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LOCAL Review :: Protest Activity

Review of "How Nonviolence Protects the State"

Peter Gelderloos critiques nonviolent activism in his harsh but potentially useful new book.
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As a nonviolent activist, perhaps I should have been offended by the title of Peter Gelderloos’ new book, How Nonviolence Protects the State, or by chapter headings like “Nonviolence is Delusional?. And yet upon finishing this book, which attempts to systematically tear down many of the values and strategies to which I’ve devoted the last 20 years of my life, I found myself strangely exhilarated: the revolution is alive.

What burns through all of Gelderloos’ arguments and analysis is his fiery rage at the injustices of imperialism and his determination to wrest power from oppressors. This rage, shared by all revolutionaries, is beautiful, and, at its best, is borne out of deep love for the earth and her inhabitants.

In this book, this rage has been directed almost exclusively at nonviolent activists, many of whom share Gelderloos’ vision of a new society. Lots of his arguments are valid, and studying them is imperative for nonviolent activists hoping to be part of a larger movement for real, liberative change. Unfortunately, to use Gelderloos’ book as a tool for self-criticism, one must constantly wade through accusations that nonviolents activists have a “highly active sense of superiority? and “have their heads up their asses?.

The activists I know who are committed to what they consider nonviolent tactics (which often include property destruction), have carefully considered their courses of action. Like other revolutionaries, we ask ourselves every day how we can best end oppression and bring about liberation. Like others, we struggle with feelings of fear, helplessness and rage. We seek community and meaningful action. Many of us have spent years creating lifestyles that enable us to take risks for the sake of our vision. Our study, thought, discussion and experiences have led us to choose tactics that will not result in physical harm to other people.

Certainly, it is important for us to continue to openly critique our own stances. One of the points Gelderloos makes is that peace movement pacifists have dominated the language of activism. He suggests that we distinguish ourselves as “reform? and “revolutionary“ activists, not as “violent? or “nonviolent?. As one who’s served a year in jail for property damage, I agree that the division into violent and nonviolent is often unnecessarily divisive. To go even further, organizer and nonviolent activist minister Nelson Johnson, former member of the armed communist workers party, says that labels generally do not provide clarity. Instead, when we label someone “violent? or “enemy?, we “participate in freezing into place categories of otherness that create fear?.

In the same way, if we label someone “violent oppressor? and kill them, we take away the opportunity for relationship and change.

Gelderloos discusses the failures of nonviolent movements to dismantle empire. I agree. And I believe the same can be said about violent revolutions. Thus far, neither tactic, neither practice, has resulted in the end of empire. What this says to me is that the problem of oppression is huge, and we have many hearts and minds to win before we’ll make any lasting change. Gelderloos’ book reminds me that like Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, the Christian pastor who wanted to assassinate Hitler, those who choose tactics that may result in harm to others have also studied, thought, and discussed, and have come to the conclusion that what they are doing is the best thing they can do to end oppression.

Perhaps the best we revolutionaries can do for each other is accept that we are all acting out of a deep desire to end oppression. For all revolutionary activists, for all people working to end oppression and create liberation, the challenge is to look honestly at our resistance and make it ever more militant—which does not necessarily mean violent.

When facing an empire as big as the US government, all actions by individuals and small groups are primarily symbolic. With a machine like the military/industrial/prison complex, the amount of resistance necessary is huge. We all need each other’s wisdom and spirit. We need to continue to challenge each other to look at the hard questions of long and short term effectiveness, personal responsibility, goals and vision.

It is my hope that this book will contribute to mutual understanding, and not to the attitudes of distrust and dismissiveness that prompted Gelderloos to write it.
 
 


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