Chapter 6 of Speak Truth To Power

The Politics of Nonviolence

"The best politics is right action."


We believe it is practical, and politically relevant, for men and women to move the world toward peace by individually practicing peace themselves, here and now. As was indicated at the beginning of this study, each of us is both a part of the state and an individual child of God, and we are obligated to act responsibly in both capacities. Since we have now asserted that acting responsibly in this day involves the rejection of militarism, what is the meaning of this for us as individuals, and what is its political relevance, immediately and for the future? This chapter will deal with these questions. It begins with the individual implications, takes up the political impact of a minority, speculates on a period of transition, and finally outlines the content of a pacifist policy.

Implications for the Individual

A personal commitment to practice peace begins with the effort to live affirmatively. Here is no simple decision to say "No" to military power and carry on business as usual in every other department of life. If we are to be respected of God and men, we cannot invoke the law of love when it comes to war if we ignore it in our relations with family, friends, and community. It is, indeed, a contradiction in terms to renounce mass violence and retain the seeds of it in our conduct toward others, for war grows directly from the accumulated prejudices, selfishness, greed, and arrogance of individual men. A commitment to practice peace thus requires first a commitment to rid ourselves of those qualities that destroy it. That is why John Woolman was constantly advising his fellow Quakers "to look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions."[16] We must be concerned about the injustices of racial discrimination and economic exploitation. We must be sensitive to the needs and aspirations of individuals in less fortunate parts of our communities and of the world. We must live simply, that we may share generously. We must, in short, so live that men will know that our faith is in man's divine potential to live nobly when nobility is expected of him.

It is, of course, impossible to express this faith, and at the same time deny it by supporting war and preparation for war. If our faith is to be in men, we cannot prepare to destroy men. Thus, we believe that the man who would practice peace must refuse to participate in war. In so far as he can, he must also refuse to profit from war, or prepare for war. A demonstration of faith in the capacity of men to respond nobly to the expectation of nobility is valid only to the extent that no limits are set on the demonstration. As long as we keep a gun within easy reach, our protestations of good will are empty. We must either have enough faith in the overcoming power of love to stake our lives and our fortunes on it, or we must seek some other basis for ultimate personal security.

These personal affirmations thus have a profound bearing on attitudes within the sphere of daily community life. They also carry implications for international attitudes. The man who dares to reject violence in his own life--unilaterally and regardless of what others do--must also be prepared to have his nation reject violence-unilaterally and regardless of what others do. Similarly, he must be prepared to see his nation share its resources just as he must share his own as part of his personal commitment. He must press for substantial assistance to needy peoples everywhere, regardless of its effect on his own living standards at home.

It takes faith for an individual to live this way--faith in the "impossible" ideal of a world community. We can expect some to scoff at this kind of personal commitment, on the grounds that it has no practical, political relevance to the world of today. We respond to this skepticism by recalling the history of Thomas Garrett, a Delaware Quaker who dared to practice brotherhood in a world of slavery. Hauled into court and so heavily fined for his activity in the underground railway that he was left financially ruined, Garrett stood before the Court and uttered these words, "Judge, thou hast left me not a dollar, but I wish to say to thee and to all in this courtroom that if any one knows a fugitive who wants a shelter and a friend, send him to Thomas Garrett and he will befriend him."

Such defiance was regarded then, as it would be regarded today, as a foolish and impractical gesture, calculated only to have its perpetrator held in contempt. But men's judgment was in error then, as we believe it to be in error today, for it neglected to calculate the impact of stirring example. It is precisely the demonstration of this kind of unlimited faith that shakes men's souls, and when this happens, the impossible moves nearer to the possible. Garrett's act was politically relevant in the most profound sense because it opened up new dimensions, new power, and new life beyond man's capacity to predict, and the forces thus released served to burst the bonds of practical politics. This is what has always made relevant acts of civil disobedience and the conscientious refusal to take loyalty oaths, to do military service, to inform against others, or to suppress opinion. And so we say to the skeptic of our time: just as there could be no release from the scourge of slavery, there will be no release from the scourge of war until men's souls are shaken, and this cannot be done save by practicing our faith in men with the same unlimited commitment as did Garrett in his way, and Gandhi in ours.

The Practical Meaning of Commitment

We have said enough to make clear that the commitment to practice peace is an absolute commitment. The individual must be ready to trust all the way and unreservedly in man's capacity for goodness. But it does not mean that he will necessarily be called upon tomorrow or next month or next year to pay the ultimate price. For this absolute, like all other absolutes, is never wholly realized In action. The man who relies on force as his ultimate refuge and security is driven to produce a hydrogen bomb, but his absolute does not require him to drop the bomb tomorrow, or next month, or next year. Indeed, he hopes that he will never have to inflict such suffering on an enemy, just as the man who relies on non-violence hopes that he will never have to accept suffering from an enemy.

However, although daily living does not usually require us to demonstrate our ultimate faith, our daily choices are made on the basis of it. Thus, an ultimate willingness to resort to violence determines the day to day policy decisions of Americans on the national level. In certain colonial situations, for example, though we often struggle to do otherwise, in the end we support the status quo, because we have made an ultimate commitment to force. Only as military strategy permits are we free to advocate change. The same commitment undermines our search for a disarmament formula, for we are blocked on one side by our faith in force, and on the other by a hostile world. We have no freedom of movement, and no recourse but to pile up more arms even as we talk of disarming. We hope some day to reach agreements for universal, enforcible disarmament that will involve no risk for ourselves and no changes in our values, but the hope is dim, for the very process of rearming so poisons the climate that agreement is made ever more difficult.

The writers of this pamphlet, therefore, believe that the immediate impact of a commitment to non-violence is to liberate individuals to act morally and responsibly on these daily problems of the world community. Herein lies its immediate political relevance. The man who has renounced his faith in force is freed to support the cause of colonial independence, and by just so much frees America to express her concern for self-determination. What would it mean, politically, to the cause of democracy, if the world's depressed and dependent people could feel again as they once felt that they had a champion in the United States? What new loyalties would be forged, new energies released, and new "Situations of strength" created! This cannot happen save as Americans, individually, give up their faith in violence, liberate themselves from the crushing demands of strategy, and add their voices to the cause of freedom.

The same moral liberation and political relevance awaits the one who practices peace in the realm of disarmament. His new commitment does not mean that the United States unilaterally disarms tomorrow, nor that he should expect it to do so against the majority opinion of his fellow citizens. It means that another individual is freed from the demands of an arms race, and that he adds his weight to the political balance favoring serious negotiation, the end of recrimination, and a positive attack on the causes of violence.

Thus in individual terms, a commitment to non-violence frees men from the painful dilemma that otherwise arises whenever the demands of justice conflict with the demands of power. This dilemma is a real one for those who must make national policy decisions in a power-centered world, and their task in any given situation is not made easier by pressures on behalf of justice from those who have not measured the cost in terms of "security." It is only when material power has been rejected as the basis for security that men can give both unreserved and responsible support to the claims of justice. We believe that such support is needed if a climate favorable to peace is to be created, and, therefore, that the individual commitment to practice peace means much more than adding to the useful witness of a permanent minority. It is rather the essential moral and political act of our time, the initial impetus for the pioneering effort that man must make to escape disaster.

Implications for the State

It is manifestly impossible for a democratic state to change its standard of values until a substantial number of its people first change theirs. The government of the United States could not now begin to practice peace in the revolutionary terms of this pamphlet, for there is not the substantial support among the American people that would be required to sustain it.

This does not mean that men in government should not be challenged with the full weight of a program for peace. On the contrary, Quakers have always believed it was necessary to speak truth to power. Our concern is to reach all men, the great and the humble, and though power in America ultimately rests with the humble, the great wield it, and must, therefore, carry peculiar responsibility. Quakers have tried to be sensitive to the special problems of those in high places, avoiding harsh criticism, and offering counsel out of whatever insight was given. But the burden of the Quaker message has always been the power of redemptive love as applied in real situations, and never was it so pertinent and so urgent as it is today, and never so important for individuals to be committed to it. Obviously, if any man in government is led to accept the philosophy of non-violence, he has an obligation to assert his convictions publicly, and use his position of leadership to persuade others. We believe that government officials in a democracy have a responsibility to lead as well as to serve, and as long as they are subject to removal by the electorate, there is little danger of tyranny. In the event that resignation becomes necessary because of a direct conflict between an official's convictions and his duties in connection with power policies or military preparations, the resignation itself would have great political meaning. The voluntary surrender of power for the sake of principle could have the same impact as Thomas Garrett's courageous statement:it would challenge men to re-think their own values.

The Political Relevance of a Minority

Further implications for the state will appear as the minority of its citizens who resolve to practice peace begins to grow. The larger the minority, and the less self-centered and self-righteous it is, the greater the impact and the greater the accommodation that will be made to it. A government which reflects the will of the people must modify and adjust its policies in accord with the growth of opinion, and this is precisely the reason why a minority view has political relevance. Indeed, the presence of vigorous, pioneering minorities has been generally recognized as essential to a healthy democracy. In the first World War the United States government originally made no provision for the rights of conscience, but the fact that it was confronted with a minority that refused military service was a political reality that could not be ignored. As a result, some recognition of conscience was embodied in executive regulations, and conscience was recognized explicitly by Congress in World War II. The act of conscientious objection in 1917 was, in fact, politically relevant. Or, to cite a current example, we point to the political impact of extremist leadership in the fields of anti-communism and Asian intervention. Although it seems clear that senatorial spokesmen in both these areas represent no more than small minority viewpoints, their positions actually set the poles and pull the whole range of public discussion toward them. in short, we believe a vocal minority has an important polarizing effect that makes it politically relevant in a very practical way.

The Content of a National Non-Violent Policy

A growing pacifist minority, and the gradual modifications of national policy that it produced, would also make an impact on the international scene. Our world is a dynamic world, with men and nations altering their habits, their attitudes, and their responses as the international climate shifts and changes. The pacifist wants to recognize this fact, and build policy around its existence. He suggests, therefore, that the more a minority could succeed in modifying belligerency and encouraging restraint, the more striking and unpredictable would be the resulting mutation in international relations. We have referred to the new power and new life that is released by the example of individual commitment, and which is also its political justification. We now suggest that the more a nation focused on reconciling differences, the more creative would be the power and the life that would flow from it. A whole new dimension would be introduced into the world community just as elementary experiments have sometimes introduced whole new dimensions into the scientific community. Who could have predicted, for example, that Benjamin Franklin's early experiments with electricity would end by revolutionizing man's whole way of life? It is a long jump from Franklin's kite to television, too long for the human imagination to have fully encompassed. Similarly, it is a long jump from our present expressions of international good will, such as the Fulbright program for student exchange, to its fullest possible expression in world affairs. Is this, also, too difficult for the imagination of our generation to encompass? We are certain only that its impact on the world would be fully as profound in the sphere of human relations as the impact of electricity has been in the sphere of science. Beyond that is speculation, but we can venture suggestions of the broad outlines of such a full policy of international good will.

1. There would be revolutionary changes within the United States itself. Since the non-violent insight underlines the necessity of first attacking our own evils, it is clear that the American people would be obligated to move farther in overcoming racial discrimination and religious intolerance. We would insist on maximum freedom of thought and expression, as demanded by our democratic philosophy, and would not tolerate tendencies toward transforming the nation into a police state. We would be more sensitive to the deadening impact of our industrial life, and to the inadequacy of prison systems, medical care, and housing. Instead of thinking of our democracy as something which is final and complete, and therefore belonging essentially to the past, we would think of it as a growing and developing vision, belonging essentially to the future. We would know that it cannot be guarded behind a radar screen, but must be shared freely and dangerously with all men, whose contribution is also needed for the realization of the vision. We would discover again the wisdom of Jefferson that error may be tolerated, as long as truth remains free to combat it. Any nation which, in this fear-ridden age, had the courage to trust the democratic process instead of bartering democracy for the illusory security of an atomic stockpile would speak with undreamed power to enslaved men the world over.

2. The United States would give its support to the great social revolutions, which are both a major problem and a major hope of our time. Regardless of whether men strive to overthrow domination from without or outworn feudalism from within, their determination is to achieve new dignity and status as human beings and to banish the physical poverty that has so long condemned them to misery. They deserve the support of every democratic society, and they would receive the support of this country if it were freed from its preoccupation with defense and the military power struggle. If this took place, men who seek freedom would no longer conclude, as many already have, that the only source of support is from communist nations, and they would cease to be available for communist armies. American support, moreover, would make it more possible for these revolutions themselves to be non-violent.

3. The United States would devote its skills and resources to great programs of technical and economic assistance, carried on under United Nations auspices and with full participation in planning and administration by the receiving peoples. The resources needed for these operations are so large that our own standard of living might be seriously affected, but the dividends would also be large. The mere fact of reducing the great economic imbalance between the United States and the poverty-stricken masses of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, would itself remove one of the major sources of embitterment and strife. Our willingness to share our material blessings, without ulterior motives and to an extent well beyond our unused surpluses, would bring men to us as friends and cooperators, rather than alienate them as does present policy.

4. The United States would get rid of its military establishment. Various avenues might be taken to achieve this result. Many suggest that the most probable and most practical approach would be through the simple transfer of the security function to a world organization. The United Nations would assume the responsibility for defense, and might well be converted in the process into a federal instrument in much the same manner as the thirteen American colonies substituted a federal government for the unsatisfactory Articles of Confederation.

Others less insistent on the importance of world federation suggest that disarmament would occur as the result of multilateral agreement: universal in character, enforceable in practice, and complete down to the level needed for internal policing. Both of these approaches are valid, and both could be supported by the United States in the era about which we speculate, but in the last analysis a pacifist policy would require unilateral action if agreement could not be achieved. There is no escaping the necessity to be willing to act first ourselves if we are to have solid ground for getting others to act with us.

It will be said that for a nation to consider disarming alone in an armed world is madness; but the fact that obviously stares men in the face today is that an armed world in this age is itself madness. To refuse any longer to labor under the delusion that it is anything else is the beginning of common sense, as it is the counsel of divine wisdom. Moreover, it is quite possible that the Soviet Union, confronted with such a change in American behavior, might startle us with a new response. At the very least, the example of a people living without the burden of militarism and offering friendship to all, would call forth the impulses to freedom that exist in all men. What might have happened, for example, if the remarkable East German uprising of June 1953 had had as its inspiration a United States free from involvement in the effort to rearm Western Germany and in the tragic perpetuation of an impossible division? As it was the United States' position was a discouraging one. We welcomed the revolt, but could only stand idly by, unwilling to risk unleashing war, and yet unable to offer any other kind of encouragement. Moreover, we were so preoccupied with power concepts that one of the most striking aspects of the uprising was largely overlooked: the fact that a group of Russian soldiers refused to fire on the unarmed and non-violent demonstrators."[17] Not only were the demonstrators spared violence, but a number of their grievances were recognized and corrected. How can this outcome be squared with the familiar argument that only naked power is respected by the Russians?

Nor must it be forgotten how this whole non-violent era, about which we are speculating, would be brought about. Under our democratic philosophy, as we have already pointed out, it would not be created by fiat, but as the result of insistence on reconciling measures by a gradually growing pacifist minority. The writers are convinced that this process in itself would so change the climate of world opinion that no power on earth could oppose it effectively. The influence of growing programs of economic assistance, freed from the compulsions of strategy and carried forward by dedicated men and women through the operating agencies of the United Nations, would lift the heart of the world. Increasing support of the United Nations itself, as a world forum for peaceful settlement, universal in membership and inviolate of selfish national pressure, would create a new basis for an emerging world community of law. The earnest desire to negotiate differences, backed by a gradually increasing willingness to abandon our military posture, could open the way for the relaxation of tension and the achievement of disarmament. Nations which are at present hostile and threatening, would be relieved of any reason for being hostile and threatening, and would face a world opinion so warmly approving of the United States that continued hostility would be difficult to maintain.

Non-Violent Resistance

We must, however, face the possibility that hatred has gone so far, and injustice penetrated so deeply, that even a revolutionary policy of peace could not prevent international aggression. A nation which had disarmed would not in that event abjectly surrender and let an invader run over and enslave it as is often alleged. On the contrary, it would have open to it possibilities of non-violent resistance that offer more prospects of a creative and genuinely victorious outcome than is the case with violent resistance under modern conditions. It is the nation whose reliance is upon arms that now faces the bleakest prospect in the event of international aggression; for victory in any ensuing holocaust is clearly impossible for anyone. Both "victor" and "vanquished" would dwell together in a brutalized and devastated world in which the values of democratic civilization would have been largely swept away. Non-violent resistance, as has been demonstrated on a large scale in India, and on a smaller scale in many other places, offers greater promise of confounding and overcoming an enemy without destroying our values or our world. While there are limits to the extent to which a program of non-violent resistance can be spelled out for a nation which is quite unready to adopt it, and for a future situation whose character cannot be predicted, it is nevertheless possible to suggest the broad pattern that it would follow. The first necessity is non-cooperation. The population must resolutely refuse to carry out the orders of the invader. They would not run trains to transport troops. They would not operate factories to provide the invader with military supplies. They would not unload his ships. They would perform no services of any kind for him. At the same time, they would try through their words and their lives to show the meaning of a free and democratic society. Second, the population must maintain good will toward the individual soldier of the invading forces. However difficult this is in practice, it is clear that the effective use of non-violent resistance has always demanded that a clear distinction be drawn between hatred of an evil policy and respect for the human instrument who is caught up in its execution. Good will is the spiritual weapon of non-violence just as civil disobedience is its physical weapon. Finally, the population must be well enough disciplined to refrain from individual acts of violence no matter what the provocation. The whole success of the resistance depends on meeting the enemy on a level and in a manner against which he cannot retaliate effectively. He understands violence, and he is prepared to cope with it ruthlessly and drastically. He must be given no excuse to do so.

In summary, it is certain that whatever circumstances exist in a specific instance, any campaign of non-violent resistance will include these three elements of non-cooperation, good will, and non-violence. The technique is effective because it undermines the morale of the enemy and removes his will to conquer. When a soldier is received kindly, it is hard for him to continue to hate. When he faces no threat, it is hard for him to continue to kill. Moreover, he has no way to compel cooperation when faced with civil disobedience, and without cooperation the enemy will find his existence difficult indeed.

All of this is not to suggest that everything would proceed in idyllic fashion and that no suffering would occur in a non-violent resistance campaign. We have tried to make it clear that readiness to accept suffering--rather than inflict it on others---is the essence of the non-violent life, and that we must be prepared if called upon to pay the ultimate price. Obviously, if men are willing to spend billions of treasure and countless lives in war, they cannot dismiss the case for non-violence by saying that in a non-violent struggle people might be killed! It is equally clear that where commitment and the readiness to sacrifice are lacking, non-violent resistance cannot be effective. On the contrary, it demands greater discipline, more arduous training, and more courage than its violent counterpart. Without preparation, non-violent resistance will fail just as surely as an untrained and undisciplined army would fall in war. Not even a beginning can be made in assessing the potential of non-violent resistance as a means of national defense until a people ready to pour billions into military preparations are prepared to put some effort into research and training of a different nature. This in turn can happen only as we make a new commitment to practice peace, and recognize that the freedom worth saving is the freedom of the spirit, which can neither be protected by guns nor enslaved by tyrants.

Such is the program we would chart for the individual and for the state of which he is a part. We have not denied that it involves risk, but no policy can be formulated that does not involve risk. We have not suggested it will be easy, but only that no policy that alms at achieving peace can be easy. Finally, we have made no sweeping claims that it would work, but only that it appears to us more workable and more relevant than the barren doctrines of violence that now enslave us. We believe that it merits the consideration of thoughtful men.

Russell Nelson
Last modified: Tue Oct 3 15:15:27 EDT 2006