The Politics of Non-Violent Resistance: The New Pacifism

The Politics of Non-Violent Resistance: The New Pacifism

Only an extraordinarily prescient observer could have predicted the revival of the American pacifist movement in the fifties. Shattered by the international crisis of the late thirties, pacifism had become by 1941 an intellectually bankrupt, morally compromised appendage to America First.

The New Pacifism has been called into being by advances in military technology. Our age of nuclear terror has given new force to the pacifist dogma that war is the supreme evil, to be avoided at all costs. In recent months the cause of non-violence has reaped further gains from its dramatic application in the Southern sit-ins. Particularly for students, the philosophy of non-violence put into practice in the South exercises a seductive appeal. Pacifism appears a bright shining cause. The battles of the thirties are dead, and the traces of radicalism that have survived the thirties seem quaint and cold. The other alternative, the pallid defensive liberalism of the fifties, is equally uninspiring. The longing for a total vision of life which popularized crisis theology on the campus in the fifties may find expression in pacifism in the sixties.

If pacifism is to become a significant radical force in the sixties, it would be well to give its credentials careful scrutiny. Pragmatic choice of non-violent tactics in appropriate circumstances is one thing; espousal of the pacifist world-view quite another. My purpose here is to insist on this distinction, and to argue that pacifism as a total vision of life is highly unsatisfactory.

1. At the very center of pacifism is a core of faith which resists rational analysis and evaluation. A probing discussion of the roots of pacifism inevitably drives the pacifist into a leap of faith his questioner is unable to take. This is most evident when a secular non-pacifist confronts a religious pacifist. It is equally true, if less obvious, when he opposes a pacifist whose point of departure is humanist. The gulf that divides their views of “human nature” is ordinarily so profound as to be unbridgable. Thus an exposition of “the pacifist ethic and humanism” by a leader of the Student Peace Union declares that “such eminent psychologists as Karl Menninger, Erich Fromm and Sigmund Freud [I] have pointed out that love is a more powerful force than hate.” The same writer advances as a central tenet the principle that “it is more important that we do good ourselves than that we suppress evil in others.” Both of these dogmas rest on assumptions about the quantum of good and evil in the universe which many non-pacifists will find difficult to accept.

Hume has shown us the inescapable gap between fact and value, and we all recognize that ultimate value judgments involve some leap of faith. But the pacifist, I believe, displays a curious eagerness to leap into darkness at the earliest opportunity rather than as a last resort. A longing for abs...