Nonviolence and Armed Struggle: a Conversation

The following discussion is part of a three-hour conversation. The speakers (who give their own views only, not those of their groups) are:
Len Desroches: Solidarity, a newsletter supporting Central American nonviolent resistance.
Nomi Wall: Canadian Action for Nicaragua.
Deb Ellis: Alliance for Nonviolent Action.
Yusuf Saloojee: African National Congress.
Barry Stevens Moderated for PEACE Magazine.

By Barry Stevens (moderator) | 1988-04-01 12:00:00

Len: Nonviolence for a lot of people means only non-participation in a war. But it can have as much force as armed struggle. It contains powerful tools - such as the boycott - and seemingly innocent tools, such as the leaflet, that was used by the United Farm Workers to create a revolution that's still going on.

Deb: It depends on the context. A petition to the government is an exercise in futility but in a situation of oppression a petition may be a bold political act.

Len: Nonviolent resistance seems to mean to many people resisting only as long as there are no great risks. As such, it is feeble. But there are historical cases when it has been powerful and successful. For that, it often requires risking death. Otherwise it is like going into the hills of Nicaragua with a gun, saying, "I will resist for my people as long as they don't shoot at me."

Yusuf: In South Africa we pursued nonviolent struggle for almost fifty years: passive resistance, peaceful demonstrations, and legal actions against racial injustice. The most difficult decision in the history of our movement was in 1962 when the state declared the ANC illegal. After Sharpeville, where 69 people had been shot dead, there was a sense of desperation. To keep people from starting their own sporadic acts of violence throughout the country, the ANC introduced very limited armed struggle, meticulously ensuring that there was no loss of human life. It was used to signal the government that, unless they would sit down and resolve South Africa's problems through dialogue, then this would become the order of the day. This message was not heard in the sixties. Now in the eighties, major democratic organizations (e.g. the United Democratic Front, the Congress of South African Trade Unions) have a policy of nonviolent struggle. The state has dealt violently with those organizations, killing over 3000 people in two or three years, arresting 30,000 people, torturing some of them, including many children. This issue remains on the agenda. There is a tremendous pressure on us, particularly from Western governments, to abandon armed struggle. Peace activists in the West say, if Gandhi could succeed why couldn't we? And indeed, we are continuing a nonviolent form of struggle. The most important part of our struggle is political and nonviolent. But given that we face a regime that relies exclusively on force and kills our children in the street, we have to adopt this as a tactic to disarm those that are violent, the state apparatus - the army and the police.

Barry: Kenneth Kaunda said that he was laughed at until there had been violence. Then he suddenly became the voice of reason and the colonial powers wanted to make him a spokesman. Martin Luther King also was taken more seriously after the cities began to go up in flames in the sixties. There would be no Martin Luther King Day if there hadn't been a Malcolm X.

Len: In South Africa and Nicaragua, nonviolence was hardly applied. Martin Luther King called for boycotting South Africa years ago and I think it would have succeeded. A boycott is powerful. Take the Nestlé boycott. Miguel d'Escoto said the same thing about Nicaragua when he realized that things were bad and that violence was coming. He pleaded with those, such as bishops, who could have led nonviolent resistance. They said he was idealistic, that bloodshed wouldn't happen. It happened. Nicaraguan nonviolence didn't fail; it was never done.

Nomi: I don't call the Nicaraguan people or blacks in South Africa violent. The terms "violence" and "terrorist" are laid on to mystify us so that we define violence as the same for everybody. An organization like the ANC - the only legitimate representative of an entire nation of black people - must have

an alternative to lying down and submitting to genocide. Something like the Nestlé's boycott isn't going to bring down apartheid in South Africa. What choice do people have but armed struggle? Otherwise they're dead, they're history. Armed struggle is fighting back, not initiating violence. Nicaraguans waged an armed struggle for a number of years, won, and threw the dictator out. They were creating a democratic society when the U.S. set up a mercenary force. Now they are fighting back. Nonviolent resistance and armed struggle can go on simultaneously. In El Salvador, nonviolent resistors come from abroad to accompany Salvadorans who are in danger of being murdered by the state. They escort people to their emigration hearings and to the buses taking them to Mexico or to the airport. This nonviolent resistance goes on while armed struggle continues. Even violent guerrilla warfare has to be supported nonviolently by the community who get food, clothing, shelter and health care for those who are fighting.

Yusuf: The Commonwealth Eminent Persons group say that unless sufficient pressures are brought on the South African state, violent confrontation is inevitable. The chances of violence can be reduced or eliminated if those who can apply those peaceful pressures are willing to do so.

Deb: It's so easy for North Americans to opt out of the struggle. People won't consider going to jail for a couple of days, whereas they may applaud violent revolution in other countries.

Len: Canadians who support nonviolence often speak for the Nicaraguans or the South Africans and say they should lay down their arms. That is unacceptable. I would never tell the Sandinistas that they should lay down their arms. But there's a powerful movement in Latin America - Servicio Pacifico - a network of active nonviolent resistance. They can say "Listen, we do exist, we are Latin and Central Americans who are arrested, tortured and killed, and we have opted for nonviolent unarmed resistance." I just want to acknowledge that their approach really does exist as a movement.

Yusuf: In South Africa, too, the Congress of South African Trade Unions is committed to nonviolent struggle. None of them has ever taken up arms, although they have been killed, maimed, and tortured. We have a large Christian movement that hasn't turned to armed struggle. Yet it is bearing the wrath of the state, including violent action against the Christian churches.

Deb: The state apparatus doesn't distinguish between non-violent and violent struggle.

Len: I would rather be killed a hundred times than take up arms. That is what I would hope to do in any situation. There are two streams of nonviolent resistance. For some in the nonviolent movement, it is essentially a tactic, not necessarily a personal option. For me it is both. If the tactic didn't seem to work I would not let go of nonviolent resistance. Some armed resistors would say the equivalent thing: "Even if I lose this battle, I'm still going to struggle with my weapons."

Barry: What about destroying property? Is that violence?

Deb: I have no problem with that, but using dynamite could end up hurting people, as happened at Litton.

Len: I agree. Property is neutral. The only criterion for me is whether I knew for sure that it was risking no one's life.

Yusuf: Material property can be replaced, but not human life.

Nomi: Is human life equally valuable? The Generals, people who make monstrous policies - are their lives valuable?

Yusuf: When I was first detained in South Africa, I was kept in solitary confinement, tortured. It's amazing. I thought I would hate my torturers, six policemen who interrogated me, who beat me up, gave me electric shocks. I found myself feeling sorry for them. But it also strengthened my resolve to fight. I told myself that there is no other way we can get rid of an evil like apartheid.

Two other events gave me the anger to say we must fight back! The first time was when my uncle was killed during interrogation and thrown down from the seventh floor of the security police building. To see his body when his fingernails and toenails had been torn apart, to see the damage to his body! What kind of human being! How can I feel sorry for them?

The second time was in the rural areas in South Africa, where I saw hunger, poverty and starvation. Little babies! It is not a country where there is a lack of food or resources. They don't hesitate to shoot a baby as long as it's black. That is when you say, how can we struggle peacefully?

Nomi: The Palestinians have stones and they are fighting back against a massive army with very sophisticated weaponry.

Len: In Palestine I had the good fortune to meet radical Jews and Palestinians. I stayed in a village with people who were committed to nonviolent resistance and who took risks. One day I felt frustrated because there were so few people committed to nonviolent resistance that I had to travel all over to meet them. But then I realized, in Canada I could barely find anybody. My point is that if there were that few people involved in armed struggle, it would be pretty ineffective too.

The heart of nonviolence is the power of imagination. Let's say I imagine this: lam a Palestinian. Even if you keep telling me I don't exist, this is what I imagine and I will live it Out until it becomes true. We have to do that. I imagine a world not like this one and I'm simply not going to cooperate with that other world. I am going to radically cooperate with the world that I imagine.

Barry: One criticism of nonviolent liberation struggles is that everywhere they have succeeded (say, Zambia or India, or the Civil Rights Movement) the oppressor was accessible and the population's minds and hearts were accessible, with some unrestricted information coming through.

Len: Right inside the U.S. there is a nonviolent resistance movement with people who are in for the long haul. We have to do our own Canadian transformation - the rearrangement of our lives. A lot of people don't know anything about the amazing history of nonviolence. Who has read Gene Sharp's Making Europe Unconquerable about the real possibilities of civilian defence in Europe? How many North Americans have read Martin Luther King? He was brilliant strategically.

Nomi: Two things threw Martin Luther King. One was his exposure to the riots in the black ghettos, with a kind of black violence that he hadn't experienced in the South. He said that he wouldn't know what to tell those people to do. Given the rage in the ghettos, they would not be satisfied with nonviolence. Also, in the end he supported revolution and armed struggle in Vietnam. Nonviolence is a valuable tactic in particular situations. In Canada it is time for us to begin looking at it as a tactic, not shying away from it. As privileged Canadians, we have to understand who our enemy is and what role we can play in fighting the violence of poverty and the environmental violence perpetrated by the state. Then we will be acting with true solidarity with the struggles of people elsewhere.

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1988

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1988, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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