February 23, 2003
Keston Sutherland: A Short Critique of Pacifism

One benefit of the slow popularization of dialectical understanding is that fewer and fewer people are naive enough to go on claiming that living in a democracy means that they are free. We know that we are not. What passes for freedom is, we know only too well, a condition of relative civil liberation based on and expressed principally through the free consumption of commodities; the sham forms of political enfranchisement attendant on that free consumption are possible for us only because they are impossible for the masses of people who spend their lives in poverty and misery working to produce the commodities that we pick and choose. As popular political understanding becomes more dialectical, this fact becomes more and more obvious.

Certain consequences of this fact apparently remain less obvious. We no longer want to be free at the expense of the freedom of others; that is, we don't want a world in which freedom means one thing for the superconsumers of the west and another, considerably less appealing, thing for the proletarianized people of developing industrial and agricultural states. And yet many opponents of the present episode in U.S. imperialism speak as if peace, unlike freedom, meant the same thing the world over.

Our understanding of peace--and of pacifism, which is a separate question--seems to fall very short of our understanding of freedom. The following few remarks are offered in the hope that we might start to think more dialectically about the opposites of war.

Pacifism is not a political tendency but an ethical tendency. Its fundamental proposition is unshakeable: state orchestrated violence, like other forms of violence, is inherently indefensible since it creates victims (of suffering, of injury, of murder). The indefensibility of state orchestrated violence is not, for pacifism, to be explained in terms of the specific political character of the state which orchestrates it, but on abstract ethical grounds. The effects of violence are of course not at all abstract, and the repugnance felt by observers toward the acts which cause those effects is not itself a merely speculative, abstract form of repugnance. But the position taken up in reaction to that feeling of repugnance is nonetheless an abstraction on ethical grounds from particular instances of violence to a general and summary pronouncement against them.

We do not need to be immune to that feeling of repugnance to question how it serves to legitimate an abstract ethical position. The problem with pacifism is not that it opposes violence too absolutely or generally, but on the contrary that it does not oppose violence generally enough. The opposite of war in a world whose economy is dictated by a single capitalist hegemon is not peace, but preparation for war. When the U.S. is not at war--or more accurately, when the U.S. is not massacring the civilians or civilian conscripts of another state--it is very far from being at peace. It is merely in a stage of preparation for war.

The problem is that capitalism itself is the basic structure of violence which determines not only the character but the necessity of current military forms of violence. Everybody knows that the war against Iraq has geopolitical and strategic objectives whose basic determining motive is economic, which is to say capitalistic; the pacifistic response to this is rightly to oppose the war, but on the wrong grounds. This war should be opposed not only because it will be the cause of terrible suffering, but also--and this is in fact the more important reason for opposing it--because it is the manifest outcome and effect of terrible suffering. It is the effect of the suffering of a proletarianized population massed across Africa and Asia, the suffering of their daily submission to the capitalistic work process and the value exploited from them by corporations and western consumers alike. It is only through constant, unremitting opposition to this primary form of violence that we can possibly hope to confront not just this coming war, but all imperialist war, at its wellspring.

It may be objected that pacifism does not offer any support to capitalistic violence, and that its opposition to war is in effect even an indirect opposition to it, since by hindering the drive of imperialism into new areas of economic exploitation it effectively hinders the total development of that exploitation. Theoretically this is true. But in practice the effect of pacifism is to provide the governments of belligerent states with a form of public criticism which they can easily handle, and on which they might even to some extent rely, since the public argument becomes focused on a single polarity of opinion over whether war should or should not happen. War, the pacifists say, is inherently unjust; set against this absolute refusal, the government's counter-arguments will always appear more specific, more pragmatic, more engaged with the particularities of the present crisis, and more canny in their recognition of the bankruptcies of idealism.

What is urgently needed is a form of opposition to the basic violence of capitalism. The upshot of this would be clear. No government of the U.S. or Britain could claim merely to be responding to an unwanted crisis when their citizens know that they are just the stewards and administrative bureaucrats of an economic system which perpetually enforces a state of crisis. What is urgently needed is popular understanding of the fact that war is caused not by "hawks", deviants, bigots and imbeciles like George Bush, but by the logic of capitalism itself. For as long as the world's economy is run by capitalism, there will continue to be massacres of the kind we are about to witness on our TV sets. Voting out George Bush will not change this; the whole sickening farce of democratic elections in the U.S. is first and foremost the propaganda-means of capitalists to ensure that their labour force remains compliant through believing that it is meaningfully involved in the running of its country. A change of president will achieve very little. A change of economic structure would completely radicalize social relations across the entire planet. It is a matter of choosing one purveyor of injustice over another, on the one hand, or of radically transforming the meaning of justice itself, on the other. There can be no question which of these aims deserves our commitment and solidarity.

Pacifism is itself a dialectical problem. It is a genuine force for good, insofar as it generates popular resistance to the growth of imperialism during moments of military crisis. But it is a regressive ideology insofar as it champions a peace which is really the preparation for war. The peace which will come following the massacre of Iraq's civilians and civilian conscripts is the same peace which led up to it: the non-disturbance of the capitalist economy in its inexorable growth toward its next imperialist crisis. This is absolutely not a peace worth defending, no matter how much we justly prefer it to outright war. It is the basic violence of exploitation run riot across the world, unstoppable except by mass resistance in solidarity with its most miserable and perpetual victims: the proletarianized people who make our commodities and who suffer the effects of U.S. policy more powerfully and fully than any American, despite never having the opportunity to elect that policy's administrators.

Pacifism will not only fail to prevent this war. It will not only provide the executors of war with a form of opposition beside which they appear pragmatic, businesslike and well adjusted to reality. Most damagingly of all, it will allow the great spirit of resistance and solidarity that now distinguishes the millions of people who oppose war to dwindle and dissipate as soon as it becomes evident that the war is indeed going to happen despite pacifistic opposition to it; or if not at that early point, then later, when the war is finished.

What is urgently needed is a form of opposition and solidarity based on the popular recognition that as long as capitalism prevails, the war is never finished.

Posted by Brian Stefans at February 23, 2003 12:51 AM

Capitalism's logic is dialectical as well.

While I agree with the call to oppose this war specifically on the grounds that it is the effect / result of suffering etc etc - I think you are confusing ethics with morality. The pacifism you describe is based in morality, and a capitalist morality is as likely to win out over another in such questions, being part of the same apparently but never actually teleological coin. Ethics is another matter (or set of matters?) -

Note Bush's published response to the rallies not so long ago - "I respectively disagree with those who claim Saddam is not a threat to peace." But the critique one could "respectively" draw from the rallies was much more varied, and in many events pleasantly immoral, than that.

Marxist critiques are important here, in my estimation, to the extent that they demand a specific critique. But they play into the hands of the Bush et al logic, an over-determined logic. It seems to me that what is most urgently needed now is a critique levelled at the legality of unelected officials setting "policy" - not only for suffering Americans (non-citizens included), but for those about to suffer.

Posted by: Patrick Durgin on February 24, 2003 01:38 AM

Whilst you make some extremely cogent points, there is an inevitable question raised by the somewhat indolent conclusion.
"What is urgently needed is a form of opposition and solidarity based on the popular recognition that as long as capitalism prevails, the war is never finished".
Obviously, there are manifold failings with capitalism. One of which is undoubtedly wars such as this which currently looms.
However, mere recognition of this point by us western capitalists is, to those whose hopeless situations you decry, of little use.
Those of us with the necessary conscience can reach this conclusion, display as much solidarity and opposition as we want but without a viable and improved option, what are we working towards?

No one will heed our opposition if it is simply for it's own sake and offers nothing more than negative voices.
I understand actions are not the domain of aesthetes like yourself but there comes a time when mere thoughts are not enough.
Your idealism seems little more developed than that of the pacifist to me.

Posted by: Fretful on February 24, 2003 06:30 PM

Given the nature of extremes, a 'negative voice' would have to be defined by a positive one. Keston is not opposing a positive entity (perhaps his comments are negative to you because you have an unrelated agenda, suggested by your peculiar use of the word 'aesthete'?).

Without thought is No Action. Action without careful thought, especially given the importance of the issues we are dealing with, is foolish. Furthermore, do you expect one person to act alone? A group of people, with shared desires, is needed in order for action to have an effect.

'no one will heed our opposition if it is etc': No one in control of Iraq's fate at the moment is going to heed any pre-war opposition. It's too late for that. What's needed is the growth of a collective energy, and solid, shared, radical views (:'radical' to counter-act the radical nature of what is being opposed). What's needed is solidarity. What's also needed - if we are against not only war, but the politics that lead to war - is extreme opposition, & if that kind of opposition begins with words and ideas, rather than actions, so be it. At least it -is- a beginning.

Furthermore, getting opinions out into the open is a POSITIVE thing to do. It means that they become shared dialogues instead of internal monologues, which in turn means that they are challenged, which in turn means that they are strengthened, which in turn means that a person is capable of understanding his/herself more seriously - such self-possession is a very good start towards perpetrating the much-needed growth of the consciousness that dominates a world where the majority, who are too afraid/uninformed/tired to think FOR THEMSELVES, continue to be controlled and oppressed.

Posted by: In Defence of Conversation on February 25, 2003 04:11 AM

Whether opposing a positive entity or not, by negative I refer to the essentially destructive nature of his ideals - 'bring down capitalism, you bring down war'. Replace it with nothing, you have what exactly?

Shared dialogues like this are excellent for intellectuals but, if anything is to ever come of them, these dialogues need to be in terms that are accessible to the majority who, as you rightly point out, are too afraid/uninformed etc to think for themselves.
These ideas are not new and have been 'in the open' for decades but how much success have we had in communicating these ideas to the wider majority?
The problem we have is successive generations of so called 'intellectuals' are too happy to trot out the same old dialogues and feel superior as they disassociate themselves from the proles who 'don't know what I know'.
The real challenge facing us is to communicate these ideas to everyone rather than raging about the oppression we are all complicit in and arguing with each other about whether we mean 'morals' or 'ethics', 'positive' or 'negative'.

Posted by: Fretful on February 25, 2003 05:45 AM

This hardly has anything to do with 'feeling superior'.

It's about generating ideas as a step towards generating shared opinions as a step towards -doing something- about the deep helplessness that we feel when we hear about what's going on in the world right now.

Don't you think that posting this article here is a step towards 'communicating these ideas' to a wider group of people?

I fail to understand how this is a negative thing in any way.

Posted by: In Defence of Conversation on February 25, 2003 06:33 AM

You misunderstand me, I am merely commenting that Keston's article is negative in that it points out all of the bad with the current situation, without offering any way forward other than some vague notion of 'solidarity and opposition'.

I am a believer in offering solutions (viable ones preferably).

Most of us can see problems and highlight them but this is a practice that, without offering alternatives, is an essentially negative experience.

That said, I concede that this is certainly a step forward in the process of generating shared opinion.

I was merely hoping to prompt someone to offer some solutions as I find that these debates will, unless driven towards a reachable end, circle endlessly around the minutiae of the point. Especially when everyone's aims are roughly concurrent.

That aside, posting messages on a website such as this is unlikely to reach anyone outside it's named targets ("Poets, artists and critics respond to US global policy").
This is hardly the staple literary diet of most and the vast majority of people who may happen across the article are likely to find Keston's efforts a touch too intellectual to provide any genuine, useful insight.
Indeed, to many the article would be impenetrable and is exactly the type of critique which ensures that excellent ideals like his are ignored outside the ivory towers.
Long past is the time where those such as Keston actually have any input into the affairs of the real world. The extension of consumerism into literature, media and political debate means that, unless these ideas can be correctly 'packaged', they will be overlooked.

I admit that I am being somewhat obtuse as I have no answers to offer. I struggle for alternatives myself and, in truth, I am hoping to be convinced by someone who offers a way forward. I grow frustrated with the helplessness you accurately define and wish for someone to 'show me the way'.

Posted by: Fretful on February 25, 2003 09:07 AM

I, and many of my friends, have been putting to ourselves the age old question of how we're supposed to act out there when they start firing wooden dowels, concussion grenades and rubber bullets at us.

And how "Black Bloc" tactics, however glorious and aesthetically pleasing, just give the police one more excuse to test their new methods of "pain compliance" on the dissenting citizenry.

There's an excellent and readily available "Nonviolence FAQ" by Howard Ryan at ZNET:


Just search for "pacifism." Ryan's article distinguishes between nonviolence and pacifism, theoretically and practically, and how principled nonviolence and some anticapitalist positions are not necessarily mutually exlusive.

For a critique of Ryan's critique:



As for "alternatives," what could possibly replace the "C" word does seem to require a certain engagement with theory.

The "World Systems" theorists have been a great, but by no means definitive, resource. Arrighi's "The Long Twentieth Century," anything by Samir Amin, and Wallerstein's "After Liberalism" are good places to start.

Posted by: Elephantry on May 26, 2003 12:36 AM

'Pacifism is a regressive ideology'.... well, it depends on whether one thinks an ideology's value is based on its utility. Or if its usefulness is based on any value...

I suspect that Keston would find fault with the moral absolutism that informs pacifism.

Is an ideology rendered regressive because it plays into the argumentative hands of a dominant and ferocious ideology? If that's the mark, then I could construct an argument that Marxism is a regressive ideology.

I rather admire the moral NO, though I don't have the will nor certainty of the world being as I perceive it to be able to live it.

Pacifism also has a heritage in ancient forms of religious practice. It oughtn't be forgotten that some of these involve a withdrawal from the world. Buddhism, for example, is afflicted by the most selfish kind of selflessness. As such the flavour of the paint that pacifism is pasted in, rather than championing a false-peace, is somewhat disdaining of WORLD and what happens in it. And it's an absence - very simply - a something not-happening. Keston wants something to happen.

'What is urgently needed is a form of opposition and solidarity based on the popular recognition that as long as capitalism prevails, the war is never finished.' I suspect this means both the perpetual war-cycle inevitable under capitalism, and Keston's war.

Which is all well, but - are we to understand violence as a tool which we can 'own back' in order to launch a war against the capitalist state? Is this the argument, really, when we come to understand violence and pacifism along the lines opened up here? And if so - is a death in a revolution a better death than in a capitalist's war?

Posted by: Sam Brenton on June 23, 2003 10:24 AM

The most basic duality that exists with variables is how the programmer sees them in a totally different way than the computer does. When you're typing away in Project Builder, your variables are normal words smashed together, like software titles from the 80s. You deal with them on this level, moving them around and passing them back and forth.

Posted by: Ingram on January 18, 2004 07:10 PM

This variable is then used in various lines of code, holding values given it by variable assignments along the way. In the course of its life, a variable can hold any number of variables and be used in any number of different ways. This flexibility is built on the precept we just learned: a variable is really just a block of bits, and those bits can hold whatever data the program needs to remember. They can hold enough data to remember an integer from as low as -2,147,483,647 up to 2,147,483,647 (one less than plus or minus 2^31). They can remember one character of writing. They can keep a decimal number with a huge amount of precision and a giant range. They can hold a time accurate to the second in a range of centuries. A few bits is not to be scoffed at.

Posted by: Joseph on January 18, 2004 07:11 PM

A variable leads a simple life, full of activity but quite short (measured in nanoseconds, usually). It all begins when the program finds a variable declaration, and a variable is born into the world of the executing program. There are two possible places where the variable might live, but we will venture into that a little later.

Posted by: Jerome on January 18, 2004 07:11 PM

When the machine compiles your code, however, it does a little bit of translation. At run time, the computer sees nothing but 1s and 0s, which is all the computer ever sees: a continuous string of binary numbers that it can interpret in various ways.

Posted by: Jasper on January 18, 2004 07:12 PM

Note first that favoriteNumbers type changed. Instead of our familiar int, we're now using int*. The asterisk here is an operator, which is often called the "star operator". You will remember that we also use an asterisk as a sign for multiplication. The positioning of the asterisk changes its meaning. This operator effectively means "this is a pointer". Here it says that favoriteNumber will be not an int but a pointer to an int. And instead of simply going on to say what we're putting in that int, we have to take an extra step and create the space, which is what does. This function takes an argument that specifies how much space you need and then returns a pointer to that space. We've passed it the result of another function, , which we pass int, a type. In reality, is a macro, but for now we don't have to care: all we need to know is that it tells us the size of whatever we gave it, in this case an int. So when is done, it gives us an address in the heap where we can put an integer. It is important to remember that the data is stored in the heap, while the address of that data is stored in a pointer on the stack.

Posted by: Valentine on January 18, 2004 07:12 PM