Histories of Violence: The Revolutionary Potential of Pacifism

Brad Evans speaks with Richard Jackson, the director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS).

THIS IS THE 45th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Richard Jackson, the director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS). He is the founding editor and current editor-in-chief of the journal Critical Studies on Terrorism.


BRAD EVANS: Susan Sontag observed some time ago that to believe in pacifism put you on the side of the politically delusional. Indeed, even recent engagements, such as Judith Butler’s The Force of Nonviolence, still leave open the idea that under certain circumstances violence is necessary. Can you explain to me what pacifism means to you as a political doctrine?

RICHARD JACKSON: Pacifism, like any other philosophical approach, represents a range of positions. Some forms of pacifism are problematic and rightly the subject of criticism. But to dismiss pacifism as a whole out of hand because of some bad examples is like dismissing socialism because of North Korea. For me, pacifism provides one of the few approaches that has the realistic potential to transform our violent global and domestic orders toward a more positively peaceful and socially just future. This is because pacifism — specifically, revolutionary pacifism — contains, as Peter Bloom argues, the possibility of expanding social possibilities beyond prevailing forms of political power rooted in domination.

Violence is a form of domination that expresses and, in its effects, constitutes, a kind of dominatory relationship; and the use or practice of violence can really only reproduce and reify a dominant form of power. Pacifism, on the other hand, with its commitment to nonviolent forms of political relationship, maintaining means-ends consistency, commitment to human dignity and equality, and so on, inaugurates new forms of political action and a new kind of political power that is not rooted in domination or the elimination of enemy others. It reinvents the social order, rather than simply resisting it, reforming it, or reproducing it. In contrast to violence, pacifism helps us to escape the stagnant fate of permanent revolution, as Peter Bloom puts it, in part by dissolving current forms and practices of power. From this perspective, I believe that a radical pacifism is one of the only truly revolutionary approaches we currently have.

Could you provide any meaningful examples of this to evidence the revolutionary potential you explain?

Certainly, there are a few if any empirical examples where violent revolution created the conditions for the revolutionary transformation of society in the direction of positive peace and social justice. Violent state capture by revolutionaries most often leads to a new round of violence against the class enemies of the new state, and ultimately, the reification of violence as the dominant mode of political power. Growing empirical evidence about the long-standing and inherent failures of violence, and the practical political successes of nonviolent movements, suggests that it is actually the supporters and practitioners of violence who are most often the tragic idealists. How many times have we heard that a bombing campaign here, or an invasion there, or a drone strike against a terrorist cell will work this time (unlike the last time) to bring security, peace, democracy, and so on? How many military failures does it take to convince us that violence is actually a very poor tool of politics, and one that is highly unlikely to actually make things better?

I have written about this elsewhere, as have others like Stellan Vinthagen, but a key problem here is that the practitioners of violence misunderstand the relationship between violence, force and power. The truth is, having the ability to inflict harm on others does not automatically translate into power or coercion; violence is as likely to produce resistance as it is to produce submission, and its effects are always unpredictable. Conversely, lacking military capabilities does not mean an inability to exert power and coercion; it is perfectly possible to make a highly armed military dictatorship back down or reverse a decision through mass nonviolent action, non-cooperation, shaming, economic boycott, or other nonviolent forms of coercion.

I would also respond that the argument that certain circumstances make violence (which we should acknowledge means in reality the deaths or injuries of human beings) necessary is deeply problematic and requires a more rigorous interrogation than it normally receives in a lot of contemporary philosophy. For one thing, it implies the ability to see clearly into the future and make a judgment on history: only a response with violence will work in such a situation; other responses will definitely fail. At the simplest level, this is a denial of the range of historically documented forms of resistance that are possible, as James Scott among others reminds us, even in the most oppressive situations. It also denies human agency and creativity; it’s a kind of ethical determinism. More importantly, it involves, in many respects, an epistemic certainty (or one might even say, arrogance) that pacifists are unwilling to adopt. Because violence is irreversible, it requires, as Gandhi puts it, a belief that one has access to the Truth: you can kill someone because you know the Truth, namely, that they deserve it, that they will not change or stop without it, that it is the only action that will work, and so on. Pacifists, on the other hand, adopt an attitude of epistemic humility or reflexivity which says that it is precisely because as humans that we don’t have access to the Truth, and because we frequently make mistakes, that we should not act in ways that are decisively irreversible. Instead, we should try our best to act in ways that are experimental and open to correction. Nonviolent political action can always be reversed and redirected, if it becomes obvious that an error has been made; political violence, on the other hand, cannot be undone and it consequences will change the world — most likely for the worst, as Hannah Arendt put it.

A last point here is that, strangely, virtually everyone has agreed that violence has no place in the family, in schools, in hospitals, in social interaction, in domestic politics — in all aspects of our daily lives. Ontologically, we are all practicing pacifists and every single day we do our best to avoid punching, stabbing, or shooting people we know and interact with. We are horrified if violence in any way touches our schools and children. And yet, in a highly dissonant way, collectively we participate in and legitimize the practices of war which bring violence into other peoples’ schools, homes, hospitals, and daily lives. Pacifism provides me with a way to live holistically and morally consistently, without this absurd dissonance where we have worked so hard to reduce violence in all areas of social life — apart from foreign policy.

One of the most familiar criticisms of pacifism is that it effectively puts you on the side of the oppressor. Part of the understanding here is that pacifism is ultimately a form of inaction that completely represses more direct forms of resistance to oppressive power. How would you respond to these criticisms?

There is no doubt that some forms of liberal pacifism or, in other cases, so-called passive resistance, have in practice and in theory functioned in ways that suppress movements for social justice or reified the existing neoliberal order. The work of Sean Chabot, among others, has highlighted the way in which many recent so-called pragmatic nonviolent movements have largely functioned to reinforce neoliberalism and the existing unjust order. Few of the Arab Spring movements, for example, have resulted in new societies characterized by greater social justice. Again, however, to dismiss the whole breadth of pacifism on the basis of this is ignorant, willful or otherwise. I cannot think of any major pacifist thinker or practitioner who actually expresses such a view. The idea that Gandhi or Martin Luther King supported inaction and being on the side of the oppressor is laughable. The core of pacifism is to resist oppression with one’s whole will, as Gandhi put it. It’s just that pacifists believe that nonviolent resistance is more effective and more ethical than violent resistance because it maintains a consistency between means and ends, and is more likely to be genuinely transformative of the political and social order.

Perhaps more importantly, this objection reveals something about the kind of dichotomous thinking that supports the existing violent global political order. The idea that there are only two choices — either one violently resists oppression or one is complicit in it — is part of the epistemology of the current violent order where everyone is either for or against, friend or enemy, good or bad, and has a grievable or ungrievable life. It is a kind of thinking that suppresses the long history of resistance from people who were not able to openly resist forcefully, or who were forced to collaborate for reasons of long-term survival. It is also a kind of thinking which can get people killed in hopeless violent campaigns, and which historically has led to national cycles of violence as each new generation learns that violence is the primary tool for political renewal. Pacifism, on the other hand, refuses to construct rigid categories of people, truth, and action. Instead, it calls for the exercise of courageous, creative, solidaristic forms of power that transforms those very categories in ways which open up the possibility of new forms of political community — ones not based on exclusive and dichotomous categories. It also opens up new possibilities for transforming conflictual relations and breaking cycles of violence; for turning enemies and opponents into collaborators or even friends; for changing antagonistic relationships into agonistic relationships.

I also find this argument extremely unreflective of the reality of employing violence itself. How do oppressed people resist violently? In order to use violence effectively in a resistance campaign, you have to purchase arms from arms dealers (or get a superpower to sponsor you); an arms production economy is necessary (with its diversion of resources from other social needs); you have to train people to kill (notwithstanding all we know about PTSD and veteran suicides); you have to centralize power in the military commanders; you have to define enemies worthy of elimination; you have to justify the sacrifice of human life culturally; and so on. In other words, you have to create an entire social system based on legitimate mass killing that will reproduce itself over time. There is by now a wealth of evidence to show the long-term harm and destruction that occurs in a society which constructs and maintains a military force — before it is even used, and even more so after it is used. The harms and costs of military force are never factored in, as far as I can see, when people throw out the missive that an armed response is needed to every oppressive regime or situation. The empirical reality is that most armed revolutions result in a great deal of human suffering, followed by decades of further violence and human suffering. To my mind, there is a desperate need to explore alternatives to this endless cycle of violence. Part of constructing new social possibilities means ruling out those actions and processes that we know will simply result in reification of the existing violent order. We must think of forms of resistance and political action that will not result in a society where arms companies who manufacture killing machines for profit exist and flourish, and where thousands of individuals are routinely morally injured and mentally scarred in the process of learning how to kill.

From our conversations, I know you are trying to argue in your work that pacifism is actually more than resistance and that it reveals a truly revolutionary potential. Can you explain to me what this means and how it allows for a rethinking of violence?

I hope that my answers to the previous questions provide a number of reasons why I think that pacifism has genuine revolutionary potential. The main reason is that pacifism’s refusal to be limited by an ideologically motivated notion of what constitutes “realistic” political action provides the opportunity to “revolutionize revolution,” as Peter Bloom puts it, moving it beyond the tired cycle of periodically replacing one dominatory elite with another. Political action is always constitutive, which means violent political action will constitute itself materially and culturally in the end. This is obvious when we look at the entrenched war system, as well as the history of revolution. The expansion of state militaries, and the practices of war, violent revolution, peacekeeping, and humanitarian intervention have in no consistent way made the world order more positively peaceful or even less violent — notwithstanding Pinker’s dubious decline of violence thesis. It is only through a radical commitment to nonviolence, and the exploration of alternative nonviolent and nondominatory forms of power and political action that we can expand social possibilities and move toward the creation of revolutionary communities. In taking such an approach — one rooted in epistemic humility (instead of the hubris of ideological certainty which we see in most political philosophies), and a commitment to ethical consistency and the maintenance of human dignity and equality — pacifism radically transforms political ontology in ways that violence can’t (given that existing political ontologies rest on a foundation of violence, as Dustin Howes demonstrates). Moreover, there are numerous examples from history of movements and communities that have revolutionized their politics in exactly these kinds of ways. Pacifism is therefore, genuinely revolutionary in the way it constitutes new forms of power and subjectivity. Violent political action, whether in pursuit of conservative or revolutionary aims, nevertheless functions to reify the underlying form and practice of dominatory sovereign power.

A key issue here is the question of violence, force, and coercion, and the differences, if any, between them. This is also where some forms of pacifism have in the past failed to be revolutionary, but have retreated to a kind of reformism that leaves oppressive orders intact, as Shon Meckfessel has shown. Personally, I would make a distinction between force and violence, where it is possible to force people and institutions to change without physically harming the bodies of other human beings or indeed acting in a way which will lead to their physical harm. By way of example, a pacifist movement could forcefully prevent a police officer from going to work and oppressing people on behalf of the regime without necessarily physically harming them. They could blockade the police station with their bodies, for example. However, if this forceful physical coercion resulted in the police officer losing their income and threatening the survival of their family, then the pacifists must also offer alternative employment or social support. This approach has the potential to achieve a political goal, maintains the dignity and equality of the opponent, offers a new kind of political relationship, works toward transforming a dictatorial system, and so on. It has the potential to constitute a new kind of politics, while avoiding passivity and inaction, and while using collective power and coercion in a radically nonviolent way. The point is that power and coercion can be exercised in nonviolent ways which will, because action is constitutive and prefigurative, create new forms of power, politics, community, and so on.

Of course, this all requires a sense of humility and experimentation, and a willingness to admit mistakes and change course when the circumstances demand it. It requires a continuing commitment to searching for truth, as Gandhi put it. This search for truth — or, we might say, other truths about what is politically possible — is at the heart of my pacifism. I refuse to be constrained by the ideologically motivated consensus about what is possible in politics, what human nature purportedly is, and all the other myths whose aim is to preserve the current order. I believe instead in human agency and imagination.

In conclusion, I’d like to end on this issue of imagination. Why is it so difficult for us to imagine a world without violence? And what can we do to bring about a more peaceful imaginary?

There’s no single or simple reason for this lack of imagination, and it is something of a puzzle, given that we have no problem imagining a family life, and a work life, and a social life free of violence. As I said, in daily life, we are all practicing pacifists and cannot imagine going back to a daily reality where men would regularly beat their wives and children, fought duels down on the common, beat up members of rival political parties, watched public hangings, or burned animals alive for entertainment after dinner. It is strange that we now think that interpersonal violence and domestic political violence is abhorrent and has no redeeming value at all, but raining down bombs on other peoples’ children is somehow acceptable or even heroic. This is a twisted and dissonant kind of imagination we now hold.

I believe a major reason for this problem of imagination is our culture and way of life which saturates our waking lives with the core myths of innate violence and militarism every single moment. Our culture tells us every day in a myriad of different ways that humans are innately violent and aggressive, that force is necessary for security, that there are just wars, that dying in war is heroic, that justice requires violent retribution, that the willingness to use violence is inherent in masculinity, that sometimes (often, in fact) violence is necessary to defeat evil and protect the innocent, that pacifism and nonviolence is idealistic and can encourage aggression, and so on. These messages are endlessly told to us in school, in our histories, in the media, in political speech, in movies and entertainment, in our public statues, in our everyday language and metaphors, in our gender performances, in our religion, in our children’s toys and cartoons, in our literature and art, in sport — in practically all areas of social, cultural, and political life. Of course, this is not to say that there aren’t pacifist novels, movies, art, or examples from history such as Gandhi. But such narratives and knowledge remain subjugated, in Foucault’s term; such stories are considered naïve, unscientific, and unrealistic. It is considered child-like to believe that violence is avoidable and nonviolence can provide security — although, strangely, it is not considered child-like in the context of the family, or domestic social life.

The effect of this saturating discourse of the naturalness and necessity of violence, ultimately, is to constrict our imaginations, limit our ethical horizons, and provide legitimacy for a limited set of policy responses to violence. In a real sense, what is needed is an insurrection of knowledge, again as Foucault puts it, to bring to light all the historical examples of successful nonviolent action, to highlight the strong philosophical case for pacifism, and to expose the hypocrisy of decrying violence in the domestic sphere while promoting it in foreign policy. We need to teach the history of pacifism in schools and universities, and make documentaries about nonviolent movements and tactics until there is an equal number of documentaries about nonviolence as there are about war. We need more artists, filmmakers, novelists, video-game makers, comics and other kinds of artists to produce work on nonviolence — or at least work that challenges and deconstructs the myths and misconceptions about violence. We need further academic research on all the non-warring societies throughout history, and on the successful forms of unarmed peacekeeping currently going on in places like South Sudan, Colombia, and Sri Lanka. And then we need the media to tell us these stories every day, and to focus on the stupidity and failures of violence.

Following this, we need investment in institutions, technology, and equipment and training for nonviolent action. Robert Holmes makes the point that we cannot really know whether nonviolence could be as successful as violence until we are prepared to invest the same material and intellectual resources into nonviolence as we currently do into the military sector. I am convinced that we don’t even need parity to find this out. If we spent even a few billion dollars on nonviolent peace force research, technology, and training, and moved just 10 percent of all scientists currently working in the military sector to working on nonviolent technology and systems, we would very quickly see that violence hardly ever works, it produces more harm than good, and that nonviolent alternatives are available which are both more effective and more ethical. The war system and war culture we have built up would then quickly dissolve. Of course, all those who profit directly from war and militarism would resist this, but they could take up employment in the peace-industrial complex.

As a pacifist, I consider it my duty to try and spread this insurrectionary knowledge about pacifism and nonviolence, and hopefully, expand peoples’ imaginations so that such a move away from militarism and violent culture could begin to seriously happen. It is, of course, already happening in numerous communities around the world. There are anarcho-pacifist communities and activist groups, as well as antiwar and anti-militarist groups and activists, all over the world. Many of them have been in existence for, or follow on from movements that have been around for, hundreds of years. A key goal today must be to try and build networks and coalitions to spread this insurrection of pacifist theory and practice.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.


Banner image: "Black Lives Matter protest against St. Paul police brutality" by Fibonacci Blue is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

LARB Contributor

Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is author of over 17 books and edited volumes, including most recently Ecce Humanitas: Beholding the Pain of Humanity (2021) and Conversations on Violence: An Anthology (with Adrian Parr, 2021). He leads the Los Angeles Review of Books “Histories of Violence” section.


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