The Politics of Non-Violent Resistance: The Idea Of Resistance

The Politics of Non-Violent Resistance: The Idea Of Resistance

1. Disillusionment with the idea of revolution is one of the most interesting features of American intellectual life today. Since revolution was never a practical possibility in America, this disillusionment might seem as unimportant as the enthusiasm preceding it. What was always impractical has now become abhorrent; it is a part of the process of accommodation. And yet it is more than that, for in the light of recent history, it surely seems necessary to be at least critical of the revolutionary tradition. After seeing the terror and the purge and all that goes with the revolutionary transformation of a society, the brutal manipulation of human beings, the corruption of culture—after seeing all this we are none of us, I suppose, revolutionaries. We have renounced Bolshevik “realism”; we have accepted, in some secular fashion, the fact of human limitation; we have searched for moral laws and human rights so absolute as to control our activity and our goals. We have learned that there must be in human affairs a realm of the forbidden, of things which men cannot do. (I don’t mean to deny that men, or rather a man, may on occasion have to do the forbidden thing; that is another question. It is important, however, that at such a moment he knows what moral risks he takes.)

But the general disillusionment has gone much further than this; men are never content to be taught elementary things. Having viewed the revolution through an apocalyptic haze, our intellectuals have come away so shaken by the vision as to renounce every spark of enthusiasm in their hearts and every utopian dream in their heads. They have fallen back in disorder upon the practical politics of pressure and reform. I say disorder because the retreat has brought with it no major re-examination of political alternatives. The defense of pragmatic, democratic politics has moved entirely between the poles of reform and revolution. We have been warned that any step outside the realm of conventional politics—outside the parties, the parliament, the system of pressures—is a step toward revolution and totalitarianism. Nothing is seen but terror on the one hand and gradual reform on the other. I would like to suggest that there are more possibilities than this—and especially that there is one, radical and far-reaching, but entirely compatible with the moral repudiation of revolutionary terror. (At the same time, I want to leave the question of revolution itself unclosed; the apocalypse may yet turn out to be an exaggeration.)


Lima