Friday, December 05, 2008

Peace in our time

After the carnage comes the solidarity as peace marches and vigils take place in Mumbai to reject terrorism. It seems to be a good time to post some personal reflections on the ambiguity of peace movements and peace politics.

In the 1980's I did a part-time MA in Peace Studies at Bradford University. The choice of course was down to sheer opportunism, it was about keeping a temporary job I had been lucky enough to get. It wasn't a bad option in the end, the degree was stimulating and well-taught. It also brought me into touch with peace activists. I felt that they fell into three broad categories.

The first were what I would call hard pacifists and believers in non-violence. They rejected war as inherently inhuman and wished to build non-violence as an alternative form of political action, believing in its power and potential. They asked difficult and important questions, had no illusions about what they faced, were not apologists and many of them worked in conflict mediation, community development or non-violent resistance, sometimes in areas of considerable danger. They had my respect even if, ultimately, I couldn't share their faith.

Secondly, there were the ideologists. There was a strong feminist element who associated war solely with patriarchy, though the majority were drawn from the Guardian reading classes. The intellectual contortions the Guardianistas went through to explain the innocence of Stalinism were something to behold. They were hideously certain. Whatever it was, it was America's fault. The arguments about this regressive form of reactionary 'leftism' have been well-rehearsed over the last few years and there is no need to go into them yet again here. These people are the ones who now cleave to 'anti-imperialism' and, even in the wake of last week's horrors, some still creep out of the woodwork.

Finally, there were the monomaniacs. Nice, kind, respectable people for whom all that mattered was 'Peace'. No details, just 'Peace'. What was that 'Peace'? It seemed to be rooted in their own egoism, an outcrop of their peaceful nature. Despite being on a highly academic course they had a profound anti-intellectualism. Peace was something inherent, not something to be studied, analysed and thought about. Self confident, self-righteous and often embarrassingly patronising, they were good-hearted and profoundly wrong. At heart, their commitment seemed to be an emanation of a deadly combination of wishful thinking with liberal guilt and fear. 'If we stop being beastly to these nice people then they won't harm us. After all, they are not nearly as horrid as people say'. They are the people who are taken in by vile regimes and who swallow the sophistry whole, whilst political prisoners are tortured out of sight.

The Professor during my time there, James O'Connell, liked to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins:

When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allow
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo
He comes to brood and sit.

"He comes with work to do" and it is hard work too. There is an untold history in many conflicts of the work of the non-violent activists, of mediators, and negotiators trying to break cycles of violence. Amidst the greatest of horrors there are courageous humanitarian acts that saved countless individual lives. Outside the ranks of the committed, there are other heroes too, compelled by who knows what, to work hard for the common good; teachers, medics, trade unionists, journalists, human rights workers, builders and engineers. They are the creators of a peaceful civil order, they are the workers for social justice, without which it is a poor peace indeed. And this is the moment when an absolute pacifism fails, for all its supposed morality.

When faced with something as malignant as a fascistic movement in power, with its celebration of sadism, most peace making activity ceases. Individual resistance may keep hope alive, but unless harnessed to a force capable of defeating a tyranny, it will be a single flame in the night. There was a common, glib one-liner that did the rounds some years ago - 'fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity'. It is trite and utterly untrue. Not to resist evil is a sure way of ensuring that it remains undisturbed and murderously destructive of human welfare. Troops can be workers for peace too. This does not mean that violence is a perpetual good or an eternally liberating force, it is utterly dependent on the situation in which it is used and the cause for which it is deployed. Hence the need for hard questions.

The rest of my activists are hard at work at the moment too. One lot will be inventing tortuous arguments about how objectively it is all the fault of the USA or relapsing into the spurious complexity of conspiracy. The others will be dreaming their fluffy pink dreams of cooing doves as they sit at the feet of bloody dictators, gazing up with admiring benevolence, hoping for that piecemeal peace. And in doing so, both will betray the real workers for peace, the fighters for peace, and all our patient hopes for a peaceful world. Given power, they are dangerous.


Anton Deque said...

I am particularly grateful for this post Peter. The categories you devise to describe the various types of peace activists you encountered are compelling.

John said...

I often wondered about that course. Thanks. You've confirmed for me that Peace Studies Studies would have been more illuminating. ;-)

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