Mark Kurlansky’s book, Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea (New York: Modern Library, 2006) does not pretend to be a comprehensive history of the idea and/or practice of nonviolence. Instead, it should be approached as an invitation to consider the myriad ways nonviolence, in theory and praxis, has manifested itself in different times and places around the globe. Kurlanksy’s emphasis here, in terms of examples, is on U.S. history, though he includes a healthy smattering of other continents represented (for example nonviolent resistence to European colonialism in Oceania, medieval European monastics, and Ghandi’s well-known campaign in India). For those interested in a more in-depth analysis of any one of the particular cases he cites, a fairly healthy eight-page bibliography of sources is included that can be a departure point for further reading.
What Nonviolence really is, more than an scholarly historical analysis, is a well-written, historically-supported argument for the effectiveness of nonviolence as a political strategy — one that has a better track record than violence as a way of improving the human condition. And taken as such, I think it is worthy of note.
I should acknowledge up-front here that Kurlanksy is preaching to the converted here: while I am not a wholehearted pacifist in practice (“pacifism” being distinct from the strategy of nonviolence, as discussed below), I am already convinced of the necessity of pursuing nonviolent pathways to social and political change. In my mind, there are no “just” wars. And I believe violence always begats more violence. So I’m an easy sell, as it were.
That being said, I think Kurlansky brings up a number of interesting points about nonviolence that should provoke us to thoughtfulness, regardless of personal stance concerning the practicality of nonviolent action in a world saturated with violence.
Kurlanksy’s first point is that there is no word for the concept of nonviolence — we can only speak of it by referrring to what it is not: it is not violence. He suggests that the explanation for this absence might be found in the fact that established political, cultural and intellectual communities “have viewed nonviolence as a marginal point of view, a fanciful rejection of one of society’s key componants, a repudiation of something important but not a serious force in itself” (5). This linguistic marginalization, he argues, signifies a cognitive marginalization, a resistence to accepting the concept and practice of nonviolence because it requires a profound reorientation toward the world. It is a “truly revolutionary” idea, a “threat to the established order,” and thus treated as “profoundly dangerous.”
Why is it a threat to the established order? Because nonviolence is effective as a political strategy and offers an alternative to violence. In contrast to pacifism, which is a personal orientation toward life — an individual “state of mind” that does not necessarily translate into political or social action, nonviolence is an explicitly political orientation.
The central belief [of nonviolence] is that forms of persusasion that do not use physical force, do not cause suffering, are more effective, and while there is often a moral argument for nonviolence, the core of the belief is political: that nonviolence is more effective than violence, that violence does not work (7).
The rest of the book offers examples — from the American Revolution to the Jewish Holocaust — in which nonviolent action was more successful than violent action in resolving the situation that as a culture we assert war was necessary to resolve. For example,
The Nazis are often cited as an example of an enemy against whom nonviolence would be futile. This is said despite the success of several nonviolent campaigns. Amid some of the greatest violence the world has ever seen, it was little noted that more Jews were saved by nonviolence than violence (133).
He gives the example of Denmark, a government and citizenry which — through comprehensive, cooperative nonviolent action — that succeeded in saving all but fifty-one of its Jewish citizens (who died of sickness while being held by the Germans while Denmark negotiated for their release). In contrast, France lost 26% of their Jews, the Netherlands three-quarters and in Poland 90% — despite the fact that all three nations had a very active (and armed) resistence movement.
This example can obviously be interrogated, as can all of the others Kurlansky uses. But the point remains that nonviolent tactics have, historically, proved to be effectual — and we could perhaps learn from past success as well as failure.
Why, then, do we so often ignore, dismiss, scoff at, and otherwise marginalize the potential of nonviolence? Kurlanksy argues that much of the blame lies with the state (and those who represent the state), and with the fact that war — once begun — develops a momentum of its own that, popular or not, is extremely difficult to reverse. We have also learned to accept the (perhaps false) assertion that there are times when violence is our only recourse, when violence is the only path to lasting peace, and the seldom-challenged notion that without violence we would be less safe, less free, less alive, somehow indefinably less than we are when violence is present. (For another sustained psycho-cultural exploration of violence and war as a way human beings make meaning for themselves, see Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning )
Kurlanksy asserts that it is war and violence, not an unwillingness to resort to war and violence, which make us less free, less safe, less alive than we would otherwise be. It is lack of imagination, lack of a willingness to imagine a world without violence — an unwillingness to imagine the wars we have endured were unnecessary and may even have made the situation worse than it otherwise would have been that are roadblocks to seeking alternative, nonviolent solutions.
For anyone who’s familiar with theories of personal trauma and recovery, this cycle of violence is going to sound familiar: you suffer the trauma of X and it is very, very difficult not to rationalize X as an experience that made you stronger, made you a better person. It can be horrifying, crippling, to even imagine that if not for experience X you would be more whole as a human being. Kurlansky’s theory of the marginalization of nonviolence is, more or less, this personal rationalization of trauma writ large: we experience war (trauma) and seek to rationalize it because to acknowledge war serves no constructive purpose is so horrifying to concieve of that it is literally beyond language, beyond our collective imagining. Instead, we justify it as fundamental to human existence, and therefore inevitable and necessary, and therefore a part of the human condition in which we must find value.
Which, I think, is part of the reason I’m so fascinated by it. By the practice of nonviolence. Precisely because so many of us, so often, imagine it is beyond the realm of possibility. I spend much of my time studying (historically, culturally) the lives of people who live and work and think in ways that — to the majority — are literally outside of the possible. That are understood to be incompatible with a meaningful (or in some cases literal!) existence. And yet, somehow, these folks persist in existing.
Reading a book like this is like having someone throw down a gauntlet: You think war is the only solution? Prove to me you’ve exhausted every other possibility. No, more than that: prove to me that violence will facilitate better outcomes than taking any other action or no action at all. Unless you can prove that to me, I’m not interested in hearing how nonviolence is fanciful, impractical, idealistic. Because war kills people. Violence harms people. And perhaps the most compelling (and revolutionary) idea of them all: violence doesn’t work.
You disagree? Prove it. Until then? I’m not interested.