Review: How Nonviolence Protects the State


Our contemporary period raises new opportunities and challenges for building a revolutionary movement, and the question of tactics and strategies needed to achieve a libertarian socialist society has become more pertinent than ever.  A global economic meltdown and increasing ecological problems challenges us all, and so does the fierce combat between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment values, widespread disempowerment, and increasing questioning of the status quo.  All these issues hold as much peril as promise for social ecologists: An increasingly extremist Right has as much potential to prevail in this atmosphere as a new Left.  In this context, the arguments offered by anarchist activist Peter Gelderloos’ polemical book How Nonviolence Protects the State are a welcome criticism of many pacifist dogmas often received as common sense.  At the same time, unfortunately, the book presents a poor collection of alternatives to those ideas.

Gelderloos’ book is the most direct and accessible challenge of pacifist ideology since Ward Churchill’s essay “Pacifism as Pathology” over twenty years ago, and they share many of the same strengths and weaknesses.  A necessary discussion of social change and the role of violence in this have been languishing for too long among serious radicals: the positive value of Gelderloos’ book is above all in raising the issue of tactics for social change.  Other commendable features of the work include the breaking down of criticisms into categorical chapters that offer valid assessments of pacifism’s paternalistic, privileged, and highly condescending attitudes toward the struggles of people of color, women, sexual minorities, and the poor in general.  In chapters titled “Nonviolence is Racist” and  “Nonviolence is Patriarchal,” the author makes a number of extremely telling critiques of often-privileged pacifist radicals’ views and treatments of oppressed groups’ struggles that do not conform to their standards of acceptable tactics.  Gelderloos is also quite correct in his discussion of the often very naïve views on the state, the idea of revolution, and alleged inherently dehumanizing effects of violence on individuals who resort to it.  These critiques, along with a clear demarcation at the beginning and end of the work separating the critique of pacifism as an ideology from individual pacifists and their actions, are all to the book’s credit and deserve to be included in any further radical debate on pacifist ideology.

Yet, along with these solid points made, Gelderloos’ work is checkered with troubling aspects.  In the first place, Gelderloos’ anarchist bias is so overwhelming throughout the entire work that the critique becomes limited in its ability to restart an important debate by seeming to be at times little more than an anarchist intercommunal polemic.  Secondly, while justly critiquing pacifist dogma, the author often counters with a troublesome amoral point of view attempting to justify campaigns of violence by grotesque sects like the Red Brigades of Italy and the Galleanists in the US after the First World War.  Actually, Gelderloos’ views for the tactics and strategies that a revolutionary movement should use in its struggle are vague in an awkward way, judging by his book.  It often seem to be little more than a stereotypical anarchist rock-hurling-at-police-mentality that also comes off as very elitist in his condoning of tiny sects performing actions that should actually be the activity of the masses of people in motion.  Through his arguments Gelderloos’ own views of revolution and social change in general appear to suffer as much from a simplistic and ahistorical understanding of these concepts and their realization as many of the pacifists he criticizes.  Aside from these and other problems of the text, the overwhelming defect the book suffers from is a lack of a coherent ethics that should ground any discussion of the tactics for a revolutionary movement.  Rejecting simplistic and glib pacifist moralism in no way invalidates the need to formulate ethical standards to guide revolutionary actions.

As a whole, How Nonviolence Protects the State will be of value primarily if it opens a serious discussion of the ideology it critiques.  As for the alternatives needed to replace pacifism, it is my contention that social ecologists are uniquely placed to offer nuanced ideas on this matter, and hopefully such contributions by our movement will be forthcoming sooner rather than later.

Michael Speitel


How Nonviolence Protects the State
By Peter Gelderloos
South End Press, 2007, 128 pages