>Failure of Nonviolent Action for Peace and Justice

Here are two quotes on the “failure” of nonviolent action:

Ted Roszak as quoted by Colman McCarthy in chapter 1 of Peace through Strength:

I despair to see so many radicals turn to violence as a proof of their militancy and commitment. It is heart-breaking to see all the old mistakes being made all over again. The usual pattern seems to be that people give nonviolence two weeks to solve their problem…and then decide it has ‘failed.’ Then they go on with violence for the next hundred years…and it seems never to ‘fail’ and be rejected.

John Howard Yoder develops the same argument in Ch. 13 “The Church and Change: Violence Versus Nonviolent Direct Action” in The War of the Lamb:

In violent conflict, one expects casualties. The combatant is prepared to face death, and responsible military strategy will plan to run serious risks. Sometimes it will even call for sending some people to certain death. Yet in evaluating nonviolent alternative means, the risk of casualties is seen by many as ground for rejection. For some, merely to mention the name of Sharpeville counts as proof that nonviolence is sure to fail; yet many more have died with gun in hand without our concluding “it does not work.” The victims at Sharpeville 1960 and Soweto 1976 were numerous, yet fewer in the long run than the guerrilla fighters fallen along the borders. Who can weigh these deaths against those in terms of “effect”?

In advocating violence, the effectiveness promised is often short-range and often negative, like toppling a government or killing a tyrant. But that is in itself not liberation, to say nothing of establishing a more livable order. Many recent “liberations” have broken their promises of greater freedom—not only in Iran or Indochina. How soon and by what criteria can we know a regime is well established, and is better than before? Free can mean different things:

  1. Sometimes free means simply “no longer under colonial administration.” But an indigenous government can be just as oppressive.
  2. Sometimes free means “committed to a particular view of human dignity” (whether that vision be socialist, or liberal, or some other).
  3. Seldom does free mean “providing effective safeguards for the dignity of all the subjects.”

Freedom in form (1) may be achieved by violence; freedom (2), perhaps; but freedom (3) is more likely to be destroyed than to be served when freedom (1) or (2) is won at the point of a gun. (pp. 154-155)

Behind the simple claim that only violence is effective, there is a power of deception deeper than mere illogic. One of its most extreme forms is what I have called the “King-Che discrepancy.” The thought pattern is widespread. I was first struck by it in 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated. Many leaped to the conclusion that nonviolent alternatives had thereby been refuted. At the same time, all over Latin America, the fact that Che Guevara had been gunned down in the Bolivian mountains did not mean that guerrilla violence had failed. Why not?

The incongruity is even more striking when we remember that King, like Gandhi and Jesus before him, had expected to be martyred. This was true both in the general sense of the knowledge that nonviolence will be costly, undergirded by the Christian’s readiness to “share in the sufferings of Christ,” and in the more precise sense that King gave voice to ominous premonitions in the weeks and days just before his death. Che’s defeat, on the other hand, was not in the Marxist scenario. On the general level, for the Marxist the victory of the revolution is assured by the laws, as sure as those of mechanics, of dialectical materialism. In the narrow sense as well, Guevara, just before he was captured and killed, was still expecting to win as head of the violent insurgency in Bolivia.

Is there not some flaw in the logic here? Of a man who predicted his death, who explained why he accepted it, whose work did not perish with his death, the critics argue that his view is refuted by that death. Of the other man, who promised victory and who campaign did collapse with his death, his faithful proclaim his resurrection (“Che vive”; “Che is alive”). The Marxists believe that their hero’s death is powerful on some other level than his military defeat. Whatever that reasoning may be called, it is not standard Marxist pragmatism, but some kind of apocalyptic myth. (p. 155)


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