Friday, May 27, 2011

No, Not One

On his blog, The Tarpeian Rock, "Tyler" recently published his views of Gandhi and of pacifism. Using a quote from George Orwell's essay, "Reflections on Gandhi", he stated that Gandhi's philosophy was "literally and by definition insane, by which I mean not in touch with the real physical world."

I added a comment to "Tyler's" post, sticking up for Gandhi, even if, as I stated in the comment "Tyler" published, that I personally didn't like Gandhi's "saintly" ambitions. "Tyler" replied that his point wasn't that Gandhi wasn't worth taking seriously but that pacifism itself was unworthy of serious attention.

It should be noted that Orwell, whom "Tyler" appears to like, was initially, until as late as 1939, a pacifist, but he changed his mind when he realized that England was in what is now being called "existential" peril - specifically when Hitler and Stalin signed their non-aggression pact. I believe that one of the points that Orwell was trying to make in his remarks on Gandhi was that, while he couldn't share his belief that a strict adherence to non-violence is of any use to a society as a whole, it was because, in 1948, England was no nearer to becoming the "good society" Orwell thought it would become than it had been before the war.

Orwell admired Gandhi's courage for not simply saying what be believed in but living up to his beliefs. It gave Orwell no thrill to have to refute pacifism, even though it needed to be. I believe that Orwell was somewhat sympathetic to pacifism precisely because he saw that it was Utopian. As long as human beings were unwilling to abandon violence as a means to its ends, pacifism would be impracticable. "Let us admit we are savages," Orwell might have said, "but what possible satisfaction or comfort can be gained from such an admission?"

In 1941, when England had its back to the wall (while America was still trying to make up its mind whose side it should be on), Orwell stated the argument against pacifism most succinctly in a review of Alex Comfort's [yes, the same man who wrote The Joy of Sex thirty years later] novel No Such Liberty called "No, Not One":

"Now, before considering the implications of this story, just consider one or two facts which underlie the structure of modern society and which it is necessary to ignore if the pacifist "message" is to be accepted uncritically.

"(i) Civilisation rests ultimately on coercion. What holds society together is not the policeman but the good will of common men, and yet that good will is powerless unless the policeman is there to back it up. Any government which refused to use violence in its own defence would cease almost immediately to exist, because it could be overthrown by any body of men, or even any individual, that was less scrupulous. Objectively, whoever is not on the side of the policeman is on the side of the criminal, and vice versa. In so far as it hampers the British war effort, British pacifism is on the side of the Nazis, and German pacifism, if it exists, is on the side of Britain and the U.S.S.R. Since pacifists have more freedom of action in countries where traces of democracy survive, pacifism can act more effectively against democracy than for it. Objectively the pacifist is pro-Nazi.

"(ii) Since coercion can never be altogether dispensed with, the only difference is between degrees of violence. During the last twenty years there has been less violence and less militarism inside the English-speaking world than outside it, because there has been more money and more security. The hatred of wear which undoubtedly characterises the English-speaking peoples is a reflection of their favoured position. Pacifism is only a considerable force in places where people feel themselves very safe, chiefly maritime states. Even in such places, turn-of-the-other-cheek pacifism only flourishes among the more prosperous classes, or among workers who have in some way escaped from their own class. The real working class, though they hate war and are immune to jingoism, are never really pacifist, because their life teaches them something different. To abjure violence it is necessary to have no experience of it. . . .

"The notion that you can somehow defeat violence by submitting to it is simply a flight from fact. As I have said, it is only possible to people who have money and guns between themselves and reality. But why should they want to make this flight, in any case? Because, rightly hating violence, they do not wish to recognise that it is integral to modern society and that their own fine feelings and noble attitudes are all the fruit of injustice backed up by force. They do not want to learn where their incomes come from. Underneath this lies the hard fact, so difficult for many people to face, that individual salvation is not possible, that the choice before human beings is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils. You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. There is no other choice before you, and whichever you choose you will not come out with clean hands. It seems to me that the text for our time is not 'Woe to him through whom the evil cometh' but the one from which I took the title of this article, 'There is not one that is righteous, no, not one.' We have all touched pitch, we are all perishing by the sword. We do not have the chance, in a time like this, to say 'Tomorrow we can all start being good'. That is moonshine. We only have the chance of choosing the lesser evil and of working for the establishment of a new kind of society in which common decency will again be possible."

Orwell knew that it isn't the least bit encouraging or edifying to debunk the teachings, or the personal example, of people like Gandhi as long as you are convinced you are taking some kind of moral or philosophical high ground. There is no high ground anywhere, except atop a pile of dead bodies.

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