Radical Pacifism: The War Resisters League and Gandhian Nonviolence in America 1915-1963

Scott H Bennett. Syracuse University Press 2004, 335pp.

By Ken Simons (reviewer) | 2004-10-01 12:00:00

When David Dellinger died in May of this year, the New York Times ran a full-page obituary -- a recognition that the former Chicago Seven defendant played a central role in a huge range of movements for social change in America.

Scott Bennett's Radical Pacifism tells the history of the War Resisters League (WRL), the pacifist group which nurtured Dellinger and a whole generation of US nonviolent activists --World War Two objectors like Dellinger, Bayard Rustin, Jim Peck, and Ralph DiGia; others like David MacReynolds and Bill Sutherland who came to prominence in the WRL in the 1950s; and the disproportionate influence these activists had on the civil rights and anti-war movements, both in the US and abroad.

Secular pacifism was largely a new phenomenon after World War One, both in Europe and in North America, and centred on the member groups of the newly-founded War Resisters' International (WRI). While in continental Europe the movement had a strongly anarchist tinge, in Britain and the US it was socialism which gave non-religious pacifism its political color. In the case of the War Resisters League, this meant a relationship whereby WRL-ers simultaneously made up the pacifist wing of the US Socialist Party and the socialist wing of the nonviolence movement.

The immediate pre-war period (and the two years before the US joined the war) forced the WRL to make more explicit its pacifist opposition to all militarism and to disassociate itself from the often frankly fascist "anti-war" groups which had sprung up by this time. The WRL's relatively marginal position was to become its strength, however, with the entry of the US into the war.

Virtually all the WRL's work was illegal after Pearl Harbor, and its leading male militants were receiving -- and refusing -- draft notices.

Organizing in prison seemed to come naturally to the new generation of WRL militants. They struck for improved conditions, for transfers, but most importantly for racial integration in the cells and in the messhall.

This willingness to link the issues of peace, race, and justice did go some distance beyond the ethical but often intentionally narrow pacifism of the prewar WRL. And it was an explicit challenge to the League's leadership.

The radical pacifists and the religious pacifists were to shape the nonviolence of the civil rights movement throughout the 1950s, largely though not entirely through the compelling personality of Bayard Rustin, the openly gay African-American pacifist who worked for both the secular WRL and the religious pacifist FOR and who was at one point Martin Luther King's closest adviser.

Another black WRL activist, Bill Sutherland, took his radical pacifism to Africa, where for the next five decades he worked with liberation movements and the newly-independent states (particularly Ghana and Tanzania), promoting nonviolent strategies.

Aside from the Unitarian social activist Jessie Wallace Hughan,who founded the WRLin 1923 and was its first chair, the WRL had few women in leadership positions until the 1970s. Bennett addresses this issue briefly in his epilogue, which takes the reader up to the present day and WRL's status in the contemporary struggle against militarism.

The WRL oftoday is a sound and resilient movement, but is probably less influential than at any time since the 1930s -- in part because of the low regard for Gandhian pacifism in the wider anti-war movement.

Reviewed by Peace Magazine managing editor Ken Simons.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2004

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