Review; Pacifism as Pathology, Ward Churchill

Dan Robertson

"I don’t deny the obviously admiral emotional context of the pacifist perspective. Surely we can all agree that the world should become a place of cooperation, peace, and harmony. Indeed it would be nice if everything would just get better while nobody got hurt, including the oppressor who (temporarily and misguidedly) makes everything bad. Emotional niceties, however, do not render a viable politics."

Ward Churchill has achieved notoriety in increasingly wide circles following his very public resignation from the University of Colorado earlier this year. The resignation was prompted by protests against his planned visit to a New York college, linked with an essay he wrote in the aftermath of 9/11 entitled On the Justice of Roosting Chickens. Taking its title from a comment by Malcolm X the essay argued that US crimes against humanity made a violent response inevitable, and that Americans should not feel like wronged innocents. As Churchill said at the time "I have never said that people ‘should’ engage in armed attacks on the United States, but that such attacks are a natural and unavoidable consequence of unlawful U.S. policy. As Martin Luther King, quoting Robert F. Kennedy, said, ‘Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable’."

Churchill’s upsetting of the status quo is nothing new, however, as the 1985 essay Pacifism as Pathology clearly demonstrates. Pacifism… is an indignant attack on the ‘high moral ground’ often claimed by supporters of the non-violent ideology often espoused by progressives. Churchill attempts to debunk the idea that revolutionary change can be brought about through non-violent means, suggesting that pacifism is often merely an excuse for white middle-class activists to feel good about themselves whilst American state power continues to massacre people abroad and in its "internal colonies" (the Black nation, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, etc.)

Race and genocide are important themes in Churchill’s work. Churchill, contentiously, claims to have Native American ancestry and has been active in the defence of indigenous groups and non-white peoples. Violence to halt what he sees as state-led genocide is necessary and justified. The essay begins with the example of the Jewish holocaust in which millions were led "like lambs to the slaughter" with very little organised violent resistance. Churchill claims that this passivity in the face of mass destruction was brought about by a pathological aversion breaking out of "business as normal", even up to the gas chamber doors.

Pacifist claims of successes in obtaining civil rights for blacks and stopping the Vietnam war come under fire as "myths". Churchill points to the manner by which the violence, both threatened and actual, by those in groups like the Student National Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), helped non-violent leaders like Martin Luther King to attain his objectives. The ending of the Vietnam war had more to do with the successes of the Vietnamese guerrillas than North American pacifists. Churchill is particularly scathing of the pacifist’s propensity to let non-white fighters do the revolutionary struggle whilst continuing to assert that "the time is not right" for similar actions in the mother nation. This is designed to allow such ‘activists’ to remain in the "comfort zone" whilst remaining under the delusion that they are involved in revolutionary activity.

Pacifism, according to Churchill, is delusionary, racist and suicidal. He suggests a therapy for this pathology involving clarification of a person’s values followed by "reality therapy" in which s/he should live amongst the marginalised, to truly understand the experience of oppression.

Reading Pacifism… is not easy for a white middle-class activist, nor should it be. It is easy to see the contradiction inherent in seeking the "comfort zone" of white privilege whilst also feeling morally compelled to halt the slaughter carried out by state power. One is left with a greater respect for those who face the violence of the state for attempting to defend their people, and a lesser view of the puritanical pacifists who lay considerably less on the line in their ‘symbolic’ protests. Churchill’s argument is not that violence should be the only component of the struggle for lasting peace, or that non-violence is inherently contradictory. "[I]t seems the highest order of contradiction that, in order to achieve non-violence, we must first break with it to overcome its root causes. Therein, however, lies our only hope."


This article was first published here