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Twyford and the idiocy of pacifism

Written By: - Date published: 11:30 am, October 5th, 2009 - 17 comments
Categories: labour - Tags: ,

I have to agree with Tim Selwyn in his criticism of Phil Twyford’s peace about Moriori pacifism.

Twyford writes on Red Alert:

Moriori elders told us the story of chief Nunuku who made the covenant of peace, renouncing warfare and cannibalism. Hand to hand fighting with a wooden staff was allowed but only until first blood. When Taranaki iwi Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama Taranaki invaded the island in 1835, the islands’ men assembled to discuss how to respond. Young men argued they should fight to repel the invaders or risk extermination, but the elders were adamant that breaking the covenant would mean a loss of their mana as a people, that it was a sacred covenant with God that could not be broken.

Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama proceeded to kill and eat some 300 Moriori in a ritual slaughter. They took their lands and enslaved the survivors. From a population of around 2000 at the turn of the 19th century, first disease, then the invasion and enslavement saw the Moriori go into a steep decine. By 1862 only 101 remained.

So, the Moriori developed a policy of non-violence as an adaptive measure to cope with resource scarcity, which developed into a “sacred covenant” that proved tragically maladaptive when mainland invaders arrived who didn’t share the Moriori belief in non-violence. How this is supposed to be an advertisement for the benefits of pacifism escapes me.

I mean, I’m the first guy to oppose imperialist wars and I agree that violence should always be an option of last resort, but there’s nothing noble about lying down while your people get slaughtered to within an inch of extinction.

The Left needs to get over its romantic attachment to pacifism and gain a proper understanding of power. You will not beat your oppressor through logical argument and human understanding. There’s no retrospective victory on points because you kept your mana intact while being slaughtered by your enemies.

The one example of pacifism actually working is Gandhi, whose religious objection to violence led to the end of the British Empire in India through passive resistance. But as Orwell powerfully argued, this is a tactic that works only if you’re facing a liberal democracy that’s willing to be shamed into giving in.

It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary. Is there a Gandhi in Russia at this moment? And if there is, what is he accomplishing?

If the Japanese had succeeded in occupying India in World War II the Mahatma might not be remembered so fondly. He freely admitted his tactics would have cost the lives of millions for no gain, and that his only answer was to offer up even more lives for the Japanese to slaughter.

Selwyn is right. A strict adherence to non-violence is exactly what an oppressive force needs from its opponents in order to take power and to stay in power. Labour should be careful to avoid confusing the honourable socialist tradition of anti-imperialism with the slave ideology of pacifism.

– Daveo

17 comments on “Twyford and the idiocy of pacifism ”

  1. Scott 1

    To be fair to Twyford, he did not say in his post that non-violence was the only way to deal with an aggressive enemy.

  2. Ianmac 2

    It seemed to me that Phil was writing about a historical perspective of Moriori descendants. I couldn’t see that he was necessarily an advocate of pacifism.

  3. Daveo 3

    Sure, but he was buying into the whole discourse that there’s something praiseworthy and noble about uncompromising non-violence and that it’s something the peace movement should be inspired by.

    I say bollocks to that. The Left should be anti-imperialist, not pacifist.

    • Scott 3.1

      I take it you don’t find Gandhi’s methods an inspiration?

      Pacificism can work. So can active resistance. Surely it’s a horses for courses thing. We should never dismiss non-violence as an option.

  4. Quoth the Raven 4

    The main thing for me is not non-violence, a wonderful thing to aspire to, but non-aggression. If that’s contravened than I can no longer support those who did so.

    The problem for the majority who are ostensibly left wing is there is a clear contradiciton in pacifism or non-aggression and support of the state. One which Gandhi clearly saw. Furthermore, as many of those ostensibly on the left support the Afghan war and the like I don’t really think the “left” (which is a largely meaningless term nowadays) has much to say on non-violence and non-aggression.

    Gandhi became more absolutist in his pacisfism as time went on. He once said

    ‘I do believe, that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.’


    “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest. If we want the arms act to be repealed, if we want to learn the use of arms, here is a golden opportunity. If the middle classes render voluntary help to the government in the hour of its trial, distrust will disappear, and the ban on possessing arms will be withdrawn.’,

  5. LawGeek 5

    “slave ideology of pacifism”??

    Seriously? You went from Twyford’s post about the Moriori, to a generalised statement of political tactics on the left, to slavery analogies? Shame.

    And what’re the practical implications of what you’re arguing? Do you genuinely think that NZ under the Nats’ isn’t a liberal democracy where passive resistance has a chance of achieving goals? Or are you talking internationally? What’re the practical consequences of supporting violent resistance overseas? When is it ok to invade a country? Or, conversely, when it is ok for a group within a country to use violence against its own government?

    Or maybe just in the abstract? Glorying in a violent struggle against pie in the sky intangible oppressors that you will never have to participate in? Cos, seriously, all you seem to be saying is “violence for political causes I believe in – YAY!”

    I just don’t really see where you’re coming from at all with this post, and I think it’s poorly thought out.

    Also, Tim Selwyn put an axe through the PM’s window. I don’t think taking lessons from him on when it is appropriate to use violence is the best idea. He demonstrably has poor judgment on that issue.

    • Rob A 5.1

      “violence for political causes I believe in YAY!’

      You’ve hit the nail on the head, the real question remains of how easily such and such a person can be manipulated into believing in somebody elses political cause. Which I fear is all too easily from the comments I see on NZs political blogs (no matter which way they lean)

  6. ben 6

    I like this post. Yes, I believe it is a standard result in economics that your best response depends on who you’re dealing with. If your opponent is a “dove” then pacifism can work. But a “hawk” requires a forceful response. Chamberlain’s mistake was to not recognise Hitler as the latter.

  7. It is also worth noting that while Gandhi was a staunch supporter of non-violence he actually dismissed pacifism as an idea. He believed that violence was a better option against imperialism that non-activist opposition that he considered to be pacifism. But he also realized when the forces of violence, armies and such, are massively unbalanced then non-violence is the only realistic and legitimate option. This train of thought was carried on by the German author Hannah Arendt who considered that violence always curdled the milk of culture, so that even if one uses it to avoid becoming imperialized it will affect the set up of the new power structures that emerge, so in the long term for humanity active non-violence is the only sensible option, even against very violent forces. I think the story of Parihaka is an amazing illustration of how non-violence commitment can work in the long term.

  8. daveo – you are rather quick to assume I am a pacifist, and rather slow to consider the idea that non-violence has some important lessons to teach us. For more: http://blog.labour.org.nz/index.php/2009/10/05/war-and-peace/

  9. Victor 9

    You can argue that the disaster that has befallen the Palestinian people since 1948 is the result of eschewing the non-violent option.

    The Left in NZ was empowered by the stance of the pacificists in World War I, Peter Fraser among them.

    In the the 20th and 21st centuries, war has rarely been the right policy option. You could argue that WWII is the exception, but that was begat by the unnessary WWI.
    And in NZ, we forget that Gallipoli was a colonial war against a neutral non-white empire.

    That failure to understand our history is why we are in such a tangle on Afghanistan.

    • Rob A 9.1

      How was Gallipoli a colonial war against a non-white Empire?

      • Victor 9.1.1

        Because the Ottoman Empire intended to stay neutral, but Churchill’s decision to invade forced them onto the German side. Ataturk emerged from the fighting as leader of an independent Turkey, but the Ottoman Empire collapsed under the strain of the war. The result was chaos in the Middle East, that has not been resolved to this day, and a pogrom against the minority Christian Armenians. Sure, our identity started to emerge at Gallipoli, but we need to acknowledge the the consequences of our participation . . .

        I raised this as a point about the pacificists in WWI, whose contribution to the Labour movement / party and the left has been excised from history.

        • Rob A

          OK, but you are wrong. Turkish/German militarey co-operation began in 1913, Turkey signed a treaty with the central powers in August 1914 and entered the war in October 1914 when they attacked Russian ports in the Black sea with a formal declaration of war in November.

          I’d love to know how you came to the conclusion that we attacked a neutral country

        • Rob A

          The Ottomans started formal military co-operation with the Germans in 1913, signed a treaty with the central powers in August 1914, attacked Russian Black sea ports in October 1914 and war was formally declared between the Turks and Allies in November 1914. So how exactly do you come to the conclusion that we attacked a neutral Ottoman Empire in April 1915

          • Victor

            Fair enough . .. I concede that point. I had always understood the sequence differently (apparently in error).

            But nonetheless, Churchill’s decision was to have catostrophic consequences . . . . And the ambitions re: Palestine and Iraq were colonial in nature, not responding to a danger / threat to the UK – let alone the Dominion’s.

            And that is context re: the stand taken by NZ pacifists.

  10. Sam Buchanan 10

    “I think the story of Parihaka is an amazing illustration of how non-violence commitment can work in the long term.”

    I’m not sure what you mean here given Parihaka was destroyed, the people dispersed or imprisoned, women raped and they still have a fraction of their previous lands.

    Having said that, had they used violent means of resistance, the same would have happened, except more people would have been killed. Non-violence sometimes doesn’t work, but that does not mean violence does.

    The insight of Moriori was that using violence screws you up. They may have been able to fight off the Ngati Mutunga/Ngati Tama invasion, but would have destroyed their own culture in the process. The kind of society that results from using violence to create its independence is usually authoritarian, brutal and lacks respect for individual human beings – the very qualities you need to successfully fight wars.

    At the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, the anarchist leader Durrutti said something to the effect of “If we don’t win in six weeks, we’ll be so messed up it won’t be worth us winning”. As the war continued Republican Spain became more authoritarian, less revolutionary and more under the thumb of the Soviet Union.

    I don’t pretend to have all the answers to the argument about using violence – I find it hard to tell anyone not to fight in self-defence, but I think there are huge pitfalls in choosing to use violence.

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