Navigation

Geoffrey Ostergaard RESISTING THE NATION STATE
the pacifist and anarchist tradition
Formely published by the PPU now also available as pdf document.
introduction
1. pacifism, pacificism and anti-militarism
2. sectarian origins of pacifism
3. pacificism and the peace movement
5. conscription and the nation state
6. the co formula
7. anarchism as a social movement
8. anarchism as a tradition of political thought
9. society and the state
10. the anarchist view of the state
11. the anarchist view of the nation and of nationalism
12. anarchism and violence
13. convergence of pacifism and anarchism
 

 

THE CO FORMULA
As a mode of accommodating pacifists within the nation state, the Conscientious Objector formula was gradually evolved and grudgingly applied. In effect, by this formula the state recognises that pacifists are 'peculiar persons' who may, in return for their recognising the state's right to conscript its citizens for war, be accorded a special status to which penalties are attached. In applying the formula, states have usually insisted that applicants show their objection arises out of religious belief and that they object to war in any form - the latter a condition which Jehovah's Witnesses, who also claim exemption as ministers, have found hard to meet. If applicants pass the test, then they may be directed to perform either non-combatant service in the army or alternative civilian work of 'national importance'. The formula has resulted in dividing pacifists between 'absolutists' - those who refuse all compromise - and 'registrants' (and, among the latter, between those willing to accept noncombatant service and those willing to accept only alternative civilian service). It has also led to confusion between Conscientious Objection as a moral and as a legal category. From the state's point of view, absolutists are not COs, but lawbreakers. It is, of course, absolutists who have posed the most direct challenge to the state's authority, and it is significant that draft evaders have usually been treated more leniently. Those pacifists, relatively few, who have accepted non-combatant service, and the larger number who have accepted alternative civilian service, seem often to have wished to show that, in every respect save their willingness to kill at the state's behest, they were loyal citizens.
The statistics of Conscientious Objection during the two World Wars in Britain and the USA - the countries where pacifism has been strongest - show how much it has been a minority movement. In the First World War, the number of COs in Britain is estimated to have been 16,100, while in the USA there were 64,693 applications for noncombatant service. (12) In the Second World War, some 60,000 men and 1,000 women applied for CO registration in Britain, while in the USA the total number of COs is estimated to have been about 100,000 - the latter figure representing 0.3 per cent of the 34 million who registered for military service. (13) In both countries, the clash between conscience and law was less dramatic in the Second than in the First World War, when absolutists were often harshly treated. In part, this reflected greater toleration of COs, but also a greater willingness of COs to co-operate with the authorities - as did the historic peace churches in the USA who sponsored and managed Civilian Public Service camps for the alternativists.
The CO formula has been liberalised since it was first adopted. Thus in the USA the religious test has been dropped, and ethical as opposed to religious objection recognised. The issue of 'selective objection', i.e. to particular wars, first raised by socialists in the First World War, became increasingly important in the context of the agitation against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, (14) which was marked also by the burning of draft cards and widespread draft evasion. But in most nation states the issue is not liberalisation of the formula. Rather, it is whether pacifists are recognised at all. Thus, in Russia, where at the turn of the century lived several million sectarian pacifists, officially there is now none, this being the Soviet Government's explanation of why the Universal Military Service Law of 1939 contained no provision for COs. The Soviet Union, however, is not alone in this. In 1968, only 16 of 140 states had any such legal provision, although the number has increased slightly since then.
Conscientious objection to military service, whether recognised by states or not, remains, and is likely to remain, an important aspect of pacifism. To refuse to bear arms links contemporary pacifists with their forbears and provides a clear expression of their witness to truth. But, as a policy for achieving peace, it has obvious limitations, and as a way of defining pacifism it has come increasingly to be seen by many pacifists as inadequate. The tendency to equate pacifism with conscientious objection was probably most marked in the inter-war years when intellectuals like Einstein, before the menace of Fascism made him change his mind, argued that war could be prevented if a sufficiently large proportion of the male population pledged itself to refuse to fight. It was in line with this way of thinking that, in Britain, Canon Dick Sheppard founded the Peace Pledge Union which, by 1939, had enrolled over 100,000 members, each of whom had signed the declaration: 'I renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly, will I support or sanction another'.
As a moral stance, at least from the perspective of Christian ethics, pacifism is unassailable. But it can be argued that much pacifist and most pacificist thought has been vitiated by a tendency to view war and, more generally, violence in a highly abstract way, divorced from the structures in which they are embedded. Until recently, pacifists have been slow to recognise that modern war is inherent in the system of sovereign nation states, that war is the use of armed force by states or by those who aspire to build or control states, and that war is not an aberration or sickness but, in Randolph Bourne's words, 'the health of the state'. Rousseau, who edited an edition of Saint-Pierre's peace plan, grasped clearly the central point: war is a function of the state and has its origins in 'the social compact' that gives rise to the state. 'If the social compact could be severed at a stroke, at once there would be no more war. At a stroke the state would be killed, without a single man having to die.' (15) Rousseau did not think that the social compact could be severed, but there have been those who thought otherwise.

 


Suggestions, comments
let us know
Next

  P E A C E  P L E D G E  U N I O N  1 Peace Passage London N7 0BT, Britain.
  phone  +44 (0)20 7424 9444  fax: +44 (0)20 7482 6390     CONTACT US