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  • Pacifism, Nonviolence, and the Reinvention of Anarchist Tactics in the Twentieth Century
  • Benjamin J. Pauli

anarchism, pacifism, anarcho-pacifism, anarcho-syndicalism, nonviolence, terrorism, direct action, civil disobedience, revolution, satyagraha, anti-nuclear movement, Bart de Ligt, Paul Goodman, Alex Comfort, Nicolas Walter

How much better is “propaganda by deed” when it is against bombs instead of with them?

—Nicolas Walter

The years during and after World War II saw a remarkable evolution in anarchist views on violence. While earlier generations of anarchists had assumed that violence would, in one way or another, factor into the revolutionary struggle, those who identified as anarchists in the first two decades after the war in Britain and the United States were far more likely to adopt nonviolence as an almost default position. Anarchists were among those who pioneered the use of nonviolent resistance in the British and American contexts, and anarchist ideas exerted a strong influence within the postwar anti-nuclear movement, which in its most radical manifestations situated its opposition to nuclear weapons within a broader opposition to war, militarism, and violence of all kinds. Although few postwar anarchists [End Page 61] were absolutists on the question of nonviolence, their change of emphasis helped to transform the way that social change was conceptualized in anarchist thought. Part of what contributed to this evolution was the introduction of new ideas from outside the anarchist tradition, particularly the Gandhian idea of “revolutionary nonviolence.” But as this article will show, the embrace of revolutionary nonviolence went hand in hand with the reimagining of anarchist tactics—like “propaganda of the deed” and “direct action”—that were once closely associated with violence. The emergence of the doctrine of anarcho-pacifism out of this mixture was perhaps the most important development within twentieth-century anarchism, transforming the way anarchist thinkers conceived of the relationship between means and ends.

The shift in anarchist views on violence is all the more extraordinary when one considers that shortly before the outbreak of World War II, anarchists from around the world were united in support of a violent struggle. The outbreak of civil war in Spain on 19 July 1936 triggered a call to arms that had anarchists rushing to the defense of the Republic against Franco and fascism. Within Spain itself, an alliance of trade unions and popular militias formed a defensive front that scored impressive victories early on in the conflict, like the defense of Madrid in November of 1936. The popular character of the resistance was one reason why the Spanish Civil War was, as George Orwell observed, perceived as “a left-wing war.”1 It was a conflict even the most romantic of intellectuals could embrace, a battle between socialist idealism and belligerent reaction, as epitomized by the neofeudalism of Franco and his allies. Although the Comintern gradually extended its influence within the resistance, steering it toward Stalinist objectives, early on that resistance was strikingly organic and democratic, never more so than in the popular militias that Orwell himself described so memorably in Homage to Catalonia. Furthermore, in northeastern Spain, where these militias were strongest, anarcho-syndicalists initiated an extraordinary period of libertarian experimentation, which saw factories taken over by their workers and property collectivized in popularly controlled communes. From the anarchists’ perspective, the civil war had become a revolution, and to fight that war [End Page 62] was to fight both against fascism and for anarchism simultaneously. Rarely had social idealism and violent struggle coexisted so comfortably.

The struggle, of course, was a failure: the anarchist insurrection was crushed when the Communists turned their guns on their erstwhile allies in May of 1937, and by the end of March 1939, the Communists themselves had been overrun by the fascists. When the next fight against fascism was launched, it could hardly have made for a sharper contrast with the halcyon days of the Spanish campaign. The left-wing intellectuals who envisioned “a sort of enlarged version of the war in Spain,” Orwell remarked, were confronted with a very different beast indeed, “an all-in modern war fought mainly by technical experts . . . and conducted by people who are patriotic according to their lights but entirely reactionary in outlook.”2 It...