How Nonviolence Protects the State by Peter Gelderloos

nonviolence.jpg“There is nothing in this world currently deserving of the name peace. Rather, it is a question of whose violence frightens us most, and on whose side we will stand.”

This is an excellent example of the sort of book anarchists need to be producing to keep our ideas visible and viable in society at large. In lucid and accessible prose, Gelderloos comprehensively debunks the notion that non-violent activism is the only acceptable and effective method of struggle.

Like anyone who wants to make a constructive contribution to a discussion, and in stark contrast to ideologues on both sides of this issue, Gelderloos makes an effort to engage with the strongest versions of all the common arguments in favor of orthodox pacifism over a diversity of tactics. Not that he pulls any punches or refrains from strong statements! But to make his point, Gelderloos doesn’t have to prove that non-violent resistance is never useful, only that a prohibition on other forms of resistance is not always effective at dissolving or toppling hierarchies.

Gelderloos starts from the successes famously associated with pacifism, then sketches in the context that pacifists often leave out. Following this opener, he sets about dissecting the insidious interconnections between pacifism and unchallenged privilege. He argues that an insistence on non-violence can only compromise the autonomy of participants in resistance movements and alienate important allies; it is no coincidence that the other book Gelderloos has recently published is on consensus process, though this might seem strange to ideologues who associate diversity of tactics with coercive machismo.

Gelderloos doesn’t seriously address the complexities of violent tactics—their effects on those who use them, the most appropriate circumstances in which to apply them, or the precedents for their success in North America—but to do so would take at least another book of this length. One can simultaneously find Gelderloos’s arguments convincing and at the same time remain unsure what the alternative to non-violent hegemony looks like.

It turns out the body text only accounts for two thirds of the book; the rest is comprised of painstakingly detailed referencing such as would never appear in a CrimethInc. project (ah, the virtues of opposition to intellectual property) and an assemblage of smaller appendices. The last of these, a heartbreaking account of the Poor People’s March at the Republican National Convention in 2004, will resonate with anyone who was there hoping to do more than be a number in the organizers’ head count. It’s only unfortunate that Gelderloos doesn’t juxtapose it against an account of one of the many times over the past decade that similar marches have been protected from police violence because their participants refused to abide by the orders of peacekeepers, trusting their courage and collective power as their only assurance of safety.

It will be a shame if this book isn’t read and discussed by people who disagree with it. If it isn’t, that will prove its central thesis—that pacifism retains its hegemony in some circles only because people refuse to acknowledge the possibility of other approaches to social change.

Diction Quibble: Though the text is largely readable throughout, near the end Gelderloos explains that he hopes to “defenestrate the stranglehold” that pacifist ideology has upon liberation movements. Talk about mixing metaphors!

8 thoughts on “How Nonviolence Protects the State by Peter Gelderloos

  1. thanks for the link, shmooth. you are right about the cover. it’ll be added momentarily.

  2. Anarchists, etc. seem to be setting themselves up for their apparent lack of understanding of history, thanks apparently to their naively romantic orientation in support of violent response to the norms of state terrorism. Why does this remain so “popular”? (And when’s the last time you read the history of the Black Panther movement, or any other related movement that believed in martially defending its constituencies??) Certainly there are other ways to interact than passive/pacifist nonviolence, as Saul Alinsky showed us in his book _Rules For Radicals_.

    Taiaiake Alfred (a veteran of Oka, apparently), in his 2005 book _Wasase_ went further, if you read the area of page 22-23 (where he discusses “revolution” from an engaged indigenous perspective). Some examples:
    “…violent…revolutions have never been successful in producing peaceful coexistence between peoples; in fact, they always reproduce the exact set of power relations they seek to change, rearranging only the outward face of power.”
    “The implication of an approach to making change using armed force to attack institutions and the structures of power is an ensuing culture of violence, that is, in its very existence, the negation of the ideal of peaceful coexistence at the heart of Onkewehonwe philosophies.”
    “The truly revolutionary goal is to transform disconnection and fear into connection and to transcend colonial culture and institutions.”

    Really, it seems to me that promotions of armed insurrection and such things are full of extreme naivite. If you are authentic in your inclinations, you would do well to study the 1960s movements and how their momentums and resources got consistently bogged down and distracted from their original intentions.

  3. cruciaL,

    There are some who were active in the 1960s who, drawing on their experiences then, still support a diversity of tactics. From my own reading and conversation, I’d argue that much of the bogging down and distraction that occurred in the 1960s movements was caused by the absence of an explicit critique of hierarchy per se from most sectors of those movements.

    I’m sure we could quote authors back and forth all day on the subject, but it seems to me that the center of gravity in both Peter’s book and the above review is that it doesn’t pay to arbitrarily limit the permissible array of tactics to those pacifists consider nonviolent. Arguments for such limitations are too often couched in generalizations such as the ones you present, rather than concrete examples of situations in which people have to choose between tactics with a lot resting on their decision. My own experiences in such situations have taught me that often, tactics that qualify as “nonviolent” only enable the violence of the state (and others), while self-defense tactics can often lead to less violent outcomes.

    I deplore violence, but I’m not just trying to keep my hands clean, I’m trying to get to a less violent world. This is analogous to the question that faces those producing radical books in a capitalist society: sure, selling books is essentially capitalist, while neither making nor selling them is non-capitalist. But if “non-capitalist” activity doesn’t lead to less capitalism in the long run, it’s not anti-capitalist, either. On the other hand, selling books that contribute to anti-capitalist momentum can be anti-capitalist, even though it involves capitalist activity. Similarly, one can be non-violent without necessarily being anti-violence–that is to say, without decreasing the amount of violence in the world.

    None of this is to glorify violence, but simply to encourage people to not to glorify non-violence either.

    Finally, if we must quote the authorities to lend weight to our arguments, I have to say this: I’m sure the Jewish insurgents of the Warsaw ghetto would agree with me here. I’ll grant you that some of them went on to use violence to oppress Palestinians–that’s the problem with violence, it’s hard to put in back in the box once you take it out, and that’s a question we must engage with seriously–but one must survive in the first place for it to be meaningful to discuss the rights and wrongs of one’s conduct. The Jews involved in the armed resistance in Warsaw had a much higher survival rate than the “non-violent” ones among them–and they wouldn’t have done anyone any favors, not even the Palestinians, by letting the Nazis slaughter them.

    It may seem a little hyperbolic to refer to the Holocaust to make my point–but even bourgeois scientists have now admitted that we’re on our way to even more awful catastrophe at the hands of industrial capitalism, as global warming threatens to do away with much of life on earth. We have to be strategic, to learn from past precedents as you suggest, but I fear the entire body of history does not weigh in against the use of a diversity of tactics.

  4. cruciaL,

    You cite a quote from Taiaiake Alfred, “The implication of an approach to making change using armed force to attack institutions and the structures of power is an ensuing culture of violence, that is, in its very existence, the negation of the ideal of peaceful coexistence at the heart of Onkewehonwe philosophies.”

    Yet, most Onkewehonwe principles are based off of the Kaianere’ko:wa (the Great Law of Peace). According to the account of Deganawidah (compared to the adulterated and Christianized version of Handsome Lake), the three roots of the Tree of Peace are peace among the people, justice in decisions, and the power to ensure self-defense of the nation.
    In order to maintain the stability of peace and the stateless society, the people of the Rotinonshon:ni needed to establish a community and civilian based defense. This warrior tradition extends into the present day in several Rotinonshon:ni communities despite repeated attempts of assimilation by colonial forces. And this tradition along with a sense of sovereignty contributed to repeated attempts at reclaiming traditional lands by the Mohawk people throughout the 60′s to Oka to the struggle at Six Nations today.
    So even though the Onkewehonwe participated in violence toward outside forces, this did not seem to compromise their communal and matrilineal society. Nor did this change the statelessness of the confederation (See George Woodcock’s “Anarchy, Freedom, Native People & The Environment” for more info).

    In regards to the comment, “Anarchists, etc. seem to be setting themselves up for their apparent lack of understanding of history.” Nonviolent theorists and historians have also been blamed for their lack of understanding of history. The liberation of India was not due solely to a mass nonviolent uprising by the peasant population, but was also due to the fact that the British Empire has taken considerable losses in two world wars in a matter of 30 years. And in so doing was forced to leave several of its colonies.
    Likewise, despite mythologies surrounding the civil rights movement, the concessions that were made (considering this a success for working and lower class blacks is debatable) were also dependent on the U.S. government’s need for a united domestic front while waging a losing and costly war in Vietnam (where an armed and organized peasant revolt was fighting off the world’s largest superpower).
    Without the sense, real or perceived, of a violent black revolution on hand in American, the civil rights movement could have easily become impotent. Dr. King had been considered “too radical” by the establishment but quickly found himself viewed as the lesser of two evils by the State. He was depicted as -the- “responsible black leader,” and Kennedy quickly co-opted much of the movement by the late 60′s. William Jackson, one of the Northern organizers, stated, “Rap Brown and the Black Panthers are just about the best thing that ever happened to the Civil Rights Movement.”
    The essential contradiction of these nonviolent examples (and some would argue nonviolent praxis) is that any successful nonviolent confrontation with the State must depend on the State refraining from unleashing violence (which examples showing it use violence to suppress effective movements), or it requires the counter violence of an outside force.

    As a reply to b.traven’s comment of resistance to the Nazi’s. Examples of successful resistance to the Nazis can be extremely powerful. Gene Sharp in his “Dynamics of Nonviolent Action” shows several examples of successful nonviolent resistance to the Nazis by the Danes (although this was not without sabotage campaigns).

    Violence and nonviolence are both circumstantial. There are ways to effectively resist violently as there are effective ways to resist nonviolently. My point here is that people should accept not only violence or nonviolence as a means of resistance, but should instead embrace a diversity of tactics.

  5. [recent developments in this author's life:]

    On 23 April, 2007, Javier Mazas and Peter Gelderloos were arrested during the police response to a small demonstration organized by the Assamblea de la Okupacion (Squatters Assembly) on La Rambla, in Barcelona. At the demonstration, someone set off a petarda, a loud device designed to shoot flyers into the air. The police response was exaggerated, and they arrested one demonstrator. Peter, a US citizen, was arrested blocks away from the demonstration when police became suspicious based on his appearance. At the time, Peter was observing the first arrest and making sure police were not mistreating the detainee (in the US, Peter is active with Copwatch, as well as Anarchist Black Cross, Food Not Bombs, and other groups).

    The two are currently charged with illegal demonstration and public disorder, and a terrorism-related article has been applied to impact the severity of sentencing. Javier and Peter currently face between three and six years imprisonment. State repression is proceeding from two angles– first, police are falsely claiming they saw these two set off the petarda, and second, the government is trying to portray a small protest as a semi-terrorist act. The investigating judge yelled at Peter that in the US he would be sent to Guantanamo for such an action, and the prosecutor and judge have described the petarda as a mortar, and the protest as an urban guerrilla action designed to send the message that the squatters were a paramilitary force. The government also initiated deportation proceedings against Peter, and a 7 year ban from the Schengen territories (most of western Europe), falsely claiming he was in Spain illegally (Peter’s passport, which could prove his legal entry, was locked up with him during the 48 hours allowed for appeal). After two days in custody, Javier was released to await trial, while the judge imposed an unprecedented 30,000 euros bail on Peter, who was sent to Modelo prison to await trial.

    Surprisingly, the Barcelona collectives were able to raise bail in just one day, and after 2 days in Modelo Peter was released on provisional liberty, though he has to sign in at court every two weeks and remain in Spain until trial, which might not begin for two years or more.

    The two arrested would like to raise money to recover the bail and pay back the Barcelona collectives (the money is refunded after trial but the groups here are already strapped and the sooner they get paid back the better). They also need money to cover court costs. If you are able to send money, email shigmagism (at) yahoo dot com for directions, explaining how much you can send and whether it is a loan (to defray bail, which is refunded eventually) or a gift (to help cover legal costs).

    An additional effect of the charges is that Peter is prevented from returning to the US and continuing his work there. (He has support obligations to several prisoners, had been planning on working with an infoshop, and had been preparing a tour for his two recent books– “How Nonviolence Protects the State” and “Consensus: A New Handbook for Grassroots Social, Political, and Environmental Groups”).

    Another important way to help is to organize solidarity with the movement in Spain. Javier and Peter are not the first two to be framed by the police in Barcelona. There is a strong climate of repression here. Squatted social centers are evicted every month, and anarchists and squatters are in prison or awaiting trial for fighting gentrification, defending squats, fighting the prison system, supporting immigrants, and showing solidarity with the Italian anarchist movement (which itself was recently hammered by a strong wave of repression).

    You can find more information about some of these other cases at
    (much of this is in Spanish, underscoring the need for more translations and communication)

  6. I am most of the way through a series of blog posts that review the Gelderloos book. See my reviews at I am very much a proponent of nonviolence, but gladly engage with Gelderloos on many of his specific points, devoting a blog post to each chapter of his book. I look forward to hearing your comments!

Add Comment Register

Leave a Reply