By Stephen Gowans
Brian Martin, a professor of social sciences at Australia’s University of Wollongong, has written a reply to my article Overthrow Inc.: Peter Ackerman’s quest to do what the CIA used to do and make it seem progressive , and then a reply to my reply. Martin is the author of a number of books and articles on nonviolence, including Nonviolence against Capitalism, Technology for Nonviolent Struggle, and “Nonviolent strategy against capitalism” (in Social Alternatives, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2008, pp. 42-46.)
In the latest exchange, I try to show that the disagreement between Martin and me is rooted, I believe, in a conflict between Marxist and anarchist perspectives on the state, and the question of whether the state is inherently good or bad.
I argue that because anarchists are opposed to domination, and because the state is an instrument of domination, anarchists often line up alongside imperialist forces seeking the overthrow of foreign states. Because the regime change efforts of imperialist forces are aimed exclusively at states operating outside the North Atlantic imperialist orbit, the effect is for anarchists who participate in campaigns to challenge these states to act as one of Western imperialism’s wrecking balls. While the anarchist aim is to challenge state authority, the aim of the imperialist forces that fund and provide training for the nonviolent resistance campaigns anarchists are often involved in, is to transfer control of the state from often popular and anti-colonial forces to comprador forces that are willing to facilitate the despoliation of their countries by North Atlantic banks, corporations and investors. Anarchist challenges to North Atlantic states, without the generous funding Western governments, corporate foundations and wealthy individuals are prepared to allocate to challenges to states operating outside the United States’ informal empire, are modest and ineffectual by comparison.
I think Martin would agree that the state is an instrument of domination, which claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a defined geographical territory, exercised by the police and military. In the Marxist view, the state enforces the interests of one class over another, which is to say, it is an instrument whereby one class dominates and oppresses another. Slave owner states oppress slaves, landowner states oppress serfs, capitalist states oppress workers, and working class states oppress capitalists to limit or prevent capitalist exploitation. To Marxists, the question of whether the state is good or bad depends on who controls it, and who’s asking the question. To people conscious of their membership in the working class, the capitalist state is bad, not because it’s repressive, but because it’s repressive against their interests. Similarly, to a capitalist, the working class state is bad, not because it relies on the use or threat of violence to enforce a system of laws that privilege the working class, but because the system of laws backed by violence is against the interests of capital.
Anarchists, on the other hand, regard the state as inherently bad because it is based on domination enforceable through violence. To Martin, nonviolence is “especially useful for those who want to challenge domination” and it “involves empowerment of the population to challenge groups backed by force.” In other words, nonviolent resistance (NVR) is useful for doing what anarchists do: challenge the state.
But what if the state is under the control of a previously oppressed class or nation and its repressive function is used to prevent its former oppressor’s return to power? The leaders of Zimbabwe’s national liberation, for example, have used the state, and its repressive powers, to advance the interests of indigenous people at the expense of a former colonial oppressor, European settlers, and would-be neo-colonialists. The Bolsheviks used state power to enforce a wide array of measures favourable to the working class at the expense of capitalists and landowners. Is the use of state power to crack down on forces which seek to reduce Zimbabwe to neo-colonial servitude inherently bad? And were the Bolsheviks wrong to use state power to repress class enemies, as a condition of advancing the interests of the working class?
To anarchists the answer is yes. The Zimbabwe state is repressive. It uses violence to enforce the interests of indigenous Africans over those of European settlers and their descendants. The Bolshevik state was also repressive. It used violence to repress capitalists, estate-owners, rich peasants, saboteurs, and political enemies. Whether working class or capitalist, anti-colonial or colonial, the state is repressive; it is an instrument of domination. For these reasons anarchists oppose it.
A movement which challenges the state in Zimbabwe, or the state in countries in which working class interests are dominant, earns the support of anarchists. Indeed, because anarchists are against any state, whether feudal, capitalist, working class or anti-colonial, they often find themselves lining up with capitalist and neo-colonial forces against working class-oriented and anti-colonial states. And because North Atlantic governments, corporate foundations and wealthy individuals are eager to bankroll challenges to working class-oriented and anti-colonial states, but not to North Atlantic states and their satellites, anarchists who participate in these campaigns act as a wrecking ball of imperialism; their function is to tear down independent states so that control can be transferred to forces acceptable to Western banks, corporations and investors. At the same time, anarchist nonviolent resistance aimed at Western capitalist states – which tends to be low-level and largely non-disruptive, owing to the absent or meagre funding received from governments and philanthropic foundations – poses no serious threat.
Interestingly, Martin took exception to what he believed was my description of NVR as being guided by the goal of seizing power. This wasn’t my description, but that of Peter Ackerman, one of the principal proponents of NVR. Anarchists don’t seek power (the ability to dominate); they only seek to undermine it. What Martin failed to recognize was that Peter Ackerman, while a proponent of nonviolence, is not an anarchist but a capitalist, and a very wealthy one, whose avocation is to assist in the transfer of state power abroad from forces not yoked to U.S. financial and export interests, to pro-capitalist forces beholden to the US ruling class. Ackerman defines NVR as the use of strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations and other forms of civil disobedience, including nonviolent sabotage, to make a country ungovernable in order to seize power. And yet while Ackerman’s NVR aims are clearly at odds with those of Martin, Martin talks favourably of Ackerman, and Ackerman’s docent, Gene Sharp.
Whether nonviolence is a defining feature of anarchism is a matter of dispute among anarchists. Martin, I suspect, would say it is. Peter Gelderloos, an anarchist whose book, How Nonviolence Protects the State, rejects exclusive nonviolence as an effective strategy for anarchists, would say it isn’t.
I agree with Gelderloos that proponents of nonviolence have claimed success in excess of what the data support. The modus operandi of NVR advocates is to exaggerate the achievements of campaigns which have featured the use of nonviolent tactics (India’s liberation from British colonial rule; the US civil rights movement; the anti-Vietnam War movement; the anti-nuclear weapons movement) and then to attribute the success of these campaigns to nonviolent tactics alone.
For example, in his reply to me, Martin credits the movements against nuclear weapons — “which used NVR as well as conventional political methods” — with saving the world from nuclear catastrophe. But how do we know that demonstrations and civil disobedience made any difference? The fact that some people used nonviolent tactics in an effort to deter superpower nuclear proliferation hardly means that nonviolence worked. If it did, I could say the crowing of the rooster causes the sun to rise, because the rooster crowed and the sun soon rose.
A more compelling case can be made that the end of the arms race came about because the United States no longer needed to expand its nuclear arsenal. It had embarked on an arms build-up to force the Soviets into bankruptcy. With the goal of toppling its ideological competitor achieved, there was no longer a need to pile weapon upon weapon. And after acquiring the capability to obliterate the world many times over, there was little point in acquiring more nuclear weapons. There comes a point where one more nuke makes no difference.
Moreover, were the decision to end the arms race attributable to nonviolent tactics, we could still say very little was achieved. The United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Israel still have nuclear arms, and evince not the slightest interest in giving them up. India, Pakistan and north Korea have acquired their own nuclear arsenals (or at least, capabilities.) The United States continues to threaten non-nuclear countries with nuclear weapons, thereby encouraging non-nuclear states to develop their own nuclear arms to deter U.S. aggression. What success was achieved was minor indeed.
Ackerman uses the same approach, attributing the success of campaigns that involved nonviolent tactics in some way to nonviolence alone, as if massive surrounding violence played no role. Believe his version of history, and the violence of a Western-sponsored armed insurgency in Kosovo, sanctions, a 78-day NATO terror bombing campaign, unceasing Western hostility, and a political fifth column, had nothing whatever to do with the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia in 2000. It was all due to anarchist activists practicing nonviolent resistance.
In the same manner, proponents of NVR attribute India’s political independence from Britain to Gandhian nonviolence. In doing so, they ignore the armed struggle led by Chandrasekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh’s campaign of bombings and assassinations, and the effects of the massive violence of two world wars and the armed resistance to British rule in Palestine in weakening Britain and sapping it of the manpower and resources it needed to hold onto its colonies. What’s more, the success was limited. Britain exchanged direct rule for indirect rule. It authored India’s constitution, handpicked its successors, and continued to dominate India’s economy. India’s independence was largely symbolic.
Relatedly, Martin disagrees with my point that NVR is a means to an end, and is therefore neither inherently good nor bad, but is good or bad depending on what it’s used for. Nuclear weapons, he rejoins, are inherently bad, because they are indiscriminate, and because they are a means of domination. The corollary, it seems, is that NVR is inherently good, because it challenges the state, an instrument of domination, and does so without recourse to violence, violence also being a means of domination. This follows consistently from the anarchist abhorrence of domination.
On the other hand, one could argue that Martin has to claim that NVR is good independent of its consequence, because the consequences of the Ackerman-Sharp-Helvey deployments that have been associated with regime change successes have been so negative from the point of view of the working class, that to do otherwise would leave his pro-NVR case in a shambles. NVR looks good only if its recent outcomes are ignored and the role of violence in the progressive outcomes it claims as its own are passed over. In other words, NVR’s positive reputation depends on ignoring the reality that NVR color revolutions have cleared the way for the ascension to power of Washington-aligned neo-liberal regimes that have privileged North Atlantic investors at the expense of domestic workers. At the same time the role of violence in the progressive developments (India’s liberation from British colonial rule, the end of the Vietnam War, and so on) that NVR advocates claim as their own must be ignored. Or you can simply say – as Martin and some peace advocates do – that the outcomes are immaterial; what matters is the process itself. This is sheer sophistry. A process cannot be evaluated independent of its outcomes. If so, a process that invariably produced bad outcomes, would be considered good.
A Marxist would say that domination isn’t always bad. It depends on who’s dominating who, and why. The domination of the formerly exploiting few by the formerly exploited many is not bad, but good, progressive and necessary. Marxists don’t want to dominate for the sake of domination, but if dominating a minority of exploiters and the use of violence are necessary to prevent the minority’s return to power, and to prevent the resumption of mass exploitation, then domination and violence are acceptable. Likewise, if a nuclear weapons capability allows north Korea to deter the United States from using military (including nuclear) aggression to dominate the Korean peninsula and integrate north Korea into Washington’s informal empire, can nuclear weapons be said to be inherently bad and necessarily bound up with the enforcement of domination? On the contrary, it would seem that north Korea’s nuclear capability challenges the domination of the most violent of all states, that of the United States.
At root, the disagreement between Martin and me seems to boil down to this: is domination and the use of violence always bad, or are domination and violence bad depending on who uses them, why they’re used, and what the outcomes are? These are normative questions.
An empirical question concerns whether the commitment of anarchists to challenge the state is useful to imperialist forces. Through their control of philanthropic foundations and such organizations as the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, involved in the training of (often anarchist) activists in techniques of destabilization, and through their control of the media, which shape public understanding of states that operate outside the North Atlantic imperial orbit as being based on unjustified authority, imperialist forces galvanize anarchists into action as one of their wrecking balls — challenging working class-oriented, anti-colonial, and North Atlantic-independent states. These challenges never develop to the point where the state collapses, as anarchists hope, but to the point where state control is transferred to comprador forces, as the imperialist sponsors of NVR campaigns intend. Despite their aim of challenging the state, NVR activists act in ways that help enhance the power of North Atlantic states to dominate and exploit the global south and Eastern Europe. Anarchist nonviolent strategy hasn’t threatened capitalism or challenged the domination of North Atlantic states. On the contrary, its record is one of service to North Atlantic imperialist forces in integrating hold-out countries into Washington’s informal empire, through the participation of NVR activists in campaigns to smash independent states.