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A Debate on Violence: Ted Rall and David Swanson
A Nonviolent Exchange of Views in Four Parts
1. Don't You Know That You Can Count Me Out - In
By David Swanson
Ted Rall's new book "The Anti-American Manifesto" advocates for violent revolution, even if we have to join with rightwingers and racists to do it, and even if we have no control over the outcome which could easily be something worse than what we've got. We have a moral duty, Rall argues, to kill some people.
Now, I much prefer a debate over what radical steps to take to a debate over whether it's really appropriate for President Obama to whine about people's lack of enthusiasm for voting. Should we try to pep people up for him or gently nudge him to appoint a new chief of staff who's not a vicious warmongering corporatist? Decisions. Decisions.
Rall's book is packed with great analysis of our current state and appropriate moral outrage. I highly recommend it for the clear-eyed survey of the tides in this giant pot of slowly boiling water where we float and kick about like frogs. To an Obama proposal to create 17,000 jobs, Rall replies:
"The U.S. economy needs to add one hundred thousand new jobs a month to keep up with population growth and keep the unemployment rate even. At this writing, in March 2010, it would require four hundred thousand new jobs each month for three years to get back to December 2007.
"Seventeen thousand jobs? Was Obama still using drugs?"
I recommend Rall's manifesto as a call to action. The only question is what action?
There, the book is much weaker. As people come to terms with the need for radical action, we need to provide them with a serious debate of the alternatives. Many will drift inevitably toward violence, unaware of any choice. To not present the alternatives, whether to argue for or against them, is less than helpful.
According to Rall, "no meaningful political change has ever taken place without violence or the credible threat of violence." And, "without violence, the powerful will never stop exploiting the weak." From these statements, scattered throughout the manifesto, one would have no idea that anyone else believed there was a third choice beyond violence or doing nothing. There is no indication here of the role of nonviolence in evicting the British from India or overthrowing the ruler of El Salvador in 1944, or even in ending Jim Crow in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa, in the popular removal of the ruler of the Philippines in 1986, in the largely nonviolent Iranian Revolution of 1979, in the dismantling of the Soviet Union in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, in the resistance to a stolen election in the Ukraine in 2004-2005, and in hundreds of other examples from around the world.
Now, Rall could try to argue that many such movements have violent as well as nonviolent components. He could claim that nonviolent activism can constitute a threat of violence. That is, even though the actors themselves may prove their willingness to die rather than use violence, the understanding of those in power as well as of activists like Rall who think only in terms of violence could be that violence is being threatened. But Rall attempts no such arguments, so we don't really know what he would say.
Rall does make the following claim about U.S. political struggles: "[P]acifism has been the state religion of the official Left since the end of the Vietnam War. Can it be a coincidence that progressives cannot point to a single significant political victory since the early 1970s?" It could be a coincidence, yes, or it could be that what we have lacked since the early 1970s has been serious resistance to power -- which does not answer the question of which would have been more effective and which still could be, violent or nonviolent resistance.
The two points I found most persuasive in Rall's case for violence were points he may not have intended as planks in that argument, an argument that -- again -- he does not so much make as assume. The first point is that, even as people are refraining from killing CEOs and politicians, they are not refraining from killing. In increasing numbers, they are killing themselves. They are losing their homes, their healthcare, their savings. They are being forced into debt-slavery, humiliating misery, and hopelessness, and -- for lack of any other approach -- are killing themselves. It's not clear that assassinating the powerful wouldn't make things even worse, but it is worth noting that people are killing the innocent and not the guilty.
The second point is that people are not just killing themselves. They are killing random innocents as well, former coworkers, family members, and strangers. We are perfectly capable of ending such violence. Redirecting it is not our only available option. But in contemplating violence, we are not starting from a nonviolent state.
And, of course, the impoverishment of millions of people has resulted in a shortened life expectancy in the wealthiest place on earth, a place where some are able to indulge in the greatest and most wasteful luxury ever seen. But Rall makes no argument for his root assumption that our choices are to kill people or "sit on our asses." Rall wants jobs created at a rate that approaches the actual need. He wants corporations nationalized and brought under control. He wants an end to eight-figure bonuses on Wall Street. His solution is "a hundred thousand angry New Yorkers armed with bricks (or guns)."
Now, I'm not suggesting you have to know something will go perfectly before you try it, but shouldn't you try the approach most likely to work the best? And shouldn't we know what has and has not worked before? Rall claims that the 1999 Battle of Seattle slowed corporate globalization because a few people broke a few windows. Yet, many people who were there and engaged in that struggle point to the nonviolent blocking of the streets that prevented the conference from being held, and the moral force of the broad coalition that took over the city and won allies even within the halls of corporate power. This was done despite, not because of, a few jerks smashing windows.
I share with Rall his concern that people think they have no choices and his conviction that something must be done. If it were impossible to organize committed, independent, uncorrupted nonviolent resistance with the dedication necessary to succeed, if violence were our only option, we'd certainly have to look into it. But I suspect organized violence would be even harder to bring forth than organized nonviolence. Rall attempts no argument to the contrary. He predicts a hellish nightmare with or without his violent revolution. I predict peace, sustainability, and justice if we nonviolently resist. A deeper debate is needed.
2. My Rebuttal to David Swanson's Review of "The Anti-American Manifesto"
By Ted Rall
My "Anti-American Manifesto," writes David Swanson, "is packed with great analysis of our current state and appropriate moral outrage." I am always grateful for kind words about my work. So: thanks, David. I appreciate it.
As a self-identified pacifist, however, he takes issue with my proposed remedy for the enormous problems we face: an environmental crisis of staggering proportions, an economy in freefall, rising disparity of income and wealth, a superempire at perpetual war. "I recommend Rall’s manifesto as a call to action," writes Swanson. "The only question is what action?"
It is not my usual practice to reply to book reviews, particularly not when—as with this one—the review follows a thoughtful reading of my work and is largely positive about its intent. Since many activists or would-be activists on the Left share Swanson's critique of my proposal for how we should move forward, however, I would like to address his take.
Swanson prefers nonviolent resistance to violent revolution. And so do I. (I'll set aside the fact that much "nonviolent" protest relies upon violence real, implicit or threatened. The CEO of a company whose workers go on strike sees a certain brutality against his bottom line. Whether caused by smashed windows or stilled machinery, his losses are the same.)
Swanson implies that I see violence as The Answer. But I'm sane. I've been victimized by violence. As an occasional war correspondent (I just got back from Afghanistan) I've seen more violence than many Americans, all of which I wish I could erase from my memory. Killing and maiming and terrorizing are the worst things in the world—indeed, the fact that our government and economic system do those things is why I oppose them—and should, in an ideal world, never be used by anyone for any reason.
We do not live in an ideal world. But an ideal world is the goal.
I'm against violence for its own sake or, for that matter, as anything other than one of many tools in the revolutionary toolbox. It goes without saying that a revolutionary movement that eschews forms of struggle we typically identify as "nonviolent"—demonstrations, strikes, verbal statements in the mass media—while relying exclusively on armed struggle denies itself essential tactics in the drive to liberate ourselves from the tyrannical terror of America's corporate ruling classes. However, it is equally absurd, as the American Left has done since the Kent State shootings—an act of state violence against unarmed students—for the Resistance to deny itself the use of violence and the credible threat thereof. As I have written in my Manifesto, it is no coincidence that the Left can point to no significant victories during the past 40 years. Though incremental progress is possible through exclusively nonviolence means, nonviolence alone has never prevailed in the struggle for radical, revolutionary change. You can use the courts to win the rights of gays to serve openly in the military, for example, but it's hard to imagine how the right of gays and lesbians to be treated as equals in U.S. society could have moved forward had the Stonewall riot (or something similar) never occurred.
"According to Rall, 'no meaningful political change has ever taken place without violence or the credible threat of violence.' And, 'without violence, the powerful will never stop exploiting the weak.' From these statements, scattered throughout the manifesto, one would have no idea that anyone else believed there was a third choice beyond violence or doing nothing. There is no indication here of the role of nonviolence in evicting the British from India or overthrowing the ruler of El Salvador in 1944, or even in ending Jim Crow in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa, in the popular removal of the ruler of the Philippines in 1986, in the largely nonviolent Iranian Revolution of 1979, in the dismantling of the Soviet Union in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, in the resistance to a stolen election in the Ukraine in 2004-2005, and in hundreds of other examples from around the world."
It is self-evident that nonviolence has been part of the movements Swanson cites here. But only part.
Western corporate media prefers that we credit the peace-loving Gandhi with the independence of India, but buckets of British blood flowed before, during, and after he came along. The Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 nor the partition of 1947—a British precondition for independence—left thousands, perhaps as many as a million, dead. In between were countless assassinations and acts of terrorism; can anyone doubt that these violent acts altered the calculus in London as to whether the Raj remained fiscally and politically viable?
If the existing Democratic-Republican duopoly and the gangster corporatist form of capitalism it supports were capable of reform, I would not call for revolution. If the problems we faced weren't massive, I would cross my fingers and hope for improvement someday somehow. And if there was a snowball's chance in the hell of a heating planet of either forcing our rulers out of power or of changing their policies to something approximating sanity without having to use force, I would be all for it.
I am, however, a student of history. As there has never—never!—been an example of fundamental change as the result of exclusively nonviolent attacks against an oppressor, I refuse to be so arrogant or naïve as to suppose that we Americans could succeed in 2010 where hundreds of millions of our fellow humans have failed every single time.
When exclusively pacifist movements win, the changes that follow their victories tend to be slight and fleeting. General strikes drove El Salvadorean dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martinez into exile in 1944, but the democratization that followed was neither sweeping nor lasting: the authoritarian despot Major Oscar Osorio seized power in 1950. The 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine resulted not in a new society or form of social organization, but merely in constitutional amendments weakening the executive branch and strengthening the legislature. After these were overturned in 2010 by the nation's supreme court, Ukrainians largely accepted the decision.
When meaningful change occurs—which is to say, when elites lose a significant amount of power and whole classes of oppressed people take that power for themselves—it invariably results from the barrel of a gun, as Mao said…either that or the business end of a Molotov cocktail. That Swanson cites the civil rights struggle in the U.S. as an example of the power of nonviolence seems silly to me; the refusal of blacks to fight back against sheriffs and their dogs was no more instrumental in forcing white America to relinquish its prerogatives than the riots in Watts and Newark. Whitey wouldn't have shaped up had he not been scared shitless.
And so it goes. Thousands of Iranian revolutionaries lost their lives in street battles with military and police forces loyal to the Shah; a leftist Islamist guerilla group called the People's Mujahedin helped turn cities like Qom and Tabriz into battlefields. Nonviolence played a big role, too. But the revolution would have failed without those willing to take up arms.
"I share with Rall his concern that people think they have no choices and his conviction that something must be done. If it were impossible to organize committed, independent, uncorrupted nonviolent resistance with the dedication necessary to succeed, if violence were our only option, we’d certainly have to look into it. But I suspect organized violence would be even harder to bring forth than organized nonviolence. Rall attempts no argument to the contrary. He predicts a hellish nightmare with or without his violent revolution. I predict peace, sustainability, and justice if we nonviolently resist. A deeper debate is needed."
If the last 40 years have proven anything, it is that it is/has been "impossible to organize committed, independent, uncorrupted nonviolent resistance with the dedication necessary to succeed." At least in America. I cannot think of a period in modern history in a modern nation-state where an organized opposition was so militantly committed to nonviolence as the Left since 1970. And here we are—really, with no Left at all. "Nonviolent resistance"? What's that? By itself—without allowing yourself the right to fight back, yes, violently fight back, is there any other way?—nonviolent resistance is no resistance at all.
The real violence, after all, is the system itself. Most of us mourn the murders of Afghans and Iraqis at the hands of the U.S. military. Many understand that the millions of Americans who die due to lack of medical care end up just as dead, just as brutally murdered, as if someone had walked up behind them on the street and shot them in the back of the head. Fewer of us consider the incalculable toll of the mental and physical illnesses, not to mention the suicides, caused by the viciousness of the system.
The streets are already running with blood. The question is: are we going to fight back?
3. Reply to Ted Rall's Reply
By David Swanson
That we are in dire straights and the streets already running with blood and a response desperately needed is something we can go back and forth announcing to each other, Ted, but I'm going to skip it because it's a point we completely agree on. For someone who thinks only violence can solve serious problems or, on the other hand, someone who thinks only nonviolence can solve serious problems, either of our arguments can be strengthened by stressing over and over again the seriousness of the problems we face. But what about a reader who is undecided?
I'm sure my characterizations of your view don't strike you as perfect either, but I have to reject the notion that I am a "self-identified pacifist" for the simple reason that I haven't self-identified as a pacifist. The only alternatives are not to be an advocate for war and violence or to be dead. There is another possibility: that of being a nonviolent activist. Now, maybe that's what you intended to say and you can't see the difference. But pacifism is passive. A pacifist could sit home and do nothing, perhaps refrain from paying war taxes, perhaps not. A nonviolent activist does a great many things. You believe that all of those many things are insufficient to effect lasting change, but that doesn't make them pacifism in the sense in which most people hear that word. In fact, you seem to think that many of them are actually violent.
You write that "much 'nonviolent' protest relies upon violence real, implicit or threatened. The CEO of a company whose workers go on strike sees a certain brutality against his bottom line. Whether caused by smashed windows or stilled machinery, his losses are the same." As someone who supports the right to strike and thinks it needs to be used with much greater frequency, I'm glad you recognize it as a useful tactic. I'm much less concerned with whether you now consider me an advocate for violence. But, just to be clear, in my vocabulary violence involves direct physical harm to people. You're right that nonviolent tactics, such as strikes or boycotts, can result in harm to people -- even more serious harm that a CEO's reduced profits. The question is what sort of tactics tend to do the most good with the least harm, and it seems to me that in making that calculation the distinction between violent and nonviolent is a useful one. Nonviolent activism often does more good than violence.
Again, by nonviolent activism I don't mean sitting still and doing nothing. Our language is deadly this way. As Mark Kurlansky remarked in his book on nonviolence, if the only word we had for war was nonpeace we wouldn't have all these wars. Nonviolence is much more than the absence of violence, but the presence of violence is considered so essential in our culture that something else is unimaginable, or -- if you prefer -- revolutionary. When German women protested the imprisonment of their Jewish husbands in Berlin, they persuaded other Germans to join them in open protest of Nazi policies. That horrifying threat to Nazi leaders resulted in the freeing of the husbands. Threatening or plotting to assassinate those same leaders only got you killed. Perhaps both approaches were superior to doing nothing, but one was more effective. And it was neither doing nothing nor secretly threatening violence.
I'm glad that you accept the power of nonviolent tactics as one of the two tools you think are needed, but I don't have to accept violent tactics in order to be fair and balanced. We don't need to be reasonable, but effective. You claim that current struggles for GLBT rights in the military only find success because of the Stonewall riot. Do you really think those in power in the Pentagon and the White House have ever heard of the Stonewall riot? Do you think Gates is afraid young gays and lesbians pleading for a fair chance to join in our empire's war crimes are going to attack the U.S. military? Yes, politicians and judges respond to public pressure. But public pressure can also come in forms other than riots. If we stopped business at all courthouses by surrounding them with our bodies, until everyone was permitted to get married, everyone would be permitted to get married. And you could call that violent if you chose, and our dispute would be reduced to one about language. But such an action would not have to threaten, implicitly or otherwise, any actual direct harm to anyone. Instead we have progressives pushing for the right to have gay Americans included in the worst acts assisting the militarist crimes of those in power. This is a struggle to gain emotional acceptance within something we should be eliminating. It is finding limited success from limited political pressure. Violence would not help. Nor would violence speed it up. What would speed it up would be more aggressive and strategic nonviolent action.
Citing a violent rebellion in the nineteenth century as a significant cause of the British departing India in the twentieth century is even more of a stretch. That argument is not far from arguing that the threat of violence is omnipresent. Then any success gained by nonviolence can be attributed to that hidden threat. When suffragettes gained the right to vote, was it because they were understood to be plotting a violent coup? Come on! You claim that nonviolent action alone has never created lasting change. But it's hard to have nonviolent action alone and pure in a culture saturated in violence. Nonviolent action often provokes a violent response from those in power, to which some less disciplined in nonviolence will respond in kind. Our nations are packed with military forces that will take one side or the other in any struggle. But most violent action has produced very slight and fleeting change for the better when it hasn't made things much worse. And most violent action that has produced anything long-lasting occurred before nonviolence was developed as a serious tactic for political change.
Gene Sharp's "Waging Nonviolent Struggle" looks at the improvised and developing tactic of nonviolence through the twentieth century, starting with the Russian Revolution of 1905, a defense against a military coup in Germany in 1920, campaigns in India in the 1930s, resistance to Nazism in Europe in the 1940s, the ousting of Central American dictators in the 1940s, and our civil rights movement, followed by dozens of more recent case studies. Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall's "A Force More Powerful" provides a similar survey. What we see in these stories, which I highly recommend rereading if you've read them, is an innovative tactic finding its way in a world soaked in violence, and proving its greater abilities and far greater potential.
4. Reply to David Swanson
by Ted Rall
As you say, David, we agree that nonviolence tactics can be effective. However, we disagree about the nature of nonviolence.
First, movements that seek radical political change—the restructuring of society and/or the redistribution of wealth and power—are rarely successful when they limit themselves to nonviolent tactics. I say "rarely" because anything is possible. But I'm a student of history and I can't think of any.
Nonviolent movements have won incremental change, i.e. reforms that, while welcome, did not require the wholesale reordering of society. Gay marriage is an example.
The problems faced by the people of the United States, however, are grave and urgent: imminent environmental, political and economic collapse precipitated by the short-sighted greed of an increasingly avaricious ruling class. As we agree, neither the brutal state security apparatus nor its corporate overlords will voluntarily relinquish power or wealth. Yet they must be removed. Otherwise, they will murder the planet. We will die unless we defeat them, and defeat them soon. Considering their nearly limitless control, shall we tie one hand behind our collective back by eschewing violence as one of the tactics available to us?
A revolutionary struggle, however, involves interim skirmishes on the road to ultimate victory against the tyrants. Nonviolence can and should be part of such battles. When you mail a letter to the editor, you don't have to break the post office window.
Still, to be effective, nonviolence can never be pure. From the point of view of those who stand to lose something, there is no such thing as nonviolence. A peaceful march is a shot across the bow, a gathering that the authorities understand from history can easily transform itself into a raging mob. Even if the participants agree to remain calm and to remain passive no matter how fierce the response of the police, even if they sign notarized agreements not to strike first or to fight back, even if it is conducted by a group that has scrupulously comported itself nonviolently on hundreds of previous occasions, the ruling powers cannot read the protesters' minds.
You say: "If we stopped business at all courthouses by surrounding them with our bodies, until everyone was permitted to get married, everyone would be permitted to get married." Let's assume that the authorities were clairvoyant and could assure themselves with 100 percent certainty that we wouldn't fight back no matter what. Gays would not win the right to marry. Why not? Because they would send cops or soldiers to drag us to prison and/or slaughter us.
Fortunately, the National Security Agency doesn't have second sight. (Although they're no doubt working on it.) As things stand, then, the uncertainty principle works in favor of the protesters in your theoretical courthouse-blocking action. The authorities don't know what we will do when they come to take us away or start shooting us. Will we fight back? Do some of us have guns? They don't know.
I'm not suggesting that the president of a bank mourns the death of a police officer. He doesn't notice, much less care. I'm saying that the reason a courthouse sit-in might be allowed to continue is that the disruption it causes is less dangerous than the possible outbreak of violence that might result from a heavy-handed bust. True, the massacre of people resisting nonviolently might elicit sympathy by fence-sitting moderates watching at home (assuming that the media covers the incident). But history shows that the mass of undecided citizens tends to be far more appalled by riots and running street battles than by massacres. A government's job, after all, is to preside over law and order. Civil disturbances expose the regime both as violent and incompetent. And history shows that full-scale revolutions don't result from injustice. Whether in 1776 or 1789 or 1917 or 1991 or 2004, revolutions occur when regimes are widely perceived as inept.
"When suffragettes gained the right to vote," you ask, "was it because they were understood to be plotting a violent coup?" No, not a coup. But violence did take place at their marches. And men were afraid—and not just of losing power or influence. Contemporary newspaper coverage reveals a patriarchal power structure hysterically warning that uppity wives might begin offing their husbands as they slept! You also ask: "Do you think [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates is afraid young gays and lesbians pleading for a fair chance to join in our empire's war crimes are going to attack the U.S. military?" Of course not. Which partly explains why "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" remains in force.
Regarding the most commonly cited example of the triumph of nonviolence, the Indian independence struggle, you are cherry-picking personalities like Gandhi and time periods (the 1930s) that suit your purpose. The truth is, there has never been a significant revolt against a superior adversary without violence. It is also true that Indian independence did not result in radical structural changes in Indian society. Gandhi "helped the British imperialists to stay in India longer," points out Slajov Zizek. "Gandhi didn’t do anything to stop the functioning of the British empire." Nonviolence, if and when it followed violent acts, necessarily relied on the implicit threat that violence might be resumed.
It is ahistorical to downplay the importance of the violent Sepoy Rebellion in the revolt against Great Britain. As any historian will tell you, the fact that Indians were able to rise up and kill significant numbers of British troops and hold territory (before being crushed) inspired generations of future independence fighters, not only in India or in other nations occupied by the British, but around the world. The British were rich and better armed, but they could be beaten. That supported the arguments of those who sought support for resistance. (It should be noted that, in turn, the Sepoys were themselves inspired by the 1842 massacre of 20,000 British soldiers and camp followers in the First Afghan War.)
Certainly both the realities of ongoing violence (assassinations, terrorist attacks, riots that killed thousands of people the year before the British pull-out, etc., even violent) as well as the memory of events like the Sepoy Rebellion were part of the calculus at Whitehall, as Churchill wrote in his memoirs. India was a rich source of revenue, but ruling the unruly (and violent) locals tipped the cost-benefit scale against dominion and colonialism.
You correctly cite that resistance to Nazism included both nonviolent and violent tactics. As always, both had their place. But it is the violent uprisings that inspire. Who today remembers the German women you mention, the ones who protested the arrests of their Jewish husbands? The glory belongs to the doomed heroes of Sobibor, Treblinka and Warsaw—Jews who knew they would die but were determined to take some of their murderers with them. "Threatening or plotting to assassinate [Nazi] leaders only got you killed," you point out. Which is what happened to Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and the other plotters in the German high command who tried to blow up Hitler on July 20, 1944. But their act of courage and self-sacrifice can only be faulted for not having been undertaken earlier. As Henning von Tresckow told Stauffenberg shortly before the assassination attempt, nothing less than validating the morality of the German people was at stake: "We must prove to the world and to future generations that the men of the German Resistance movement dared to take the decisive step and to hazard their lives upon it."
In the end, of course, the combined military forces of two superpowers and their allies were required to overthrow the Nazi regime. Since the U.S. today possesses more military power than the next ten nations on the list of firepower, we have no choice but to take on its evil corporato-governmental structure ourselves. The odds of success of slim. But they will be zero if we refuse to avail ourselves of the right to use force.