Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Nonviolence In A Revolutionary Context

My friends, Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We have had thousands of years of attempting to solve our problems through violence, but today war is still being waged across the globe, genocide – Hitler’s final solution – is being perpetrated this very minute, more people died in violent conflict during the 20th century than any other time in history. Violence does not work, violence creates more problems then it could ever hope to solve. If we allow ourselves to justify armed conflict in order to solve our problems we set a precedent for violence as an acceptable means to achieve our ends.

• In 44 B.C. the Roman Senate conspired to have Julius Caesar killed, he was attacked by the Liberators and stabbed over 20 times. By killing Caesar the Senate hoped to preserve the Republic, however less than a year later Antony had the Senate exiled and Octavianus Caesar declared the Liberators enemies of the state. Subsequently the Roman Empire was plunged into civil war as Senators Cassius and Brutus raised a pair of armies to over throw Octavianus Caesar.

• In 1789 the French people rose up in a violent revolt against Louis the 16th and the aristocracy. The people succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy; however in 1793 the French people faced The Reign of Terror – the mass execution of so called “enemies of the Revolution”. Some 50,000 people were put to death by the guillotine in one 10 month period as the new government attempted to violently crush resistance. 72% of the victims of The Reign of Terror were workers and peasants. The French Revolution led directly to the Napoleonic wars and two subsequent violent revolutions as modern France took shape.

• In October of 1917 the Bolshevik party led an armed revolt on Petrograd and took control of Russia away from the provisional government who had been attempting to setup a democracy and draft a constitution. In 1924, following the death of Lenin, Joseph Stalin manipulated his way from an administrative position to party leader and de facto ruler of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s rule would see a non-aggression treaty with Adolf Hitler and the death of 20 million Russian citizens by starvation, in Gulag labor camps and the Great Purge, also known as the Great Terror.

• In 1945 the Allied forces, with the help of the Soviet Union whom Hitler had betrayed, accepted the formal surrender of Nazi Germany. In recognition of their contribution and sacrifice on behalf of the war effort roughly 30% of Europe was ceded to Stalin – whose policy of terror on the German people led to the death of roughly 2,000,000 German citizens and another 1,000,000 German POWs. Stalin even went so far as to give arms to China and the North Koreans.

• Holding the Soviet Revolution as a model to be emulated Mao Zedong led an army of communists to overthrow the Chinese Nationalists in 1949. His “People’s Republic” emulated the Russians and likewise has starved and violently purged tens of millions of Chinese citizens.

After violent insurrection was credited with having succeeded in a few prominent cases it could be advertised as necessary to overthrow any offensive ruler. Once violence was seen as imperative, its destructive costs could be ignored. Once violence was widely accepted as a solution to injustice and tyranny, revolutionaries had no incentive to consider less damaging alternatives for taking power – however effective they have been in the past.

The idea that the majority of successful revolutions have been armed conflicts is a fallacy based on centuries of revolutionary propaganda. History is ultimately a harsh judge of those who insist on substituting violence by a few for participation by all. Violent revolutionaries are not the agent of change and their empowerment is not the result. It is not a myth that violence can alter events. It is a myth that it gives power to the people.

Non-violent resistance has created the power to overcome the most extreme of human rights violations, take down the most brutal of empires, topple the worst of the tyrants, and overthrow the most powerful of governments. Non-violent movements have shown us time and again that violence might be able to destroy power but it will never be capable of creating it. True power lies in the willingness of the people to take actions together in support of a common purpose. True power is 13 nations comprising 1,695,000,000 people who experienced nonviolent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. If we add all the countries touched by major nonviolent actions in our century (the Philippines, South Africa… the independence movement in India…) the figure reaches 3,337,400,000, a staggering 65% of humanity! All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated that nonviolence doesn’t work in the ‘real’ world.

• In 1905 an Orthodox priest, persuaded 150,000 workers to walk the icy streets of Russia’s ancient capital in the century’s first public challenge to autocratic power. He ignited mass action nationwide that led to the country’s first popularly elected national parliament

• Men like Sir Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke championed the form of the revolution known as Silent Revolution and helped the people of Great Britain to achieve enormous progress in the society which was later termed as the enlightenment. The results of these men’s’ work, including others in continental Europe, shaped Europe and later the whole world forever. Today, these men are remembered by all educated people. When they died in their various countries, these men were given the most superb burials, because of what they helped their country and the world at large to accomplish.

• After the world war that opened the door to the Bolshevik takeover in Russia and imposed reparations on Germany, miners and railway workers in the Ruhr in 1923 confronted invading French and Belgian soldiers who were sent to extract German resources. They refused to cooperate and thwarted the invaders’ goals until the British and Americans pressed for the troops’ withdrawal.

• In 1930-31 Mohandas Gandhi led mass civil disobedience against the British in India. He convinced his followers to stop paying salt taxes and cease buying cloth and liquor monopolized by the raj, intensifying his nation’s long, successful drive to independence.

• Danish citizens during the German occupation in World War II refused to aid the Nazi war effort and brought their cities to a standstill in the summer of 1944, forcing the Germans to end curfews and blockades; other European peoples under Nazi domination resisted nonviolently as well.

• Salvadoran students, doctors, and merchants, fed up with the fear and brutality visited on their country by a longtime military dictator, organized a civic strike in 1944. Without picking up a single gun, they detached the general from his closest supporters, including members of the military, and forced him into exile.

• Less than ten years after the British left India, a Baptist preacher from Georgia, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., following Gandhi’s teachings, led his fellow African Americans on a 15 year campaign of marches and boycotts to overthrow racial segregation in the American South.

• A few years after Dr. King was assassinated, Polish dissidents defied communist rule by initiating new forms of social action rarely seen in the Soviet bloc. Later workers struck and won the right to organize, giving rise to Solidarity and eventually the end of communism.

• As change was brewing in Poland, a group of Argentine mothers, outraged by their government’s silence about the disappearance of their sons, started marching in the central plaza of Buenos Aires. They did not stop until the legitimacy of their country’s military junta was undermined, leading to it’s downfall after the debacle of the Falklands War.

• As the generals fell in Argentina, General Augusto Pinochet, across the Andes in Chile, faced a surging popularity movement that mounted a series of protests of his dictatorship. Ultimately they overturned him through a plebiscite he was not supposed to lose.

• Half a world away, after Ferdinand Marcos stole the election in the Philippines in 1986, the widow of an assassinated opposition leader led hundreds of thousands into the streets. Supporting a rebellion by reform minded military officers they deprived the dictator of any chance to hold power by force and he fled the country.

• Not long after Filipinos reclaimed their democracy, Palestinians challenged Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by organizing protests and boycotts and by building their own network of social services. This wave of nonviolent resistance became the largest if least visible part of the intifada.

• While Solidarity continued its fight, boycott organizers, trade union, and religious leaders in South Africa joined to wage a nonviolent campaign against apartheid. Along with international sanctions they helped fore the freeing of Nelson Mandela and negotiations for a democratic future.

• Days after the Berlin Wall fell, thousands of Czech students sat down at the edge of Wenceslas Square in Prague chanting “We have no weapons… the world is watching.” In weeks the communist regime and others like it in East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria and even Mongolia were gone.

• In the 1990s a Burmese mother, Aung San Suu Kyi led her countries democracy movement while under house arrest, as young Burmese were bolstered in their struggle by a new worldwide cohort of nonviolent activists and practitioners.

• In 1996 and 1997, tens of thousands of Serbian citizens marched through the streets of Belgrade to protest the refusal of President Slobodan Milosevic to honor the results of local elections, until he finally capitulated and in 1999 they returned to the streets to demand his removal.

The concept of non-violence is at the heart of every major religion across the globe. In the Sermon On The Mount Jesus Christ urged his followers to “love thy enemy”, the Daoist concept of wu-wei (a stoic approach to life that we should emulate the yielding nature of water), Muslim Suefism teaches love and devotion, the Buddhist principle of metta (a loving-kindness toward all beings), the Torah teaches Jews respect for life, freedom and brotherhood, as well ahimsa (do no harm) a value shared by Jainism and Hinduism.

Violent revolutionaries are just choosing one pile of dead bodies over another, choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil. I reject the notion that a dead fascist is better than a dead non-fascist; that some lives are worthy to be traded for others, a dead human being is a dead human being regardless of who they are. I will grant you the fact that non-violence is a much harder route to take than violence. Non-violence is not for the timid or the weak, it takes great courage and strength to walk with dignity unarmed and unafraid into the conflict. Non-violence is the willingness to sacrifice all that one has, our time, out imagination. The time for us to evolve has come. Non-violence is the only way that we can ever hope to solve our political and moral conflicts. In the words of the pacifist Albert Einstein “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Humankind has used violence to solve its problems for over 2000 years, the time has come to advance our accepted wisdom out of the middle ages and into the 21st century.


Dawson said...

And yet, to my knowledge, two months later he has yet to make the attempt. I cannot say that I blame him, I cannot think of a single argument that would hold water against your clear reasoning, profound writing, and impassioned cry for humankind to finish our evolution from cavemen and savages into a civilized people sharing the earth with mutual respect and tolerance.

I'm sorry I missed this debate but I have little doubt that the two of you soundly revealed Gregory as the blustering, elitist charlatan that he truly is.