Book Review & Literature

Book Review: Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis

by Gertjan Cobelens

Dustwrapper art courtesy

But what about World War II? It is considered the ultimate trump card in any debate on the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. Not entirely by accident, it is also the title of an IFOR brochure on this very question. (1) It was President Obama’s main defense for his justification of the use of force in his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize. It was one of the main stumbling blocks for Martin Luther King Jr. towards embracing nonviolence, and it is the standard reaction of most people involved in government and the military to suggestions of implementing forms of nonviolent civil defense. The implication, of course, is that the Nazi regime was so violent and abhorrent that it could only be stopped by brute force. The other side of the coin, though, is that if one could argue successfully that some forms of nonviolent resistance did prove viable during WWII, it would follow that these strategies would be effective under most circumstances.

That was what the War Resisters’ International set out to demonstrate when, in 1952, they embarked on the idea to put together a book on accounts of nonviolent resistance. Although the WRI succeeded in amassing some first-class examples, the amount of material collected was deemed insufficient to be published as a book. (2) Others followed suit, such as Gene Sharp in his 1958 Peace News Pamphlet Tyranny Could Not Quell Them, in which he detailed the successful non-cooperation campaign by the teachers of Norway, and Jacques Sémelin’s Unarmed Against Hitler: Civilian Resistance in Europe 1939-1943. (3).

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Book Review: A Theory of Nonviolent Action: How Civil Resistance Works

by David M. Craig

Dustwrapper art courtesy

Reflecting on the writer’s internal struggle between the sense of futility and the need to persevere, the American author F. Scott Fitzgerald described the “test of a first-rate intelligence [as] the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” (1) Stellan Vinthagen’s book, A Theory of Nonviolent Action: How Civil Resistance Works (London: Zed Books, 2015), passes a similar judgment on Mohandas Gandhi. Even if Gandhi resisted the “Great Soul” title of Mahatma, his genius included a capacious imagination and experimental creativity that not only embraced opposed ideas, but also put them into action simultaneously. Some of the contradictions in Gandhi’s nonviolence are familiar. His aspiration for spiritual purification could sometimes conflict with his political strategizing. The nonviolent resister’s opposition to oppressive rules and roles stands in tension with solicitude for the people who support and benefit from the status quo. Vinthagen multiplies the contradictions inherent in nonviolent action, interpreting them as “a creative tension, a dynamic that gives nonviolence its social ‘force.’” (Vinthagen, 321)

Vinthagen’s original contribution is to map out these tensions in a general sociological theory of nonviolent action. For Vinthagen, Gandhi is the primary source and theorist for all discussions of nonviolence, but he also draws Gandhi outside of his historical context and religious identity. A good illustration is Vinthagen’s disagreement over the role and significance of suffering in nonviolence. Gandhi links suffering (tapasya) to a Hindu ideal of renunciation. In his re-reading of Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, Gandhi exhorts everyone to follow the sannyasi’s practice of renunciation and always renounce the fruits of one’s actions. In place of personal goals, right action aspires to Truth. The clearest sign that devotion to Truth has displaced personal goals is a person’s openness to suffering even to the point of losing one’s life.

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Country Joe McDonald: Singing Louder Than the Guns

by Terry Messman

Country Joe McDonald sings anti-war songs; Livermore Lab, Hiroshima Day, August 6, 2015; courtesy

Country Joe McDonald composed one of the most acclaimed peace anthems of the Vietnam era, “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” a rebellious and uproarious blast against the war machine. The song’s anti-war message seems more timely than ever, with its savagely satirical attack on the arms merchants, the military and the White House. “Fixin’ to Die Rag” condemns the architects of war and the military-industrial complex in bitterly sarcastic terms.

Come on Wall Street, don’t move slow
Why man, this is war au-go-go!
There’s plenty good money to be made
By supplying the Army with the tools of its trade.

Recently, a major new book by Craig Werner and Doug Bradley, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, [Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015] ranked hundreds of Vietnam-era songs and listed “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish as one of the two most important songs named by Vietnam veterans, right after “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by the Animals. “The soldiers got it,” write co-authors Werner and Bradley about Country Joe’s song. Michael Rodriguez, an infantryman with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, said: “Bitter, sarcastic, angry at a government some of us felt we didn’t understand — ‘Fixin’ to Die Rag’ became the battle standard for grunts in the bush.”

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Book Review: Understanding Nonviolence

by Tristan K. Husby

Dustwrapper art courtesy Polity Press;

The phrase “Those who can’t do, teach” is so well ingrained in the English vernacular that there is a range of variations, such as “Those who can’t teach, go into administration” or “Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” Knowledge of this phrase is so widespread that a current sit-com about incompetent teachers is simply titled “Those Who Can’t”. Less well known is that the Irish intellectual, playwright, and wit George Bernard Shaw coined this phrase. His original rendition, “He who can, does. He who can’t, teaches”, was one of the aphorisms in his Maxims for Revolutionists. Another axiom from the same book is “Activity is the only road to knowledge.”

That last sums up a great deal of the history of nonviolence. For to a great degree the history of nonviolence is a history of organizers, activists, and leaders first teaching others why nonviolence is an effective method and then working together with those people for change. The recent anthology, Understanding Nonviolence, edited by Maia Carter Hallward and Julie M. Norman (Malden, MA: Polity, 2015) aims to help aid in the discussion; it is explicitly pedagogical, with discussion questions and suggestions for further reading included in each chapter. Furthermore, jargon is kept to a minimum and the authors use endnotes sparingly. However, labeling this book as pedagogical does not mean that it is contains exercises for training nonviolent actions or flowcharts for planning strategies. Rather, this book is pedagogical in that it aims to help students study nonviolence.

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Book Review: Is Understanding the History of Nonviolence Essential to Harnessing Its Power?

by Tristan K. Husby

Dustwrapper art courtesy Brazos Press;

A friend of mine who is an organizer and nonviolence trainer has a favorite exercise called “10-10,” which she uses when introducing nonviolence to new activists. She divides the students into groups and tells them to write down, as quickly as possible, 10 wars. Afterwards, they review all of the different wars that people have recalled. While there are a number of wars that are repeated, often each group has come up with some war that other groups have not thought of at all. When I first participated in this exercise, I was excited to contribute the rather obscure Corinthian War. Then she asks the groups to write down 10 nonviolent struggles. This task always takes longer and some groups run out of time before they can complete the task.

The point of the “10-10” exercise is to drive home how our society pays close attention to wars and violent conflicts: We devote countless news articles, books and classes to retelling the history of these violent events. It is not surprising then that for the past 40 years much of the literature on nonviolence has been historical. Scholars and writers have uncovered, recorded and preserved examples of nonviolent struggles from across the world and from many different time periods so that activists can know for themselves and convince others of the efficacy of people power. Other writers, such as the philosopher Todd May and the theologian Ronald Sider, have adopted this idea of historical research being necessary to argue about and promote nonviolence in new books that they have each published.

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Book Review: Mary Elizabeth King, Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India

by Sean Chabot

Dust jacket courtesy Oxford University Press;

In her preface to the 1965 edition of Conquest of Violence (see References at the end), Joan Bondurant makes a strong case for distinguishing nonviolent action as duragraha or Gandhian satyagraha. She argues that duragraha involves pressuring opponents based on a de facto prejudgment that they are wrong, through passive resistance, and through symbolic violence. In a later essay (posted previously here), she adds that it is a form of stubborn or willful resistance seeking to demonstrate that opponents are necessarily wrong; that resisters are inherently righteous; and that the purpose of nonviolent action is to gain predetermined objectives by winning battles with opponents. In contrast to satyagraha (i.e., firmness in seeking truth through the power of love), duragraha aims at gaining tangible concessions from power-holders in the short-term rather than transforming social relationships and creating in the long run alternative ways of life benefiting everyone,  especially the most oppressed. Bondurant emphasizes these distinctions, because she feels that most of the so-called Gandhian struggles during the 1960s are actually examples of duragraha, not satyagraha. In her eyes, this misunderstanding severely limits the political, ethical, and transformative potential of these struggles.

In the 1960s, Gene Sharp—the undisputed pioneer of nonviolent action and civil resistance studies—responded very differently to Gandhi’s legacy. Unlike Bondurant, Sharp invokes Gandhi to define nonviolent action as “a technique used to control, combat and destroy the opponent’s power by nonviolent means of wielding power”, without carefully conceptualizing satyagraha or considering how it diverges from duragraha (Sharp 1973: 4). By erasing these differences, and by focusing on conventional power politics instead of situational ethics, his The Politics of Nonviolent Action articulates a generic and simplistic understanding of nonviolent action that applies to many cases of unarmed resistance throughout history and across the world. In the process, he normalizes duragraha as a pragmatic and strategic form of nonviolence, thereby hollowing out Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha while continuing to use Gandhi’s name to popularize his own approach. Since the 1970s, Sharp has quickly become the most influential figure in the field, serving as mentor to fellow civil resistance authors like George Lakey, Peter Ackerman, Jack Duvall, Michael Randle, Howard Clark, April Carter, and of course Mary King.

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Three Fairytales by Manfred Kyber

Translated by William J. Jackson

“Wintertime”; illustration by Eduard Schultz, 1867; courtesy

Translator’s Preface: Manfred Kyber (1880-1933) was born in Riga, now the capital of Latvia, but then a part of Russia. His family was German and when he was still a small boy they moved back to Germany. He studied philosophy at the University of Leipzig and later moved to Berlin where he published a novel, poetry, and theater criticism. He married Elisabeth Boltho, a Theosophist through whom he met Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and mystic, and became associated with the anthroposophical movement, which Steiner led. Kyber was not only a pacifist but an outspoken early proponent of animal rights. As well as poetry and novels, he published several volumes of fables and fairy tales, many of which have been translated into English. See the note at the end for links and further details about the translation and translator. Please note that we have also posted three other fairy tales by Kyber. WJJ

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The Snowman

Once upon a time there was a snowman who stood in the middle of the deep snow-covered forest, and he was made entirely of snow. He had no legs, and his eyes were made of coal—that’s all he had, and that’s not much. And he was cold, terribly cold. That’s what the grumbling old icicle that hung nearby said too, though he himself was even colder. “You are cold,” he said reproachfully to the snowman.

The snowman was hurt. “Well, you’re cold too,” he answered.

“Yes, but that’s something else again entirely,” said the icicle with a superior tone.

The snowman was so offended that he would have gone away if he had had any legs. But he had no legs and so he remained standing there, though he did decide to speak no more with the unfriendly icicle.

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Book Review: The Ethics of Nonviolence; Essays by Robert L. Holmes

by Andrew Fiala

Book jacket courtesy Bloomsbury Publishing;

This is a collection of essays by Robert L. Holmes (Predrag Cicovacki [ed.], London: Bloomsbury, 2013), a philosopher known primarily for his extensive body of work on nonviolence and war, including his influential book, On War and Morality (Princeton University Press, 1989). The essays include some of Holmes’ early articles on American pragmatism and ethical theory. But its primary focus is later work, including some important material on the philosophy of nonviolence, some of it published previously in journals and books along with previously unpublished material. The book concludes with a short essay on his teaching philosophy and an interview with the editor that provides some biographical material about Holmes’ education and life.

While the earlier essays on pragmatism and ethical theory may be of interest to academic philosophers, and the later items would be of interest to those who know Holmes as a teacher or colleague, the primary focus of the volume is on the ethics of nonviolence. The essays on this topic are both readable and important. They will be of interest to a broad audience and not merely to academic philosophers. Indeed, these essays should be read and carefully considered by students of peace studies and peace activists.

One significant contribution is Holmes’ analysis of the difference between nonviolentism and pacifism. Indeed, it appears that he coined the term “nonviolentism” in a 1971 essay that is reprinted in this collection (157). According to Holmes, pacifism is a narrow perspective that is merely opposed to war, while nonviolentism is a broader perspective that is opposed in general to violence.

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An Invasion of California: A Radio Play on the Theme of Nonviolent Resistance

by Richard Moses

Image courtesy

Editor’s Preface: This 1970 radio play is our most recent discovery from the War Resisters’ International archive. The notations on the manuscript credit the 1960s Methodist publication Motive Magazine, a highly regarded literary journal. Moses seems to have written for it, and they may have had a hand in producing the play, but we have not found any evidence that they published it. An Invasion bears obvious comparisons with the popular, Peter Sellers film The Mouse that Roared, released in 1959. Richard Moses was a Quaker and on the Board of Friends Journal. Please see the link to the pdf of the original and the reference note, at the end. JG

ANNOUNCER: (More or less ad lib) In just a few minutes, ladies and gentlemen we shall be going on the air. When I raise my hand, may we have absolute silence? (Looks at watch; raises hand) This is the American Broadcasting System bringing over its regular network, short wave stations and affiliated foreign stations, a speech by the President of the United States. With the attack on Hawaii yesterday and the impending invasion of the West Coast by the armed forces of Stonia, the President has cancelled all scheduled appointments to bring this message to the people. The President will be introduced by Mrs. Joan Alden, chairman of the White House Nonviolent Strategy Board. Mrs. Alden…

ALDEN: The hour for testing is at hand. Twenty years ago our nation decided that the thousands of years in which violence had failed to establish peace or justice was a costly experiment best ended. We have been prepared through schools, and churches, newspapers and radio for defense through nonviolence. We have tested ourselves domestically in areas of race relations, industrial problems and the like. The entire people have committed themselves and are ready to die in the faith that all men are brothers.

As you know, the American government has attempted unsuccessfully to arbitrate the differences between the countries of Pan Costia and Stonia concerning freedom of the Pacific seas. When two years ago, war broke out between these countries, we immediately stopped all exports to them with the exception of food, medical supplies, and other non-war materials. This meant, among other things, termination of a trade agreement to supply Stonia with 60 billion gallons of crude oil annually. The decision, strongly protested by the Stonian Ambassador, was reached upon the advice of our Congressional Peace and Economics Committees.

Read the pdf of the complete article here: An Invasion of California

Reference: IISG/WRI Archive Box 398: Folder 3. We are grateful to WRI/London and their director Christine Schweitzer for their cooperation in our WRI project.

Book Review: A Guide to Civil Resistance

by George Lakey

Woman protesting Thai coup, June 2014; photograph courtesy

I first encountered Gene Sharp when he was a young man in jeans and sneakers, working in a research institute affiliated with the University of Oslo. Not guessing that he would become a mentor of mine, I met him because one of my Norwegian professors sent me to him. Gene had already served time in a U.S. federal prison for draft resistance and then joined the War Resisters’ International [WRI] Peace News staff to report on activism in the United Kingdom. Now he was in a small cubicle with a typewriter, analyzing the Norwegian resistance to Nazi German occupation during World War II. A half century later, in 2011, Foreign Policy would list Gene among the 100 most influential thinkers in the world.

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“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi