Exploring The Ethics Of Nonviolence In Moscow

By George Crowell | 1990-02-01 12:00:00

The Soviets have long revered --without actually believing-their cultural ancestor, the pacifist Leo Tolstoy. But recently the philosophers conferred about nonviolence.

It was snowy and bitterly cold: just what one would expect at 56 degrees N. latitude-in Moscow in late November. But the welcome for thirteen of us from Western Europe and North America was delightfully warm.

We had come to participate in an extraordinary conference organized by members of the Institute of Philosophy, of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Focussing on "Ethics of Nonviolence," the conference was the first of its kind for this part of the world, a remarkable expression of glasnost.

Among the impulses behind this conference was the long history of violence in Russia, which has been swept by invasions for centuries and subjected to endless cruelties by its own arbitrary rulers. One of our hosts, indicating the star emitting a bright red glow into the dark of night from the top of a Kremlin tower, commented that she could not look at it without being reminded of the blood of her people shed by Stalin.

At the opening meeting of the conference, Jean Goss of France, who together with his wife, Hildegard Goss-Mayr of Austria, has done training in the techniques of nonviolent action with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, all over the world, including the Philippines for some six weeks before the nonviolent overthrow of Marcos, spoke with an explosive energy belying his 77 years. He set the tone for the conference by making it unmistakably clear that by "nonviolence" we do not mean passivity. As Gandhi expressed it with his concept of satyagraha, "truth force," we mean intensely active, creative, loving efforts to overcome injustices by nonviolent means. Goss stressed the spiral of violence that usually results when violence is used in the pursuit even of desirable ends. The Goss-Mayrs' own deep, personal commitment to a life of active nonviolence was a powerful presence at the conference.

Next came an impassioned plea for Gandhian nonviolence from Ija Lazari-Pawlowska of the University of Lodz in Poland. As early as the 1960s, she had been quietly presenting to her students the subversive vision of active nonviolence, long before the welcome advent of the Solidarity Movement.

The key organizer of the conference was Dr. Abdusalam A. Guseinov, a kindly, warm, outgoing, white-haired father figure, who embodies a strong spirit of nonviolence. He had brought the conference into being as the fulfillment of a dream. In his address he suggested that Marx was right in maintaining that the material needs of all human beings could and should be met. But he rejected Marx's view of the necessity for violence and insisted that humanity could never achieve this goal without employing the methods of Gandhi. He urgently called for drastic changes in human interactions, asserting that "we have no future without nonviolence."

Other Soviet participants developed this same theme in various ways, stressing the critical need for nonviolent alternatives to military systems with nuclear weapons and for nonviolence in human relationships and with our natural environment. Ruben Apresyan, who also did much to organize the conference, suggested that the concept of nonviolence should be established as a legal principle in order to assure respect for human rights. I first met Ruben, a young Soviet philosopher, at a conference in 1987 in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, where he presented a paper arguing that altruism should prevail as the basic ethical norm for all human behavior. Remarkably, he had developed this claim in complete isolation from the vast amount of work in Western Christian theology on the concept of agape, self-giving love, as the fundamental ethical norm.

A notable strength of this conference, dominated by philosophers who tend to work primarily with abstractions, was the inclusion of participants with strong practical interests and experience in nonviolent action. Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche communities for mentally handicapped people, riveted everyone's attention when he spoke about tendencies toward violence in all of us, arising from experiences of rejection, especially in infancy. Great, generous, self-giving spirit that he is, he confessed his own need to struggle against violent tendencies within himself, and gave moving descriptions of his experiences in helping to evoke the capacity for loving nonviolence in deeply alienated people. He provided a valuable emphasis on the intensely personal dimensions of nonviolent action.

Gene Sharp, who has done more than anyone else to systematize thinking about nonviolent action (in The Politics of Nonviolent Action and other works), stressed the power of nonviolent action in broad social movements. In a long history that has been almost entirely ignored, much of it undoubtedly lost completely, and much of it unfolding all over the world even now, Sharp pointed out, people have been demonstrating the practical effectiveness of nonviolent action as a means of waging conflict. Neither saintliness, nor deep religious commitment, nor personal charisma are necessary for effective nonviolent actions. Ordinary, imperfect people, recognizing the pragmatic value of nonviolent tactics, even without significant advance preparation and training, have recorded remarkable successes despite heavy repression. Sharp appealed, as he has often done before, for vast new commitments to study and research into the dynamics of nonviolent action, this extraordinarily promising area for innovative, creative human activity.

Richard Deats of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Nyack, N.Y., mentioned specific cases of nonviolent actions, recent and current, from all over the world, providing some dramatic details from specific cases. Hildegard Goss-Mayr described techniques of nonviolent action, including preparation and training, and cited striking examples. Catharine Perry, of Quaker Peace and Service, London, England, ran participants through planning procedures for specific actions, drawing on her experience with nonviolent campaigns against nuclear weapons, especially at Molesworth and Greenham Common. Wolfgang Sternstein of Stuttgart, Germany, who will soon begin serving his second term in prison for a Plowshares action in which he, along with a few others, damaged nuclear missiles and then waited to be arrested, provided a powerful example of personal commitment.

Participants from Latvia and Lithuania described the consistently nonviolent actions by their people to free themselves of Soviet oppression. A. Milts mentioned that Latvian folklore has never glorified war, that a book on Martin Luther King, Jr. has been published in Latvia, and that indigenous leaders espouse a clearly articulated philosophy of nonviolent action.

At a final session, a member of the Soviet Praesidium, Arkady Volski, reported on the conflict between Azerbaijanis and Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, which has resulted in considerable violence. He saw this as the most painful and difficult of all the stressful problems confronting the USSR, and expressed openness to any outside help that could contribute to reconciliation of the contending groups. In his view, this could be the most severe test to date for perestroika. I take this to mean that the future of Gorbachev's policies, including his efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, depends heavily on the ability of his government to resolve ethnic strife. This gives all of us a major stake in the outcome of these remote conflicts.

It was a small group which participated in the conference-about 40 people. In addition to our group from the West, there were three from Poland, one from Mongolia, and the rest were from the USSR. This conference, whose proceedings are to be published in Russian, may nevertheless turn out to be a highly significant step toward the development of an ongoing research-education center dealing with the ethics of nonviolence within the prestigious Soviet Academy of Sciences. If our gracious Soviet hosts achieve this goal, as they intend, Moscow could become a leading center for the study and promotion of nonviolent action.

The memory of Tolstoy, whose provocative writings on nonviolence influenced Gandhi, was frequently evoked by participants in the conference. Some of us spent a memorable day after the conference making a long, arduous pilgrimage in a chilly bus to Yasnaya Polyana, the home of Tolstoy, which is preserved as a museum near Tula, south of Moscow. We stood at dusk in a snow-covered forest beside the simple mound of earth that marks his grave, hoping that the influence of Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King, along with thousands of others of like commitment around the world, may help to evoke deep resources for active nonviolence in the people of this great and troubled nation, and indeed in all of us.

Professor Crowell, long active in the peace movement, teaches a course on the dynamics of nonviolent action in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Windsor. At the conference he presented a paper, "The Case for Nonviolent Civilian Defence Against External Aggression."

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1990

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1990, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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