Without Firing A Single Shot: Voluntaryist Resistance and Societal Defense

 by Carl Watner
From Number 128

In his book review, “Security Without a State,” David Gordon concluded that “The notion that only the State can provide an adequate defense is but one more statist myth – maybe the most dangerous one of all.” While I heartily endorse this statement, neither its author, nor the editor, nor the contributors to THE MYTH OF NATIONAL DEFENSE (the volume Gordon was reviewing) consider one important variant of non-state defense, namely, civilian-based nonviolence. While pointing out that “some rough combination of [private] militias and ‘insurance companies’,” and “mass-based guerrilla war[fare]” would suffice to defend an anarchist society, practically none of the current advocates of non-state defense strategies suggest civilian-based nonviolence. What they overlook is the possibility of a non-state society defending itself “without firing a shot.” The basic component of such a policy rests on the basic voluntaryist insight: that all government and hierarchies depend upon the consent and cooperation of those whom they would rule over. Or as Gene Sharp put it, “When people refuse their cooperation, withhold their help, and persist in their disobedience and defiance, they are denying their opponent the basic human assistance which any government or hierarchical system requires. if they do this in sufficient numbers for long enough, that government or hierarchical system will no longer have power” or be able to function.

The Strength of Barehands and Stubbornness
To most people, the voluntaryist perspective is both incomprehensible and inconceivable. There are relatively few numbers of people that view the State as an invasive institution, one which is based on territorial aggrandizement and coercive revenues. There are even fewer who might ask the question: Can there be an alternative mode of societal defense which is not based on military means? Nonetheless, nonviolent struggle is rooted in a deep human propensity (also evidenced in many domesticated animals) to be stubborn, to persist in doing what has been forbidden, and to refuse to do what has been ordered. As we all know, this stubborn streak is present in children: they refuse to eat or do as they are told, or engage in delaying tactics. Adults, too, can be recalcitrant, but fortunately human stubbornness can be directed toward admirable goals. We can cooperate with other human beings to resist what we collectively view as evil or wrongdoing. Nonviolent struggle or voluntaryist resistance is simply the widespread societal application of this obdurate trait for social, economic, or anti-political purposes.

Revolutionary implications stem from the simple voluntaryist insight that no ruler exists without the cooperation and/or acquiescence of the majority of his or her subjects to be ruled. One might say that nonviolence is “the political equivalent of the atomic bomb.” To call nonviolent resistance “passive” or “for sissies” is to totally misunderstand its import. As Hannah Arrendt pointed out, the use of nonviolent resistance is one of the most active and efficient ways of action ever devised by human beings because it cannot be countered by fighting. Only mass slaughter will assure the violent opponent an ultimate victory, but even then “the victor is defeated, cheated of his prize, since nobody can rule over dead” people. Furthermore, civilian resistance demands widespread unity of opinion among the population, and careful research and strategic planning; its adoption must be preceded by widespread preparation and training; and its execution calls for considerable courage and discipline. Could an army be successful if its soldiers had no training? Nonviolent resistance is no different in this regard.

There are many advantages of nonviolent civilian-based defense. For one thing, a nonviolent army is not limited to the physically fit. Children, seniors, people of every age and condition, even the infirm, are capable of refusing to do what they are told to do. For another thing, even though suffering and death are an inevitable part of any social struggle, nonviolent resistance minimizes both the numbers of casualties and the amount of destruction. Another advantage of nonviolent resistance is that there is no such thing as final defeat, so long as a few people exist whose minds and spirit are not bent to the will of the ruler. For example ” after more than forty years the Tibetans continue to resist the Chinese military occupation. … [I]f the will to resist is maintained … the defense cannot be defeated.”

Civilian-based defense would make a society and its institutions “indigestible to any invader” but such a society, itself, would be incapable of launching any foreign aggression or the invasion of another country since it possesses no weaponry and uses nonviolent resistance in a strictly defensive manner. If threatened with a nuclear attack, nonviolent defenders would have no nuclear deterrent with which to counter. They would have to be prepared to face down nuclear blackmail and be prepared to die for their cause, just as soldiers are prepared to die for their cause. If the global community was not prepared to ostracize and boycott a rogue government that possessed weapons of mass destruction until its nuclear threat was withdrawn, then little could be done except to let the bluff be called. “The would-be threatener would have little to gain from following through with his threat if it meant creating a wasteland of the territory he sought to control, for nothing of value would remain for him to exploit.”

The Tradition of Nonviolence
The term “people power” is part of a surprisingly long and robust tradition of waging social conflict by nonviolent means. Probably the first recorded act of civil disobedience in history is the refusal of the Hebrew midwives to obey the Pharaoh’s order to kill male Hebrew babies in 1350 B.C. (Exodus 1:15-19) Those who have studied the history of nonviolent movements have cataloged a surprisingly long list of examples, often beginning with the American colonial boycotts, tax refusal, and acts of civil disobedience which culminated in the violent struggle for independence against Great Britain. The most pertinent observation about the American Revolution came from John Adams, who observed that the real revolution took place in the hearts and minds of the American colonists long “before the [official] war commenced” in April 1775. Nonviolent resistance played a significant role during the 19th and 20th Centuries, being found in a wide variety of “political, cultural, and geographic conditions.” Gene Sharp lists some of the most prominent examples in his book, SOCIAL POWER AND POLITICAL FREEDOM:

Hungarian passive resistance to Austrian rule, 1850-1867
Finnish resistance to Russia, 1898-1905
Nonviolent resistance to the Tsardom during the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917
German general strike and non-cooperation to the Kapp Putsch in 1920
Resistance to the French and Belgian occupation of the Ruhr 1923-1925
The Indian independence movement led by Gandhi, 1930 – 1947
The Muslim Pashtun (Pathan) Movement of the North-West Frontier of India, 1930-1934 led by Badshah Khan
The resistance of over 14,000 Norwegian teachers and clergymen to Nazi rule during World War II
Czechoslovakian resistance to Soviet invasion, 1968-1969
The Intifada, the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation, beginning in 1987.

Sharp concludes that “Much can be learned from these experiences” (of which the above are only a partial listing). For example, Badshah Khan’s organization of Pathans, known as the Khudai Khidmatgar, exploded the myth that nonviolence can only be followed by those who are gentle (the Pathans were known as some of the most violent fighters in the world) and that nonviolence had no place in Islam. These examples also show that “resistance is possible in a wide variety of situations and conflicts, even in extremely difficult and repressive ones.” Nevertheless, Sharp also points out that nearly all of these historical examples of nonviolent resistance suffered from the absence of strategic planning, preparation, and training. However, even where they failed, none of them invalidated the “proposition that all government, even totalitarian government, is based on the consent and cooperation of the ruled” and everyone of them tended to prove that if the consent of the populace is taken away, then every regime, even the most ruthless, must collapse.

But what of a Hitler or a Stalin: could such despotic dictators be resisted nonviolently? Does nonviolent resistance work against extremely ruthless opponents? Advocates of nonviolence have answered this question “Yes,” based on their understanding of the theory of nonviolent resistance and an examination of history. They have concluded that nonviolent resistance has never failed because it was ruthlessly suppressed; but rather it failed because it was never systematically and consistently used. The key question is not how ruthless is the opponent, but rather how seriously are the practitioners of nonviolence committed to their strategy. Nonviolent struggles have a greater chance of success if they are strategically planned and systematically implemented. Even lacking this, nonviolent resistance “works” because it rests on a fundamental insight into the nature of political power. As Gandhi said, there are no guarantees in life, but if one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself. “All one can say with certainty about nonviolent … [resistance] is that it will not succeed unless the dependency of the ruler’s power is exposed and sucked dry.” Every ruler depends not only on the obedience of his subjects, but also on the cooperation of his agents, such as the police and bureaucratic officials. If the acquiescence of any of these groups evaporates, for whatever reason, the ruthless dictator is left high and dry. Finally as Mubarak Awad, the father of Palestinian nonviolence, observed that “There is no more assurance that a nonviolent struggle will be victorious than there is an assurance that armed struggle will achieve its end.” After all, in half of the armed struggles that are conclusively ended, one-half of the opponents are victors; the other half losers.

The social conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis offers an actual example of a people trying to defend their homeland. Since its beginning in 1967, there has always been “two parts of the Palestinian resistance movement, the paramilitary and the civil.” Nonviolence has always been a critical component of the Intifada (Arabic for “to shake off”). This has included “strikes by schools and businesses, boycotts of Israeli-made products,” tax refusal, marches and demonstrations, and civil disobedience (including refusal to carry Israeli identity cards). Awad has described how the Palestinians might nonviolently occupy settler land, plant olive trees, and declare the land Palestinian territory. He has also suggested how Palestinians might nonviolently surround Israeli checkpoints and block roads to the West Bank settlements. “The Israeli army would probably react with brutalities and casualties, though far fewer than in the current climate of terrorism or retaliation. Television [and the Internet] now have global reach and the whole world would be watching. … The Israelis know well how to fight an armed antagonist, yet they have little understanding of how to deal with massive nonviolent resistance. They expect, and in fact need, for Palestinians to be either submissive or violent. The violence has not worked; and submission is intolerable. Nonviolence is thus left as the only alternative.”

“Endure unto the end, but violence to no man”
The idea that nonviolence might be applied to the defense of a community was probably first elaborated by Charles King Whipple in his 1842 booklet, EVILS OF THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR. Whipple, an abolitionist and peace man” (pacifist in 20th Century terminology), challenged the assumption that “we could never have freed ourselves from British domination, except by war.” His thesis was that Americans could have attained their independence “as effectually, as speedily, as honorably, and under very much more favorable circumstances,” if they had not resorted to arms. Instead, Whipple maintained that Americans should have engaged in a “steady and quiet refusal to comply with unjust requisitions; publicly declared … their grievances, and demands for redress; and patiently endured … whatever violence was used to compel their submission.” Even if the signers of the Declaration of Independence had been executed for treason, even if hundreds or thousands of Americans had been jailed for their refusal to comply with British demands, Whipple believed that ultimately Britain would have tired of dealing with the contumacious Americans. After all, he points out, Great Britain was not so much defeated on the battlefield as much as “tired of fighting.” Continue…