Most people involved in political activism, especially any type of activism that is done outside the framework of traditional community organizing, have had a significant amount exposure to the ideas of nonviolence, and as Gelderloos argues in his book, nonviolence has likely been presented as the only acceptable tactical choice. Such arguments, based on readings of Martin Luther King Junior and Gandhi, have gained popularity since the 1960s and have largely been credited with winning major improvements in civil rights for people of color in the United States and with forcing the British Empire out of India. However, Gelderloos, after briefly defining advocates of nonviolence as “nonviolent activists” (or, as he says, “pacifists”), engages some of the key historical victories of nonviolence and suggests that in nearly all cases, whether it be the Civil Rights movement or the anti-colonial movement in India, proponents of nonviolence have frequently distorted history and has refused to consider the contributions of militants in these movements or the role of external events. He also then raises the point that the nonviolence by the European Jewish population against the Holocaust was entirely ineffective.
Central to Gelderloos’ criticism of nonviolence is the notion that nonviolence requires considerable privilege and that this privilege means that most advocates of pacifism are white. This line of reasoning is extended as he argues that there is a limited theoretical tradition for nonviolence and that what tradition does exist has been dominated by white liberals whereas revolutionary theory has been developed by the Franz Fanon, Ho Chi Minh, and others. He then makes the assertion that ultimately pacifists encourage pacifism for oppressed people of color because pacifists realize that they benefit from the current system and therefore do not want to overthrow the existing system. While the argument presents an interesting line of reasoning, it is not developed and serves to muddle his other assertions that pacifism fits into the state’s accommodation of dissent, that its proponents frequently seek to impose their ideology on others, that proponents frequently chose to advocate nonviolence without understanding the specifics of local contexts (as thought there is a single, universal “nonviolence” that will always be successful), and other such assertions—all of which can be argued easily and can be well-supported with examples from various popular movements in the United States. Moreover, Gelderloos raises valid criticisms and points for discussion when he confronts the racial and class privilege involved in advocating nonviolence and having the privilege to suffer arrests and other punishments at the hands of the state. Similarly, Gelderloos is right to raise questions about the lack of self-criticism involved in the decisions of many nonviolent activists who often simply decide on a tactic because it is nonviolent rather than for reasons of efficacy.
Early on in the book, Gelderloos dismisses the “peace movement” that arose in opposition to the war on Iraq in 2003 claiming that the movement among predominately white activists simply engaged in symbolic protests that did not challenge the war effort while the Iraqi people have engaged in a military resistance that has effectively challenged the United States’ capacity to wage war. In what will likely be one of the more controversial assertions in the book, Gelderloos argues that the Madrid bombings by Al-Qaida were more effective than the antiwar movement in limiting the suffering of Iraqis as the bombings, and therefore violence, caused Spain to withdraw its troops from the war. Gelderloos makes several other dubious claims, including the oft-repeated assertion that the militancy of the Seattle World Trade Organization protests helped get large number of new people involved in the anti-globalization movement. This claim, which is essentially taken as fact among much of the anarchist community (at least of those who haunt internet message boards), is never backed up with empirical data and Gelderloos makes no effort to support the claim. Moreover, as is often the case with arguments promoting a “diversity of tactics” as an alternative to nonviolence, Gelderloos appears to struggle with examples in a contemporary North American context and frequently mentions the black bloc tactic and the Earth Liberation Front, as few other examples exist that are immediately transferable onto the political context in the United States. As for historical movements, Gelderloos touches on what would be expected—the Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground, the American Indian Movement, and the Black Liberation Army, but his analysis of these movements is limited and his historical research and conclusions are based on a minimal bibliography. However, the most notable omission in the book is the alternative—if not nonviolence, what? While Gelderloos offers the alternative of anarchism and a respect for different tactical choices, this discussion is fairly brief compared to the time spent analyzing almost every aspect of nonviolence.
While Gelderloos’ provocative title will intrigue some, it will likely put off those who most need to consider his arguments. In reading the book, I cannot help but think of numerous experiences I have had with activists purporting to be “nonviolent” and their opposition to any tactics that do not fit within their ideology and it is no coincidence that Gelderloos’ frustrations stem in part from the yearly nonviolent civil disobedience held to protest the School of the Americas (Gelderloos served time in prison as a result of the protests). Nonviolence has frequently been defined to not only include the traditional framework of Martin Luther King Junior—no retaliation, willingness to accept suffering, and other similar positions that are reasonably sound depending on the circumstances—but have extended these principles to include not yelling, not running, avoiding manifestations of anger, and other such principles that have done nothing other than stifle political expression. I cannot recall all the times that I have participated in meetings only to be talked down to or dismissed simply because I do not wish to limit people’s tactical choices to only those that fall within the framework of nonviolence (which as was discussed above is often laughably narrow). It is fine to criticize people on the basis of tactics and strategy and indeed it is no more right to say that blowing up a weapons manufacturer’s headquarters is always preferable to holding a vigil in front of it, but rather we need to respect that there can be a “diversity of tactics” and that as long as they are not harming other living creatures or actively undermining the work that others are doing, we should respect the choices of others in the movement. Unfortunately, in activist groups both in Grand Rapids and around the country, that is rarely the case, instead I have experienced fairly regular situations in which adherents to nonviolence have actively tried to undermine the efforts of activists whom they disagree through the use of “peace teams” to “protect” property or to prevent protestors from engaging in disruptive tactics, the use of “mediators” and preemptive meetings with the police to “defuse” potential “conflicts,” and efforts to essentially infiltrate groups and tell them that they do not have the understanding or experience to make their own tactical choices and that they will just “get arrested” to no avail.
It is unfortunate that books such as How Nonviolence Protects the State continually need to be written and that the ongoing argument over tactics must continue, because outside of a specific organizing effort (i.e. the previous mention of how best to stop the production of weapons by a particular corporation), such arguments are needless abstractions and are generally little more than ideological discussions where nobody listens to each other. Instead of always assuming that a particular choice is morally superior, activists have to constantly reevaluate their tactics and critically examine how they act, a process that could be aided by a reading of How Nonviolence Protects the State. Despite its weaknesses, Gelderloos’ book can be useful in developing a critical examination of nonviolence, as it encourages proponents of such principles to examine their views and to examine some of the more troublesome aspects of nonviolence theory—the privilege required, the idea of moral superiority, racism, and classism—an examination that would hopefully result in more effective movements, as such examinations need to be undertaken by both those identifying as pacifists and those who support more diverse forms of resistance.
Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State, (Signalfire Press, 2005).