ISSUE 59 SPRING 2009

Peace Matters Index

absolutely pacifist

ONLINE contents


- militarisation of Britain
- more than a t-shirt
- the role of scientific community
- absolutely pacifist
- can the greens stay nonviolent ?
- afghanistan: a misread war
- george lansbury anniversary
- work to do – adrian mitchell






- complete issue pdf












Pacifism - what's it all about?


It is good to have an academic overview of the peace movement from a peace activist. Peace – A History of Movements and Ideas is both an excellent, readable history of the development of the peace movement, but it’s also problematic and challenging for pacifists. In fact I have found it very hard to review and change my mind about it every day.

David Cortright is an American academic who fought in the Vietnam war but then came out against the war and has since campaigned against nuclear weapons, for disarmament and against the Iraq war. He thus has great sympathy for, and knowledge of the peace movement from many different aspects, as seen from America.

He sets out to defend the peace movement from its detractors (a rather strange starting place), to show why and how it has developed and where its successes and failures have been. He discusses how and why peace movements have interacted with and shaped political processes. He encourages us by agreeing that ‘virtually every existing means of preventing and constraining war originated with the peace movement.’ The second section explores the themes of religion, democracy, nonviolence and social justice and how the peace movement relates to and has been changed by interaction with these other areas of thought and action. The book comes up to date with discussion about human rights and the new doctrine of ‘the responsibility to protect’ – in other words ‘humanitarian intervention’.

If you want to understand the peace movement then this is an invaluable resource. It comes with recommendations from Archbishop Tutu, Mary Robinson, and Kofi Annan, amongst others. Realistic but hopeful is the favourite verdict.

However, there is a problem. What the author set out to do, as he makes clear in the introduction, is to ‘forge a synthesis among peacemaking traditions, giving the principles of nonviolence cardinal importance.’ That sounds good, doesn’t it? The problem is, I think, that ‘absolute’ pacifists don’t fit neatly into his synthesis.

The author is not a pacifist (and admits he is critical of absolute pacifists) but in some way I feel he wants to be part of pacifism as, in his words: ‘a legitimate social movement and scholarly discipline’. In order to be part of it he has to redefine the word ‘pacifism’ out of existence.

David Cortright sets out the term ‘pacifism’ as it was first coined in 1901. He believes that it was used originally to describe the broad international peace movement. ‘It was meant to suggest a coherent body of thought and developed set of political beliefs and policies for preventing war and assuring peace.’ It was ‘meant to encompass all of those who worked to preserve peace and prevent war.’ He says that after World War 1 ‘the purists who had opposed the march to war claimed the term (pacifism) for themselves.’ (How dare they!) In his view this ‘narrow’ definition of pacifism ‘left most of the peace community out in the cold’.

It could be argued on the contrary that today it is absolute pacifists who are often out in the cold, standing out on the sidelines in peace movement meetings because of our refusal to agree with ‘the limited use of military force’ for whatever purpose – usually the use of United Nations troops.

His last chapter is headed ‘realistic pacifism’, which for him encompasses the limited use of military force in defence of human rights, and presumably reflects his own position. To me that is a totally ludicrous definition of pacifism as it has been understood ever since World War 1. It is even worse than a previous academic writing about the peace movement who coined the phrase ‘pacificism’ – luckily it has never caught on. In one respect I can agree with him when he says pacifism attempts to become more realistic ‘by understanding and confronting the power of the vested interests that benefit from militarization and war.’ I would think that is certainly true in the development of the PPU. In the end, however, he is attempting such a tortuous definition of pacifism that he recognises it is a word that can no longer be used (by him) and recommends using the words ‘peace-making’ and ‘peacebuilding’ instead. He still thinks ‘some peace advocates remain narrowly focused on the absence of war rather than the presence of justice, but most recognise that justice and peace are inextricably linked’. This is clearly aimed at his favourite targets, absolute pacifists, but perhaps it is a challenge to us to make the links clearer.

Is this debate about definitions only of interest to academics? I don’t think so (though to the dying victims of wars around the world it would seem very self-indulgent). He does have a point – the word pacifism is problematic. Pacifists are still identified, unfairly, with ‘appeasement’, and being passive. How many times have you heard the words ‘I am not a pacifist but’… Why do so many people seek to distance themselves from the term ‘pacifism’? Do pacifists seem arrogant, rigid purists, sure of our morally superior position? I imagine we all do at some point. Or does it disturb people too much to face the implications of continuing to believe in any form of military force – that they are prepared for others to kill on their behalf?

The word ‘pacifism’ doesn’t actually appear in the PPU constitution, though we are undeniably a pacifist organisation in the normal understanding of the word. Perhaps the terms ‘war resister’ and ‘war resistance’ more accurately reflect what we are and what we do and do not carry the same overtones of superiority. Or should we wear our metaphorical Absolutely Pacifist badge with just a little bit of pride?

There is mixed comfort for PPU members in the little said about the PPU in this book. As for so many academics, the PPU only exists in the 1930s and 40s and you wouldn’t know we were still around, unlike other pacifist groups. Perhaps the fault is ours. The PPU in the 1930s is described as ‘the largest and most influential absolute pacifist movement’, and that it served for a time as ‘the epicenter of radical pacifism in Britain’. However the PPU’s leaders are accused of taking a position that amounted to appeasement before World War 2 (ironically as he claims to be trying to defend the peace movement against such accusations). He does acknowledge, however, the huge dilemmas for those seeking a just and equitable international peace at the time. The PPU, in his words, ‘began to lose support and dwindled to a remnant of its former self’, at the outbreak of the war. Readers who don’t know our work would assume that is the last of us…so the sooner the PPU publishes its own up-to-date short version of its history as planned, the better.

He is critical of pacifists (and the broader peace movement), with some justification, for ‘a persistent naivete, a tendency toward utopianism, an inadequate grasp of the unavoidable dilemmas of security, an unwillingness to accept the inherent egoism of human communities.’

For realistic or unrealistic pacifists alike, there is a lot that is useful and thought-provoking in this book. It is guaranteed to have you arguing with him! If you want to learn how and why the peace movement has developed and grown in the way it has, do read it. If you want the shorter and of course even better electronic history, buy the PPU’s Voices CD.

 Lucy Beck

PEACE – A History of Movements and Ideas. David Cortright Cambridge University Press 2007

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