Why pacifism is morally indefensible

Influenced by Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi is perhaps the first person to put the principles of nonviolence and non-cooperation into effect of a mass scale. Explaining this principle, in For Pacifists, he wrote;

The science of war leads one to dictatorship, pure and simple. The science of non-violence alone can lead one to pure democracy…Power based on love is thousand times more effective and permanent than power derived from fear of punishment….It is a blasphemy to say non-violence can be practiced only by individuals and never by nations which are composed of individuals…The nearest approach to purest anarchy would be a democracy based on non-violence…A society organized and run on the basis of complete non-violence would be the purest anarchy.

The ideal inspired not only Gandhi’s own movement for independence in India, but also the actions of groups such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the American civil rights movement. It remains a popular idea today, within both a wider activist circle and the specific philosophy of anarcho-pacifism. However, it has its critics.

For example, George Jackson of the Black Panther Party criticised the idea that nonviolent resistance would have an effect upon the enemy having to kill those who used no violence;

The concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one’s adversary. When this adversary has everything to lose and nothing to gain by exercising justice and compassion, his reaction can only be negative.

However, my argument here is not that nonviolence is ineffective as a tactic. Indeed, it can yield considerable success given the right arena. It is that pacifism, as an absolute, is fundamentally immoral and unjustifiable within the context of the world we live in.

Pacifism and nonviolence

Though I will be using both terms in this article, it should be noted that “pacifism” and “nonviolence” are not interchangeable ideas.

Graduate teaching and research assistants at New York University stage a sit-in in an effort to gain union recognition in 2006

Nonviolence is a form of resistance, a way of fighting back against injustice or oppression without the resort to force. The sit-ins of the civil rights movement, as a way of opposing segregation within business establishments, are a prime example of this. Nonviolence is employed by pacifists, of course, but it is important to separate it from that and understand that those who advocate the use of force and violence when neccesary can also use nonviolence in specific situations.

Pacifism, on the other hand, is a principle adopted by individuals. Somebody who self-identifies as a pacifist will never, if true to their ideals, resort to violence. Even when threatened or attacked, they will not fight back. Pacifism can be summed up with the Gandhian quote that “there are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for.” After all, as he saw it, “what difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?”

There is a worthwhile discussion to be had about nonviolence as a tactic, and where it is and is not effective. However, it is the principle of absolute pacifism, not the tactic of nonviolence in specific situations, that I am calling morally indefensible.

In war and genocide

Whatever else one might say about him, Gandhi could not be accused of mincing his words or shying away from the logical conclusion of absolute pacifism. In Non-Violence in Peace and War, Gandhi offered the following advice to the British people;

I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions…If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourselves, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.

This is one of the comments which inspired George Orwell to declare that “pacifism is objectively pro-fascist;”

This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, ‘he that is not with me is against me’. The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle, while living on food which British sailors have to risk their lives to bring you, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security.

I am not interested in pacifism as a ‘moral phenomenon’. If Mr Savage and others imagine that one can somehow ‘overcome’ the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen. As an ex-Indian civil servant, it always makes me shout with laughter to hear, for instance, Gandhi named as an example of the success of non-violence. As long as twenty years ago it was cynically admitted in Anglo-Indian circles that Gandhi was very useful to the British government. So he will be to the Japanese if they get there. Despotic governments can stand ‘moral force’ till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force.

Orwell’s support for the British state as the best way of challenging a force such as fascism can be challenged. Indeed, in Killing and dying for “the old lie” I made a point of the distinction between antifascism and pro-imperialism during the war. However, this only serves to shift the argument from war waged by states towards armed resistance by organised antifascists outside the state structure. It does not alter the fundamental fact that allowing “yourselves, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered” cannot be classed as a victory just because you “refuse to owe allegiance to them.” In the end, totalitarianism still reigns and the slaughtered will go unavenged.

This is what makes his comments about the Holocaust, in 1946, so despicable;

Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs. As it is, they succumbed anyway in their millions.

The idea that this would have “aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence” has little weight. By 1939, those whose actions would have been motivated by antifascism and anti-racism already were aroused to it. Conversely, those acting against Germany for other reasons were largely unconcerned even when aware of the plight of the Jews. All that collective suicide would have done, ultimately, is facilitated genocide. As Malcolm X argued, “I believe it’s a crime for anyone being brutalized to continue to accept that brutality without doing something to defend himself.”

Collective self-defence

Militant self-defence, both individual and collective, is entirely in line with the anarchist principle of direct action rather than relying on the state or other “authorities” to look after us. In the words of Rudolph Rocker, “by direct action the Anarcho-Syndicalists mean every method of immediate warfare by the workers against their economic and political oppressors,” and so “any means is justifiable that can prevent the organized murder of peoples.”

An image from the television series Deacons for Defense, about a small group of African American men in Jonesboro, Louisiana who became a popular symbol of the growing frustration with Martin Luther King Jr.'s nonviolent strategy and a rallying point for a militant working-class movement in the South

Though from the specific perspective of antifascism, I argued much the same point in On violence and censorship when I advocated physical resistance to fascist violence;

Organised fascist and racist groups pose a physical threat to ethnic minorities, LBGTQ people, and, primarily, to the organised working class. In the face of this, and given the documented complicity of the state in such repressive violence, resistance organised at a grassroots level is the only sensible option.

The history of Anti-Fascist Action in Britain only emphasises this fact. And the same principle applies to any group which poses such a threat.

Returning to the civil rights movement, an important parallel were the Deacons for Defense and Justice. They operated under the principle, as articulated by Stokely Carmichael in Black Power (PDF),  “that the ‘law’ and law enforcement agencies would not protect people, so they had to do it themselves.” Lance Hill, in The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement says of nonviolent civil rights organisations, “the hard truth is that these organizations produced few victories in their local projects in the Deep South—if success is measured by the ability to force changes in local government policy and create self-governing and sustainable local organizations that could survive when the national organizations departed.”

Conversely, “the Deacons’ campaigns frequently resulted in substantial and unprecedented victories at the local level, producing real power and self-sustaining organizations.” For example, “in Jonesboro, the Deacons made history when they compelled Louisiana governor John McKeithen to intervene in the city’s civil rights crisis and require a compromise with city leaders—the first capitulation to the civil rights movement by a Deep South governor.” Carmichael points out that “the Deacons and all other blacks who resort to self-defense represent a simple answer to a simple question: what man would not defend his family and home from attack?”

It is this question which brings us to the core point on why the absolute pacifism is immoral. Unlike a pragmatic recourse to nonviolent resistance only in situations where it will be effective, it offers no recourse for the defence of innocents from injustice and brutality. And, ultimately, there is nothing heroic, even in principle, in offering yourself to the butcher’s knife.

18 Responses to “Why pacifism is morally indefensible”
  1. Julia says:

    Thank you for this. I’m not sure if you’ve read Gelderloos’ “How Nonviolence Protects the State” but he elaborates on the argument you’ve presented here. For one thing, the independence movement in India was NOT 100% pacifist. Gandhi only came after numerous tactics; in fact, the only reason there was a “Gandhi” in the first place was due to the fact that the British needed a non-violent “moderator” between Indians and imperialists who would gladly make concessions.

    I’m also of the notion that absolute pacifism is a tactic for the privileged, for the people who have so much to lose that they refuse to take things to the next level. Close to my hometown there is a movement which is trying to raise awareness of the drug war through “civil disobedience”, i.e. deliberately walking around town with pot for the purpose of getting arrested. The problem is, none of their tactics have done anything to take the drug laws off the books, in fact all they’ve done is *increase* the police presence in town. It goes to show that the state doesn’t play games, and our fight against the state can’t be treated like a fun little game where everyone goes back home to a nice warm bed after the sit-in is over.

    I believe a 100% pacifist strategy *could* work in *some* cases, but certainly not all. Any violence that comrades carry out in their fight for freedom is hardly comparable to the amount of violence carried out by the state and capitalists on a daily basis.

    • Colérian Noregreb says:

      sophisme de la double faute … :-(

      • Firstly, it is impossible to reduce all forms of “pacifism” to a distorted absolutist’s vision of Gandhi’s ideas conjured from a few scraps of misinterpreted text. The concepts of “non-violence” and “pacifism” are so erroneously defined from the outset; we must address these fundamentals before we begin discussing the hastily constructed straw-man of “pacifism” that serves as the main character in this ridiculous Punch & Gandhi Show: which was billed to us as a proper moral argument.

        Let’s begin our critique from the opening salvo about “non-violence” and “pacifism”-an obfuscating tangent from the principle concepts of the discussion-which should rightly be “pacifism” and its lack of “morality”-a term that is noticeably left undefined and up to the audience’s invention based on their bias. “Non-violence” in this diversion has apparently been misconstrued by the author to be synonymous with “civil disobedience”-a particular spectrum of non-violent political action. The definition given for “non-violence” is in fact only an example of political “non-violence” and does not represent the totality of “non-violence” as an ethical principle uniquely expressed in Indo-Asian culture. The main character of “pacifism” is likewise absent from the stage, leaving the audience to witness “Gandhi’s Evil Twin” the dastardly, pro-fascist (avec la mustache d’Hitler) assume the role of “pacifism”-as the comedy of errors progresses unto its embarrassingly predictable and disappointing end-The author in the guise of a George Orwell puppet reigns baton blows to “Evil” Gandhi’s head in true British fashion-while boos and rotten produce erupt from the peasantry.

        No cutting (ahimsa)-the revolutionary idea held from antiquity that human beings should not harm each other with sharp objects-was the fundamental principle upon which Gandhi built his radical political philosophy of “Truthfulness” (satyagraha)-a specific form of pacifism characterized by popular demonstrations of civil disobedience and personal demonstrations of wit, willpower, and bodily sacrifice. Gandhi’s philosophy cannot be equated with “pacifism” in general terms because such “pacifism” as his-includes adherence to the additional ethics of Vedic monasticism according to the preliminary vows of Patanjali’s Ashtanga System described in the Yoga Sutras-called yama (self-control): non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness, (satyagraha), non-stealing (asteya), celibacy (brahmacharya), and renunciation of personal property (aparigraha).

        Gandhi was promoting for society at large, the ethics of a monk’s life which he had adopted for himself despite being active in law, politics, and literature. Gandhi was the representative of an ideal but not only an ideal of pacifism- a total vision of the karma yogi who becomes jivanmuktan/mahatma through the process described by Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita-but the author has clearly failed to examine the actual ideology of which Gandhi was exemplary-considering these ideas to be trivial, tribal superstitions and then further compounds ignorance with falsehood by positing that since Gandhi was a pacifist then all pacifists are Gandhis and if Gandhi was a pro-Hitler fascist-them by way of circular reasoning-all pacifists are too…and scene.

        That should be the final curtain for this ramshackle side-show but let’s pretend for a moment that the whole argument wasn’t completely specious and we could construct a coherent moral determination about pacifism vis-a-vis the life of Gandhi here in the Land of Make Believe with all our cartoon friends-why not kick back, relax, and enjoy the dulcet tones of the Oompa-Loompa Band inside your head-while examining the source material that informed Gandhi’s particular form of pacifism?

        Violence (rajas) is one of the three natural tendencies according to Yoga Philosophy and is recognized as an essential cog in the engine of Material Nature (triguna prakriti). All types of eating, drinking, and even breathing are considered violent actions that condition the body/mind to take animal births and thereby exist cyclically consuming other beings. Violence is motivated by the emotions of lust (kama), anger (krodha), and greed (lobha).

        Inertia (tamas) is another of the natural tendencies-the inexplicable powerlessness that conditions beings to sleep, age, stagnate, decay, remain ignorant, and fear change. Inertia is motivated by the emotions of possessiveness (moha), pride (madha), envy (matsara), and egoism (ahamkara).

        Equilibrium (sattva) is the ultimate natural tendency-the desire to create and maintain balance. Equilibrium is motivated by feelings of contentment (shama), self-control (dama), trust (shraddha), fearlessness (uparati), determination (titiksha), and harmony with one’s environment (samadhana).

        The morality of a given action in the context of this theory is independent of the deed and wholly dependent upon the emotional motivation of the doer. This is an important point that frees a pacifist-such as Gandhi-to be non-violent in his approach to life and death while still contending daily with all the violence and ignorance inherent in the other tendencies of Nature. It does not matter what you do-it will be violent if lust, anger, and greed are at the basis of your activity. Likewise any action motivated by possessiveness, pride, envy, and self-aggrandizement will eventually lead to more violence and death-looping in a vicious cycle.

        The way out of the moral dilemma of violence is through supreme self-awareness about the emotional motivation of one’s actions not adherence to an impractical dogma unto destruction. Death is certain-the time and manner of death are uncertain-but certainly death will come. Violence and combat though they are used interchangeably are not the same thing-neither are pacifism and capitulation-this is where fools confuse the issues at hand. A pacifist should only seek to remove the violence within their own heart-at the level of emotional motivation-to decrease their tendency for destructive behavior and increase their tendency for harmony and emotional equilibrium. If forced into combat by those intent on violence, a pacifist has the utmost responsibility to incapacitate or psychologically demoralize dangerous people as quickly and methodically as possible, without injuring or killing them if at all possible. Only one who respects life can be trusted to protect it.

          • The pacifist can never bring peace to a world swollen with weapons and hungry for conflict. The pacifist can only point to an ideal future.
            The route to that future is to limit the use of armed force to the amount necessary to relieve would-be combatants of their weapons. Armies should not be controlled by politicians to wage wars; they should be controlled by the United Nations to secure the peace and ensure that all illegally held weapons are surrendered and all future arms trading banned.
            This may seem a tall order but, if it makes good sense fo you, commit to it as your top-priority goal. See:

        • steve says:

          Good thoughts.

  2. As I read the essay above, I found and felt the skillful tweaks, the skews, of an agenda. I observed the ideology of what consists of victory and defeat.
    Then….morality was introduced.
    I did not find the follow up argument about war and acquired power and its inevitable transference to the victor, that inevitably deals out the New Version of war and acquired power.

    I did not find here, any value in losing one’s life and the lives of others, for the sake of personal integrity (but instead, that NO such integrity could possibly be valid). Before you assign “pacifist” to me, read on, please:
    In this essay is the most obvious bias, or lack of a broader insight: To introduce morality, is to introduce dogma.
    No matter how instinctual or primeval a depth you might assign to this concept of morality, it is still dogma. It is still an unconscious religion. It is still artificial.
    Morality, as most everyone will adopt some self justifying form of it, is and will always be, subjective. It will always be an ever changing opinion in ever changing circumstances to an ever changing population. Morality has always been simply a mental concept; perhaps the worst and most deluded of concepts. Yes, this is unwelcome and unsettling.
    And now I suppose the reader here looks for closure. A blatant disagreement. The new argument. The new stance. Would you accept that any “ism” is not current?
    Would you accept that it is not moral or amoral to defend your life?
    Perhaps it is a natural outcropping of evolution.
    Perhaps with a greater intelligence and a far longer view, to die without attack, even as the attacker goes on killing, is still a better life than having attacked.
    Perhaps not. But why, why introduce such a shallow concept as morality?

  3. But a smiling visitor here to share the love (:, btw outstanding design .

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