Galiel made a point in the exchange with Lieutenant C that I wanted to use as a springboard for discussion. I decided to pull it into a separate diary because it is a kind of tangent but one I’d really like to explore; and since galiel has vowed to leave, it didn’t seem sensible to respond directly anyway.
Here’s what galiel wrote: “Gandhi’s will defeated the most powerful army on earth, Martin Luther King’s love defeated bully-clubs, vicious dogs and bayonets, Nelson Mandela’s struggle for freedom was won only when he renounced his violent methods of the past.”
These certainly appear to be strong examples of pacifists winning out over strong-arm oppressors. But are they, really? I’d like, in this diary, to look at these cases more closely and see if they don’t have a common thread, one nowhere to be found in many other human rights-oppressing totalitarian regimes around the world and throughout history.
Gandhi. This is one of those cases where a feel-good myth (George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, Mohandas Gandhi achieving independence via nonviolent resistance) just takes hold in the popular imagination, and is allowed to rest there unchallenged.
I would argue that the prime figure in terms of Indians themselves was Subhash Chandra Bose, and his Indian National Army. Not so much the military victories themselves (though there were some notable ones); but more the effect of the postwar INA trials in encouraging insurrection among the Indian armed forces. Once the British, already weakened by the war (and hardly the “most powerful army on earth”; only the US and USSR could have contended for that title at the time) saw they were losing the military, they figured they’d better just get out of the whole mess.
But even if you wish to impute more influence to Gandhi’s “Quit India” movement, the fact remains that it was Clement Atlee, the socialist prime minister whose Labour Party clobbered Churchill’s Tories at the ballot box, who actually gave India its independence.
So, in our first example it ultimately took a protracted struggle including both violent and nonviolent elements to persuade a British PM (whose views would fit right in here, btw) to allow India its freedom. Would a real iron-fisted dictator (Stalin, Saddam, etc.) have made the same choice as Atlee? Or would he have strung up Gandhi, Bose, et al. by the toenails from the get-go?
Martin Luther King, Jr. Boy, this one looks a lot like a homegrown version of the same thing. Didn’t it actually take the action of elected, liberal politicians to bring about the civil rights legislation of the ’60s? No disrespect to MLK Jr., who was an inspiring, unifying figure; but without a relatively liberal government that essentially felt shamed into action, the civil rights movement would have met the same fate it always had, at the hands of the Klan and the Southern police and courts.
Note also that, just as in Reconstruction times, it took federal troops to actually enforce civil rights for blacks in the South. Had the states in question been left to their own devices with no interference from the Feds, the bully clubs and vicious dogs would have likely been traded in for machine guns.
The GOP, starting in 1968 and especially after George Wallace’s career ended, has inherited the voters that stood against all those civil rights gains. And they’re still not too happy about it, but since they do have to stand for election outside the South, they need to at least pretend to be moderate to hold power. Thankfully for us–but still no proof whatsoever that nonviolent resistance would work against someone (a dictator) that had no need to worry about the secret ballot vote of the suburban bourgeoisie.
Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s freedom did not come from renouncing violence. He was imprisoned in 1962 (with help from the CIA). In a statement fully eighteen years later, he urged his people to take arms:
“We face the future with confidence. For the guns that serve apartheid cannot render it unconquerable. Those who live by the gun shall perish by the gun. UNITE! MOBILISE! FIGHT ON! Between the anvil of united mass action and the hammer of the armed struggle we shall crush apartheid and white minority racist rule.”
From the Wikipedia account:
“Refusing an offer of conditional release in return for renouncing armed struggle (February 1985), Mandela remained in prison until February 1990,”
So in fact, contrary to the revisionist history galiel expounded, Mandela explicitly refused to “renounce violence”, and is thus not even technically eligible to be considered in this evaluation of pacifist struggles for independence. Nevertheless, the end of the story is still instructive:
“when sustained ANC campaigning and international pressure led to his release on 11 February, on the orders of state president F.W. de Klerk and the ending of the ban on the ANC. He and de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.”
So once again, it was in fact the action of a man from and elected by the (guilty and shamed) dominant ethnic group, a man who later shared the Nobel, that freed Mandela and brought the franchise to his people. Sounds a little like Clement Atlee and LBJ, doesn’t it? Elected, relatively liberal white men, who could not escape the conclusion that injustice had prevailed for too long.
So how, I ask, are any of these examples remotely instructive when one is dealing with ruthless tyrants? Galiel also mentioned the eventual peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia. But what about the violent repression of the “Prague Spring” of 1968? Once again, the difference is that in 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev (an essentially benevolent man and again, a Nobel Peace Prize winner) was in charge of the USSR.
As long as we’re talking about 1989: how about Ceaucescu in Romania? He was a classic hard-line Stalinist dictator type, not dissimilar from Saddam in his absolute iron-fisted control of “free” expression, and his use of secret police. While other Eastern Bloc governments were more or less melting into oblivion in the wake of Gorbachev’s signal that he would not back them militarily, in Romania it took a violent overthrow (and subsequent execution of the dictator and his wife on live TV) to gain freedom.
So, bottom line: I have yet to see a pacifist (or, more specifically, an advocate of nonviolent resistance as the key to liberating the oppressed peoples of the world) show me a legitimate example where this strategy worked against anyone as ruthless as, say, Saddam Hussein. Absent that, and given that brutal dictators are not some rare occurrence but keep popping up like weeds again and again, I submit that for many of the world’s people, their only options are violence. Either the slow, steady, oppressive violence (or, almost worse, constant fear of violence) of a totalitarian regime; or the chaotic but hopefully shorter-lived violence of either a revolution from within or a liberation from without.
Those who cling to the belief that these people’s living nightmares can be ended through nonviolent means (“all you need is love”?) are in my view hopelessly naive. But more than that, they shirk their responsiblities as world citisens because they avoid dealing with uncomfortable truths and choices by staying in their safe fantasy world where they can mouth platitudes about “peace” that they know deep down will never have to be tested as any kind of applied policy. It’s easy (as Naderites surely know) to be “pure” and lob critiques from the outside when you never have to face the responsibility of governing, of putting ideals into action. That may sound harsh, but given how much heat I’ve taken from the camp I’m referring to, I think it’s fair to call my words mild by contrast.