Pacifism

Pacifism, like every other set of politics, is not homogenous or uniform - but there are core ideas which all forms of pacifism share, and the contradictions within these ideas and their contradiction to how struggle actually develops in the real world are built into pacifism no matter what brand or form it takes.

At its most basic level, pacifism is the idea that all violence is wrong, because all human life is sacred. At a more sophisticated level, it is the idea that violence degrades all who use it. Pacifism deals in moral absolutes, instead of taking the real world and the way the system and society are set up as its starting point.

But because pacifism deals in moral absolutes, it appeals not to class struggle or the oppressed to fight for their own liberation, but rather it appeals to "humanity", "morality", and "reason". The people who run the system, the ruling class, have a stake in making sure it continues running in the way it is today - regardless of how many workers lives are lost through accidents, regardless of the effects on the environment, and regardless of how many people die in wars over booty. Because of that, the pacifists' appeals to the ruling class to "play nice" fall on deaf ears.

As Paul D'amato put it:

	But like economic competition, miltary competition imposes 

	itself upon rivals as an external compulsion. Each 

	capitalist must grow or die, must theretherefore try to 

	drive its competitors from the field. The same logic

	(however irrational) is at work in military competition.

	The same conditions which give rise to economic competition

	in the world market also give rise to military competition.

	If "rationality" were the criterion, capitalism should have

	been abandoned some time ago, when it became clear that 

	people starved in spite of an abundance of food, were 

	unemployed despite an abundance of machinery and materials,

	and that world war would devastate entire nations and lead

	to mass extermination of entire peoples. Sadly, an appeal

	to the ruling classes of the world on the basis of saving 

	the planet from destruction is about as realistic as asking

	a transnational corporation to abandon profit.{1}

War and violence are part and parcel of capitalism - the roots, the trunk, and the branches are all part of the same tree. And the ruling class has never thought twice about using violence when its interests were at stake. But the ideas of the pacifists - that ruling classes can be convinced to disarm by appealing to their "reason" or their "morals" - sow dangerous illusions about the nature of the system and the ruling class.

In particular, pacifists put their faith in the "international community" - namely the United Nations - to stop wars. Yet the U.N. is not a democratic body representing the world's people, it is an undemocratic body representing the world's ruling classes, the most powerful of which have permanent seats in the Security Council, the only body in the U.N. with real decision making power. And each of the big powers have a veto vote, so the Security Council will never ever act against the interests of the big and powerful states, but only against the small and weak states.

In fact, the U.N. provides the U.S., the most powerful imperialist country in the world, with diplomatic and moral cover when it unleashes the most brutal and barbaric wars. It is not, was never, and never can be a neutral arbiter of conflicts. The U.S. used the U.N. to wage war on the Korean peninsula, and has used various U.N. resolutions to bomb Iraq back into the stone age (1991), maintain an embargo that has killed more than a million, and insist on a "regime change". U.N. resolutions condemning Israel's occupation are simply ignored.

In addition, "international law" is flouted by every side in every war, especially by the world's only superpower, the United States. The U.S. deliberately killed civilians in every war since WWI, used chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear weapons, tortured people - yet no U.S. President or general will ever show up in the dock of a war crimes court. The only people who do are enemies of the ruling classes of the most powerful states - Slobodon Milosevic, Osama bin-Laden (if they can ever find him!) and so on.

The most serious difference between pacifism and socialism is the question of revolution, of the violent overthrow by the working class of the most vicious and destructive ruling classes in world history. The pacifists, of course, reject that; after all, "capitalists and generals are people too"!!

But the ruling class has and will use violence whenever and where ever its interests are threatened. Even non-revolutionary, non-violent things like protests, boycotts, and sit-ins (witness the civil rights movement) have been attacked by cops, the KKK, and so on. Generally speaking, the ruling class uses violence in proportion to the size and danger of the threat to its rule. Pacifists, who maintain that all protests must always be peaceful, actually want protests and movements to confine themselves to whatever is acceptable to the ruling class. Instead of challenging the social order and bringing class conflict to a head, they seek to regulate it within the bounds of the status quo.

So if the workers seize the factories, hospitals, offices, schools, mines, mills, and runs them democratically from the bottom up, and the ruling class puts it tanks out into the streets to take them back and restore its rule, the pacifists, in order to remain true to their principles, would argue that the workers should not take up arms, and accept defeat, and possibly death! This, despite the fact that the capitalist system generates war in the first place, and its abolition would usher in an era of peace and unprecedented human development.

The reason pacifists reject workers' revolution, even though it would put an end to wars, is because they think the means must prefigure the ends. In other words, in order to get to a society free of violence, we ourselves cannot use violence to obtain it, otherwise we will become "just as bad as the people we are against." But for socialists, the end - a classless society where everyone is equal - justifies the means - a workers revolution to crush the resistance of the capitalists. As Tony Cliff wrote:

	As the revolution is a product of class society it 

	necessarily bears the traits of this society. It 

	reflects capitalism rather than socialism, the present 

	and the past, not the future. As the proletarian 

	dictatorship has to fight bourgeois counterrevolution, 

	it inevitably has to be symmetrical with it, in order 

	to inflict blows on it. However, with all the diversion 

	of MEANS from ENDS, unless there is a central core 

	connecting them, the means WILL NOT lead to the 

	supposed end. "Seeds of wheat must be sown in order to 

	yield an ear of wheat", to use Trotsky's words about 

	the relation between means and ends in his pamphlet 

	'Their Morals and Ours'. The plough breaking up the 

	hard soil may help the seed of wheat to germinate and 

	grow, but the plough does not prefigure the wheat.{2}

As Marx argued, violence is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one, but it is not the new society. Engels pointed out in a polemic with Herr Duhring:

	It is only with sighs and groans that he admits the 

	possibility that force will perhaps be necessary for 

	the overthrow of an economic system of exploitation - 

	unfortunately, because all use of force demoralizes 

	the person who uses it. And this in spite of the 

	immense moral and spiritual impetus which has been 

	given by every victorious revolution!

The violence of the oppressed for their liberation is not degrading - in fact it is uplifting. The most degrading, demoralizing thing is to be oppressed and to not fight back. Just read any survivors' account of the Holocaust, or watch Schindler's List. Thousands, millions of jews rounded up, murdered, gassed - and yet almost no one fought back! Watching Schindler's List, the most maddening thing is that so many went "peacefully" to the gas chamber.

Contrast that to the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, where the spirits and hopes of the entire population of the ghetto, and perhaps the entire Polish people, were raised with the prospect of successful armed struggle against the seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine.{3}

Renouncing violence in advance, as a matter of principle, allows the ruling class to retain its monopoly on violence, and ensures that their brutal system will remain intact forever. But in saying this, and analysing pacifism and its flaws, we have to make a distinction within the pacifist camp. As Trotsky wrote:

	It is necessary to differentiate strictly between 

	the pacifism of the diplomat, professor, journalist, 

	and the pacifism of the carprenter, agricultural 

	worker, and the charwoman. In one case, pacifism is 

	a screen for imperialism; in the other, it is the 

	confused expression of distrust in imperialism.{4}

Socialists are opposed to imperialist war, and are willing to work alongside with anyone else who is against war - for whatever reason - but along the way we try to win them away from the dead-end politics of pacifism. We have to win them away from merely fixing this or that aspect of the old society, but to getting rid of capitalism altogether.

  1. Paul D'amato, "Pacifism and War," International Socialist Review #24, July-August 2002. Click here to read the full article.
  2. Tony Cliff, Lenin, volume 3: Revolution Besieged, p. 110.
  3. Marek Edelman, the Ghetto Fights. Click here to read the amazing story of how the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto - led by socialists - resisted the Nazis.
  4. Leon Trotsky, the Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution.
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