Anarchists: are we pacifists or not?

Leo Tolstoy wrote many novels, but he also wrote the non-fiction “City of God is Within You“. (1894) I would like to consider the idea of pacifism verses defense against aggression based on Tolstoy’s ideas in this very short post today.

Tolstoy’s book in large part deals with nonresistance to evil. Here is the money quote from chapter 10:

The champions of government assert that without it the wicked will oppress and outrage the good, and that the power of the government enables the good to resist the wicked.

But in this assertion the champions of the existing order of things take for granted the proposition they want to prove. When they say that except for the government the bad would oppress the good, they take it for granted that the good are those who are the present time are in possession of power, and the bad are those who are in subjection to it. But this is just what wants proving.

The good cannot seize power, nor retain it; to do this men must love power. And love of power is inconsistent with goodness; but quite consistent with the very opposite qualities:  pride, cunning, cruelty.

Without the aggrandizement of self and the abasement of others, without hypocrisies and deceptions, without prisons, fortresses, executions, and murders, no power can come into existence or be maintained.  . . .

. . . ruling means using force, and using force means doing to him to whom force is used, what he does not like and what he who uses the force would certainly not like done to himself. Consequently ruling means doing to others what we would not they should do unto us, that is, doing wrong.

… But ruling means using force, and using force means doing to him to whom force is used, what he does not like and what he who uses the force would certainly not like done to himself. Consequently ruling means doing to others what we would we would not they should do unto us, that is, doing wrong.

This non-resistance to violence and aggression principle is the main one that Tolstoy advocated in his book and one that later Gandhi used to liberate India from the British.

The argument is that since the good cannot or will not wield power then only the evil men will do so whether or not you have a State. Since having a State just magnifies the power of the evil men, then not having a state is preferable to having one. The many who claim we need the State for protection from the evil men ignore the utter magnitude of the actual existing violence and oppression practiced by governments all over the world right now. The wicked will use the awesome power of the state to amplify their oppression of the innocent. The hazards of the bullies in government far outweigh any hypothetical benefit that one might conjure up. In fact, I have rarely read a better reason to have no state at all than that offered up by Tolstoy in the above quote.

Those of us who follow the non-aggression principle argue that it is immoral as well as unwise to ever commit aggression against the innocent; but we believe we are morally justified in retaliation against anyone who launches an unjust aggression against us. I don’t think Tolstoy would disagree with that moral right; but he would argue that Christ forbade it. I suspect he would also argue that it is unwise to use violence to resist.

What are we modern anarchists to do? First, I believe that there are definitely times when retaliation is warranted and advisable, but there are times when non-aggression is the better policy. Gandhi’s use of non-violent resistance in India may be the prototype movement where violence would have been a disaster while non-violence was a definite winner. I would argue that the modern anarchist should not embrace pacifism but rather view total non-violence as a tactic that might well be the best route in a given situation. I recoil at the idea of announcing to the evil among us that they may oppress us in any manner they so choose without them fearing any repercussions.

If I find that in the next life I am told that I was wrong to ever resist evil by force, I’ll certainly ask for forgiveness — but until then, I expect to defend myself and my family if attacked. (where it is prudent to do so of course)




2 thoughts on “Anarchists: are we pacifists or not?

  1. Mark,
    I am glad you cleared up this point. I have had much experience with bullies and found pacifism is often interpreted as weakness.

    So non-agression with retaliation for agression against you or you property I fully agree with.

    Lying down like a rug (aka a slave) I disagreed with because Bullies only respect force. I learned that at a very early age when I flattened a kid who was punching the little girls at daycare. I was three and very small for my age. The school ‘reported’ my ‘misbehavior’ to my parents amid quite a bit of laughter. The kid never struck a girl again. Ain’t unexpected retaliation great?

    I think pacifism worked against the British in the case of India because the British saw themselves as ‘civilized’ and world opinion mattered to them. I don’t think pacifism would work against ISIS because the mindset is that of an aggressor/bully who could careless about world opinion. Only rigid adherence to their creed counts and human lives mean less than nothing.

    • Those are good points Gail. Libertarians or anarchists often are accused of being full-on pacifists when we are not that at all. It is also true though that non-violent resistance might be the smartest thing in certain situations. We must do whatever we think is the best in the situation we find ourselves regardless if it is “pacifism” or not.

      For me personally, decades ago, I was put off at first by my mistaken impression that Rothbard and others were talking pacifism with the non-aggression principle. But that was my misunderstanding and not the truth of the situation. They were saying exactly what my dad told me — “never start a fight but always finish one when it is forced on you”.

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