History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

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Repost on non-violence, activist tactics, and Dalai Lama’s failed non-violent campaign

February 12th, 2012 · No Comments

I am reposting this from yesterday. I think that a liability of non-violence as a tactic is the moral obsession that emerges over quibbling issues, a problem visible in Gandhi’s movement, and all too obvious in the Dalai Lama. I think it is possible to miss the point: non-violence is a tactic. If it cripples activism it should be modified, or set aside.

This is revised post from yesterday, which I thought too strong, but now on reflection will simply post as a provocation to debate.
I apologize for the remarks on the Dalai Lama, a man I respect, but he is no Gandhi, and his situation needs some outside input. He has demonstrated how non-violence can fail.
Post: (revised)
Here is an interesting interview with Chris Hedges: I am wary of this issue, and speak as a fellow traveler with the OWS, no more, no less, and can’t speak for them, and I am not sure if I really understand the context of tactics here looking on the events in question as ‘news’ items. What is the cancer with respect to the Black Bloc? It is good this way: a fellow or parallel traveller, but still an outsider.

I have great respect for Chris Hedges, but I think he is wrong about non-violence. I promise to read his book on war, and reflect on that. Non-violence is a brilliant tactic, but as a moral absolute it won’t work. In the end you must fight for your freedom. Slavery to preserve the principle of non-violence is dangerous nonsense.
Note that the original Jain non-violence was itself meta-violence, a violent suicide against the violence of life. Imitate that at your own risk.
The left needs a recasting of classic Gandhian non-violence.

Thus I do sense that the pacifism issues can suffer a distortion equal to anything in the Black Bloc, whose actions don’t strike me as anything like a cancer. Again, I can’t resolve these issues as abstractions. But I do think that ‘rigid adherence’ to non-violence can backfire. It is simply not true that progressive gains are always achieved by non-violent tactics. The original stance of non-violence in Jain history, from which Gandhi learned, is almost sacred, if that is your way. But the political use of non-violence is not condoned in their perspective.

I have a clear duty to caution proponents of non-violence to be wary of sanctimonious piety about violence. I was a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War era, and narrowly escaped two years in jail. Fortunately the draft board probably counted Peace Corps Volunteering (and approaching 26 years of age) as making action equivocal for the dot.gov. So I was able to run out the clock. But the experience taught me that embracing non-violence is often hypocritical without being dishonest by activists. Honestly taken in that way, fine. It is just the way it happens, as a tactic, without deeper Gandhian principles, which I realized later I did not entirely share in any case. The experience warned me that non-violent preaching is usually hypocritical.

The solution is simple: non-violence is practically the best option, but not an absolute. And it demands that a new and carefully crafted discipline become a norm. Let me note that the Buddhist samurais had such a discipline (up to a point) and were accepted in the non-vilent religion of Buddhism, an heir to the Jain legacy. Note that the Buddhists were to the Jains almost as we are to the whole question. They were a global movement, and lost much of the Jain fine-edge.
And we should note that pompous non-violent practitioners are often not even vegetarians, beyond belief.

Non-violence belongs to no-one, and can be defined anew for a modern age. It is a brilliant tactic in many situations, and bypasses the pyschotic brand of violence that emerges in general movements on the left, as in the Russian revolution, where violence went out of control. It was out of control because the tzarist regime forced the issue. But non-violence is not necessarily the answer there. Who was at fault then: The Reds or the Whites? The violence of the tsarist autocracy was the real villain. And it is significant to compare the Decembrists with the right in the French Revolution.

Those who preach non-violence need to answer in public to the historical cases. Would they have let the armies of the Right revinvade France and destroy the gains of Revolution? Ditto for the American case, and/or the American Civil War.

In situations of relatively non-violent state associations, non-violence can be a useful discpline and tactic, but it can’t be absolute, because the state hides an immense amount of covert violence. And, of course, violent tactics are a godsend to state covert agencies, not least becauase, as with the Weatherman, those agencies can discredit the left with plants, and secret agents promoting violence. That tactic has been discovered for the American apparatus, so there non-violent tactics are a clear form of self-defense.

However, a few simple revisions of non-violent principles can repair this confusion. Do it. And say goodbye to Gandhi if necessary. His success was actually marginal, and in the end the immense catastrophe of Muslims and Hindus destroyed the whole legacy of non-violence, not Gandhi’s fault by any means. But outer non-violence an hide unconscious violence waiting to explode. To use non-violence to manipulate public opinion in a PR war is fine, if that is the game. But if the fight for freedom is on the line, the basic decency of the British to let non-violence do its PR victory is not going to happen. The real thugs of state control systems are without mercy, and non-violent tactics aren’t going to work, as the case of the Dalai Lama and Tibet makes clear.

A clear statement of principles is needed. Simply declare your strategy and be clear. But simply invoking the mantra of nonviolence is usually a distortion of those very principles as they were unheld by the originals here, e.g. the Jain tradition of ahimsa. We are in the minor leagues here and our non-violence is a pathetic distortion of the original. That wasn’t a political strategy, but a religious one, a form of world renunciation.

Face it: non-violence is not an absolute. To say so is to cheapen the classic struggles of modernit to achieve freedom and the end of slavery, e.g. the audacity of the American rebels who freed America (and failed to free the slaves) and the sacrifices of the hundreds of thousands who fought to abolish slavery, albeit serendipitously at the start.
The tactics of non-violence now are not clearly formulated principles, and won’t stand full scrutiny. They don’t need to. Non-violent tactics are brilliant tactics, and they may be essential in the current scene of activism. Perhaps that is all Hedges means, and he has seen a lot of water going over the dam here, I am sure. But beware of the moral absolutes in non-violence and the kind of moral posturing of figures like Gandhia and now the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama types will condemn you to non-violence, without recourse, force the failure of your movement, and then begone to their luxurious exiles forgetting your completely.
There is no virtue in that. A non-violent activist must at least share the fate of his troups, as Gandhis always did.

If we make non-violence absolute we are saying these achievements such as the violent struggle for abolition should not have happened, and that is completely muddle-headed, and a false virtue. The issues are razor-edged, however. Looking at the Russian Civil War and the tactics on both sides, we realize that the victory so achieved was flawed throughout its course, and suffered rollback. Is there a connection? So I am not being simplisitc. Violence has become extravagent and totally demonic in the twentieth century.

Note: the question of principled non-violence is a Gandhian hand-me down, and is rarely clear in anyone’s mind. It would be good for someone to clarify them. Yesterday I proposed the Jain standard of non-violence. But activists then lose on the issue: the source principles taken from Jainism by Gandhi were not principles of political action, but world renunciation forms of enlightened suicide as the gambit of animal destruction was seen to pervade samsara. To evade the slaughter of insects was intractable, thus the fast unto death. That’s not the left’s game at this point. And Gandhi’s version is superficial by comparison.
Clearly the Jain standard won’t work. And Gandhi, of course, learned from more than the Jains, e.g. Tolstoy.
Please consider that the Gandhian faction conveniently looked the other way at Hitler during the Second World War, so their principled action is murky also.
Many have criticized Gandhi for so long delaying independence. A small group of rebels with rifles could have freed India in the twenties. And Rajneesh was an enlightenened sage, where Gandhi was a bit of the ‘faker’, albeit a superb politician and non-violent tactician.
I have no final views here, and think that non-violent tactics were the key to the resumed march of activists last year. But I think that some hard thinking is required at this point and sentimental brands of ideological non-violence are not going to be helpful.

Let us consider the sad fate of Tibet here, subjected to the sanctimonious piety of the Dalai Lama’s non-violence. He loses nothing, waited on like royalty in India, while his country is destroyed. He indulges in endless Western celebrity jaunts, and has cheapened the bravery of non-violent tactics. An entire generation was lost, when an independence movement might have done something. But here we have a case where non-violence, at the hands of a moral hypocrite like the Dalai Lama, has caused great harm, in the destruction of a people. Belatedly, it might help to withdraw the blank check of non-violent sermonizing, first because you may not be a Gandhi, and second because you are more certainly unlikely to be a Jain kamikaze.
The Tibetans should not feel obliged to follow such bad leadership on the non-violent way, and should consider that value of non-violent tactics is that they can win. If they lose, as here, they are reprehensible, because freedom is lost. Moral posturing on non-violence is ugly, as ugly as violence.
Let me note that the Dalai is a rightist dressed as a liberal in a reactionary political system attacked by ultraleft communists. This makes discussion difficult for the current left. But the irony is that a true left needs to restrain it violence, as with the Chinese communists. I can’t solve the Tibetan case, but I do think that a liberal revolution could have succeeded against the repressive pseudo-left of Chinese communism.

So moral indignation over violence is an equivocation. The reality of the need for non-violent tactics may well be something else.

JAM: What then is the solution to the problem? What is the prognosis for the cancer?

CH: There has to be a rigid adherence to nonviolence. That does not mean that the black bloc can’t exist. We saw a multiplicity of groups in the 1960s – from the Yippies to the Panthers to the Weather Underground – but the movement itself has to continue to operate in a way that it does not alienate the mainstream. If the security and surveillance state is able to alienate the mainstream from OWS, then OWS will be far more vulnerable to being destroyed. That’s very similar to the civil rights movement. I’m a huge admirer of Malcolm X. And, yet, the establishment didn’t really fear Malcolm X; they feared King. That’s true here. They fear OWS. They don’t fear the black bloc.

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