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How Nonviolence Protects the State

Dan Horowitz de Garcia
Date Published: 
November 01, 2007

South End Press, 2007

Gelderloos first published How Nonviolence Protects the State in 2005, and recently it was reissued. A short read at only 143 pages, he does make some interesting points. Gelderloos calls to task pacifists for their protest etiquette, specifically for serving as arms of the police and for mandating demonstration codes of conduct. He has scathing critiques for what he terms the “anti-war movement” as well as for the work to shut down the School of the Americas, the US military base training Latin American torturers. He also talks about strategy vs. tactics, something sorely missing in many discussions.

His thesis is 1) pacifists have a limited view of violence, 2) the terms violence and nonviolence only work to limit tactics and therefore effectiveness, and 3) without using the full range of tactics, victory isn’t possible. In the introduction, Gelderloos immediately puts forward that the idea of nonviolence is so pervasive that a real discussion of strategy and tactics is cut off. He further argues this cut off is necessary because pacifists don’t have a good argument for nonviolence and only have hegemony due to falsified history and state complicity. Each chapter is titled after a supporting argument (e.g. Nonviolence is Ineffective, Nonviolence is Racist, etc.), and the last chapter is devoted to an alternative.

It is hard to argue against Gelderloos’s main thesis. The contradictions, even hypocrisy seen at modern protests is undeniable. We are to believe the smashing of a Niketown in Seattle in 1999 was violent and therefore horrific. However, Medea Benjamin’s statement subjecting not just anarchists, but all those arrested to the violence of the police was OK. There are simply countless stories like this from all kinds of protests. This is more than a source of anger for Gelderloos; it’s a stumbling block for change in the US.

Gelderloos’s anger is clear, however his analysis isn’t. In none of the preceding chapters does he make the case. The problems start in the introduction with his definitions. He defines revolution as “a social upheaval with widespread transformative effects.” World War II was a social upheaval, but I’m thinking Che talked about something different. He makes nonviolence a synonym for pacifism by defining both as, “a way of life or a method of social activism that avoids, transforms, or excludes violence….” There is a difference between a method and a way of life, but Gelderloos ignores this and therefore hamstrings his historical analysis.

Gelderloos does have a historical section, but again the analysis doesn’t hold up. In his look at the modern civil rights movement, he focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr. and then later the Black Panther Party, but doesn’t mention the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). King’s religious coalition—the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), founded in 1957—viewed nonviolence as a lifestyle to be adhered to religiously (no pun intended). SNCC, founded in 1960, was a contemporary of SCLC and viewed nonviolence as a strategy to be used as long at it worked. Both organizations were working in the same region, at the same time, in the same movement. What better opportunity to evaluate effectiveness. Gelderloos misses this. He merely mentions a 1970 poll showing Black pride in the Black Panthers.

Bad taste

Unable to critically examine the history, Gelderloos opts for the paternalistic argument that the civil rights movement didn’t win anything. He doesn’t differentiate between the modern civil rights movement, which demanded equality, and the Black power movement, which demanded liberation. He simply says there was one civil rights movement that demanded equality and liberation, but didn’t win it. He acknowledges the ending of legal segregation (Jim Crow), but de facto segregation exists so that’s a wash.

In the same section, Gelderloos correctly points out that the current “anti-war movement” has been powerless despite everything it has done to affect the occupation of Iraq in any way. He places the blame on the reliance on nonviolence. He doesn’t ask an obvious question, at least obvious to me: If a movement isn’t able to affect any kind of change, let alone reach its goal, should it be called a movement? He doesn’t define movement in the book, so I assume he uses the word not to describe a societal phenomenon, but to lend importance to activity.

The most disappointing, even maddening, section of the book was devoted to patriarchy. I hoped for some interesting observations and questions. Instead, it led to something stupid. Gelderloos actually states that patriarchy can be “gradually overcome by groups that work to destroy it.” A page later, he unintentionally explains that nearly every tactical or strategic discussion he’s participated in was dominated by men. Now it makes sense. He’s surrounded by men who (surprise!) are taking a “gradual” approach to gender liberation

In the end, Gelderloos simply doesn’t have the analytical tools needed to make his argument. His class analysis—except where he mentions the limited vocabulary and analytical development of poor people—is absent. When he does compare histories, he undermines his own argument. Gelderloos makes a good case that the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were mistaken to denounce sabotage and not speak out against WWI, since they were destroyed anyway. However, in comparing the union with the Galleanist, a group of Italian anarchists that conducted several bombings and other actions against the war, Gelderloos writes that they “did not fold as quickly as the Wobblies.” It’s just not enough to say we need to diversify tactics because it will take the government a few more weeks to destroy us.

Neither does Gelderloos effectively make a case for what should be. Even though the last section of the book is titled, “The Alternative,” he doesn’t mention one. He spends a sentence on community centers and gardens, but it’s cotton candy without the sweetness. It’s fluffy, insubstantial, and leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. In the end, that describes the book as well.