Originally published at Cyrano’s Journal Online
This is a small but indispensable volume for anyone seriously interested in social change, and who sooner or later may have to consider the place of violence in the general scheme of things.
As the title implies, and wasting little time in preparing the audience for what will surely be a disturbing argument to many, the author lays out his case against white progressives—or, to be precise, the liberal/social democratic complacent legions of mostly well-educated middle and upper middle class activists—who are deemed "delusional" not only in the ineffectual tactics and strategies they pursue (which the ruling elites are only too happy to accommodate as per a well-scripted minuet), but in the belief that they are actually performing revolutionary acts...
The crux of Churchill's argument—pretty hard to refute—is that mainstream liberals, and a sizeable contingent of self-defined "Leftists" (read here mostly social democrats) will do anything except assume actual risk in opposing the system...and that, being mostly interested in practicing "comfort zone" politics, they will almost invariably indulge in essentially worthless "cathartic" posturizing instead of solid opposition, all the while vociferously denouncing and browbeating those who would dare suggest more confrontational tactics, including general strikes, active resistance, and so on. Thus the core of his polemic comprises two arguments: (1) That American pacifism has insinuated itself as the only and pre-eminent choice for social change and for oppositional strategies to the empire, and (2) that such a strategy invariably leads to the cul-de-sac of liberalism:
"American pacifism seeks to project itself as a revolutionary alternative to the status quo. Of course, such a movement or perspective can hardly acknowledge that its track record in forcing substantive change upon the state has been an approximate zero. [Hence]...a chronicle of significant success must be offered, even where none exists.<...> For proponents of the hegemony of nonviolent political action within the American opposition, time-honored fables such as the success of Gandhi's methods (in and of themselves) and even the legacy of Martin Luther King no longer retain the freshness and vitality required to achieve the necessary result, As this has become increasingly apparent, and as the potential to bring a number of emergently dissident elements (.e.g., "freezers," antinukers, environmentalists, opponents to saber-rattling in Central America and the Mideast, and so on) into some sort of centralized mass movement became greater in the mid-80s, a freshly packaged pacifist "history" of its role in opposing the Vietnam war began to be peddled with escalating frequency and insistence." (pp 65-6)
Seeking to drive a stake through the heart of middle-class pacifism, Churchill goes on to detail (and rebuke) some of the main claims made by the peaceful legions, particularly the almost universally accepted notion that it was the protests and demonstrations in the US that finally forced US policymakers to order a withdrawal from Vietnam. Churchill refutes this conceit by noting that the war was lost in the field, which is undeniable, as the humiliating images of Americans escaping Saigon from the rooftop of the US embassy amply demonstrated, and that, therefore it was first and above all a military defeat inflicted on the imperial armies (and their puppets) by the Vietnamese people that created the necessary conditions for a "pragmatic rethinking of the war" by its architects back in the imperial capital. Haven't we seen this terrible movie before?
The reason for the book thus lies in the utterly deformed political landscape presented by contemporary America, where the left, unlike any other in the developed capitalist world (except for the Anglo-cultural zone nations that resemble it) has apparently adopted pacifism as the one and only method of "opposing" the empire. Consistent with the pervasiveness of this view, and to justify such narrow policy, many US progressives have embraced a literal idolatry of nonviolence, elevating the tactics and accomplishments of figures such as Ghandi and Dr. King to near infallibility, and believing (wrongly in the eyes of the author and this writer) that moral suasion alone is capable of liquidating well-entrenched institutionalized violence and inequality. Churchill believes that such extrapolations between entirely different cultures and historical epochs are wrong, ab principio, since they fail to take account of the role played by defensive and revolutionary violence in history—"the people in arms"—in both protecting the masses and their leaders from the establishment's repression, or in securing its prompt departure from the scene once the tipping point has been reached.
That nonviolence is not a formula to be applied in a robotic absolutistic fashion is abundantly borne out by events in the last 50 years. The Iranian revolution (1979) was far from a nonviolent process: the Shah had been opposed for decades by above ground and underground groups, several of which practiced armed struggle and paid a horrific price for it, while the last month of his rule saw masses of people in most Iranian cities, but especially Tehran, literally storming strong points and tanks in the streets with their bare chests and being mowed down...until more and more soldiers simply gave up and melted away or switched sides. As for the collapse of the USSR (1991), Poland and most of the so-called "Eastern Bloc"—that came about as a result of complex processes that did not involve invested CLASS PRIVILEGES (as we have in the US and in other corporate-dominated nations), were set in motion by members of the ruling stratum itself (i.e., Gorbachev) and therefore did not necessitate huge and protracted armed struggles to resolve. An analogous process took place in China where the Maoism —regardless of flaws—was betrayed and overthrown from within, only to be replaced by an authoritarian-capitalist nation where the formal restoration of capitalism—for reasons of regime legitimation—continues to be denied.
As for South Africa, the end of apartheid did not issue from a nonviolent process. Decades-long protests against the fascist legislation escalated until 1958 when the tragedy of Sharpeville occurred. Soon thereafter the government tried to suppress opposition through the sledgehammer approach of bannings and systematic "targeted repression". The first to be hit were the ANC and the PAC, but such bannings merely caused the organisations to go underground and become even more militant. The "armed struggle" therefore began in earnest in 1958 and by 1970 was beginning to affect the South African economy as greater and greater manpower was required to maintain an ever increasing army. Thus, Mandela's organization, the ANC had both a civil and a military arm, even if the latter developed only after all roads to a peaceful elimination of Apartheid had proved futile, and long after the beneficiaries of the status quo had demonstrated through unrelenting savagery that only armed struggle would move history forward. The case of South Africa is of course far from unique. Other nations in sub-Sahara Africa also practiced armed insurgency to attain independence or “regime change" and they included Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique.
Liberal illusions, liberal complicities
It's not an accident that from time to time certain "apostles of change" are anointed by the corporate media and recognized as such by the affluent liberal brigades. Of late, the much revered Arundhati Roy seems to have come to occupy this position in the pantheon, a fact that has afforded her the bullhorn to make some pretty seductive statements. I do not doubt for a minute that she means well, but I think she got it egregiously wrong in her brave iconic speech in New York, where she adduced "that there is no way to defeat the Empire by force and that its component parts must be isolated and paralyzed one by one."
Sounds eminently sensible, until we examine the idea up close, and realize that it also contains, in practice, a glaring contradiction. For how does Ms. Roy and her well-heeled admirers propose to paralyze the vital "component parts" of the most heavily armed, cynical, and ruthless class privilege system in history without some form of REAL confrontation? With 2-hour candlelight vigils and some symbolic arrests which, by the way, may or may not be reported by the corporate-owned media? If THAT were all that was required to get rid of an immoral, deeply rooted capitalist system, a Nazi terror regime, a vicious landowning oligarchy in El Salvador, and so on, humanity would have moved past these filthy horrors decades if not centuries ago. As Churchill points out in his book, Nazi Germany was defeated by the massive application of force; the racist American South was similarly juridically defeated in the 1860s by massive military force, by organized all-out violence, (I say juridically because in practice it took 100 more years of struggle that saw innumerable crimes before African Americans could begin to take their rightful place among their fellow citizens)...Fact is, there is not a single case in history where a deeply entrenched system of colonial, class or racial exploitation was overthrown by moral suasion and symbolic protests alone...If real change came about it was because force, serious disturbances, were being applied somewhere else alongside the nonviolent tracks...That's the point that Churchill and others are making in this book. It's a discomfiting point, but I'm afraid it's a point that can't be ignored.
Indeed, one of the things that make this volume especially provocative (and valuable) is that the question of violence vs. nonviolence is not only debated by Churchill, an academic, but also by Ed Mead, who wrote the book's introduction, and who was himself a participant in what was at the time an attempt at armed struggle.
Edward Allen Mead was one of the young political activists of the 1960s and 1970s whose frustration and rage drove them to resort to violence. He joined the George Jackson Brigade, a guerrilla group that blew up supermarkets, car dealerships, a power station, and other symbols of the system it was bent on destroying. To finance its operations, the Brigade robbed banks. A 1976 bank robbery in Tukwila, Washington, culminated in a shootout in which Mead and another Brigade member were captured. A third member was killed, and a fourth escaped but was later apprehended. Mead received a thirty-year Federal sentence for bank robbery and a forty-year state sentence for first-degree assault on a police officer, though neither of the officers in the shootout was hit.
Mead never abandoned his radical politics, but he did decide that violence was not the way to bring about change at that particular juncture. With the benefit of hindsight he told a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "I really know how wrong it was to do what I did. Not because it's legally wrong, but because it was just a great political mistake. You want things to happen so bad that you throw yourself into it. Today, I do it with a pen and a computer. . . .It's about what works."
While time may have mellowed Mead a bit, he remains quite lucid (and some would say adamant) about the options facing the younger generations of would-be world-changers.
"I think that we can agree that the exploited are everywhere and that they are angry. The question of violence and our own direct experience of it is something we will not be able to avoid when the righteous rage of the oppressed manifests itself in increasingly focused and violent forms [this was said in 1997]. When this time comes, it is likely that white pacifists will be the ruling class' first line of defense."
Later, zeroing in on his main contention, that the use or non-use of violence is a tactic, not a rigid article of faith good for all seasons, Mead declares:
"I have talked about violence in connection with political struggle for a long time and I've engaged in it. I see myself as one who incorrectly applied the tool of revolutionary violence during a period when its use was not appropriate. In doing so, my associates and I paid a terrible price...I served nearly two decades behind bars as a result of armed actions conducted by the George Jackson Brigade. During those years I studied and restudied the mechanics and applicability of both violence and nonviolence to political struggle. I've had plenty of time to learn how to step back and take a look at the larger picture. And, however badly I may represent that picture today, I still find one conclusion inescapable: Pacifism as a strategy of achieving social, political and economic change can only lead to the dead end of liberalism."
Reflecting the difficulties implied in choosing violence or nonviolence, and if so, when, George Jackson himself had this to say about Martin Luther King's pacifism:
"M.L.K. organized his thoughts much in the same manner as you have organized yours. If you really knew and fully understood his platform you would never have expressed such sentiments as you did in your last letter. I am sure you are acquainted with the fact that he was opposed to violence and war; he was indeed a devout pacifist. It is very odd, almost unbelievable, that so violent and tumultuous a setting as this can still produce such men. He was out of place, out of season, too naive, too innocent, too cultured, too civil for these times. That is why his end was so predictable.
Violence in its various forms he opposed, but this did not mean that he was passive. He knew that nature allows no such imbalances to exist for long. He was perceptive enough to see that the men of color across the world were on the march and their example would soon influence those in the U.S. to also stand up and stop trembling. So he attempted to direct the emotions and the movement in general along lines that he thought best suited to our unique situation: nonviolent civil disobedience, political and economic in character. I was beginning to warm somewhat to him because of his new ideas concerning U.S. foreign wars against colored peoples. I am certain that he was sincere in his stated purpose to 'feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort those in prisons, and trying to love somebody'. I really never disliked him as a man. As a man I accorded him the respect that he sincerely deserved.
It is just as a leader of black thought that I disagreed with him. 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.
The symbol of the male here in North America has always been the gun, the knife, the club. Violence is extolled at every exchange: the TV, the motion pictures, the best-seller lists. The newspapers that sell best are those that carry the boldest, bloodiest headlines and most sports coverage. To die for king and country is to die a hero.
The Kings, Wilkinses and Youngs exhort us in King's words to 'put away the knives, put away your arms and clothe yourselves in the breastplate of righteousness' and 'turn the other cheek to prove our capacity to endure, to love'. Well, that is good for them perhaps but I most certainly need both sides of my head."
Social change does not come cheap. Social change—real social change— is not a tidy affair, a "black-tie dinner" as Mao suggested, and yes, at this stage of our moral evolution as a species, power still issues from the barrel of the gun. In the process things get messy, they get out of hand, awful mistakes are made on all sides, and eventually, if humanity is lucky, a good outcome claws its way to the surface —the result of irrepressible forces clashing in millions of places at once, and acting out their contradictions until a new social synthesis is obtained. And, in what some may regard as the ultimate irony, much of this process may escape the conscious choices made by the main actors.
In a grotesquely imperfect world riddled with hypocrisy, institutionalized violence, and the abuse of power—not to mention the monopoly of power—defensive force cannot be ruled out a priori as a rectification tool, especially since, as history (most recently in Iraq) has repeatedly shown, the abusers, those who would rape a country or a society for their own gain, have no qualms in applying torrential amounts of violence on often defenseless populations. And, a point that is often lost on rigid pacifists: the violence of the oppressed is not the moral equivalent of the violence of the oppressor. Aggressor and victim are not in the same category, and even though when engaged in combat they may be superficially similar, they inhabit different universes. Wrap your mind around that, if you can, and some of the death grip, the self-inflicted paralysis attending this topic, may begin to relax.
I could go on, but if you're a liberal I'm afraid the lessons of history will matter far less than attachment to convenient fantasies.
Patrice Greanville is the editor and publisher of Cyrano’s Journal Online and a veteran radical activist.