its war against racism. At the time, they felt this "collateral death" was justified in the name of "greater justice." This month they stood in front of the court and apologized to Ms. Opsal's family. "For nearly 28 years," Ms. Opsal's son said, "I have lived with the fact ... that the incomprehensible happened ..." (New York Times, 2/15/03).

Many times "protectors" of the people have killed and maimed in the name of "justice." Among them are Lenin and Stalin, who together murdered millions. Also the French Revolution of 1789.

I have a student who favors invading Iraq (the only one in the class, by the way). She believes George Bush is championing the world just as much as Lenin and Stalin proclaimed they were championing the poor. Lenin and Stalin were mistaken, she would say, but Bush is not.

Among the most romantic of the revolutionaries of the twentieth century, and the ones still viewed sympathetically by many, are Emiliano Zapata, Che Guevara, and Julius Nyerere. When I have written about the killings committed these three, the response has sometimes been, "But their hearts were in the right place."

Zapata (1879-1919) was the father of the Mexican agrarian reform. I wrote about this in my book, The Peasant Betrayed: Agriculture and Land Reform in the Third World (Washington DC: The CATO Institute, 1990). All over the Third World — Mexico was no exception — land was confiscated from an already-dying aristocracy and handed over to peasants with many strings attached. Mostly, they had to sell their crops to the government and to buy their inputs (seed, fertilizer, etc.) from government agencies.

Setting the prices on both sides, governments squeezed the peasants until their land had no productive value, and peasants had neither incentive nor means to improve it. This is the principal reason for low farm productivity in Mexico today, as well as in much of the Third World. In addition, peasants who settled on a new type of property — the ejido — were not allowed to sell or mortgage their land; hence they could not borrow crop money. Nor could the ejidos be combined into an economic size. The Agricultural Credit bank loaned to political favorites rather than to ejidos across the spectrum. Is this what Zapata had wrought?

Yes and no. Zapata did not live to see the results; he had only the vision. But the agrarian reform he initiated — like those all over the Third World — took back from the peasants (profits from the land) what it had given them (the land itself).

Now for Che Guevara. Born in a middle-class family in Argentina, he became a medical doctor and traveled widely through Latin America, seeing immense poverty. In Guatemala in 1954 he had watched the CIA support a coup overthrowing a government that would have dispossessed the United Fruit Company. Guevara had become convinced that the US would always oppose leftist governments, which to him were the only hope to end poverty. In Mexico, he met Raoul and Fidel Castro and joined them in the revolution that overthrew the abusive government of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba.

The story (apocryphal, I feel sure) goes that one day Fidel announced to his comrades, "We need a Governor of the Central Bank. Which one of you is an economist?" Che immediately responded and was appointed. Later he confessed that he thought Fidel had asked for a "communist," not an "economist."

The Cuban economy fared well under the Castro/Guevara government because it was "adopted" by the Soviet Union, which supplied it with consumer goods in exchange for sugar at an overblown (in Cuba's favor) political price. However, political opponents were thrown into prison for long periods, and some were executed. For many years no Cuban might leave the island, but everyone had enough to eat, a roof over the head, and schooling was available to all.

So, when Castro lifted the exit prohibition in 1980, why did thousands of Cubans flee to the United States in the Mariel boat lift? He had lifted it because discontent was serious enough to threaten his regime, and he wanted to get rid of the "gusanos" ("worms"). Thereafter the flow was so great that in 1994 the US and Cuba made their first agreement, which was to limit the number of migrants. One student, who defended Cuba, argued that "these were the rich." But she was wrong. No one in Cuba was "rich." Saying those who fled were rich was Castro's propaganda.

Why did they flee? Because, although they had the essentials, that was all they had. They could not start their own businesses and could not buy or sell or go abroad. Farmers had to deliver their crops to the government, and everyone was under constant threat of imprisonment. Even so, many Cubans liked the regime and were loyal to Castro.

While Cubans had enough to eat and drink until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, nevertheless not much new technology, and no innovations, were occurring in agriculture and industry. Decrepit old cars chugged along the roads, and houses could not be renovated. When the USSR withdrew its support in 1990, personal consumption tumbled from 13,929 million pesos to 11,086 million in 1998 (United Nations figures, the latest year I have. All pesos are adjusted to 1981 prices). In the same years, capital formation, on which economic growth depends, dropped from 5,085 million pesos to 1,614 million (at 1981 prices). To provide relief, Castro began allowing Cubans to use dollars sent by relatives in the US, thus creating two classes of people: the "rich" (dollar-using) and "poor" (peso-using). But Guevara had long since gone, to foment revolution elsewhere in Latin America, where he was killed in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967.

In February 2003 a clandestine Cuban economist, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, telephoned the following information (because other means of transmission were forbidden): "In many sectors gross capital formation, or new construction, installation of machinery and equipment, and other investments, ... beginning in the 1990s has not been enough to replace its amortized equivalent, [reflecting] a net reduction in productive capacity or services in vital areas" (my translation, from cubanet.org). As a result, 43 years after the revolution malnutrition and starvation are now facing Cubans.

Is this the fault of the US embargo? I detest that embargo, but it is hardly to blame. Cubans can sell or buy anywhere in the world except the United States. The fault lies in their inability to modernize, in decreased capitalization, and in lower industrial and farm efficiency. Why are they lower? Because state-run enterprises do not permit the innovation and fresh ideas found in private firms. These might threaten the power of the rulers. Is this an inevitable consequence of seizing power by violence? Yes — this or something like it, history tells us.

Julius Nyerere became the first President of Tanzania in 1964. As part of his Ujamaa (Familyhood) philosophy, he established "socialist villages," intended to concentrate services of education, electricity, etc., for the peasants. When few peasants moved to these villages voluntarily, he sent the army to force them, but they escaped and ran back to their previous homes. He then sent the army again, to burn these huts, so they could not return. On another occasion, he shut down a voluntary agricultural cooperative that did not conform to his ideas of how cooperatives should be run. You will find the full story in my book, The Peasant Betrayed.

So, why would anyone glorify Zapata, Guevara, and Nyerere? Is a reformer to be honored who sincerely favors the poor but who believes that poverty will be ended only by a powerful government, often established violently? History shows us that governments that take power and order citizen/producers about, not only do not end poverty but worsen it — for example, in the seventy years of Mexico and the Soviet Union, and the 35 years of Tanzania.

To me, violence is abhorrent, whether conducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army, Zapata, Guevara, Lenin, Stalin, Arafat, Sharon, Bush, or the French Revolution of 1789. Whoever uses violence to "promote the poor" does not, by definition, have his or her "heart in the right place."

It saddens me when people of peace, carrying a deep concern for the poor, should honor those violent revolutionaries who had cruelly killed many and who, by grabbing power, increased the poverty they allegedly decried.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

Jack — really great letter ! Using violent means to achieve "worthy" goals is suspect, to say the least. Thanks for all the history lessons, too.

— Sallyann Garner, Lake Forest (IL) Friends Meeting.

It's been a quarter century since I was in college, but I still remember learning quite a bit from my swim coach. I remember arguing that the tragic results of the policies of a socialist politician were not that bad because "he was well-intentioned". My coach's reply was "Hitler was well-intentioned". And so he was.

— Tom Cooper, Lincoln (MA)

What did you mean that the peasants were 'squeezed' by the government? How did they lose incentive? not entirely clear.

— Nancy Mehegan, Montclair (NJ) Friends Meeting

Reply: I'm sorry if this was not clear. In country after country the world over, agrarian reform (the confiscation of lands from rich landlords for distribution to the peasants) favored the government, not the peasants. The law usually required the peasants to sell their crops to the government at low prices and to buy their inputs from government agencies at high prices. Thus they were squeezed. Among others, this behavior characterized the agrarian reforms of Mexico and Sandinista Nicaragua, which were the darlings of many Quakers. See my book, The Peasant Betrayed, for full information. — Jack

In today's New York Times an article on the front page says that the US is sending 1,700 combat troops to the part of Mindanao that I helped devastate in our effort to eradicate the Japanese there in WW II. Radical Islamics now control the area. Will we ever learn??

— Lee B. Thomas, Jr. Louisville (KY) Friends Meeting

As a condition after the Gulf War, Iraq had to disarm — cease all research and production of weapons of mass destruction — period. Thus the issue is not whether or not Iraq has illegal arms or is developing them but if they have disarmed. We don't need to find a smoking gun, we need to find proof that the weapons and labs they said they would destroy have been destroyed.

— Deb Fuller, Alexandria (VA) Friends Meeting.

Shouldn't a true Quaker eschew the fruits of other peoples' war-mongering? Is it ethically OK to live under a political, moral and ethical umbrella that protects your right to believe that no war is ever good if that umbrella was created, preserved and reinforced by people who fought and died for it?

— Michael Schefer, Philadelphia PA, children in Germantown Friends School

What a delight to read! In response, I take one exception, maybe one-and-a- half. The "French Revolution" did not kill anyone. Wicked venal individual human beings did. Stalin, Lenin: obvious. Arafat: PLO terrorist who started with hijacking planes 30 years ago. Sharon: the butcher of Shabra and Chatilla long before the last three years of thuggery and fascism he is sponsoring. Guevara certainly promoted violence in person and in writing. Nyerere: I am not going to question your notes, but I don't think he is in the same league.

Now Zapata. Unlike Guevara, he did not promote violent revolution. As an "activist" in a minor way he was personally hounded by the regime of Porfirio Diaz. When Diaz packed his gold on the train and left for France in 1911, political chaos resulted in Mexico. Zapata organized the peasants in Morelos to defend themselves in a very literal sense. There was no interest or action to indicate that this group wanted to control or "conquer" other areas. The agrarian reform concepts that grew out of the Plan de Ayala and were incorporated into the Mexican Constitution of 1917 were the result mostly of intellectuals.

Zapata was murdered while what is known as the "Mexican Revolution" was going from a very hot war to a somewhat colder war. His killers were a group of men affiliated with future president Calles and who made up the embryo of the PRI — The Institutionalized Revolutionary Party (The group made a sad history, but is still one of the most delightful oxymorons I know.) These PRI folks had to get rid of Zapata precisely because he would not acquiesce to their plans to hobble the peasantry through a socialist system of domination. The ejido system was begun a significant time after the murder of Zapata and was in part implemented to co-opt peasants who might have taken up the torch of a "free-market" agrarian system that Zapata supported.

So now my question: Is violence abhorrent to the same degree when it is defensive? Was it wicked for the American citizens on an airplane over Pennsylvania to violently murder the murderous thugs who wanted to use the plane as a missile?

Joy and Peace, Viva Zapata! Tierra y Libertad!

— Christopher Viavant, Salt Lake City (UT) Meeting.

Note: Chris's question sets the tone for discussing degrees and types of pacifism. Quakers have always defended the rights of police to use force to protect the social peace. But war as a means to obtain "social justice" is a different matter. It rarely ends by fulfilling the goals set forth at the beginning.

The Encyclopedia Britannica reports on Zapata: "He often ordered executions and expropriations, and his forces did not always abide by the laws of war." Would his violence fulfill Quaker views of pacifism?

— Jack

Any stance can be justified if you control the way the argument is structured. It is very easy to ask whether or not war is good (no!), whether being a pacifist requires being against war (of course it does!), whether or not "protectors" of the people are misguided (for the most part) and end up killing innocents in the name of "justice" (always, if they attain power).

Do we want peace? Yes. Is violence abhorrent? Yes. Does whoever uses violence to "promote the poor" have his or her "heart in the right place"? Correctly, you answer no. Do we feel that love will benefit people? Definitely. Can one be a "moral" person and still believe that war is the diplomatic tool of last resort, which can be used to implement foreign policy in the "interests" of one's country? Unfortunately for many automatic anti-war individuals, the answer is yes. However, by not addressing reasons for or against the war with this as an accepted principle, debate is cut off and righteous, indignant finger-pointing takes its place.

— Milt Janetos (did not send his location or Meeting).

It seems to me that those of us who find war abhorrent too often end up limply shaking our finger and saying "oooh, not nice, not nice" which is definitely not an engaging approach. I would love to see some peace group sponsor a serious symposium on the arguments for war. Surely, we cannot hope to eliminate war until we look seriously at the reasons that it has been a nearly inevitable companion to human society. The arguments for war have included such a wide array — defense of borders, economic growth/transfer/power, technological growth, political hegemony, population control, development of organizational and hierarchical structures, and more, but probably the more basic and important ones have to do with comparatively unexplored portions of the human psyche — the need for old men to get rid of young competitors, the projection of anger and fear onto others, the catharsis of violence, the (biological?) need to see the unknown as a threat, the need for power. Until we acknowledge and explore and have effective alternatives to those arguments it is hard to take the peace movement seriously.

— Connie Battaile, Ashland OR

What do you mean when you say, "The Cuban economy fared well under the Castro/Guevara government"? It seems contradicted by your following passage on the emigration starting in 1980 (well before the collapse of Castro's Soviet protectors), as well as by reports that I dimly remember of that era.

— Stephen Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

Note: Early on, with Russian aid, the Cuban economy operated reasonably well, but not well enough to keep many from wanting to leave. — Jack

Absolute political/ foreign policy and police pacifism doesn't make sense to me. I do not see how, in the real world, you can have law without law enforcement — i.e. without violence or the threat of violence. Violence — or the threat of violence — does not always beget violence. Glad that soldiers stopped Hitler's violence. Glad that soldiers intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo. Glad that police — "peace officers" — maintain safety through force. I am a personal pacifist — I do not want to bear arms and kill — but, especially after September 11, I cannot honestly say that force is never required in dealing with thugs. Wish I knew a better way to deal with thugs.

— John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends meeting.

I read about a half-dozen of your old issues, and two things spoke to me: one was the distinction you make between Quaker acceptance of the use of force for the restoration of social peace as opposed to the restoration (?) of social justice; in my experience many Quakers vilify police until they have to call the police in the event of a crime, or think that unconditional positive regard will eliminate crime in a generation. The other thing was your apparent attitude that smart business is both good business and reasonably responsible to the community; I work in substance-abuse prevention, and I suspect we could do much better if we could find a way to ally ourselves with liquor manufacturers; after all, the huge majority of people who drink, do so safely — and it's NOT good business to have your product named in gory, front-page DWI reporting.

I look forward to further issues of TQE. pax tecum

— Jim Brittain, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Leverett (MA).
  • Carol Conzelman, Boulder (CO).
  • Ann Dixon, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

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Copyright © 2003 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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