Monday, May 30, 2005

Review: Witness Against War

(Witness Against War: Pacifism in Canada 1900-1945 by Thomas P. Socknat. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.)

As I've mentioned before, right now I'm reading a lot of books of Canadian lefty history for my work, and that means folks who drop by this blog will get a chance to read about those books whether they like it or not.

At the beginning of the 20th century, pacifism in Canada had two strands: the traditional peace churches like the Mennonites and the Dukhobours and the Hutterites, which for the most part disavowed participation in the broader society as well as participation in war, and the liberal peace movement, which was not necessarily pacifist in a strict sense but which participated in society and promoted things like arbitration and international agreements and disarmament to prevent war. The latter was related to the broader liberal reform movement, which was very much tied in with social gospel Protestantism in Canada.

World War I changed things, and most of the liberal reform pacifists had to either give up their pacifism or give up their liberalism. The majority chose the former, with even a number of the strongest pro-pacifist mainstream Protestant ministers before WWI becoming rabid war boosters, while a small minority retained their pacifism and realized that it needed to be tied to social radicalism to be relevant. The peace churches had their own struggles with respect to conscientious objection, but mostly did not shift their positions, though the Quakers, who have always been socially engaged, did shift towards greater participation and radicalism. After WWI liberal pacifism reconstituted itself and in the '20s there was again great antipathy towards war and great hope for international institutions to prevent it, but there was also a small but vibrant strand of socially radical pacifism which blossomed further in the '30s. Alas, the "natural" alliance between struggle for radical change and the pacifist position began to falter by the end of the '30s as many on the left felt that war was necessary to defeat the threat of fascism, initially in Spain and then more generally. By the time Germany invaded the Soviety Union, the rupture between left pacifists and the rest of the left was severe, and that plus restrictions by the state meant pacifist activism focused on things like conscientious objection, alternative service, support for refugees, and maintenance of civil liberties at home.

The most interesting part of this book for me was the evolving relationship between social radicalism and opposition to violence. It remains a contentious question -- if you look at the massive pro-peace presence on the streets in North America in the months leading up to the Iraq war, I think it is fair to say that the vast majority would fall into the "liberal reformer" camp of peace activists, who often are against particular wars, not against war, and whose ideas for the kinds of institutional changes needed to bring about peace are (to my mind) woefully inadequate; a smaller cluster of people around an anti-imperialism that refuses to problematize violence per se as a tool; others who preach a pacifism that is so concerned with avoiding conflict that, despite its words to the contrary, it effectively supports systemic injustice over overt conflict to remove that injustice; and a few souls who try to combine a staunch commitment to radical action with a powerful opposition to violence. None of these groups have all the answers and all can become puritanical and self-serving, but my gut is with the last even if my head doesn't always agree, and even if I refuse to condemn and at times might voice support for people who feel driven to armed struggle in the service of social change because of conditions that are completely alien to my own relatively privileged experience.

I don't think there's any hard and fast rule for how to navigate the challenges of that position. Indeed, I think it requires retaining an openness to dialogue and collaboration with all the groupings described above, especially the second one. I think avoiding puritanism and indulgence in your own privilege is key to holding it with any kind of integrity and political realism. At the same time, I also think that a refusal to acknowledge the impact of large-scale violence is just as much a betrayal -- the multi-generational legacy of the massive trauma created by war (whatever its source or intent) does not make building a liberatory society any easier, and having to go to war can make any society (or movement) fall victim to authoritarianism and centralization and curbs on civil liberties and so on.

Of course any attempt to build a radically or even moderately liberatory and just society here or anywhere in the world will face violence if it shows signs of being even somewhat successful, and we need to figure out how to respond to that -- that might sound ludicrous to some readers, but even a cursory inspection of history bears it out. The radicals of the 1930s, both pacifist and non, didn't come up with compelling answers, and I'm not sure radicals in diverse movements with various positions on the role of violence are much further along today in coming up with responses which get beyond "lesser evil" arguments. But then, struggle is never neat and easy.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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