Beyond Guilt: A Review of Pacifism as Pathology

I first remember hearing of Ward Churchill’s book, Pacifism as Pathology, soon after the direct action demonstrations in Quebec City in April of this year against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Moved by what I observed and experienced during those actions, I wrote a critical piece, On Winning Hearts and Minds, which elicited a number of responses, many positive, some not. And several referred to Churchill’s book.

I have known of Churchill and read some of his Z Magazine articles over the years, but Pacifism as Pathology was the first of his books that I have read. I was surprised by much of what I found there. Although I agreed with some of Churchill’s criticisms of traditional pacifism and white progressives in general, I found serious flaws with his main arguments concerning the commendable task of searching for “the nature of a strategy by which the revolution may be won, at a minimum sacrifice to all concerned.” (p. 46) [All quotes are from Pacifism as Pathology, unless otherwise indicated]

As someone who has done some thinking and writing on this subject, including a book, Future Hope: A Winning Strategy for a Just Society, and as an activist who has been related to pacifism and nonviolent action for a long time, I felt moved to write this review.

Some of what Churchill said I could relate to. When he criticized “pacifism’s ‘responsible leadership’” for their “open boycott” of the Mayday, 1971, anti-Vietnam War, mass civil disobedience action to shut down Washington, D.C., and when he made some of his other, more general criticisms of pacifist/progressive/labor timidity, I felt an affinity with him. I was reminded of my involvement with Frs. Dan and Phil Berrigan and the Catholic Left from 1969-1973. For a year, before I was arrested, tried and sent to prison, I organized for and participated in four nonviolent raids on draft board offices, a war corporation office and an FBI office. I remember the criticism leveled against us by not just the more staid, middle-class peace groups but even some activists in the much younger draft resistance movement. They felt that property destruction (of Selective Service files) or theft (of war corporation or FBI files) was going too far, over the line, counter-productive. So I appreciated Churchill’s supportive words for these and similar actions as “examples of serious and committed pacifist activism.” (p. 48)

I agree that “if the final consolidation of what Bertram Gross somewhat misleadingly referred to as ‘friendly fascism’ is not to occur over the next few years, there will have to be a very deep and fundamental rethinking of the kind of ‘revolutionary’ politics which have prevailed in advanced industrial societies, most especially the United States, over the past half-century or more.” (p. 24)

I agree that too often in the past, and still in the present, although less so, “the American nonviolent movement has increasingly opted for ‘symbolic actions’” (p. 52) that tend to be too cooperative with the police and/or the powers-that-be.

I agree with his implicit criticism of a “’politics of despair’ relying solely on violent actions undertaken by a network of tiny underground cells,” (p. 59) although there was very little criticism of this counter-productive and humanly wasteful kind of politics in the body of the book as a whole (see more on this below).

I agree with his call for pacifists, “in the manner of Witness for Peace, to interpose their bodies as a means of alleviating violence” (p.
60) when the government or racist organizations move against groups like the Black Panther Party or other specially oppressed groups attempting to overcome that oppression. As I am sure Churchill knows, one of the more successful examples from the 1990s of just this form of activity is the work of the Midwest Treaty Network and the Witness for Nonviolence in Wisconsin. These groups formed in response to attacks by white racists against Ojibwe Indians exercising their legal treaty rights to spearfish in northern Wisconsin lakes. In the words of Zoltan Grossman and Debra McNutt in a recent article in Color Lines magazine, “about 2,000 trained witnesses stood with Ojibwe fishing families as a supportive presence, documenting anti-Indian violence and harassment, and trying to deter or lessen the violence and promote reconciliation.”
And they were successful. Those areas are now the scene of strong Native/non-Native alliances against powerful corporations attempting to mine metallic sulfide deposits.

I agree with criticisms voiced throughout the book of the problem of white progressives not dealing seriously enough with the issues of racism, white privilege and white supremacy.

I agree with how Churchill begins, but not the middle and the end, when he says that “in order to be effective and ultimately successful, any revolutionary movement within advanced capitalist nations must develop the broadest possible range of thinking/action by which to confront the state. This should be conceived not as an array of component forms of struggle but as a continuum of activity stretching from petitions/letter writing and so forth through mass mobilizations/demonstrations, onward into the arena of armed self-defense, and still onward through the realm of ‘offensive’ military operations (e.g., elimination of critical state facilities, targeting of key individuals within the governmental/corporate apparatus, etc.) All of this must be apprehended as a holism, as an internally consistent liberatory process applicable at this generally-formulated level to the late capitalist context no less than to the Third World. From the basis of this fundamental understanding—and, it may be asserted, ONLY from this basis—can a viable liberatory praxis for North America emerge.” (p. 91-92)

And finally I agree, again with the beginning but not the end, of Churchill’s concluding paragraph in which he states, “the essential premise of this essay [is that] the desire for a non-violent and cooperative world is the healthiest of all psychological manifestations.
This is the overarching principle of liberation and revolution.
Undoubtedly, it seems the highest order of contradiction that, in order to achieve nonviolence, we must first break with it in overcoming its root causes. Therein, however, lies our only hope.” (p. 103)

Although Churchill, in this last paragraph, refers positively to “the desire for a non-violent and cooperative world,” (p. 103) there were few other places in the book where he did so. Indeed, in several places he ridicules those who try to change the way that they live so that they are much more “non-violent,” more cooperative and loving with other people and with the natural world. In several places he criticizes this “prefiguring,” as he describes it, believing that it will only “largely replicate the present privileged social position of whites, vis-à-vis nonwhites, as a cultural/intellectual ‘elite’” (p. 80). Elsewhere he refers to the role of white radicals becoming “that of utilizing their already attained economic and social advantages to prefigure, both intellectually and more literally, the shape of the good life to be shared by all in the postrevolutionary context. . . The blatant accommodation to state power involved in this is rationalized. . . by professions of personal and principled pacifism, as well as in the need for ‘working models’ of nonviolent behavior in postrevolutionary society.” (p. 73)

Are there activists who get so caught up in “prefiguration” that they draw back from undertaking the necessary actions, doing the necessary organizing, against the system and all of its hideous policies and effects? Yes, of course. But to generalize from those examples, to paint with a broad, negative brush anyone who believes in the importance of altering their life so as to be more respectful of others, more in tune with the natural world, more loving and whole as a human being, is counter-productive, wrong, even dangerous.

I believe that anyone who considers her- or himself to be a revolutionary has an obligation to take the process of personal transformation seriously. I believe we need to be about building a movement which creates structures that encourage and support this process, that make it difficult for those who do not take it seriously to achieve, or to stay in, positions of leadership.

How does our racist/patriarchal/exploitative/homophobic system continue to have the broad support that it does within the population? Within the U.S. context, it is not, absolutely not, because of its army and police and criminal injustice system. It is primarily because of the depth of the ideologies of racism/sexism/competitiveness/ individualism within individual members of U.S. society. We are our own worst enemy. We say we want a new and different world, but the history of the Left and peoples’ organizations in this country, both predominantly white and predominantly people of color, is full of examples where major problems were created by individual leaders who had not dealt sufficiently with the impact of these destructive ideologies. Their unwillingness to take the time to check themselves and the ways they related to other people led to a serious weakening, division or even destruction of important, powerful organizations.

This is not to deny that for many Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans there is daily experience of the heavy hand of the state within their communities. One in three young black men in their 20’s is in the clutches of the criminal injustice system. Over two-thirds of the 2 million people in prison are black or Latino. Indigenous people are disproportionately to be found in prison. The police function like an occupation army, with constant stops, pullovers and harassment of young people of color. Racial profiling, racist and unpunished murders by cops, various forms of discrimination—all of these describe the reality in most communities of color, realities different from the daily reality for virtually all white people in the U.S. Although poor white communities also suffer from police disrespect and abuse, it is just not as intense. How many poor whites have been murdered by the police in the same way that black and brown, yellow and red people have been for years, murders we continually keep hearing about all over the country?

Indeed, much of Churchill’s argument throughout Pacifism as Pathology is grounded in this disparate reality between communities of color and white communities. To be more precise, throughout the book he contrasts the realities of life and the necessity, as he sees it, of armed struggle in Third World countries versus the unwillingness to take risks, pick up the gun, attack militarily, etc. on the part of white, U.S. pacifists and progressives. Many times he disdainfully scorns those who believe that “the ‘resort to violence’ was/is ‘inappropriate’ to the context of North America.” (p. 69)

I think of something I read a long time ago by a leading Chinese revolutionary. I can’t remember exactly where he said it, but I know that Mao TseTung, in one of his writings, spoke about how the primary forms of struggle in the capitalist countries were the struggle of the working class through trade union battles, and the parliamentary struggle within the electoral arena. And Che Guevera, no pacifist either, was recently quoted by Dave Dellinger in the magazine “Toward Freedom” as once saying that in the United States, “the most heavily armed nation in the world. . . the only way to succeed was through nonviolent protests, including civil disobedience.”

Mao Tse-Tung’s and Che Guevera’s ideas, although useful, shouldn’t be the basis on which we determine what is a sound strategy and tactics for this country. That job is up to those of us who live here. What we need to do is figure out, FIRST AND FOREMOST, how we are going to gather together the alliance of social forces, literally the involvement or support of tens of millions of people, which must be forged if we are to have any chance of winning. Conscious, dedicated revolutionaries, armed or unarmed, don’t make revolutions. They are critical, essential to the possibility of one ever happening, but the fact of history is that revolutions are possible only when significant masses of people are so disgusted and angry with the existing system that they are prepared to take action of some kind to change it.

This may be the most fundamental problem I have with Churchill’s analysis. From what he says, and from what he doesn’t say, it seems as if his view of how revolutionary change will come to the U.S. is through an alliance of some kind between radical activists of color and radical white people prepared to pick up the gun. Given the military and intelligence capabilities of the U.S. government, the propaganda capacities of the corporate media, and the deep-seated racism within the overall white population, I just can’t see this as a winning strategy.
Indeed, I think it’s a dangerous strategy, one certain to lead to the imprisonment and/or death of a lot radical activists, of color and not, and a derailing of the possibility of a successful revolutionary transformation.

Churchill’s arguments are weakened by his near-total lack of any class analysis, especially regarding white workers. “The bulk of the white working class” is mentioned—and only that, a “mentioning”—one place in the entire book. Ironically, he refers to them in the same context as “North America’s ghetto, barrio, and reservation populations,” as “people who are by and large structurally denied access to the comfort zone.” (p. 64)

Isn’t it critical to “a strategy by which the revolution may be won, at a minimum sacrifice to all concerned,” that some serious attention be paid to this very large group? Rather than exhorting white pacifists and progressives to break with their commendable nonviolent and cooperative urges, wouldn’t it be a sounder approach to urge these activists to get serious about organizing with white workers, helping these potential activists and allies grasp the necessity of fundamental change, dealing with their racism and sexism, working to create alliances and closer ties with communities of color in struggle? Isn’t that much more revolutionary than guilt-driven acts of violence?

Guilt is a lousy basis for political practice. Throughout Pacifism as Pathology I found myself bothered by what I felt was Churchill’s appeal to this emotion. I’m not denying that sometimes guilt is a perfectly appropriate thing to feel and that, if it is honestly faced and understood, the provoking of it can be useful to help individuals move to forms of positive action. But a revolutionary movement can’t succeed with guilt as a primary motivator of many of its individual members.
Instead, we need to be motivated by a combination of a grounding in historical analysis, faith in the people growing out of that analysis, a sober assessment of what are the appropriate tactics to use to advance the cause at a particular point in time, and willingness to face our fears and overcome them, which to me is a definition of courage. These are among the skills, the strengths, we need to build in ourselves and in each other.

I don’t consider myself a pacifist. I do consider myself to be a person who is striving to be as nonviolent and cooperative as possible in the way that I live my life on a day-to-day basis and in my interactions with others. To me this is a fundamental responsibility I have as a revolutionary. I don’t foreclose the use of physical force, if necessary, to defend myself, and I do not have either a principled or a strategic aversion to the possible use of force, including the use of arms, at some point in the future in the United States in our struggle for people’s power. But I think it is unlikely that this will ever become a main tactic, and there are many reasons why, in the U.S.
context, the use of arms and organized violence should only be considered as a last resort.

As I say in the conclusion of my book, “Our primary work is ideological and political, the development of grassroots-based organizations and alliances that can raise the level of understanding on the part of the working class and sectors of the middle class as to the reasons for their problems and the way out, the realistic possibility of a way out if we can transcend the competitiveness, the racism, sexism and the like which are holding us back from united struggle against our common enemy.

“In this work, basic, mass organizational tactics will be the bedrock of our approach: leafleting, petitioning and door-to-door campaigns on relevant issues, mass meetings and demonstrations, sit-ins, fasting and civil disobedience when necessary, voter registration and the running of candidates for political office, and other, more creative ways of reaching out and applying pressure around our demands.” As groups like Art and Revolution have shown, the integration of art and culture into our work is strategically and tactically not just a good idea but of critical importance. “As a unified alliance emerges, taking the form of a mass political party, there may well be the potential for the use of a tactic rarely used in U.S. history, the general strike, paralyzing the economy through mass non-participation.

“Of course, it is possible that conditions within the United States may change. Although it is wrong to count on this happening, it is a distinct possibility that there may be a major financial crisis of the debt-ridden capitalist system, leading to a serious economic decline.
This could lead to a much more repressive set of measures by a desperate ruling class, and this in turn may make the question of ‘armed struggle’
much more relevant than it is now or is likely to be in the near future.

“The best defense against this reality coming to pass is what we do today. . . There is an urgent, compelling need for people in the United States to take seriously their responsibilities to themselves and to others. People are needed who are willing to study our realities and work to change them, in cooperation with a growing movement of like-minded sisters and brothers. There is no other, more important calling today. The world needs U.S. revolutionaries of a new type, new women and new men who have learned from history and are able to move forward together at a qualitatively higher level because of it.”

These questions of revolutionary strategy are of particular importance right now. The pro-justice movement is on an upswing, as exemplified by the mass direct actions since Seattle, the Nader/LaDuke campaign, the growing movements for amnesty and reparations, widespread student activism and more. With the U.S. and world economy beginning to sputter, it is likely that we will see a resurgence of a workers’/labor movement in the coming period of time.

Faced with these and other challenges to capitalism’s mis-rule, history teaches us that we can expect and should prepare for repression. Indeed, building the broadest possible movement and organizational forms that multiply the numbers of trained and experienced activists is the most important, long-term defense, and ultimately offensive, method we can employ.

In the 1960’s, in response to state repression of the Black Liberation Movement, the peace movement and other movements, too many activists let this repression “get to them.” They lost touch with what had brought them into this work in the first place, “the desire for a non-violent and cooperative world.” They gave in to a “politics of despair,” and participated in or actively supported armed, violent actions and bombings. Some of these sisters and brothers are still in prison or underground 30 years later. More than a few now look back upon what they did in those days and are critical of the tactics they employed.

Let’s learn from our history. Let’s stay centered and focused, keeping our eyes on the goal of the revolutionary changes that really are possible, and not 50 or 100 years from now. Let’s debate these critical questions of strategy as sisters and brothers who are about urgent, needed work. Let’s take this time of crisis and turn it into the historic opportunity it also provides. The need is very great.