Pacifism and War
by Paul D'Amato
International Socialist Review, July-August 2002
After the 1999 Columbine massacre, when two heavily armed
teenagers killed 12 fellow students, President Bill Clinton made
a speech to the parents and students of Columbine, in which he
called for "a culture of values instead of a culture of violence."'
As he made this speech, the former Commander-in-Chief was in the
midst of leading a systematic bombing campaign against Serbian
cities. Vonda and Michael Shoels, parents of Isaiah Shoels, a
Black student gunned down in the massacre, penned a letter to
Clinton that Michael Shoels read aloud at Clinton's speech, saying,
"Those who made pipe bombs may well have cheered your bombs
dropping over Kosovo and Yugoslavia. There is a connection."
The Shoel's hit upon a central hypocrisy of capitalist politicians.
They make a lot of noise about the impermissibility of violence-except
when it is the violence they employ in pursuit of their own interests.
Then everything from blockades that murder hundreds of thousands
of children to the use of tactical nuclear weapons is permissible.
"The most 'humane' governments, which in peaceful times 'detest'
war," wrote the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in his
brilliant essay Their Morals and Ours, "proclaim during war
that the highest duty of their armies is the extermination of
the greatest possible number of people."
Rulers make general appeals to nonviolence in order to cover
up the fact that they are seeking to retain their state's monopoly
of force. "The appeal to abstract norms," continued
Trotsky, "is not a disinterested philosophical mistake but
a necessary element in the mechanics of class deception."
Each national ruling class reserves for itself the right to use
any and all means of violence, but denounces the violence of the
oppressed, as well as that of other states with which it goes
Meanwhile, it describes its own military deployments as "peacekeeping,"
"upholding democracy," "combating terrorism,"
and "helping victims of ethnic cleansing." The current
war-driven administration reduces everything to cartoon caricatures
or a "cowboys and Indians" movie, where a whole string
of states are deemed part of an "axis of evil," and
enemies are described as "the bad guys" and where "our
side," the "good guys," is blessed by God.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, for example, has
condemned Palestinian suicide bombers, but supports Ariel Sharon's
use of force to maintain its 35-year occupation of the West Bank
and Gaza. In short, like most pundits, Friedman makes a distinction
between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the
oppressed-and he sides with the oppressor.
This doesn't mean the ruling classes wouldn't prefer to obtain
their ends as peacefully as possible. As Trotsky pointed out in
the late 1930s on the eve of a new world war,
Hitler also works in the sweat of his brow for peace. They
are all for peace: Priests, bankers, generals. But what does the
pacifism of the bourgeois governments and parties mean? Vile hypocrisy.
Every robber prefers, if possible, to take away his victim's purse
"peacefully" without taking his life. Mussolini would
naturally prefer to pocket Ethiopia "peacefully," that
is, without the expenses and sacrifices of war England and France
would like to enjoy their plunder "in peace." But woe
to whoever hinders them! That is the meaning of capitalist love
What is pacifism?
So much for the fake pacifism of the ruling class. For genuine
pacifists, however, nonviolence is a serious commitment not a
hypocritical cover. A pacifist can be on the more liberal or more
radical end of the political spectrum. And the distinction is
important. Left-wing pacifists oppose the system, whereas mainstream,
or bourgeois, pacifism is only critical of aspects of it. But
all forms of pacifism, in essence renounce all violence, on the
moral grounds that all life is sacred. Since war is the most supreme
human act of violence, naturally pacifists are, at least in theory,
principled opponents of war. In more sophisticated political terms,
it is expressed in the idea that violence degrades those who use
it. A 1955 document written by Quaker pacifists, and reprinted
in a recent issue of Peacework, newsletter of the American Friends
Service Committee (AFSC), summed up this idea:
We do not end violence by compounding violence, nor conquer
evil by destroying the evildoer. Evil cannot overcome evil, and
the end does not justify the means. Rather, we are convinced that
evil means corrupt good ends; and we know with a terrible certainty
demonstrated by two world wars in our rime, that when we undertake
to overcome evil with evil, we ourselves tend to become the evil
that we seek to overcome.
Note that the framework of this passage is no different in
its terminology than the framework of the Rumsfelds and the Bushes
of this world. There are "evildoers" in the world, only
violence isn't the best way to deal with them. As we shall soon
see, the more conservative, bourgeois pacifist accepts the ruling
classes' view of the world, and simply exhorts them to achieve
their goals without resort to violence. To the violent competition
of the world's nations, they propose peaceful competition. The
more radical pacifist, on the other hand, sees through the hypocrisy
of the ruling class-that as exploiters and oppressors, they are
themselves evildoers, but focuses their pacifism on convincing
the exploited and oppressed not to resort to violence to resist
oppression because it will in turn make them "evil."
War Resisters League leader and Socialist Party presidential
candidate David McReynolds put it more bluntly: "The more
certain you are that Pinochet is unique, and you'd like to get
in line to hit him with a club, the more certain it is that there
is 'a little Pinochet' in you."
Pacifists thus deal in moral absolutes. They do not appeal
to the class struggle, but to humanity. Whether in its more conservative
or radical forms, pacifism is premised on the idea that all killing
is wrong because all life is sacred. The most extreme expression
of this was Gandhi's advice to the Jews of Germany just before
the Second World War:
If I were a Jew and were born in Germany...I would claim
Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German might, and
challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon.... If one
Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered,
he or they cannot be worse off than now.... The calculated violence
of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by
way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities.
But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary sacrifice,
even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of
thanksgiving that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race
even at the hands of a tyrant.
Pacifism's role is that of reconciliation of all conflict,
its moderation in order to prevent it from becoming violent. McReynolds
defines nonviolence, for example, in this telling way: "Nonviolence
is a theory of managing social conflict in order to achieve social
change." George Orwell, in an essay on Gandhi, argued that
this, too, was Gandhi's role in the Indian independence movement:
Strictly speaking, as a Nationalist, he was an enemy [of
the British], but since in every crisis he would exert himself
to prevent violence-which, from the British point of view, meant
preventing any effective action whatever-he could be regarded
as "our man." In private this was sometimes cynically
admitted. The attitude of the Indian millionaires was similar.
Gandhi called upon them to repent, and naturally they preferred
him to the Socialists and Communists who, given the chance, would
actually have taken their money away.
Pacifism accepts the bourgeois idea of "norms" of
behavior expressed by Clinton in his Columbine speech, only they
would like him to abide by it. The way to end war is to convince
all mankind to follow certain moral imperatives, certain norms
of human behavior that stand above history and society Be nice
to strangers, love they neighbor, thou shalt not kill, and so
on. So, for example, the Hague Agenda for Peace and Justice for
the 21st Century declares, "Society now has the means to
cure disease and eliminate poverty and starvation. The 20th century
has also seen the creation of a set of universal norms which,
if implemented, would go a long way toward making war unnecessary
and impossible." Surely the endless horror of war in the
20th century would have convinced the writers of this declaration
that these norms are worth less than the paper they are written
on. These norms, peddled in schoolbooks, the press, and the pulpit,
are merely a cover for a society divided by class, riven by war
for loot-a society where Iying, deception, bribery, and large-scale
killing are truly the norm.
In the period after the Second World War, pacifism regrouped
and developed a view, know then as "nuclear pacifism,"
that the sheer destructive power of nuclear weapons might produce
a peaceful outcome. When the anti-nuclear weapons movement revived
in the early 1980s across Britain, the U.S. and Europe, these
old ideas were repackaged in a new form. The Marxist historian
E.P. Thompson developed a theory he termed "exterminism,"
which argued that nuclear weapons were so destructive that their
use had become irrational for all mankind, regardless of class
"Exterminism," wrote Thompson, "is not a 'class
issue': it is a human issue." The task, therefore, was not
to organize the class struggle so as to eliminate the system which
gives rise to war, but to win over all sectors of society, top
to bottom, to an "alternative logic.""
But like economic competition, military competition imposes
itself upon rivals as an external compulsion. Each capitalist
must grow or die, must therefore try to drive its competitors
from the field. The same logic (however irrational) is at work
in military competition. The same conditions which give rise to
economic competition in the world market also give rise to military
competition. If "rationality" were the criterion, capitalism
should have been abandoned some time ago, when it became clear
that people starved in spite of an abundance of food, were unemployed
in spite of an abundance of machinery and materials, and that
world war would devastate entire nations and lead to mass extermination
of entire peoples. Sadly, an appeal to the ruling classes of the
world on the basis of saving the planet from destruction is about
as realistic as asking a transnational corporation to abandon
profit. But Thompson's argument had the merit of revealing most
clearly the class basis of pacifist ideology. It is the logic
of the middle class-the rejection of class society and class division
on the grounds that it is irrational, in the name of a common
Marxism, pacifism, and war
Lenin summed up the fundamental distinction between pacifism
and Marxism in his pamphlet, "Socialism and war":
Socialists have always condemned wars between nations as
barbarous and brutal. Our attitude towards war, however, is fundamentally
different from that of the bourgeois pacifiers (supporters and
advocates of peace) and of the anarchists. We differ from the
former in that we understand the inevitable connection between
wars and the class struggle within a country; we understand that
wars cannot be abolished unless classes are abolished and socialism
is created; we also differ in that we regard civil wars, i.e.,
wars waged by an oppressed class against the oppressor class,
by slaves against slaveholders, by serfs against landowners, and
by wage-workers against the bourgeoisie, as fully legitimate,
progressive, and necessary.
Marxists, for example, considered the U.S. defeat at the hands
of the Vietnamese historically progressive, as were the North's
war against the Confederacy and the revolutionary struggle of
Russian workers in 1917 against Tsarism. Trotsky, for example,
said of the U.S. Civil War:
Lincoln's significance lies in his nor hesitating before the
most severe means once they were found to be necessary in achieving
a great historic aim posed by the development of a young nation.
The question lies not even in which of the warring camps caused
or itself suffered the greatest number of victims. History has
different yardsticks for the cruelty of the Northerners and the
cruelty of the Southerners in the Civil War. A slave-owner who
through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains, and a
slave who through cunning or violence breaks the chains-let not
the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a
court of morality!'
Lenin, Trotsky, and Polish-born German revolutionary Rosa
Luxemburg, on the other hand, had a very different view of imperialist
wars, that is, wars between rival world powers jockeying for control
of the world's wealth and resources.
Politics is concentrated economics, and (as Lenin often said,
quoting the famous 19th century tactician Carlton Clausewitz)
"war is a mere continuation of policy by other means."
So, for example, our criterion isn't "who fired the first
shot" or "who was the aggressor," but who is fighting
and for what purposes. Japan fired the first shot in the Second
World War, but the war was not one of Japanese aggression and
American defense, but of rivalry between Japan and the U.S. over
the control of the Pacific region. One pacifist made this cogent
analysis of U.S. war aims. The U.S. did not
go to war with the Japanese fascists because their purpose
was fascism. Far from it: We abetted their purpose for profit,
and when we went to war with them it was not because their purpose
was fascism; it was because they tried to steal from us what we
had stolen 43 years earlier from Spain.
War and violence, as I have argued, is endemic to capitalism,
and especially its modern form, imperialism. "The way the
governments propose to solve this problem of imperialism is not
through the intelligent, organized cooperation of all of humanity's
producers," wrote Trotsky in 1917, "but through the
exploitation of the world's economic system by the capitalist
class of the victorious country; which country is by this War
to be transformed from a Great Power into the World Power."
While there certainly have been changes in the character of imperialism
since Trotsky penned these words, which this article hasn't the
space to explore, it is certainly the case that in essence, the
U.S. today is seeking, arms in hand, to ensure that in the new
millennium it retains its position as the "Word Power,"
and deters all other challengers to this role.
The pacifists, either due to confusion or by shutting their
eyes to this truth, premise their approach to preventing or ending
war in just the opposite view: that war is unnecessary, that world
conflicts can be resolved peacefully, that ruling classes can
be convinced, somehow, to disarm. That is why Marxists have always
argued that pacifism, whatever its intentions, ends up providing
cover for the existing system. Bourgeois, or middle class pacifists
want "peace," but believe, as Lenin pointed out, that
it can be achieved on the grounds of the world system as it exists
today. Lenin therefore sharply criticized pacifists for failing
to see that peace within the existing arrangement of world imperialism
merely meant a cessation of open hostilities in preparation for
War is the continuation, by forcible means, of the politics
pursued by the ruling classes of the belligerent Powers long before
the outbreak of war. Peace is a continuation of the very same
politics, with a registration of the changes brought about in
the relation of forces of the antagonists as a result of military
operations. War does not change the direction in which politics
developed prior to the war; it only accelerates that development.
All talk of disarmament under imperialism, therefore, is completely
utopian. And all efforts to paint as promising developments various
agreements by competing states to reduce armaments, sow dangerous
illusions. Rosa Luxemburg outlined this position in her article
The friends of peace in bourgeois circles believe that world
peace and disarmament can be realized within the framework of
the present social order, whereas we...are convinced that militarism
can only be abolished from the world with the destruction of the
capitalist state. From this it follows the mutual opposition of
our tactics in propagating the idea of peace. The bourgeois friends
of peace are endeavoring-and from their point of view this is
perfectly logical and explicable-to invent all sorts of "practical"
projects for gradually restraining militarism, and are naturally
inclined to consider every outward apparent sign of a tendency
toward peace as the genuine article, to take every expression
of the ruling diplomacy in this vein at its word, to exaggerate
it into a basis for earnest activity. The social democrats, on
the other hand, must consider it their duty in this matter, just
as in all matters of social criticism, to expose the bourgeois
attempts to restrain militarism as pitiful half measures, and
the expressions of such sentiments on the part of governing circles
as diplomatic make-believe, and to oppose the bourgeois claims
and pretenses with the ruthless analysis of capitalist reality.
Trotsky was also unsparing in his criticism of pacifism as
the idea that an appeal to "reason" can blunt the antagonisms
that are built into the very nature of capitalism. He also pointed
out that "pacifism has just the same basis as the doctrine
of social harmony between different class interests.... If we
are ready to assume the possibility of a gradual toning down of
the class struggle, then we must also assume the gradual toning
down and regulation of nationalistic conflicts."
In a later piece written in the 1930s, Trotsky explained the
way in which a pacifist appeal for the ruling class to disarm
itself disarms the movement against war:
The pretense of "disarmament" has and can have
nothing in common with the prevention of war. The program of "disarmament'
only signifies an attempt-up to now only on paper-to reduce in
peacetime the expense of this or that kind of armaments. It is
above all a question of military technique and the imperialist
coffers. The arsenals, the munitions factories, the laboratories,
and finally, what is most important, capitalist industry as a
whole preserve all their force in all the "disarmament programs."
But states do not fight because they are armed. On the contrary,
they forge arms when they have to fight. In case of war, all the
peace limitations will fall aside like so much chaff.... It is
pure charlatanism to attempt to distinguish between defensive
and offensive machine guns, tanks, aeroplanes. American policy
is dictated in this also by the particular interests of American
militarism, the most terrible of all. War is not a game which
is conducted according to conventional rules. War demands and
creates all the weapons which can most successfully annihilate
the enemy. Petty-bourgeois pacifism, which sees in a 10 percent,
or 33 percent, or 50 percent disarmament proposal the "first
step" towards prevention of war, is more dangerous than all
the explosives and asphyxiating gases. Melinite and yperite can
do their work only because the masses of people are poisoned in
peacetime by the fumes of pacifism.
Trotsky's point is made clear when we recall that yet another
world war was fought after the unthinkable destruction of the
first, in spite of the League of Nations and various disarmament
conferences that followed. Moreover, in the period of the nuclear
arms race after the Second World War, test-ban treaties and arms
reduction agreements failed completely to prevent the U.S. and
Russia from developing and producing ever-greater numbers of thermonuclear
weapons, nor did it stop new nations-China, Israel, Pakistan,
and India, for example-from acquiring them.
Yet pacifists have put, and continue to put, faith in various
international organizations, treaties, and conferences to prevent
or mitigate the tendencies toward war.
Marxism, pacifism, and revolution
No ruling class voluntarily cedes power to the class that
is below it. On the contrary, it is willing to unleash, in the
form of police, army, and paramilitary gangs, the utmost violence
when it feels that it can no longer maintain power through some
degree of consent of the oppressed. If this were not true, then
how can one explain the social revolutions that have heralded
the end of one society and the dawn of another throughout history?
Even protests that do not immediately threaten the survival of
the system are often met with the most brutal repression. The
history of capitalism is full of peaceful mass protests attacked
viciously by the forces of the state, from the workers' procession
to the Tsar's palace in 1905 (which sparked the revolution of
1905) to civil rights protests in the 1960s, to the antiglobalization
protests of late.
Of course, if a ruling class does not feel its power threatened
by a particular movement or protest (and the system has some economic
wiggle-room in the form of abundant profits), it may handle it
with kid gloves and allow a great deal of latitude. But this is
merely proof that the degree of violent response by the ruling
class is in direct proportion to the degree of perceived threat
to its own "order." Therefore, those who maintain that
the movement must always remain peaceful as a matter of principle
are in reality asking that the movement remain within the bounds
of what is acceptable to the ruling class. And if the working
class is called upon to seize control, democratically, of the
factories, hospitals and schools, that is, to go beyond what is
acceptable to the capitalists, but at the same time are urged
to remain peaceful while the ruling class prepares its bloody
response, then the pacifist is merely preaching to the workers
that they must be prepared for defeat. This may seem a digression
in an article about pacifism and war, but capitalism and its wars
are intertwined, so that the fate of one hinges on the other.
Trotsky put it succinctly: "The bourgeoisie is incapable
of organizing the division of the booty amongst its own ranks
without war and destruction. Can it, without a fight, abandon
its booty altogether?"'
For Marxists, the end-a society free of class oppression,
war, and injustice-justifies the means: mass revolutionary action,
up to and including the use of force, of the exploited and oppressed
majority. For pacifists, the end-a society free of war and all
violence-must be prefigured by the means. In his biography of
Lenin, British socialist Tony Cliff writes:
As the revolution is a product of a class society it necessarily
bears the traits of this society. It reflects capitalism rather
than socialism, the present and the past, not the future. As the
proletarian dictatorship has to fight bourgeois counterrevolution,
it inevitably has to be symmetrical with it, in order to inflict
blows on it. However, with all the diversion of means from ends,
unless there is a central core connecting them, the means will
not lead to the supposed end. "Seeds of wheat must be sown
in order to yield an ear of wheat," to use Trotsky's words
about the relation between means and ends in his pamphlet Their
Morals and Ours. The plough breaking up the hard soil may help
the seed of wheat to germinate and grow, but the plough does not
prefigure the wheat.
And Trotsky also argued elsewhere:
That the aim of socialism is the elimination of force, first
in its crudest and bloodiest forms, and then in other more covert
ones, is indisputable. But here we are dealing not with the manners
and morals of a future communist society but with the concrete
paths and methods of struggle against capitalist force. When fascists
disrupt a strike, seize a newspaper's editorial offices and its
safe, and beat up and kill workers' deputies while the police
encircle the thugs with a protective ring, then only the most
corrupt hypocrite would advise workers not to reply blow for blow,
on the pretext that force would have no place in a communist system.
Obviously in each particular case it is necessary to decide, with
respect to the whole situation how to answer the enemy's force
and just how far to go in one's retaliation. But that is a matter
of tactical expediency which has nothing to do with the acknowledgement
or denial of force in principle.
Engels and Marx argued that violence also has a progressive
That force, however, plays yet another role in history, a
revolutionary role; that, in the words of Marx, it is the midwife
of every old society pregnant with a new one, that it is the instrument
with the aid of which social movement forces its way through and
shatters the dead, fossilized political forms-of this there is
not a word in Herr Duhring. It is only with sighs and groans that
he admits the possibility that force will perhaps be necessary
for the overthrow of an economic system of exploitation-unfortunately,
because all use of force demoralizes the person who uses it. And
this in spite of the immense moral and spiritual impetus which
has been given by every victorious revolution!
Violence does not necessarily degrade those who use it. Abolitionist
Frederick Douglass believed that when an escaped slave used force
to prevent a slave-catcher from forcibly returning him to bondage,
he or she was helping to lift slaves up from both their physical
and mental bondage. It was the persistent lack of resistance in
the face of unremitting oppression that had the most morally degrading
influence on the oppressed. "We cannot but shudder as we
call to mind the horrors that have ever marked servile insurrections,"
Douglass wrote in 1857,
we would avert them if we could; but shall the millions forever
submit to robbery, to murder, to ignorance, and every unnamed
evil which an irresponsible tyranny can devise, because the overthrow
of that tyranny would be productive of horrors? We say not. The
recoil, when it comes, will be in exact proportion to the wrongs
inflicted; terrible as it will be, we accept and hope for it.
The slaveholder has been tried and sentenced, his execution only
waits the finish to the training of his executioners. He is training
his own executioners.
Trotsky, writing in 1934 about the growing danger of fascism
in France, insisted that, far from debasing the workers' movement,
armed defense militias would give it the tools, and therefore,
the confidence, to confront and defeat the fascists, as well as
showing the disaffected middle class that were drawing toward
fascism that it offered an alternative. "Nothing increases
the insolence of the fascists as much as 'flabby pacifism' on
the part of the workers' organizations. Nothing destroys the confidence
of the middle classes in the working class as temporizing, passivity,
and the absence of the will to struggle."
The ongoing "war on terrorism" unleashed by Bush
after September 11 produced a response from pacifist organizations
little different from pacifists in the past. In their call for
"alternatives" to war, which has been so commonplace
(that is: bringing the perpetrators of September 11 to "justice,"
trying them in an international court; international cooperation
between states to fight terrorism, increasing the role of the
UN, and so on) they accept all the premises of imperialism, and
sow illusions in the idea that there is something called an "international
community" that isn't simply various coalitions of the most
powerful ruling states, jockeying for power. An organization calling
itself 9-11peace.org, which produced a popular antiwar petition
after September 11, states on their Web site: "We support
President Bush's resolve to end terrorism, but not his military
agenda for doing it."
Modern day bourgeois pacifists like the AFSC accept the premises
of the Bush administration, fueling the illusion that Bush's war
aims are the elimination of terrorism, and that the government
who created al Qaeda and that has committed far worse crimes against
humanity should be entrusted with bringing war criminals to justice.
It makes a separation between military and legal/diplomatic means,
when in reality they are just two sides of the same policy (war
is a continuation of politics). But in a more general sense, all
these proposals are predicated on the idea that imperialism can
be tamed, that ruling classes can be made to renounce violence
and war, based upon letters appealing to reason and morality,
a candlelight vigil, or in some instances, nonviolent protest.
Take this letter from AFSC member John Dear to President Bush:
Dear Mr. President,
I am writing to you to ask you to stop immediately the bombing
of Afghanistan, to stop your preparations for other wars, to cut
the Pentagon's budget drastically, not increase it; to lift the
sanctions on Iraq, end military aid to Israel, stop U.S. support
of the occupation of the Palestinians, lift the entire third world
debt, dismantle every one of our nuclear weapons and weapons of
mass destruction, abandon your Star Wars Missile Shield plans,
join the world court and international law, and close our own
terrorist training camps, beginning with Fort Benning's "School
of the Americas."
The absurdity of this request requires no comment. This completely
utopian stance can serve only to sow illusions in the nature of
the world system in general, and of the U.S. ruling class and
the Bush administration in particular.
Moreover, international law is not a democratic expression
of the world's people but of the world's ruling classes. Conventions
regulating the conduct of war, in any case, are not worth the
paper they are written on. Rules of engagement are systematically
flouted by all sides in any real war. The 1991 Gulf War should
offer proof enough that international coalitions with real teeth
are only those initiated and sanctioned by the world's leading
powers-in particular, the United States. All other expressions
by the "international community," such as numerous UN
resolutions condemning Israel's occupation, are simply ignored.
International criminal courts, moreover, are invariably victors'
courts, and therefore are not alternatives to war, but a component
of it. The U.S. is turning its back on the current court, the
International Criminal Court, because it isn't convinced it won't
be used against U.S. personnel. It is therefore a toothless court.
Though he was writing about the precursor to the UN- the League
of Nations-the historian E. H. Carr's insights, written in 1939
were not only cogent for the period he was writing, but are still
Throughout the nineteen-twenties, this fallacy of the power
of international opinion was being gradually exposed. That it
survived at all was due to the persistent use by League enthusiasts
of slogans like peace and disarmament which were capable of a
universal appeal precisely because they meant different, and indeed
contradictory, things to different people. Every country wanted
to achieve the aims of its policy without war, and therefore stood
for peace. Every country wanted disarmament of other countries
or disarmament in those weapons which it did not regard as vital
to itself. After the collapse of the Disarmament Conference [in
1937-ed.], it became apparent to all that the League of Nations
could be effective only in so far as it was an instrument of the
national policy of its most powerful members.
This is clearly true today of the UN and of all international
institutions that many pacifists look to as some kind of solution
to war. In fact, they are bodies that only function insofar as
they act as "an instrument of the national policy of the
most powerful members," and are therefore, to the extent
that they have any role at all, not instruments for peace, but
instruments for war.
There are, of course, left-wing pacifists. There are pacifists
that have presented excellent analyses of Bush's real war aims,
how oil and strategic advantage drives U.S. policy, not "fighting
terrorism." How it is a hypocritical snare for a state that
harbors terrorists, funds terrorists, and itself commits atrocious
state-sponsored terror, to set itself up as the chief fighter
of terrorism. That in reality, fighting "terrorism"
is really about creating a conformity of fear around Washington's
own war program, and that any war crimes tribunal should put Kissinger
or Bush on the docket ahead of Osama bin Laden. These writings
have been extremely useful in providing the antiwar movement with
vital ammunition as it challenges Bush's war. But many of these
trenchant criticisms conclude with an argument for a UN solution,
or with appeals to a mythical international community-which are,
as I have argued, not really solutions at all. Moreover, no matter
how radical, pacifism, if it is consistent, fails to answer satisfactorily
the question: Are those who use force to resist American imperialism,
such as the Vietnamese, morally justified or morally bankrupt?
At the beginning of this article, I tried to show the hypocrisy
of the ruling class toward the question of violence and war, whereby
the oppressed are exhorted to "not go too far," to show
nonviolent restraint in the face of countless violent outrages
by capitalism. Sadly, this view of the oppressed isn't limited
to the ruling class. Liberal, middle-class pacifists also criticize
the violence of the oppressed.
The German reformist socialist Karl Kauesky denounced the
Bolsheviks' conduct in the Russian civil war, arguing that socialists
should believe in the "sacredness of life." This was
What is the meaning of the principle of the sacredness of
human life in practice, and in what does it differ from the commandment,
"Thou shalt not kill," Kautsky does not explain. When
a murderer raises his knife over a child, may one kill the murderer
to save the child? Will not thereby the principle of the "sacredness
of human life" be infringed? May one kill the murderer to
save oneself? Is an insurrection of oppressed slaves against their
masters permissible? Is it permissible to purchase one's freedom
at the cost of the life of one's jailers? If human life in general
is sacred and inviolable, we must deny ourselves nor only the
use of terror, not only war, but also revolution itself Kautsky
simply does not realize the counterrevolutionary meaning of the
"principle" which he attempts to force upon us.... As
long as human labor power, and, consequently, life itself, remain
articles of sale and purchase, of exploitation and robbery, the
principle of the "sacredness of human life" remains
a shameful lie, uttered with the object of keeping the oppressed
slaves in their chains.
As for us, we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly
and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the "sacredness of human
life." We were revolutionaries in opposition, and have remained
revolutionaries in power. To make the individual sacred we must
destroy the social order which crucifies him.
Ending war, as we have argued here, cannot be separated from
ending capitalism. The two are intertwined. To preach peaceful
international relations without ending imperialist conflict is
no different from preaching peace between worker and boss, peace
between exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed. Therefore,
by accepting pacifism in principle, ironically, one ends up holding
up the system which perpetuates violence and war, that is, achieving
the opposite result. This is the exact opposite of the pacifist
dictum that in opposing violence we must renounce violence. We
Marxists say instead: To destroy war and violence we must forcibly
wrest the weapons of oppression from the ruling class and create
a new society in which the economic and social conditions make
systematic violence no longer part of human life. We know that
individual violence is a dead end, and that collective mass struggle
is the key, but we also know that power concedes nothing without
a demand, and slavery was not eliminated in the U.S. by prayers
We make this argument not because we believe pacifists are
insincere in their beliefs, but because the belief in the inherent
goodness of the ruling class can disarm a movement at decisive
moments. Moreover, we do not equate all pacifism. There is the
pacifism of the oppressed, seeking justice, who learn in the struggle
the relative merits of this or that form of struggle as the struggle
progresses. Most abolitionists began as pacifists, believing in
moral suasion of the slaveholders. But experience taught them
that John Brown, who believed that slavery must by ended by the
use of force, was, in the end, right.
As Trotsky wrote:
It is necessary to differentiate strictly between the pacifism
of the diplomat, professor, journalist, and the pacifism of the
carpenter, agricultural worker, and the charwoman. In one case
pacifism is a screen for imperialism; in the other, it is the
confused expression of distrust in imperialism.'
As socialists opposed to imperialism and militarism, we work
in every movement against U.S. intervention alongside pacifists,
but along the way we try to win them away from the ideas of liberal
pacifism, whose politics are a dead end.
"To condemn war is easy," wrote Trotsky,
to overcome it is difficult. The struggle against war is
a struggle against the classes which rule society and which hold
in their hands both its productive forces and its destructive
weapons. It is not possible to prevent war by moral indignation,
by meetings, by resolutions, by newspaper articles, and by congresses.
As long as the bourgeoisie has at its command the banks, the factories,
the land, the press, and the state apparatus, it will always be
able to drive the people to war when its interests demand it.
But the propertied classes never cede power without a struggle.
An advocate of principled nonviolence-that is, one who rejects
all forms of violence under all circumstances-must make a choice
between the success of the movement and the inviolability of the
principle. To commit in principle to non-violence is to preach
peace to the movement whenever it is in danger of breaking the
sacred principle of nonviolence. In practice, therefore, even
the principled nonviolent activist who opposes capitalism and
is committed to a different world must strive to prevent not only
revolution against the social order, but the simple right of armed
self-defense against racists or fascist gangs. The militant pacifist
therefore comes to a breaking point where they must decide whether
they are committed to a struggle for a new society, or, to paraphrase
Rosa Luxemburg, for the surface modification of the old. They
must decide whether they are for managing conflict or for fundamental
Paul D'Amato is an associate editor of the International Socialist
and Peace page