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How non-violence protects the state

by: Peter Genderloos


January 3rd, 2008 · post by Edd · Make a comment

ISBN number: ISBN 978-0-89608-772-9
Price: £7

Publisher: South End Press

Whilst it isn’t accepted by everyone in the current anti-authoritarian, anarchist movement there is no doubt that nonviolence is the prevalant form of engagement with the government in the UK. There are a number of reasons for this, and How Nonviolence Protects The State, an updated version of the 2005 edition, goes some way to examine them, looking at the protest movement of the USA, and the pacifism that has been born from it. A movement that takes as mantra certain aspects of Gandhi and Martin Luther King but ignores others. That physically attacks members of the black bloc but will stand back when the police attack. Whilst much of the book is fuelled by Peter Genderloos’ frustration with the US movement, he admirably backs up the majority of his argument with coherent and accessible readings of history.

The doctrine of nonviolence is, in the western world at least, currently the principle form of opposition against capitalism. In 180 pages Genderloos compellingly deconstructs pacifist ‘victories’ as being deeply revisionist versions of history, or outright fabrications, and explains how nonviolence is racist, statist, patriarchal and tactically inferior to other tactics.

Rather than exploring when diversity of tactics has been a succesful revolutionary tool (which with the Diggers, Levellers, Chartists, Communes etc. etc. gives a fairly long list) Genderloos takes the easier option in the first chapter of exploring self-ascribed victories of the nonviolence movement. His assessment is that these are India’s independence from Britain, the Civil Rights movement and the capping the nuclear arms race. He points out that India’s independence was caused in no small part from the violence of World War Two, the guerrilla warfare breaking out in Palestine, and the violence against the British state within India. Gandhi was chosen as a figurehead principally because he was British educated and his doctrine of nonviolence allowed a neo-colonalist relationship to emerge between Britain and India. Likewise the Civil Rights/ anti-Vietnam protests were firstly not peaceful but equally were not terribly successful. And there is little evidence to suggest that there was any internal influence on the US state ending the nuclear arms race, it was merely that they so clearly dominated it that there was no good reason for them to continue.

He moves on to energetically challenge nonviolence as a tool for liberalism and as something that can’t be used to create radical social change, and as a way to maintain social hierarchy (in terms of racism, patriarchy and class), whilst giving the impression of ‘protesting’ or making a difference. For the most part he avoids making personal attacks, and certainly avoids what could have easily been a vitriolic tirade against proponents of nonviolence. Instead he chooses to take the more pragmatic route of simply showing how nonviolence has been used by the state to allow it to repress other sections of the movement and keep social movements from being a serious challenge to either state or corporate power. And he does this in a devastating, and incredibly readable, manner.

Genderloos runs into difficulty when he moves from advocating against nonviolence and towards adopting a diversity of tactics. His problem is his focus on the USA, where, with the exception of Seattle and the ELF actions of the late 90s, there has been few examples of militant direct action since the 1920s. As such he is reduced to making slightly trite statements such as, ‘Quite evidently, the state is more afraid of militant groups than nonviolent groups, and I have used this as evidence that militant groups are more effective. The state understands that it has to react more forcefully and energetically to neutralise militant revolutionary movements.’ p.107. Or he ends up using examples of repression from the 1920s as though the state would now act in an equivalent manner in 2007. After all, Western civilisation is now more disparate, with fewer links to a geographical community or to workplace solidarity. Still his brief look at the treatment of the International Workers of the World (IWW), which could be described as militantly nonviolent versus that of the insurrectionary Italian immigrants who made up the Galleanists made fascinating reading. Whilst the IWW was brutalised and effectively crushed because they were so visible the insurrectionists either survived as free (wo)men or were simply deported.

Equally the title of the book is slightly self-defeating, or at least misleading – it does also look beyond how nonviolence protects the state. It is a call to consider how to overthrow capitalism and the state. Clearly nonviolence is not an effective tactic to do so, it leaves us vulnerable and at the mercy of the very institution we are trying to fight. But much of the book goes beyond this, discussing engagement with local communities, considering class solidarity, and issues of white privilege. Whilst discussing nonviolence is generally the lynchpin for many of these arguments – Genderloos sees it as a middle-class, white, and generally ’safe’ form of engagement – his other thoughts and insights into how to ferment revolution are perhaps more interesting, and arguably more important to consider.

Still it is in the challenge of nonviolence orthodoxy that he is most successful. It is just to be hoped that people who refuse to allow others to engage through a diversity of tactics will read it and reconsider their political belief system. It is a worthwhile and near essential read for all who dream overthrowing capitalism and the state.

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